When Diego slammed in Madrid’s third goal to ensure the trophy headed back to Madrid for the second time in three years at the expense of Bilbao, the Brazilian wheeled away and dropped to his knees in tears.
In the other half of the pitch, Bilbao’s gifted 19-year-old midfielder Iker Muniain, who had been a man possessed in his attempts to get his side back into the game before Diego killed it off, dropped face down to the turf with his head in his hands and bawled his eyes out.
It was an unashamed outcry of emotion from both men, and when the final whistle went the majority of Muniain’s team-mates were also unable to stop themselves from breaking down.
The English sides that have ‘graced’ this competition in recent years, barring Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in 2010, have never given it its due respect nor held it in any high esteem.
Just this season, Tottenham Hotspur treated their Thursday nights as outings for the reserves with the chase for a Champions League spot clearly prioritised, while Manchester United and Manchester City underestimated their last-16 opponents, Bilbao and Sporting.
The two Manchester clubs had their eyes on a bigger prize as they battled for the Premier League title, but the way they brushed off their second humiliating eliminations from Europe this season smacked of contempt.
‘It doesn’t bother us’ was the attitude that emanated from both camps, and their fans and our national media echoed it.
But the ecstasy on the faces and heard it in the voices of the Madrid fans, and equally the despair of the Bilbao supporters, you would know this competition is more than a throwaway.
Just ask Radamel Falcao how much it meant to him to become the first man to win the Uefa Cup/Europa League in successive years having also triumphed with Porto last season, taking his tally in the competition to 29 goals in 29 games with a sumptuous double in the final.
The Bilbao players couldn’t hide their tears as they collected their runners-up medals with pats on the back from Michel Platini and it was obvious they felt they had let down their fans as they desperately saw their chance of a first trophy since 1984 slip away.
Marcelo Bielsa has a vastly talented, young squad with the likes of Muniain, Fernando Llorente and Javi Martínez at his disposal, and if he can keep them together they will grace plenty of other finals, starting with their Copa del Rey clash with Barcelona on 25 May.
But there was a sense that the Bilbao players they felt this was their big chance to win something together before the inevitable big money bids come in from Europe’s heavyweights to break up the side, and that would be a sadder prospect than losing any final.
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