Why the second leg of the semi-final and not the final? I get that question all the time from friends and family.
The reason why is because I went to that magical match in Madrid.
Yes, the match where Diego Milito netted twice to give Inter their first European Cup since 1965. The match where the Nerazzurri became the first, and so far, only Italian side to win a Treble.
However it’s how I got there that left its mark, and likely took a few years out of me too. The opportunity to buy tickets to the final in Madrid didn’t happen after the triumph over Barcelona in the semi-finals. It came way back when Inter were paired with CSKA Moscow in the quarter-finals.
My girlfriend mentioned that a co-worker had gotten his hands on two tickets to the final but wasn’t keen to go, as he was eyeing a trip with his son to the Champions League and Europa League finals the following season as they were in London and Dublin respectively.
Now, at this point I had given almost no consideration to the fact that Inter could be in the final. Up to that point in my life the farthest they had gone in the Champions League was the semi-finals in 2002/03. It ended in a miserable exit to AC Milan on away goals.
Add in that the Nerazzurri’s last final appearance came way back in 1972, and I was coming around to the idea of a great trip to Spain – but one that likely wouldn’t involve Inter.
Instead, things started to fall into place as if by divine intervention. Inter eased past CSKA, but as a reward they were pitted with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semi-finals.
Now regarded as one of the best club teams of all time, I wasn’t exactly confident heading into the two-legged tie against Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and former Nerazzurri star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The fact they were defending champions only added to my anxiety.
That’s what made the 3-1 victory in the first leg all the more surprising, and put things into perspective: I was 90 minutes away from seeing Inter play in the Champions League final.
Little did I know that the return leg at the Camp Nou would be one of the most stressful viewing experiences of my life.
It all started when Goran Pandev was ruled out minutes before kick-off, with Christian Chivu brought in to replace him. What was already going to be a tough contest was made that much more difficult, and would set the scene for the defensive masterpiece that played out.
I had a hard time sitting during the match, and things got even worse when Thiago Motta was sent off in the 28th minute.
Already on a booking, the Brazilian was given a straight red card for grazing the face of Sergio Busquets with his hand while attempting to shield the ball from the Spaniard.
I say graze because Busquets went down in embarrassing and theatrical fashion, and Motta’s reaction following the dismissal – man-handling the Barca man out of anger and frustration – is a feeling I still have whenever I watch the replay.
From there Inter’s plans were obvious – defend deep – and when in doubt, defend even deeper.
Everyone from Diego Milito to Samuel Eto’o came back to protect the penalty area whenever needed, and when Barca did find a way through, like Messi in the 33rd minute, Julio Cesar was there to deny him.
The fact Barcelona ended the match with 86 percent possession says it all in terms of what kind of match it was for Inter fans. It was difficult, it was nerve-racking, it was overwhelming, but it was also inspired.
Having said that, it was too much for me to bear at some points. I spent most of the second half sitting behind my couch – yes, I said behind – because the minutes couldn’t tick away fast enough.
A place in the final, a chance to see Inter in Madrid in person, was on the line and the thought of that being taken away was too much to comprehend.
With 10 minutes to go I began to calm down somewhat, as I could see the finish line, only for Gerard Pique’s goal in the 84th minute to put me in a state of total mental overload.
I retreated behind the couch, and when Bojan Krkic thought he had made it 2-0 – only for the goal to be rightly called off – I felt the world melt away for a split second.
Once I came back to reality, I kept my composure as much as I could, and watched the final minutes play out in equal parts horror and delight.
When Lucio finally cleared the ball one last time and referee Frank de Bleeckere blew the final whistle, Jose Mourinho’s famous run on the pitch perfectly captured my feelings.
It actually happened. Inter were on their way to the Champions League final, and I was off to Madrid to see it in the flesh.
And the rest, as they say, is history.