Soccer

Passionate fan support guaranteed during infrequent home Champions League matches for Newcastle, Lens, and Union Berlin.

This week, as Newcastle and Lens prepare to host their first home games in the Champions League after a hiatus of more than two decades, they can anticipate enthusiastic receptions from their famously passionate crowds.

Meanwhile, Union Berlin is set to make its inaugural appearance in the Champions League at the borrowed 75,000-seat Olympic Stadium, a venue that promises to be electric as the team continues its remarkable journey from the German third division just over a decade ago.

To the passionate supporters of these three clubs, the notion that the Champions League group-stage format, which will be replaced next year, had become dull and predictable is a tough sell.

Newcastle, Lens, and Union Berlin were far removed from the discussions surrounding the ill-fated European Super League in 2021. While club owners behind that venture sought greater wealth and control over their own competitions, these clubs remained focused on earning their place in the Champions League and relishing the opportunity to compete on the European stage.

Two years ago, Newcastle was enduring a bleak winless streak while languishing in the relegation zone of the Premier League.

The Champions League has successfully navigated the threat of the closed-shop Super League and now boasts the participation of long-absent teams and a newcomer that earned its spot – finishing fourth in the Premier League, securing runner-up position in France’s Ligue 1, and claiming fourth place in the Bundesliga.

On Wednesday, Newcastle will showcase to Kylian Mbappé and Paris Saint-Germain the electrifying atmosphere generated by 52,000 fans at St. James’ Park.

On Tuesday, Lens will host Arsenal at Stade Bollaert-Delelis, where the seating capacity of 38,000 exceeds the town’s population.

Union is utilizing the Olympic Stadium, which was the venue for the 2015 Champions League final, because their smaller home ground, Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House), cannot accommodate their Group C home games. They kick off their campaign on Tuesday against Braga.

Club president Dirk Zingler explained to club members, “We envisioned a Champions League accessible to all Unioners, and we will make every effort to ensure that as many people as possible can afford to attend these games.”

This temporary relocation takes the club from former East Germany to the western part of once-divided Berlin.

Napoli and Real Madrid will also pay a visit to Union later, with the group favorites facing off for the first time on Tuesday at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Only a handful of clubhouses, aged a century or more, still serve as venues for Champions League matches. Even rarer are those that experienced a gap of over 60 years between hosting games in Europe’s premier club competition.

This Wednesday, Royal Antwerp will be hosting Shakhtar Donetsk at the Bosuil Stadium, the same location where the club has been playing since 1923.

Back in October 1957, a staggering 45,000 fans, many of them standing on steep, curved terraces, gathered at what was once known as the “Hell of Deurne” to witness defending champions Real Madrid secure a 2-1 victory in a European Cup first-round, first-leg match.

Antwerp’s prolonged wait for another home game finally ended in August during the qualifying playoffs, with just over 13,000 spectators seated in the compact stands witnessing a 1-0 triumph over AEK Athens.

Nevertheless, Bosuil is not the oldest stadium site to witness Champions League action this week. On Tuesday, Manchester United will host Galatasaray at Old Trafford, a venue they moved to 113 years ago. On Wednesday, Celtic will welcome Lazio to Parkhead, where the Scottish champions have been playing for 131 years, since 1892.

SAUDI ARABIA vs QATAR

The upcoming match between Newcastle and PSG, marking their inaugural encounter in European competition, highlights a clash of sovereign wealth between nation states.

The host team is predominantly owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, holding an 80% stake, while the visitors are entirely possessed by Qatar Sports Investments.

In the 32-team Champions League, there are now three teams under state ownership due to Manchester City’s majority ownership by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Additionally, Qatar’s QSI holds a substantial nearly-22% stake in Braga, making it a fourth team with state-related ties.

Newcastle experienced a significant transformation in the Premier League following the Saudi takeover nearly two years ago. The initial purchase price of £300 million ($365 million) now appears to be a remarkable bargain.

REMATCHES

In March, Erling Haaland netted five goals during Manchester City’s 7-0 victory over Leipzig in the second leg of the round of 16.

This Wednesday, Leipzig will be the host for the defending champions, who secured a 3-1 win over Red Star Belgrade two weeks ago without Haaland’s scoring prowess.

On Tuesday, Inter Milan, who eliminated Benfica in the quarterfinals last season but lost in the final, will host the Portuguese champions.

OLD HAND PEPE

If Porto’s captain, Pepe, makes a historic appearance against Barcelona on Wednesday, European soccer has the potential to bridge the generation gap. At the age of 40 years and 220 days on Wednesday, Pepe has the opportunity to become the oldest outfield player to ever participate in the European Cup or Champions League.

Only a select few goalkeepers, such as Gianluigi Buffon, would have a higher age record in the annals of this competition.

When Pepe made his Champions League debut in September 2004, Barcelona’s budding 16-year-old sensation, Lamine Yamal, was still almost three years away from being born. Gavi was a mere six weeks old, and Pedri was about to celebrate his second birthday.

In the last match, Pepe led the way as captain in Porto’s 3-1 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk, while Barcelona kicked off their campaign with a resounding 5-0 triumph over Antwerp.

Currently, the oldest outfield player in the competition’s 68-year history is AC Milan’s defender Alessandro “Billy” Costacurta, who played in a 1-0 defeat to AEK Athens in November 2006 when he was 40 years and 211 days old.

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