The official estimates had seemed inflated, deliberately aggrandized, exaggerated for dramatic effect, right up until the planes started landing and the streets started filling. Some 50,000 fans were making their way to Seville, Spain, in the midst of a blistering spring heat wave from Germany. Twice that number were traveling from Scotland.
They came every way they could imagine, by land and by air, by hook and by crook. Flights were sold out so quickly that dozens more were chartered; Some 400 aircraft touched down in Seville on Tuesday alone.
Those who could not make it directly got as close as possible – to Malaga, 150 miles south, or to Faro, across the border into Portugal – and continued their journey however they could. When those tickets disappear as well, a handful of fans contacted Glasgow in a hot-air balloon company and asked if they could float them to the south of Spain. The firm assumed it was a joke. It was not. Nobody wanted to miss the Europa League final, not this time.
Ordinarily, the conclusion of European soccer’s secondary competition – the Champions League’s little sibling – is a relatively sedate affair, contested between teams that see it as either a consolation prize or a means to an end; Victory, after all, means a chance to be in the club soccer’s main event next season.
For Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers, though, it was different. Eintracht has long defined itself by its exploits in European soccer, especially this tournament. It won the competition under its previous name, the plain old UEFA Cup, in 1980 – Eintracht’s last European final – and it has yearned to repeat the trick ever since.
In April, the club took so many fans to Barcelona for a quarterfinal match that the Spanish team launched an internal investigation into how many so many of them were able to acquire tickets. Xavi Hernández, Barcelona’s coach, complained afterward that the visiting fans’ presence made the Camp Nou feel like enemy territory.
For Rangers, meanwhile, this was somewhere between an arrival and an ascension. Since the club last made the final of the tournament – losing to Zenit St. Petersburg in Manchester, England, in 2008 – It has been, depending on who you ask, either liquidated and reestablished or relegated and reformed.
Less than a decade ago, Rangers was reduced to playing in Scotland’s semiprofessional fourth tier as a punishment for years of financial mismanagement and chicanery. Only last season it restored the pinnacle of Scottish soccer, depriving its bitter rival Celtic of its title for the first time in 10 years. A place in one of Europe’s major finals on Wednesday night was the culmination of that journey, proof that a team that claims to be the most garlanded in the world soccer had finally, conclusively returned.
That prospect drew fans, by the tens of thousands, to what Police Scotland believed to be the “biggest gathering” that tranquil, convivial Seville had ever seen. That was not without its risks, of course: There were some 5,000 police officers on duty Wednesday, and Rangers took the unusual step of asking many of its most beloved alumni to plead with fans as “good ambassadors”For the club.
The result, inside the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, was ear-splitting and eye-catching. At one end, where Eintracht’s fans gathered, a sea of white was wrapped in flags of fog. The rest of the stands were dominated by the Blue of Rangers.
The stadium seemed to lift when Joe Aribo gave the Rangers the lead. The roar when Rafael Borré equalized might have been heard in Frankfurt, where 50,000 more Eintracht fans had the fill of the club’s stadium watch the game live. It took penalties, in the end, to separate the teams, to determine which set of fans would remember this journey as a holiday and a calvary.
Aaron Ramsey, the experienced Rangers midfielder, missed. Borré, nerveless, sealed victory for Eintracht.
The fans knew that might happen, of course. They knew someone would leave Seville with nothing but regret. They made the journey anyway, however they could, along with the hope that it would not be them.