Late slip-up ruins it for Chelsea’s fans

Special to The Times

LONDON -- In extravagant tension from Moscow, as the Chelsea stalwart John Terry strode to take the clinching penalty kick on giant TV screens, you could sense the pubs along the winding Fulham Road poising to erupt.

The steel-gutted Terry would make the kick, of course. Chelsea of London would defeat fellow kingpin Manchester United, 1-1 and 5-4 on penalties, to win the first all-English final in the biggest soccer-club competition in the world, the European Champions League. And when this European night’s drama had settled, this road that runs past Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium would become maybe the place-to-be on the planet.

Horns would blare. Strangers might hug. It all became almost visible and audible as pub windows revealed Chelsea fans in blue, inhaling just before joy.

Just then, though, an inconceivable twist happened some 1,559 miles to the east. In Russian rain, Terry missed. He guessed correctly, aiming for the gaping half of the goal while Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar lunged rightward, but Terry slipped and shanked it stunningly wide of the goal.


Moments later, when Manchester United won 6-5 on penalties, once Van der Sar stopped Nicolas Anelka’s try, the city of Manchester 163 miles to the northwest became the place-to-be, revealing again that sports is terribly capricious and that the European Champions League can be among the most thrillingly precarious competitions on Earth.

And old Fulham Road?

It became mildly eerie, even given that Chelsea fans probably rate among England’s most posh contingents. In an instant, the whole stretch of road felt gutted.

A friend warned that it might be good to clear out of the pub area and head to an apartment just in case things got ornery. A peeved man in fine office clothing started a brief scrape of misdirected punches with a crowing Manchester United fan.

Broken bottles and glasses pockmarked some sidewalks. Within an hour, rows of riot police had lined up outside the Fulham Broadway subway station, and by midnight they had clashed with a cluster of Chelsea fans. People showed footage of the fracas on their mobile phones.

The stadium, warded off with makeshift gates, looked a bit forlorn in the dark.

In the match that had riveted the country that’s the birthplace of the world’s runaway No. 1 sport, Chelsea had reached its first Champions League final and come nightmarishly close to winning it.

Instead, the club owned by Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich had proved secondary to Manchester United in Russia, deepening a recent pattern. In both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, England’s Premier League finished with Manchester United No. 1 in the standings and Chelsea No. 2, and now, as a good chunk of Earth watched by television, that same order had held -- barely -- for the oversized, continent-wide cup that is often as coveted as the league title.

Rather than Chelsea winning a first European title to reward Abramovich’s profuse expenditures on players since he took over the club in June 2003, Manchester United won a third (and first since 1999) and a second for its renowned 21-season manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. The northwest club cemented its global image in a matchup that cemented the English game as tops.

Ever since the end of April, when the two English teams were all that remained from the 32 Europe-wide clubs that began the event last September, England had been waiting for this Moscow night.

The match would occur about as far from England as it could be, and it would go against a surreal backdrop of recent testiness between the two countries. Some fans scrambled for tourist visas until Russia formally waived visa requirements.

The big night approached, hype reigned, the English media in Moscow belittled the choppy pitch at Luzhniki Stadium, and people mulled the strangely uncertain future of Chelsea’s first-year manager, Avram Grant.

As it got going, though, the subway here filled with Chelsea fans as if a home match were imminent. Vendors along Fulham Road sold Chelsea goods. Pubs filled up so much that oxygen became scarce indoors.

Pubs felt like steam rooms. Cristiano Ronaldo scored on a gorgeous header for Manchester United, and Frank Lampard on a less-pretty garbage collection just before halftime for Chelsea, and that 1-1 score held from halftime through 75 more excruciating minutes plus added time.

By the time Terry readied for his penalty kick, only one player out of nine had missed, and that player would be Ronaldo, only the best player in the Premier League for two years running -- a whopping 42 goals this dying season. But something even more shocking ensued with Terry, and . . .

Pretty soon, three guys in Chelsea attire embraced just inside the subway turnstiles. They appeared to be holding each other up, as if their bloodstreams might have contained the odd alcohol product. One burbled something about next season.