On Sunday, Paris Saint-Germain will face Bayern Munich in the first UEFA Champions League final to be played in an empty stadium. It’ll be PSG’s first appearance in the final, and Bayern’s first since they won the competition in 2013. The match will draw the curtain on this edition of competition, almost 11 months after the first ball was kicked in its group stage, bringing together two clubs hoping to add Europe’s premier trophy to seasons of domestic dominance.
Like much of what has occurred since March this year, it’s hard to look back at this season’s Champions League and assess it in a truly cohesive way. Some of the highlights included Atalanta taking the competition by storm in much the same way Ajax did the previous season, and Lyon overcoming two superclubs in Juventus and Manchester City before meeting an unsurprising match in Bayern. However, if you’ll forgive me, rather than reeling off a list of instances of brilliance showcased by the tournament, I thought I’d focus on one particular moment: nine spectacular seconds on the evening of February 18, a date that simultaneously seems like it took place a million years ago and also yesterday.
In the 77th minute of Borussia Dortmund’s Round of 16 match at home against PSG, Gio Reyna received a Mats Hummels pass on the half-turn and broke through the opposition midfield, pursued by PSG’s Layvin Kurzawa, Presnel Kimpembe, and Marco Verratti. The 17-year-old American seemed uninterested in the history he was about to create: Replacing Thorgan Hazard 10 minutes before, he became Dortmund’s youngest-ever Champions League player, at 17 years, three months, and five days old. Reyna played the ball into the feet of 19-year-old Erling Haaland. Haaland took a solitary touch, guiding the ball with care across his body, before unleashing a vicious shot past PSG keeper Keylor Navas for his second goal, making Reyna the youngest American to notch an assist in Champions League history.
It would take a few moments for this to register, because focus was momentarily elsewhere. Haaland struck with such ferocity it suggested he didn’t care whether Navas was there or not, and the Costa Rican goalkeeper most likely wished he was literally anywhere else. When it hit the back of the net—still ascending to a cruising altitude of God-knows-what-height—it generated a sound so wonderful that it would be impossible to get bored of were it on a never-ending loop for the rest of time.
Erling Haaland: “It’s the best goal I have ever scored.— Goal (@goal) June 27, 2020
“I love the Champions League.
“I am happy PSG copied my meditation celebration.”
The two crisp pops—one as the ball hit the roof of the net, the second as it ricocheted back down to earth—were perhaps enhanced due to the scene where it took place: Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. The customary eruption of noise that followed was much more familiar than that of the shot it was celebrating. In the cacophony, Haaland ran toward the northwest corner of the Westfalenstadion’s glistening green turf, slid onto his back, and waited, arms wide, ready to welcome the pile of yellow-and-black-clad teammates eager to join in the delight. As the camera cut to the celebration, Axel Witsel and Reyna entered the shot, meeting in a semi-executed midair “high 10” and then skipping with a genuine, unabashed exuberance rarely seen post-childhood. Nine seconds earlier, the ball had not yet left Reyna’s right boot. It was Haaland’s 11th goal for the club he’d joined from Red Bull Salzburg during the most recent winter break, coming in his 427th minute of playing time. One goal every 38 minutes.
My obsession with this goal is such that I’d suspect my contribution to its YouTube view count would be measured in hundreds. Watching it live, I can remember the hairs on my arms rising in response to what my eyes and ears had heard and seen. But watching it back recently, it struck me that this moment has taken on another level of utterly redundant significance. There was so much within those fleeting nine seconds that represent how our perceptions of normalcy and novelty in soccer have changed. It was the sound caused by Haaland’s wonder-strike that was the novelty that night, whereas now we crave the collective noise that we used to take for granted.
With hindsight, it has also taken on an additional layer of melancholy. The next time the two sides would meet would be on March 11, in an eerily empty Parc des Princes in Paris. The visual abnormality of having no fans within the stadium was still a jarring one back then, and the game took on an energy that was almost postapocalyptic in nature, thanks to a constant soundtrack of exploding fireworks from outside the stadium perimeter. PSG won the game 2-0, eliminating Dortmund in the process.
Weirdly, the Haaland goal in the first leg seemed to light a fire under PSG that would ultimately lead them to the final. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel, who formerly coached Dortmund, could not have been thrilled at the sight of two teenagers—costing a fraction of what PSG would pay for a role player—torching his side in the place that he once called home. Tuchel watched on as his current club—featuring the most expensive player of all time in Neymar Jr.—was given a bloody nose by his old one. Dortmund played PSG like a bunch of young upstarts crashing an uptown high-society fundraising event.
However, youth can have a tendency not to worry themselves about consequences, and as the saying goes, money talks. It did just that a few weeks later in Paris. PSG gave Haaland and Co. a good talking to, and then added insult to injury by mocking Dortmund on social media postgame. It would be Dortmund’s final game before the global sports shut down. When they returned they would drop nine of 27 Bundesliga points to finish 13 points behind champions Bayern. Bayern by now, unstoppable under Hansi Flick, were victorious through a solitary Joshua Kimmich goal when the two sides met in May.
It would be too easy to counter a suggestion that Dortmund’s elimination to PSG condemned them to yet another season of close, but not quite close enough. However, harder to counter is the argument that what was present in that brief moment—between Reyna receiving the ball and Haaland’s teammates piling on in celebration—encapsulated much of what makes soccer worthy of being dubbed the beautiful game in the first place. Sunday’s final will see one of two superclubs—both dominant on a domestic level—secure a trophy that will further extend the winners’ dominance. It will undoubtedly be a contest filled with exceptional play, maybe some great goals, and slick attacking transitions. What is more in doubt is that from our own little corner of this new world—as neutrals—what will we look back at more fondly? The final itself, or moments like those as magical as those nine seconds back in February?