The UEFA Champions League Final claims to be the world’s biggest annual sporting event by global audience. It’s normally held in very large cities such as London, Rome and Istanbul. Cardiff, by contrast, is one of the smallest cities to have hosted the event with a population of just 350,000. So what would the city be like to visit when the Champions League came to town? Would there be any point in visiting for those without tickets? Would there be a family friendly atmosphere? Not living too far away, gave me a great chance to find out.
Cardiff is unusual in that its stadium is slap bang in the city centre, having the prominence you’d expect of a cathedral in other European cities. The Cathedral is tucked away a couple of miles out of town. That might say something about Welsh priorities, where rugby – the sport usually played at the stadium – is very close to the soul. It also means anyone visiting the centre can’t really escape noticing if something big is happening at the national stadium. It has a tendency to take over the city, much to the delight of hoteliers, restaurant and bar owners. The first sign that something was afoot came a few days before when a mysterious blue dragon landed on the castle with a giant trophy.
Inside the castle, a UEFA hospitality village was being assembled, perhaps a little more grand than the usual tents in car parks at out of town stadiums. I cycled through Bute Park, Pontcanna and Llandaff fields, part of the city’s extensive parklands. A large tented village had been built near the campsite, complete with bar and tv screens. Despite worries about a lack of accommodation available in Cardiff, I understand the tents did not sell out.
2 days before the final, a fan festival opened in Cardiff Bay. With recent terrorist attacks, security was tight, but delays minimal as I arrived without a bag to search. At the entrance, I noticed the trophy appeared to have grown!
Inside the village, all the sponsors had tents. Pepsi were giving away soft drinks, Carlsberg were selling beer, there were various football related attractions and a novelty haircut stand, as well as competition giveaways. There were queues of people waiting to have their photo taken with the real trophy. The Wales Millennium Centre had an exhibition relating to the Champions League, including signed shirts by many of the world’s top players.
CL related children’s activities were also available, including a quiz where they had to look around the exhibition to find the answers. Fans of both finalists- Real Madrid and Juventus- were there but most people were local, including many families. The biggest attraction at the fan festival was the floating 5 aside pitch that had been assembled on the water. The day before the final, a legends game was due to take place. A crowd estimated at 15,000 jostled for position along the quayside, including many excited youngsters. Stewards were constantly intervening to get people down from dangerously high perches. With such a huge audience, it was difficult to see how the players would get through to the pitch. The answer soon became obvious. A boat sailed towards us from across the bay and docked next to the playing surface. Many of the greatest names in football disembarked. Brazilian World Cup winners Cafu and Carlos, Dutch masters Gullit and Seedorf, Real CL winners Figo and McManaman, local lads Giggs and Rush. I was particularly pleased to see 4 Liverpool players in the mix and there were many others. It was like a boys own dream, but to avoid being sexist I must point out there were also many female fans watching in awe.
A DJ played a set right through the game, which I found a little off-putting. On the plus side, he did get a good Mexican wave going all around the bay! After the game, many of the stars made guest appearances on the stands, signing autographs and posing for selfies with fans. Children in particular enthusiastically joined the queues.
In the evening, I moved on to the city centre to meet up with friends. While the fan village had been packed, the centre was quieter than expected, no busier than a normal Friday night. Most supporters were to arrive by air the following morning with a minority making a full weekend of it. It was interesting to note the queues outside the Welsh pantry were greater than at bars. The Spanish and Italian visitors were clearly after a taste of Wales! The highlight of the evening for me was seeing Steven Gerrard walking down the street with Steve McManaman. Apparently they later bumped into Cristiano Ronaldo in town signing autographs for fans– unusual the night before such a major game. If we’d stayed out later, we might have had a drink with Will-i-am and the Black Eyed Peas. CL Final weekend seems to be like that, especially in a small place like Cardiff – you never know who you might run into.
I didn’t go to town on the actual day of the final, which was much busier than the day before with a great influx of fans from the competing teams. That might have been a more gruelling experience. However, I have to say that the city put on a good show for the occasion. The Fan Festival was great and enjoyed by young and old, locals and visitors alike.
Visiting a city on Champions League Final weekend can work out well, even for families. Needless to say, if you have no interest in football, it might be best to arrange your city break for some other time!
Cardiff is the capital of Wales in the UK, lying about 150 miles west of London
The UEFA Champions League Final is held in a different city each year. The 2018 final will be in Kiev, Ukraine.
For information on Cardiff and accommodation, click here