The Games That Defined Modern Football: Man Utd 4-3 Real Madrid (2003)

Roman Abramovich Chelsea
The Russian didn't grow up a football fan but he was so enamoured by what he saw at Old Trafford that he decided to invest in a London club

Shortly after John Terry, in full Chelsea kit, lifted the European Cup at the Allianz Arena in 2012, Didier Drogba snatched the trophy out of the crowd and handed it over to the man stood sheepishly on the edge of the throng.

Roman Abramovich, his obsession finally realised, received a cheer almost as loud as the one that greeted Drogba's winning spot-kick.

To think, none of it would have happened had it not been for one barmy night at Old Trafford nine years earlier.

Seven goals, a Ronaldo hat-trick, a failed comeback, and dazzling end-to-end football played out by Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, and Ruud van Nistlerooy: Manchester United’s 4-3 victory over Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final second leg in 2003 was one of the greatest football matches of the 21st century.

And the importance of what unfolded on the field pales in comparison to the effect it had on one man moved by the events at Old Trafford that day.  

Abramovich did not grow up liking football. Before buying Chelsea he knew almost nothing about the game, commercially or otherwise. But he did know that on April 23 he had witnessed “a truly beautiful game". The excitement of United’s seven-goal thriller was enough to convince him to buy a football club.

Within a month, he had settled on Chelsea. Abramovich completed his takeover just 10 days after alerting the club to his interest, accepting a bloated asking price without any negotiation. Less than two months later, he had spent over £100 million on players.  

And two years and one week after Man Utd beat Real Madrid 4-3, Abramovich lifted the Premier League title, breaking United’s and Arsenal’s nine-year duopoly.  

2003 Ronaldo Real Madrid Manchester United

What Abramovich did in west London could be regarded as the most important moment in football history.

Without his example, turning Chelsea into “a rich man’s play thing”, to use the BBC’s analysis following a 2003 interview with Abramovich, we may not have had Sheikh Mansour’s investment in Manchester City or Qatar’s buyout of Paris Saint-Germain.

And it all had its origins in that Champions League tie in Manchester, when Abramovich witnessed the atmosphere, the excitement, and fell in love.

It was a thoroughly entertaining game, and yet it was hardly a close call. From Ronaldo’s early opener onwards, at any given moment United needed to score at least another three goals to qualify. One wonders if Abramovich, knowing so little about the sport, was aware of how the first-leg result and the away-goal rule were impacting the game.

Regardless, Abramovich was captivated, and immediately hired an investment bank to find out which teams in England might be available. He wanted a London-based club because of his business interests in the city and second home in West Sussex and, after briefly considering Tottenham, decided on Chelsea, for its location and simple corporate structure.  

But that isn’t the end of the story. For Chelsea, there is a second sliding doors moment.

Although football history would still have been altered whichever club Abramovich had ultimately bought, he may not have settled on the Blues had they not beaten Liverpool on the final day of the 2002-03 season to seal Champions League qualification.  

Jesper Gronkjaer’s strike earned a 2-1 victory in a straight head-to-head for fourth place, and while Abramovich might have arrived at Chelsea regardless, he almost certainly could not have immediately bought the likes of Claude Makelele, Hernan Crespo, and Juan Sebastien Veron without the promise of European Cup football.

The climb to the summit would have been considerably slower, not only scrubbing many of those titles from history but potentially leaving Abramovich bored. Those close to the Russian assumed he would quickly tire of his Chelsea project and abandon it. Had he been unable to play fantasy football that initial summer, perhaps Abramovich would have shrugged and moved on.

Instead, Ronaldo’s hat-trick and Gronkjaer’s winner triggered a seismic shift in the English game, and not just because of the Russian’s financial impact. His first managerial appointment, Jose Mourinho, altered the landscape of the Premier League almost as much as Abramovich himself.

Mourinho’s arrival in the summer of 2004 shortly after winning the Champions League with Porto is among the most famous moments in Premier League history, and rightly so. The arrogance of that ‘Special One’ press conference was deliberate, engineered; an early glimpse of the psychological warfare that would define his career.  

The English press didn’t know what to make of him – unsure whether to be appalled or intoxicated – and so began the cult of the superstar manager, of the suave tactical genius, in this country.  

Jose Mourinho Chelsea 2015-16

Mourinho was an instant success, signing the likes of Arjen Robben, Ricardo Carvalho, and Drogba that summer and implementing a brand of ruthlessly organised football that ran in direct opposition to the aesthetic of Arsenal’s Invincibles – the team Mourinho would soon knock off their perch.  

Chelsea conceded a record low 15 goals and set a then-record 95 points in the 2004-05 Premier League season. Alongside Greece’s 2004 European Championship victory and Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool project, the Portuguese played a major role in football becoming more defensive in the 2000s.

England remains infatuated by Mourinho and his legacy, even if by 2020 his tactics have long since been abandoned by the Premier League.

Chelsea have, of course, been defined by how he shaped the club, and it is fitting that despite Abramovich’s attempts to make Chelsea more entertaining, it was parking the bus, to borrow a Mourinho phrase, that won them the ultimate prize in 2012.

Hunting for an elusive Champions League trophy became an obsession for Abramovich. It’s what made him so ruthless, firing Luiz Felipe Scolari after seven months, dismissing double-winning Carlo Ancelotti after one average year, and quickly running out of patience with Andre Villas-Boas. All three had promised to play attractive football. None were considered good enough.

So, Roberto Di Matteo’s interim management was in no way part of the plan. His Chelsea averaged 27.5 per cent possession in the semis against Barcelona and beat Bayern Munich on penalties in a dull, nervy final.

It certainly wasn’t the way Abramovich had envisaged it, but nevertheless he had won the Champions League, completing a journey that had begun in Manchester nine years ago.

Ordinarily, football is just too complex to isolate one variable, one single moment, and confidently declare that it changed the sport forever.

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However, in this case, a man with no previous interest in football rocked up at Old Trafford one day in April and, 90 minutes later, had determined not just to get involved in football but to detonate a bomb that would reshape the industry from top to bottom.  

Only someone with no historic attachment to the sport would even think to do something so audacious, so seemingly naïve, as to throw hundreds of millions into such a volatile industry in the hope of buying on-field success.

But Abramovich did, and it worked. With that, football was never the same again.

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