I once thought that pop stars who when asked what is the best song that you have written replied, “I haven’t written it yet”, as up themselves and obnoxious. Now I simply see them aware of their standards. After having many a picture ripped up in my face by Paul Delmar, I too am aware of standards. Thus, I don’t yet have a best picture. But I do have a favorite – but mostly because of the story behind it.
Last night was Barcelona, today is Manchester United v Bayern Munich, it took me back to 1999.
WHO PUT THE BALL IN THE GERMANS NET?
I had been to the Nou Camp many times. My epic long trips to Italy had not yet started, so apart from the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, the Nou Camp was probably my favorite stadium to work in. (Later it became the Mestalla, and still is)
The day before the big game, it was my job to cover training. As always I drove up the Diagonal in Barcelona to the Nou Camp, with the anticipation of turning right, going around around a roundabout and into what I call Camp Nou Street. All was going well until coming out of my blind spot, a ‘put-put scooter’ undercut me, hit the wheel arch of my car as I turned right and the driver in true superman fashion flew over the hire car bonnet, hitting the road and into the path of an oncoming bus. With in seconds it was like the Catalan Police had dropped from the sky as they were everywhere. “No habla Espanyol” I spoke. (and I did say Espanyol the other team in Barca and not Espanol)
In short, the only person who could translate was the poor fella who had been riding on the scooter. He happened to be the head of languages at Barca Uni and he was very apologetic, totally blamed himself for wanting to get home quickly and after some quickly written ‘contracts’ he was my official translator to the Police! It was very weird the guy in the crash translating into English for me that the Spanish Police wanted to know what had happened, but equally, he was then also advising me that they were trying to pin the incident on me and not him! I was replying in English and hoping that the guy translating was not stitching me up.
DIRECTOR DE TRAFICO
Eventually it all calmed down. I drove on to the Nou Camp and parked in the ‘normal’ road when I had 2 weeks ago parked to cover a La Liga game. All went OK in the stadium, connecting the trusty modem back to the office after hacking a telephone socket off the wall, the water heater worked OK using a different voltage and after shooting training, processing films, scanning, wiring and packing up it was past midnight. I left with Mr Eddie Keogh, an ex-Delmar pupil like myself and a sports photographer who recently won awards at the SJA Awards in London.
He too had parked in the same road and to our horror we found that our cars had been towed away.
FOLLOW THAT CAB
Moving on to 4am, we handed over large sums of cash after visits to cash machines and got our vehicles from a compound on the other side of the city. It later turned out that the people doing the stadium signage for UEFA and the City of Barcelona had put up the No Parking signs on the wrong street! This was 1999. No TomTom. No iphone with maps. I had to navigate home with instinct and eventually paid a taxi to drive with me following back to my hotel. I eventually got to bed well past 5. Not the ideal start for Manchester United appearing in an European Cup Final.
It was now the next day. And guess what? I had over slept and had missed breakfast. First task of the day was to go and pick up fellow photographer Michael Steele from the airport. However his plane was late and minutes turned in to hours. Eventually after seeing about 55,000 Man U fans, Steeley appeared out of the arrivals gate. We were both hungry. I floored it back to the hotel and we went to a nearby Pizza Hut. It was the only place open. Everything else had been shut by the Police to stop Man U fans drinking. Eventually it was 5 pm and we decided it was more than time to head off for the big game. We did not however envisage the worst traffic jam in the history of Barcelona. Considering I had blagged a top car parking pass from an UEFA friend, we thought the drive would be easy. To cut a long story short, I fondly remember walking out onto the pitch at the same time the teams did.
EL KICK OFF
After a quick team meeting, Steeley was to stay at the bottom end and do Bayern one half and Man U the other, with me doing Man U both halves. I hurried to my spot, sat down and started work. After 5 minutes, Bayern got a free kick. I had only taken about 7 frames up until then. It was not like nowadays when we shoot like crazy filling up Compact Flash cards. Every shot was a carefully thought out procedure. Mario Basler stepped up and placed the ball down. The United wall was perfectly composed in my viewfinder. Basler curled the ball over the United wall and past Schmeichel into the net. GOOOOOOAL!!!!!
The only slight problem was that my trusty Nikon F3HP did not fire. The batteries had run out and I had not charged them the night before.
The worst thing for a photographer is to see a picture. This was a belter. And I had missed it. I found another battery in my bag and borrowed some batteries from another photographer. The remaining 84 minutes would be a test of nerve. There was no doubt about it, I had fucked up the winning goal of the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final. I tried to put it aside and preyed United would score in the first half. Alas they didn’t. The referee that night was the bald headed Collina. He blew the whistle and my only seemingly destiny was to get to the other side of the pitch.
During the whole of the previous month – April 1999 – I had been in the God awful city of Lagos covering the 1999 FIFA World Youth Cup. That tournament was hell on earth. Nigeria has no structure to its society and I’m not its greatest fan. Even though it was sunny, everyone who worked there stuck together like glue and helped each other when there were dark clouds. “Mister…” shouted an UEFA official. It was only my good friend Borjas who had been working for FIFA in Lagos as I ran past the half way line en route to the corner flag the following end.
I stopped. Shook hands. Hugged. Chatted. Chatted. Chatted more. It was a bad move. The next thing I knew the teams were coming out again. Ottmar Hitzfeld was telling me to move from his dug out spot. I sprinted to the other side and to my horror like Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem, there was no room at the inn!
I have never seen such an end of a stadium so packed. Photographers had squeezed in mates who had squeezed in their mates. There simply was no room. It was pointless going the other end as Steeley was there! Eventually, a TV cameraman suggested that I crouched underneath his camera lens and in between his tripod. I had a spot, but after 90 seconds I was already in agony with a bad back. I tried to manually focus my beloved 400 lens and F3 but I just was not comfy. Each time United looked like scoring, Id grab the 85mm f2.8 lens but I was simply too close to the goal. A football photographer who knew what they were doing would have sat much further back to the corner flag when on an assignment to record Manchester United winning the Cup!
And to make matters worse, it was still 0-1 and I had ‘missed’ the goal.
The minutes slowly went by. It was torture.
Just as Beckham describes in his book on how when he took a corner he saw the silver trophy decorated ribbons the colour of Munich out of the corner of his eye, I saw it too. I knew then I was having a bad day. Beckham took the free kick, Sheringham scored!! GOAL! I had got it. And a nice celebration. (later the goal was not exactly sharp and the neg was left on the floor of the Barca wire room). I quickly wound back the film and went to put a fresh roll of Fuji 800 in. But to my horror, I had only left the film bag by the Munich dugout whilst talking to Borjas. My mind quickly thought of an epic extra time, Fergie giving the speach of a lifetime and United winning a 22-23 penalty shoot out AND then an amazing trophy presentation – I only had 3 rolls of film in my pocket. I had about 20 by the dug out!
Before I knew it, United were on the attack again, to this day I don’t know what happened, nor do I want to. My memories of France 98 had been erased by watching a French Allez les Blues VHS. Everytime the 1999 final is on TV, I always look away. I just saw Ole stick his leg out. Steeley got two amazing frames on it.
Ole then ran straight towards ME. I took 3 frames as he slid on his knees. Up until then I had not really taken a ‘famous’ picture.
In years to come this picture would be printed in books and magazines all over the world. It was even blown up and made in to a massive banner on the Stretford End at Old Trafford. I got up but hit my head on a Sony TV camera lens. United fans were in delirium. I was in a day dream after nearly being knocked out.
There were lots of tears that night. Most football people hate Manchester United. But the pure emotion of scoring two quick goals and United, an English team, winning the UEFA Champions League was incredible. I won’t mention any names but a lot of colleagues of mine were jumping up and down with tears in their eyes. I have never experienced anything like it and unless England win the World Cup I don’t think I will ever see it again. The rest of the evening was amazing.
After the TV companies went to the news, at the stadium the United players partied on the pitch with 55,000 fans for what seemed like at least an hour. They all got in a semi-circle. I think it was one of the Nevilles who put his finger to his mouth and silenced the joyous fans.
The whole of the Nou Camp was quiet. The trophy was then lifted three times above his head to the each of an almighty cheer. Each United player did this.
Then came Ole. After his three trophy lifts this little song appeared over my right shoulder. 40 seconds later a new anthem was born.
WHO PUT THE BALL IN THE GERMANS NET?
WHO PUT THE BALL IN THE GERMANS NET?
WHO PUT THE BALL IN THE GERMANS NET?
OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER
GET DOWN SON
Later we all went to a Barca nightclub – it was the only place open. We downed lots of vodka and walking back down the Ramblas, there must have been 14,000 Man U fans still singing in the streets at a time approaching 5am. Then suddenly everyone sobered up. All the adults became adult again. A 6 yr old boy dressed in a Man U kit was climbing a statue. All the singing stopped. Shouts of get down were ignored as the youngster stood on the shoulders of the statue. Panic and fear set in. My seemingly drunken haze after a pint of vodka disappeared as everyone in seeing distance gasped as the little fella attempted to stand on the head of statue. After a few wobbles he was there, proceeded by angry and concerned shouts of “GET DOWN!”
The little lad had thousands of United fans at his mercy. Just like his heroes in the Nou Camp, he placed his finger over his mouth to silence the crowd. Tied to his wrist he had an inflatable trophy. He lifted it three times over his head to three bombastic cheers. Then more renditions of “Who put the ball in the Germans net” followed and we never saw the boy again.
One person I was with commented “I fucking hate Man United, but that is the best thing I have ever seen in my life”.
United are 2-1 down after the first leg. I’m still very poorly. Man U score three goals down the other end. Im having another shocker just like in the Nou Camp in 1999. The result is different though. United lose on away goals. No returning like a hero for me today. People can think what they want in that ‘I’m lucky’ to go to Old Trafford. It’s Champions League, but I don’t want to be here. The only picture I like is one of Bayern fans celebrating by lighting flares and some other person with a camera has only gone and taken a picture at the same time as me!
Manchester United and me needed Ole tonight. He was watching in the stands. Tonight the Germans got revenge. Tonight the Football Karma Gods were not kind to me.