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May 13, 2010

Once in a lifetime

There was no better representation of Wednesday's rollercoaster Europa League final than Hamburg's Reeperbahn - the street where both sets of fans congregated before and after the match.

• Lomas: Forlan denies Fulham fairytale
• Atletico 2-1 Fulham: Match report
• Comment: Hodgson's great achievement
• Hodgson left devastated
• Europa League Gallery

Prior to the game, an overcast and cloudy day could not dampen the spirits of both sets of supporters, who shared beers and stories of mammoth journeys and volcanic ash disruption. The Reeperbahn was a place of unbridled hope, where Atletico fans dreamed of a first European success in more than four decades and Fulham fans dared to consider a first-ever major continental triumph.

"I've travelled 18 hours by coach to get here," John, a Cottagers fan from Northampton, told me before the game. "I was never going to miss it. It's been 35 years since our last major final (a 2-0 defeat to West Ham in the 1975 FA Cup final) and in another 35 years I will be 80 if I'm still here - we're talking real once in a lifetime stuff."

His was a common story and the phrase "once in a lifetime" was one of the most repeated by Cottagers fans.

The final itself was a highly dramatic affair, with the supporters contributing hugely. The HSH Nordbank Arena was a cacophony of noise from start to finish and the fans deserve a great deal of credit for creating an occasion of theatre that has become increasingly rare in an era where the mass sale of corporate tickets has often served to stifle the atmosphere of major finals; the opportunity to have a stadium full to the brim with the clubs' true followers is usually sacrificed in favour of schmoozing executives looking for the next big deal.

Fulham battled hard and their combination of grit, determination and never-say-die spirit, interspersed with moments of expansive football, was a continuation of how they had played throughout their European campaign. When Simon Davies equalised Diego Forlan's opener, Fulham truly believed that Roy Hodgson's charges were set to write an incredible new chapter. The chant of "stand up if you still believe" regularly reverberated around the stadium up until the final whistle in extra-time.

But it was not to be. Diego Forlan's 116th minute extra-time winner increased the volume inside the stadium to a new high as rapturous Rojiblancos fans leapt from the edge of the seats to cloud nine, and began to plan for a long night of partying.

After the game, Alvaro, an overjoyed Atletico fan from Burgos said: "It's an incredible feeling. It was the first time I have seen a final - the last time we played in a European final was 36 years ago (when Atletico lost in the European Cup final to Bayern Munich) and I was too young.

"It was amazing to be here to see us win. Forlan's goal was like a heart attack but it was the perfect ending for us. He is the kind of player who scores a goal when no one else can score it - he can score from nothing. Atletico is the third team in Spain and I hope that we will go on and challenge for the top positions in the coming years."

Much to the dismay of the patiently waiting Atletico fans, Forlan walked straight onto the team bus after the game, but after seeing the throngs of people waiting for him, and with what appeared to be a little coaxing from the driver, the match-winner greeted his adoring public. He posed for photos and signed autographs for five minutes, surely aware that he had etched his name into the club's folklore.

Having waved Diego off, your correspondent shared a taxi back to the Reeperbahn with a trio of Fulham fans, to see that the street that had been a hub of dreamers just hours before was now a place of understandably contrasting emotions. For Cottagers supporters, who 63 games ago in July of last year would never have dreamed of making the final, the result was a bitter pill to swallow; though they were disconsolate, that was tinged with obvious pride.

"I love Fulham and to get to a game like this is beyond my wildest expectations, but once you're there you dream and you think that tonight's your night," said an emotional Richard, one of my fellow occupants of the taxi. "Once we were in extra-time it felt like our game and when Atletico scored I felt like I had slipped out of my own body - I just don't think we deserved that.

"Forlan is a great goalscorer and a natural finisher but for me that game didn't scream 2-1 - it said 1-1, penalties and it was begging for us to step up and win the tournament."

On Thursday morning, the Reeperbahn was a sprawling mass of broken beer bottles and broken dreams, as Fulham fans tried to come to terms with the painful defeat and, in many cases, a painful hangover. Aside from the inevitable, occasional, alcohol-induced exchanges of words, both sets of supporters had mingled, consumed moderate amounts of beer and danced together until the early hours - the final as a spectacle and occasion for the fans was a resounding success.

But what of the tournament itself? That the inaugural Europa League's winning team to have lifted the trophy having won just three games, while the losing finalists were victorious in 11 matches en route to the final seems more than a little unjust.

But what can make football so wonderful are dreams. You could probably count on one hand the number of Fulham fans who believed last July that they would be beating European giants Juventus and Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg on their way to a European final.

Similarly, when Atletico were fighting at the bottom of La Liga and enduring a torrid Champions League campaign few would have believed that their ailing team would finish the season by ending a lengthy wait for a major European trophy.

Fulham boss Hodgson is one of the most widely travelled managers in football, and his continental experience was demonstrated to great effect both throughout this season's campaign and at the post-match press conference, when he answered a German journalist in fluent Deutsch. Hodgson was understandably happy to give the tournament a ringing endorsement, praising UEFA's revamp and insisting that the Europa League can be as good a spectacle as the competition that has overshadowed it for so long.

"It's been a great competition, obviously we have only good things to say about it," Hodgson said. "We've played some fantastic teams; there have been some magnificent occasions both at Craven Cottage and other interesting places against absolutely top-class teams. Here we find ourselves in this magnificent stadium once again, with 49,000 people and an excellent game of football against yet another one of Europe's top teams.

So, proof, if it were needed, that any competition that gives football fans the opportunity to dream of success, of that grand day out at a neutral venue, is a valuable one - whether it be the World Cup, Champions League or Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Just ask those who flocked to Hamburg's Reeperbahn.

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