In retrospect, it’s always worth reiterating how preposterous it felt, Chelsea winning the Champions League in 2012. A sort of “did that really happen?” moment, for good and bad depending on your club affiliation or particular inclination.
From the semifinal that introduced the world to Gary Neville’s co-commentary scoregasm to managerial changes mid-season leaving the inexperienced, endearing Roberto di Matteo in charge: it makes no sense.
The stats in Munich, at the Allianz, are silly. A small matter of 43 shots for the German team to Chelsea’s 9. A mirror image on the foul count, Chelsea doubling the Bavarians’ 14. But 80 minutes in it was still, somehow, 0–0. Then Thomas Müller scored a very Thomas Müller goal, heading into the ground, and then did an even more Thomas Müller celebration, losing his nut in every direction before being wrestled to the ground by his teammates.
Viewers around the world assumed that this was it. The end of Chelsea’s resistance. The trophy was Bayern’s. Then, in the 89th minute, Drogba absolutely neck-pumped a header past Manuel Neuer in goal and Chelsea resumed service, shutting out their opponents through a stressful extra time and winning on pens. Modern history made, a lot of happy Blues.
But what if Drogba missed? Or, more likely, Neuer got his rock-hard hand up a bit faster and palmed the header over? It’s one of those goals that had a butterfly effect—on Chelsea’s outlook, signings, and success, but also on the league and teams around them.
Chelsea’s alternate realities
One of the most immediate consequences can still be found on Twitter. Just a week later, Eden Hazard, courted all over Europe after his scintillating form led Lille to the title in France, announced his new team in the following undeniably dickish manner.
I'm signing for the champion's league winner.— Eden Hazard (@hazardeden10) May 28, 2012
It looks like Eden’s decision was glory-based, and a losing finalist isn’t quite so tempting. Chelsea without Hazard for the last five years would be a terrifying thought to many fans. But getting back into the game in Munich changed so much else—everyone knew Abramovich was in this for the biggest trophy in the game. Winning it was both his top priority and, potentially, his great release.
Rumours have flown in the last few years that Roman’s interest in Chelsea is waning, from Israeli citizenships to seemingly diminishing transfer investments. This prompts the idea that if Chelsea failed to get past Bayern at the final hurdle, two scenarios emerge:
i) Roman, furious at the loss, fucks it all off. He’s done with shitty England, he’s out of here, find yourself your own billions, Chelsea.
ii) Taunted by the near-miss, Roman decides that being rich is overrated if you don’t have a big trophy to show for it, and ploughs even more into the club, creating a quasi-Real Madrid of the British Isles. All other clubs bow before them.
These are both dystopias, depending on your alignment, and there may have been more pedestrian middle grounds, but Drogba’s header has the feel of an era-defining goal for Chelsea.
Spurs take centre stage
The most comically celebrated consequence of Chelsea’s late revival and win came across London at White Hart Lane. Tottenham watched in horror as Didier nutted it home—a Chelsea win would see them fall victim to yet another “peak Spurs” moment. A daft rule, already changing for the next season, would throw them out of the Champions League for the subsequent year, despite coming fourth, by limiting the number of teams from each league in the draw. Chelsea, sixth-placed, clinched it on pens, and Redknapp’s boys must have been genuinely furious.
Fast forward a few months. Gareth Bale has jollied off to Madrid following lovely Luka Modrić, citing Champions League football as one of the (many) reasons for his choice. ‘Arry has been replaced by young up-and-comer and already slightly fraud-looking André Villas-Boas, and Spurs are splurging their Gareth money on a variety of misfits. While the spine was solid—Lloris, Vertonghen, Dembélé, and Eriksen—few others would go on to establish themselves, with the spectre of Roberto Soldado still hanging over anyone brave enough to sign a Natural Born Goal Scorer from abroad.
Despite the immediate benefit of Champions League qualification, one scary reality—and one rosier—looms for Spurs if Drogba’s goal doesn’t go in:
i) ‘Arry has guided them to the biggest stage and now he’s unfireable. They avoid the Villas-Boas time-sink, but their style doesn’t evolve, and they stick with Redknapp’s old favourites, re-signing Peter Crouch when they can, extending Niko Kranjčar’s contract indefinitely. By the time a certain Poch is impressing at Saints, Redknapp is so ingrained in the club that there’s not much question of replacing him. He literally never leaves.
ii) Spurs hit The Big Time. Bale is convinced to stay but, as a top-five player in the world, persuades Daniel Levy that fresh ideas are needed, and the managerial search begins. Villas-Boas follows, but when he goes south the players, including a now talismanic Bale and Modrić, refuse to countenance Tim Sherwood’s neolithic ideas. Pochettino is the man, and they poach him with mid-season impatience. The emergence of Harry Kane is the spark they need to win a league title in some style.
Dortmund’s ascendance and Liverpool’s loss
Another club was victimised by Drogba nicking it away from Bayern in their home stadium, though. Twelve months later Jürgen Klopp’s effervescent Borussia Dortmund ran into Bayern, their greatest rivals, in the final. Bayern bore the scars of the previous year’s loss and made it count. With the game at Wembley drawn in the final moments, Robben scuffed in a finish to exorcise demons and win the trophy his team felt (knew) they deserved.
The fallout from the final wasn’t immediate, but it felt like a peak for Klopp’s team, one reached just a little too early. At the end of a decent next season, star man Robert Lewandowski packs up for Bayern, a cruel demonstration of Dortmund’s limitations, and within six months of that Klopp announces his impending resignation after a string of disastrous results...
It was widely observed that Bayern’s determination to win had something to do with the manner of their loss to Chelsea. Say they don’t lose to Chelsea: The point of divergence might come in the first knockout round in early 2013, when Arsenal came so close to getting past them, losing on away goals. An imperceptibly less-motivated Bayern slip up and let the Londoners past.
All of a sudden, Arsenal are flying, Wenger rolling back the years, and skip through to the final. Their silky style, though, doesn’t meet well with Dortmund’s high press and energy. They’re the perfect team for Klopp’s boys, and Dortmund run out winners, finally bringing the big-eared beauty back to the Signal Iduna Park.
Klopp, satiated, relaxes into his role. Players like Lewandowski and Götze see no reason to leave given their successes. Bundesliga titles follow, their team ever strengthened and money flooding in, and Klopp becomes even more of a living legend in the city. Then, in 2015, with Liverpool on the lookout for a new manager, he politely tells them that he might have loved to come, in another time, another life, but he’s committed to his club for the foreseeable. Sorry, lads.
These are just the broad strokes. When you get thinking about the butterfly effect in football, the mind can boggle. But Didier’s header in Munich does have the feeling of goal touched by destiny, doesn’t it?
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