The official estimates had seemed inflated, deliberately aggrandized, exaggerated for dramatic effect, right up until the planes started landing and the streets started filling. Some 50,000 fans were making their way to Seville, Spain, in the midst of a blistering spring heat wave, from Germany. Twice that number were traveling from Scotland.
They came every way they could imagine, by land and by air, by hook and by crook. Flights had sold out so quickly that dozens more were chartered; some 400 aircraft touched down in Seville on Tuesday alone.
Those who could not make it directly got as close as possible — to Malaga, 150 miles south, or to Faro, across the border in Portugal — and continued their journey however they could. When those tickets disappeared as well, a handful of fans contacted a hot-air balloon company in Glasgow and asked if they could float them to the south of Spain. The firm assumed it was a joke. It was not. Nobody wanted to miss the Europa League final, not this time.
Ordinarily, the conclusion of European soccer’s secondary competition — the Champions League’s little sibling — is a relatively sedate affair, contested between teams that see it either as a consolation prize or as a means to an end; victory, after all, means a chance to participate in club soccer’s main event the next season.
For Eintracht Frankfurt and Rangers, though, it was different. Eintracht has long defined itself by its exploits in European soccer, particularly this tournament. It won the competition under its previous name, the plain old UEFA Cup, in 1980 — Eintracht’s last European final — and it has yearned to repeat the trick ever since.
In April, the club took so many fans to Barcelona for a quarterfinal match that the Spanish team launched an internal investigation into how quite so many of them were able to acquire tickets. Xavi Hernández, Barcelona’s coach, complained afterward that the visiting fans’ presence had made the Camp Nou feel like enemy territory.
For Rangers, meanwhile, this was somewhere between an arrival and an ascension. Since the club last made the final of this tournament — losing to Zenit St. Petersburg in Manchester, England, in 2008 — it has been, depending on whom you ask, either liquidated and reestablished or relegated and reformed.
Less than a decade ago, Rangers was reduced to playing in Scotland’s semiprofessional fourth tier as a punishment for years of financial mismanagement and chicanery. Only last season was it restored to the pinnacle of Scottish soccer, depriving its bitter rival Celtic of the country’s title for the first time in 10 years. A place in one of Europe’s major finals on Wednesday night was the completion of that journey, proof that a team that claims to be the most garlanded in world soccer had finally, conclusively returned.
That prospect drew fans, by the tens of thousands, to what Police Scotland believed was to be the “biggest gathering” that tranquil, convivial Seville had ever seen. That was not without its risks, of course: There were some 5,000 police officers on duty on Wednesday, and Rangers took the unusual step of asking several of its most beloved alumni to plead with fans to act as “good ambassadors” for the club.
The result, inside the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, was ear-splitting and eye-catching. At one end, where Eintracht’s fans gathered, a sea of white was wrapped in the fog of flares. The rest of the stands were dominated by the blue of Rangers.
The stadium seemed to lift when Joe Aribo gave Rangers the lead. The roar when Rafael Borré equalized might have been heard in Frankfurt, where 50,000 more Eintracht fans had filled the club’s stadium to watch the game live. It took penalties, in the end, to separate the teams, to determine which set of fans would remember this journey as a holiday and which a calvary.
Aaron Ramsey, the experienced Rangers midfielder, missed. Borré, nerveless, sealed victory — 5-4 in the shootout after a 1-1 tie — for Eintracht.
The fans knew that might happen, of course. They knew that someone would leave Seville with nothing but regret. They made the journey anyway, however they could, carried along by the hope that it would not be them.