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Five Aside

Rome, the day after

Having darted out of the Stadio Olimpico as soon as the final whistle went, in order to beat the traffic and drive home in time for a meeting on Thursday morning, the last people I expected to see were a handful of silent, depressed, taxi-catching Manchester United fans.

Driving out of the area as fast as we could, with the glaring light of the Olimpico disappearing in the rear-view mirror, my mind was already turning from the disappointment of having witnessed one of Manchester United's worst big-game performances of recent times to what it would mean for the immediate future of the side.

The scenery was quickly changing back to regular Roman fare: winding roads along one of the many hills the city grew on, people sitting outside cafes and restaurants in what, temperature-wise, already felt like mid-July. No Barcelona colours, no Manchester United colours, just your average Rome on a humid evening.

So it was with great surprise that two hours later, alighting from the car for a quick coffee in a motorway cafe, I found some Manchester United fans there, driving north as well. They had a smaller, slower car, and they were already finishing their meals, so they must have been there for a while. And given that my colleague had parked the car as close to the Olimpico as possible, and that we had basically run to it as fast as we could, there was only one possible way those United fans could have beaten us to that place: they had left early.

Actually, they had a plane to catch in Bologna early on Thursday and once their side's inability to break down Barcelona became all too evident and the Spaniards - a word you were careful not to utter too loud near some of Barca's Catalan fans - doubled their lead, they had taken the heavy hint and left. Silent and thoughtful as they were inside the cafe, the scene brought a sharp contrast to what I and many others had experienced only a few hours earlier in central Rome.

Dozens of well-informed Man United fans had taken the 910 bus - you have to know it takes you close to the Olimpico, because the destination is only marked as Piazza Mancini with no direct reference to the football stadium - and had turned a mid-afternoon, traffic light infested trip into an impromptu version of a Eurovision song contest. Old Trafford-on-wheels it was, and the thought of this happening throughout Rome had helped create a good pre-match atmosphere, although the Barcelona fans that I encountered were not as vocal and did not stand out as much as most of the Man United fans. Perhaps this was because the few of them not carrying their team's colours were hardly recognisable among the tourists and the locals going about their business.

It is always surprising, especially after reading reports about how an entire city seems to have been taken over by visiting fans, how most of the residents actually look like they have little idea of what's going on. Or how you can hardly see any supporters once you leave the most crowded areas, which in Rome were all around the main squares, despite fears of trouble which had prompted the deployment of hundreds of police and Carabinieri all around town.

One popular chatroom conspiracy had Barcelona's extreme right-wing group meeting up with like-minded Roma fans to spark random acts of violence on visiting Manchester United fans. This rumour turned out to be one of many false whispers, and the only noteworthy incidents were recorded in the early hours of Wednesday when an American tourist was stabbed in the leg in nearby Ostia by locals who had mistaken him for an Englishmen; while a Manchester United fan was briefly hospitalized after allegedly being attacked by Barcelona supporters.

But the worst fear, that Roma hooligans would deploy their infamous method of quick, buttock-slashing knifings ("puncicate", in a local dialect word which somehow does not sound as bad as it should be and more recalls someone puncturing himself with a needle than an actual stabbing) in an area around the Stadio Olimpico, never materialised.

Given Rome's already chaotic traffic, many companies had given their employees the afternoon off so they would not be caught up in the mayhem, but this hardly registered once you looked around in the crowded spaces near the Stadio and the river Tevere, where some English fans were seen daring the cold and murky waters of Rome's beloved stream and jumping in with relish.

Interestingly enough, and perhaps predictably, the ban on the sale of alcohol, which went into effect on Tuesday evening, did not seem to deter hundreds of fans from both sides from arriving at the ground holding cans or bottles of beer and wine. There are always vendors willing to defy the ban and many of the fans had simply stocked up earlier. For instance, I had arrived by train and in my carriage car a group of four Manchester United fans had literally filled every available inch of their tray tables with those small bottles of wine that are typically sold on those journeys.

Alcohol did not seem to induce any sort of trouble outside the ground, though, and perhaps the night's biggest crime scene was at the press conference room beneath the Olimpico. According to a note that had been circulated in the premises, 15 sets of headphones and translation devices had been missing since the previous day's media session. The note advised journalists to check whether they had "packed one away in your bag by mistake". The type of delicate, beat-about-the-bush wording that I once found in a hotel near Siena which warned guests that those who might "mistakenly" lift one of the flat screen TV sets off the table and place it in their car boot would find a few hundred Euros charged to their room account.

And now, with the 2009 Champions League season over after Carles Puyol lifted a different kind of metallic object into the air, the question of whether Cristiano Ronaldo really "goes to Madrid", as the handful of Barcelona supporters inside that 910 bus started chanting at one point in response to some soft taunting by Manchester United fans, returns after all rumours had been left hanging in the run-up to the final.

Funny, though, how that old saying, "be careful what you wish for", sprang to mind when I heard that chant.


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