The last time the Champions League final was in Turkey, the match became known as the “Miracle of Istanbul.”
It’s taken nearly two decades to miraculously bring the game back.
Istanbul was supposed to host the 2020 Champions League final. It didn’t happen. Then the 2021 final. Also didn’t happen.
The coronavirus pandemic upended those plans only weeks before kickoff. Both finals were instead played in Portugal.
Finally, though, Istanbul’s time has come again — 18 years after Liverpool somehow overcame AC Milan’s 3-0 first-half lead to win the iconic European Cup trophy on penalties.
On Friday, the city was dressed in the indigo-themed “Istanbul 23” flags, and banners on streets, bridges and in metro stations welcomed the Inter Milan and Manchester City teams and fans arriving for Saturday’s title match.
At a waterside park in the Yenikapi port district, on the European side of the city looking across the Bosphorus Strait to Asia, concerts and DJ performances started Thursday at a free Fan Festival site.
“The city is vibrant with the Champions League,” Turkish soccer federation president Mehmet Büyükekşi told The Associated Press through an interpreter on Friday.
For Turkey and its soccer hotbed city, the three-year delay is almost forgotten.
The “patience, enthusiasm, devotion and warm welcome” from the host country was praised by UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin.
“You waited for this moment too long, and I want you to enjoy this occasion as much as the players and fans from both clubs,” Čeferin wrote in the match program.
Inside the Yenkapi metro station, the expected hub for Man City fans on Saturday, floor-to-ceiling posters of star players adorn the underground walkways. The slogan is a play on the fan chant “We’re Not Really Here” with the “Not” crossed out.
This time, much of the promotional material and merchandise essential for a city hosting a European final actually is being used. Thousands of T-shirts, backpacks and other souvenir items branded with “Istanbul 2020” and “Istanbul 2021” for games that never were played are now being worn and carried around the world.
UEFA said its Foundation for Children charity donated and distributed surplus merchandise to other countries through NGOs and projects it works with.
Back in 2020, the coronavirus outbreak was formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11 — hours before Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain hosted Champions League games.
Six days later, when UEFA postponed the 2020 European Championship, soccer across the continent had shut down. There was talk Istanbul could still host the Champions League final, plus the semifinals as single games.
That proved optimistic. In mid-June, UEFA would decide on sending the eight eventual quarterfinalists to Lisbon for a mini-tournament in August with no fans and almost completely empty stadiums. Man City had to wait until Aug. 7 to host and beat Real Madrid in the round of 16 — more than five months after the first leg in Spain.
The timeline was even tighter in May 2021 when the Turkish soccer federation and Istanbul prepared to host a final with about 10,000 fans in the 72,000-capacity Ataturk Olympic Stadium.
The semifinals finished on May 7 and the finalists were known — an all-English game between Chelsea and Man City to be played on May 29. Team officials even came to Istanbul to learn the match organizing plan.
Then the British government led by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson stepped in. Turkey was added to the “red list” of countries where traveling and returning was more heavily regulated. It meant, in effect, fans would not travel between England and Turkey for the final — and also, Johnson’s administration said, would UEFA want to play it at Wembley Stadium?
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Talks for that plan broke down because UEFA wanted but couldn’t get waivers for sponsors, guests and media to visit London without needing to quarantine. A second pandemic-era final went to Portugal and the official attendance was only 14,110 in Porto’s 50,000-seat stadium.
On Saturday, the Ataturk Olympic Stadium will be full, including at least 20,000 fans from each club to create a real hosting experience once again.