After three hours of waiting in the queue outside Old Trafford, it was now Matt Johnson’s turn to plead his case to the young man behind the window.
At stake was the hottest ticket in Europe: a seat at the Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea six days later in Moscow.
“This story,” said the man standing behind Johnson in line, “I have got to hear.”
Johnson possessed none of the prerequisites thought necessary to. He was not a United member nor a season ticket holder. He was not even an occasionally now-and-then supporter of United; just an American tourist in Manchester.
After exchanging pleasantries with the ticket seller, Johnson affirmed that he was, as mentioned, None of the Above.
“But,” he blurted out, “I do have a visa.” As it turned out, that was the ticket.
Not a plastic visa with a capital ‘V,’ but the government authorized permission for a four-day visit to the Russian capital.
“I was walking away beaming, goosebumps, head to toe, and a nice-dressed man, a ticket broker came up to me,” Johnson says. “’What have you done, just gotten tickets? Around here, you can’t even get tickets to the Bolton match.’”
Once again Johnson had proven his theory that no event is truly sold out. In his hands were two tickets, purchased at face value, and he would be sitting 12 rows from the corner flag at Luzhniki Stadium.
With that, Johnson’s latest venture to see soccer at its best had begun in earnest. Europe had set the table with some fine fare in mid-May, and Johnson, plus a friend, Doug Smith, would be seated at the table, dining alongside the best of them.
Three Finals, 11 Days
In a span of 11 days, Johnson would be a live witness to three cup finals: UEFA Cup, English FA Cup and the first all-England Champions League epic.
Funny thing was, Johnson’s journey began on a note he feared ominous. He had never purchased tickets in advance and yet always found a way in to over 40 World Cup matches during the previous 14 years. His streak of good fortune ended in Bristol.
Soon after landing in London, Johnson jumped a train west. His plan was to catch the Bristol City-Crystal Palace playoff on May 13. Arriving at the stadium at kickoff, he not only couldn’t find a ticket, there was nary a soul to be seen.
“It was bizarre. The streets were deserted because if you weren’t at the match, you were somewhere watching it on TV,” says Johnson. He asked inside a nearby pub, only to be greeted with disbelief from the patrons that he, an American traveler, would stand any chance of finding a seat at the match.
One night later, his luck changed for the better despite facing nearly impossible odds. Over a 100,000 Scots had descended upon Manchester to support Glasgow’s Rangers in their UEFA Cup matchup with Zenit St. Petersburg.
Better Than Uecker Seats
By walking around the City of Manchester Stadium with a cardboard sign printed in both English and Russian, he scored a seat in the Zenit VIP section.
“I was sitting on the 50-yard line, one row below the Zenit president,” recalls Johnson. “Rangers fans had said a seat would cost 1,000 pounds; I ‘only’ paid 300. My spirits completely turned and I started thinking that anything was still possible.”
That was confirmed the following morning at Old Trafford and again three days later at Wembley.
As usual, the FA Cup Final was billed as sold out. Johnson and Smith tried anyway. A fellow with corporate tickets walked up, said his buddy’s car broke down. He had two extras. Net result: Two seats at midfield on the lip of the upper deck for 150 pounds each.
Accounting for Johnson’s success are two things: budget-wise, he comes prepared with cash; second, he’s got a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Rangers Gone Wild
In Manchester, his hunch about leaving the UEFA Cup moments early may have helped him avoid a run-in with an unruly mob. In the wake of a loss and a power failure at a big screen fan zone, some drunken Rangers fans rampaged through the streets before being met by riot police.
Earlier on that match day, Johnson experienced another close scrape. A pub ran out of beer by mid-afternoon and management began asking patrons to leave. Outside, it got ugly fast.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, people being hit by chairs, rocks thrown through windows,” says Johnson. “It was a small percentage of the Rangers fans, but these guys had come to beat-up on Manchester.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people were well-behaved and acted correctly,” he remembers. “I hung out with an older gentleman and his whole family, and they insisted I take away a Rangers scarf. They were awesome.”
Once landed in Moscow for the Champions League final, it was clear that security would not be an issue. Stern, uniformed personnel awaited arriving football fans in the airport customs area. A woman beside Johnson was admonished for leaning her arm on the counter.
“I thought, ‘Holy Mackerel! We’re in a different world here,” he says, “Clearly, we’re not in control; they are.”
Paying the Price
London is known to be expensive, however Moscow prices proved over the top. A cab ride across town to the hotel (albeit 80 minutes) was nearly $200. A drink was $22 and decent dinner $125-150. Hotel rooms, ahem…$1000 per night (that’s 18,500 rubles plus 600 more for pay TV) for Johnson and Smith.
Fortunately, their stay would be brief, the local sights less spendy and subway out to the stadium far more reasonable than a taxi.
Kickoff for Man United and Chelsea was 10:45 p.m. Johnson spent the day touring the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, Red Square and some of the beautiful cathedrals in Moscow. Come nightfall, he didn’t require coffee to stay awake for the match.
“That was as high as I’ve ever been for a match, just off-the-charts excitement,” he says. “We got there by 7, and when we found our seats, we just kept shaking our heads. We couldn’t believe we were there.”
The United sections of supporters erupted, first for Cristiano Ronaldo’s headed opener, then for John Terry’s missed penalty in the tiebreaker and, finally, for Edwin Van der Sar’s save off Nicolas Anelka to seal the victory.
“The fans, we were all going nuts. Being a Terry fan, I had some mixed emotions for a moment, but before you know it, here comes the players and Champions League trophy straight toward us! Unbelievable!”
To keep the rival supporters separate, the United throng was not allowed to leave until nearly 3 a.m., and Johnson arrived back at the hotel by 4.
Friday morning he awoke in Moscow at 6. His head would hit the pillow in Seattle at 7, local time, that night.
“I remember thinking, I can’t believe what we’d just experienced, and now here I was, back home. You know what? I think I’d like to do this every year, at least the FA Cup.”
Sweet dreams, indeed.