Chelsea vs. Palmeiras : 12 February 2022.
Our passage into the final assured, it would be natural to think that there would be a reasonable amount of contentment in the air on the Thursday. Well, yes and no. Everyone had agreed that our performance against Al Hilal was middling at best. The way our form nosedived in that terrible second-half was concerning. We also factored in the huge amount of Palmeiras supporters who were now amassed in Abu Dhabi; not on the same scale as their Sao Paolo rivals Corinthians in 2012, but still so impressive, especially since we were in the middle of a global pandemic. We presumed that a total of around 1,500 Chelsea supporters would be over from the UK for the final. In comparison, we estimated an easy 10,000 from Brazil, most of whom had endured a seventeen-hour flight. We feared that the game at the same stadium would be akin to a home game for them. We sensed that they really would be the oft-cited “twelfth man.”
Lingering in my mind too, was the last PCR test, slated to take place at a nearby walk-in clinic on the Friday.
Inside my head : “chill mate, let Friday and Saturday take care of themselves. This is a holiday.”
There was another relaxing morning by the pool on the Thursday, but there was a special treat planned for the afternoon. JD had booked seven of us on a desert safari and so PD and I took a cab over to his hotel early on Thursday afternoon.
JD met us in reception and we relaxed for a while by the pool with Andy and Kev, and were then joined by Liz and Mark. We piled into a 4 x 4, then set off for the desert. We had a whale of a time. The drive inland to the sandy interior took about an hour. The driver parked up, deflated the tyres to gain more traction, and then gave us a twenty-minute adventure through some sand dunes. I have not laughed so much in ages.
At a stopping-off point, a few Palmeiras fans posed for a photograph with us and their flag was held up between us. We were then driven to an encampment where we had a beer or two, took a ride on some camels, were joined by around fifty other tour groups – a good three-quarters of which were Palmeiras – and were served a lovely al fresco meal before night fell and a belly dancer performed for us. Alas, a Brazilian had given her a flag too. As the end of the evening approached, the host suggested that we just did a little stargazing, but our little group bellowed out “Blue Is The Colour” to disturb the serenity. However, the two or three hundred Palmeiras fans then completely drowned us out.
I had to admire their passion. Having seen some Argentinian games two years ago – almost exactly – I knew only too well what football means to South America. Think the UK is a football hotbed? It is, but South America is on a different scale.
We had loved every minute of the desert adventure. And I think it tired us all out. The drive back to the city was mainly in silence, save for a few worried conversations about the final.
Friday arrived and it was another cracking day. PD and I soon sorted out a PCR test – only £12 – and we then arranged to meet up with Julie, Tim, Pete, Brian and Kev at their hotel in the afternoon. The Radisson Blu was where I had originally booked PD and myself, only for Etihad to bump our homeward flight from the Sunday to the Monday. We relaxed by the pool area which abutted the inlet of the Persian Gulf. By mid-afternoon, our Alhosn App was updated with the negative test result from the morning.
Big grins all round. We were now clear for the final on Saturday and the flight home on the Monday.
That evening we spent drinking in the hotel bar with “the Bristol lot” but also Paul and Spencer from Swindon. We had a riot.
Saturday arrived. Game day. The day of the final.
This followed a similar pattern to Friday. We cabbed it over to the Radisson Blu, where our pal Foxy was staying too. There was another lazy afternoon by the pool, where we were serenaded rather loudly by some Palmeiras fans, and we then trotted back to Foxy’s room where we showered and changed into our clothes for the final. We met up with the Bristol lot – OK, South Gloucestershire, right Tim? – and enjoyed a few quiet pints during the bar’s Happy Hour. Della and Mick were nearby, both worried stiff that their Alhosin App was malfunctioning. It seemed that many people were experiencing problems with it, not least myself; somehow I was registered as Christopher David Cox.
Foxy, PD and I caught a cab to the game, though the cabbie took us initially to the city’s other football stadium where the third and fourth place play-off was due to start. Luckily, the correct stadium was only five minutes away. The crowds were far greater than on Wednesday. The three of us were allocated tickets in the lower tier of the western end of the stadium, the section used by the Al Hilal support previously. There was quite a wait to reach the security checks. Palmeiras fans again dominated; the green and white was everywhere. I noted how many of the Brazilians had adopted the local Arabic headgear, again in green and white.
“Can’t see that catching on among our lot to be honest.”
My Alhosn App had gone grey where it ought to have been green, but I was waved through.
Then, a personal hell. A “jobsworth” told me that I had to hand in my small camera. His supervisor said the same. I kicked up a bit of a fuss and they went off to see another supervisor. Thankfully, another chap allowed me to take it in.
“Thank you my friend.”
In an exact copy of Wednesday, we were in with an hour to go.
I took my position. Seat 8. Another red seat. Oh well, it worked on Wednesday.
Inside, my first thoughts were dominated by the realisation that there was no worthwhile segregation present in the entire stadium. How easy would it have been for FIFA to have given us one stand? It annoyed me because not only were around 10,000 Palmeiras fans crammed in at the other end (although, mysteriously, with a little section of around three hundred Chelsea fans in one corner), our area was adjacent to a section with around 5,000 Palmeiras fans. I wasn’t worried about it kicking off at all – far from it – but I just wanted a solid block of Chelsea so that we could noisily get behind the team.
I spotted many people that I recognised in our section. As kick-off time approached, the ground swelled. The lower tier of the western end really was full to bursting, the central section especially. It looked like this was the home of their ultras, “La Manche Verde” – the green spot – and many seemed to be wearing special edition white shirts.
The minutes ticked by.
Throughout, the Brazilians were in fine voice. Many songs were aired.
One chant dominated :
“Pal – meeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiir – as.”
With the middle syllable stretched out forever.
At the back of our terrace, a large banner proclaimed “Palmeiras Dublin.”
We were pretty quiet at this stage; outnumbered and out sung.
I looked around.
Foxy was a few rows in front. Mike and Frank were down the front. Close by were the South Gloucestershire contingent, the couples Liz and Mark, Karen and Feisal. My good mate Andy from Nuneaton was there too. Welsh Kev called over for a photo. Over in the corner I spotted Big Rich who had suffered for a day or two after being given a positive test result on arrival. Thankfully he tested negative soon after and was able to attend both games. He was with a few people I recognised; Darren, Ryan, Denise, Andy, Rob. King Kenny and Rob were there. Then in the front row of the side stand, the north stand, I spotted Della and Mick, Clinton who had flown in for the final – along with Tombsie who I saw outside – and Darren and Leigh.
There were a hundred or so Chelsea fans, dressed all in blue – how quaint – from the local Dubai supporters’ group. JD had mentioned a large contingent from Kerala in India at the Al Hilal match; they were here too surely.
There was more “Chelsea – are you ready?” hoopla (no, let’s just call it “bollocks”) but at least it managed to quieten down the Brazilians.
With kick-off approaching, the stadium lights were dimmed and some fearsome fireworks exploded into the sky.
Then, the teams.
Chelsea in blue / blue / white.
Palmeiras in white / white / green.
A few years back, I worked with Bruno – from Fortaleza in the sweltering north of Brazil – who was getting some local work experience while taking a Masters’ Degree at the University of Bath. He is a Palmeiras supporter. On his last weekend in the UK, I took him to Arsenal vs. Chelsea – 2016, a Diegoal gave us the points – and leading up to this game we had been in contact again. We had wished each other well.
But now it was time for friendships to be put on hold.
This was serious stuff.
Thomas Tuchel, himself only just returned to the fold after a bout of COVID, chose these players to bring home the…er, bacon in the Abu Dhabi night.
Christensen – Silva – Rudiger
Azpilicueta – Kovacic – Kante – Hudson-Odoi
Mount – Havertz
“Big night for Callum.”
How many Chelsea fans were in the stadium? It was so difficult to hazard a guess. Maybe four thousand all told, including those from the UK and elsewhere. This compared to around slightly more than fifteen thousand Palmeiras. That leaves around twelve thousand neutrals, mainly locals. I spotted shirts of the other competing teams.
The game began.
From the off, it was obvious that Palmeiras were more than happy to let us have the ball. And we had it in spades. I was amazed how far Thiago Silva was allowed to carry the ball; over the half-way line and beyond. In modern parlance, this was a very low block.
Off the pitch, the Brazilian fans were on fire. Their noise dominated. Curls of white paper cascaded down from the Palmeiras fans above me in the upper tier. It felt like we were in a hornets’ nest.
Palmeiras enjoyed a couple of half-chances but Edouard Mendy was not bothered. On ten minutes, Kai Havertz to Callum Hudson-Odoi but his shot was blocked. On twenty-two minutes, Mount misjudged the pace of the ball as it dropped into the six-yard box and he let it run on. Soon after, two shots from Havertz were screwed wide.
Out of nowhere, a lightning break from Palmeiras but the aptly named Dudu slapped his shot well wide. It was, however, the half’s biggest chance. Sadly, on the thirty-minute mark, Mount was injured and was replaced by Christian Pulisic. I was honestly surprised that Ziyech was not given the nod. Every time that Silva advanced, I just wanted him to go another five or ten yards, drop his shoulder and rattle in a shot on goal. At last, a few moments before half-time, he did just that. The beautifully named Weverton leapt to force it around the post for a corner.
Half-time came with the game scoreless.
Although we were finding it hard to break down this Palmeiras side, I was relieved. I was relieved that they were clearly not as able as I had presumed them to be.
At half-time, more “bollocks” as the lights were dimmed and spectators were asked to shine their mobile torches. It brought me immense pleasure to see one corner of the stadium not joining in.
It was akin to the blackout during the Second World War, for those who enjoy such hyperbole.
The second-half began and maybe noticing that the Palmeiras fans were in a moment of quiet and rest, the Chelsea corner were roused and our loudest chant of the night cheered me.
“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”
Good ol’ “Amazing Grace.”
Other teams mock us when we sing that, but it’s ours and ours alone.
A Rudiger rocket was blasted at goal. We continued to dominate. The ball was played out to Hudson-Odoi on our left. He had not enjoyed a great game thus far to be honest. I bellowed at him :
“Come on Callum, dig it out.”
Well, dig it out he certainly did.
His cross was well hit, on the money, and a bullet header from Lukaku at the near post sent us all delirious.
Two games in Abu Dhabi. Two goals for Lukaku. A part of me wanted it to end there. He is not enjoying a great spell right now. I wondered if Lukaku getting both our goals might just set him off on a run of form.
Just after, a shot from Pulisic was drilled just wide.
A very rare attack on our goal followed within ten minutes of our goal. The ball was lofted into the box from a throw-in and a shot was smothered by Mendy with ease. The moment passed. But then some commotion and some noise. There was a VAR review.
The penalty was given and I had no complaints after seeing the replay; Thiago Silva’s arm was up at an angle, a definite penalty.
Raphael Veiga converted.
We drifted a little now, our impetus broken a little. But we still carved out chances with Havertz and Pulisic going close.
Timo Werner replaced Lukaku and Saul replaced Hudson-Odoi on seventy-six minutes. To be fair, their fresh legs helped us. We turned up the heat but Palmeiras defended well.
With five minutes to go, fresh green and white vertical streamers were held aloft over the lower tier of the end opposite. I guess this was to spur their team on in the last portion of the game. I always remember that we used to sing “Chelsea” to “Amazing Grace” during most second-halves back in the ‘eighties. It was “our thing.”
The last kick of normal time saw Mateo Kovacic blast high over the bar.
We settled our nerves for an extra thirty minutes and – gasp – possible penalties. Foxy came and stood with PD and little old me.
“Hope you’re our good luck charm, mate.”
Into extra-time we went.
Malang Sarr for Christensen.
Hakim Ziyech for Kovacic.
I had been standing for hours. My “lucky” yellow Adidas trainers – Porto – were starting to pinch. I was tired and weary.
“Come on Chels.”
More Chelsea domination, more Palmeiras resistance. A rare Palmeiras break, but Rudiger held firm with a sensational shoulder charge. He had been exceptional all game. I spotted rows of Palmeiras fans in the opposite end gently swaying from side to side. Another sight that you don’t see back home.
Into the second period of extra time we went. The night was drawing on. And to think that one of my initial travel options had been to catch a 2.55am flight home on Sunday morning.
We found new life again. Werner wriggled and went close. The game became tense. I willed us on.
“Come on you blue boys.”
With only four minutes remaining, a Ziyech corner was swung into the box. It was knocked down and Dave swung at it. There was a block from a defender and the three or four nearest Chelsea defenders instantly appealed for a handball. Play continued but when the ball went out of play, the referee signalled for another VAR review. PD and Foxy was adamant that we’d get the decision. The Australian referee again trotted off to look at the pitch side screen.
I loathe VAR but I could not resist a yelp of joy.
Then ensued pure drama. Dave, the one who had won the penalty, the captain, claimed the ball. My immediate thoughts?
“Dave? Shades of JT in Moscow. Oh bloody hell. Brave man.”
The Palmeiras players were in Dave’s face for ages. Or what seemed like it. Then, a dialogue with Timo. Give it to him? Not my choice. Then, the last twist; Dave calmly handed the ball to Kai Havertz, the hero in Porto.
A moment of stillness.
A moment of drama.
I held my camera ready.
The run up.
He sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, shades of Didier in Munich, the ball flew in.
I yelled with joy and looked to the sky. But I then became light-headed. By the time I had steadied myself, Havertz had run to the Chelsea corner and was being mobbed by everyone.
Click, click, click.
The Palmeiras fans were quiet now. The Chelsea section was buzzing.
One last twist; the Palmeiras player Luan, after another delay, was sent off for wiping out Havertz the scorer. Just after the resulting free-kick was taken, the referee blew.
At around 11pm on a balmy night in Abu Dhabi, Chelsea Football Club became World Champions.
Postcards From Abu Dhabi.
Amazing trip – so glad it all worked out for you and the new champions of the world!
Thanks Chris – both brilliant reads if all a bit surreal! A doffed cap to your eternal loyal support. You’ve seen it all. Hope you get to Luton too. Flasher’s neat chip on a frozen pitch in his trainers on the first day of the 1980’s is still a strong memory. All the best, Kev
Cheers Kev…I’ll get to Luton…if only to honour Eric Morecambe.