MADRID (AP) — When UEFA president Michel Platini hands the Champions League trophy to either Inter Milan or Bayern Munich on Saturday, plenty of people will feel a twinge of disappointment that the shiny, big-handled cup is not going to another, arguably more deserving team.
But they will be wrong.
Neither Inter nor Bayern has the soccer beauty of Barcelona, last year's champion and this year's favorite before floundering on the rocks of Inter's defense. Nor are they as star-studded as Real Madrid or as globally recognized as Manchester United. And depending on your point of view, the bloated self-confidence of Bayern and Inter coaches Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho is either funny or nauseating.
Nevertheless, after 90 minutes of soccer at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium — or more if the crowd of 75,000 is lucky enough to get extra time — either Inter or Bayern will rightly be able to say that they are Europe's top club. Not the most graceful or exciting to watch, nor the most lovable, richest or the most popular, but still the champions, the undisputed kings of this season. That makes them deserving of respect and as worthy as anyone, no matter what one thinks about them or their soccer.
It's true that their encounter does not have the "Clash of the Titans" feel of last year's final between Barcelona and United, both bigger names than the champions of Italy and Germany. Nor does the match promise the spree of goals seen, say, in this year's quarterfinals between Barcelona and Arsenal, which play freer-flowing soccer than van Gaal and Mourinho's carefully drilled and scripted sides. But what Inter and Bayern have also proved on their gritty, somewhat improbable and at times lucky trek to the final is that, ultimately, only winning matters, not winning with style.
When Barcelona beat United 2-0 to be champions last year, the players were the stars, for both good reasons and bad. Lionel Messi scored a stratospheric header, while Cristiano Ronaldo was a United disappointment.
This year, the managers promise to steal the show. That's because they tend to overshadow everyone with their loud mouths backed up and justified by their admirable records of success. One of them will win the Champions League for a second time Saturday and with a different club from their first time. That is a feat as remarkable as it is rare: only two other managers have turned more than one team into champions of Europe in the 53 years that clubs have contested for that title.
For van Gaal, victory might help him keep winger Franck Ribery next season and attract other marquee players to Bayern. For self-proclaimed "Special One" Mourinho, winning could be his ticket to a job at Real Madrid should he chose to quit Italian soccer, where the level of appreciation for him has not always matched his own large sense of self-worth.
A few other thoughts:
— No matter what Mourinho says, this match is not more important than the World Cup. Mourinho, great motivator that he is, may have told his players that. But they will also know that the World Cup final in South Africa on July 11 will be bigger still. Mourinho rightly says that the quality of Champions League soccer can be unbeatable, because it's played by the best squads that money can buy. But World Cup emotions are higher. Played on the world stage, soccer becomes a form of national expression. That's not true of the Champions League.
— Nothing personal against Real Madrid, but it is perhaps not a bad thing for soccer that it didn't reach the final being played in its stadium. Had Madrid been crowned champions this year, it would have been viewed as a victory for the idea that all it takes to succeed in soccer is money, lots of money, euro250 million (then $364 million) to be precise.
That was the prince's ransom splurged by Madrid last year on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and other recruits who were meant to bring instant trophies. While wealth is vital for victory in soccer, it is not everything — at least not yet.
Lyon, France's richest side, proved that in ousting the even wealthier Madrid from this year's competition.
— In midfielder Wesley Sneijder and winger Arjen Robben, both Inter and Bayern have players who could set this final alight. Sneijder's ability to spot and make goal-creating passes can be stunning. And few goals this season were better than Robben's volley that sank United in the quarterfinals.
But keep a special eye Saturday on Samuel Eto'o. With a goal for Inter, Eto'o would become the first player to score in three Champions League finals. He previously hit the net in Barcelona's victories against Arsenal in 2006 and against United last year. That Barca subsequently got rid of Eto'o now looks like folly.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org