CARDIFF — The migration patterns of football, like the rhythms of the game itself, are most deeply felt in the flesh. When two of the giants of Europe and their equally massive fan bases make their way across the continent to a smaller city like Cardiff — home of Saturday’s Champions League final between Juventus and Real Madrid — it doesn’t feel like a stampede, exactly. It feels more like a flood. It feels like water finding its level.
The streets around the 74,500-seat National Stadium of Wales, set to host its first UEFA club match, were calm on Friday afternoon. But it was the sort of calm that has a crackle in it.
Small bands of police kept watch, part of the biggest security operation in British sports history. (After the May 22 concert attack in Manchester, the stadium’s roof will stay closed for safety reasons.) A few eager fans posed for photographs next to the River Taff. Ticket touts collected around bus stops, whispering to passersby.
Under overcast skies and a few spots of rain, there remained a strong sense that the deluge was about to come.
Last week in Madrid, where Barcelona and Alaves met to play for the Copa del Rey, much of the city’s attention was clearly elsewhere. Lionel Messi performed his usual magic in front of hundreds if not thousands of empty seats at a blustery Calderon. Street vendors outside were forced to try to sell Real jerseys and scarves in twice-enemy turf, peddling Los Blancos merchandise to Barcelona supporters at Atletico’s home stadium.
There weren’t many buyers, but the fact that the vendors thought they might find a market spoke volumes. Another possible European championship for Real, coupled with Barcelona’s conclusive-feeling falling away, has left Madrid even more single-minded than usual.
Planeloads of similarly focussed Juventus fans began arriving in the U.K. as early as Thursday, with some supporters having to travel first from Turin as far south as Naples to find their way to London. One poor fan was separated from his friends when, only at the boarding gate, he realized he’d bought a ticket to Luton and was not leaving for hours. The rest of them were going to Stansted.
He looked stunned. Who knew that London had more than one airport?
From there, the flag-waving visitors began pooling into Paddington Station on Friday morning for the first waves of full trains to make the journey to Cardiff. Reports of as many as 200,000 fans converging on the Welsh capital — undeterred by subsequent reports of hotel rooms going for four figures and locals letting out hastily assembled “bedrooms” in their garages — had made early arrival seem wise.
The majority were Juventus supporters from across Italy, comparing notes on their pilgrimages from Bologna and Rome. After the two-hour final leg from London, they exited Cardiff’s central station and gamely tried to make out the signs in Welsh. “DECHRAU’R DYFODOL” read one: “Where the future begins.” Then they realized there were English ones, too.
There have been complaints that a match of this magnitude, only heightened when the Spanish and Italian league champions rocketed their way into it, should never have been held in such a small and relatively inaccessible city. It’s no doubt coincidental that some of those complaints have been made by journalists booked into hotels in Bristol and Swansea. Berlin or Paris or Madrid would have more easily managed the numbers.
But there is something more thrilling about a city like Cardiff taking its turn at the center of the football universe. Sprawling cities tend to swallow even the biggest events. This time, the host risks being swallowed by its guests. That’s how it should feel when Europe comes to town.
It should feel at least a little overwhelming. It should feel as though there will be just enough air.