Europe's Champions' League Final: Beauty vs. Money

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Jan Kruger / Getty Images

London's Wembley Stadium gets ready for the Champions League Final on May 24, 2011

If you want a hotel in London this weekend, good luck. With the always-popular Chelsea Flower Show in full bloom (ha!), hotel availability was already at a premium. But on May 28, the final of the European Champions League soccer competition will be played at Wembley Stadium, and fans — and corporate hospitality departments — are taking over the town. London's never cheap, but the demand has pushed the rate for quite ordinary hotel rooms up to more than $600 a night.

The Final is a big deal. Measuring the size of audiences for sports events is a notoriously imprecise art — how do you count people watching the game in a pub or on a big screen in a town square? — and when the game is an international attraction, the calculations just get harder. All that said, there's every reason to suppose that May 28 will see the most-watched sports game between two club sides in history.

That's partly because of the identity of the clubs. Barcelona and Manchester United have two of the biggest and most international fan bases in the world, with loyal supporters everywhere from Manhattan (the game will be carried live on U.S. TV) to Mumbai and Manila. When the two teams met in a Champions League final in 2009, sports-business analysts reckoned that the game, for the first time, attracted more live TV viewers around the world than the NFL's Super Bowl. And this year the audience will be bigger still.

More so than in 2009, Barca and United are now the two best soccer teams in the world, and people want to see them play. The awkward truth is that the standard of soccer played in the Champions League is better and more exciting than that normally on offer at the quadrennial World Cup, the world's biggest sporting event. Last year's World Cup Final was dire, capping a tournament that — however happy a mood it was played in, thanks to its South African hosts — was rarely thrilling.

But at their best, both Barca and United play stunning soccer, of very different styles – Barca weaving intricate triangles of passes through the center of the field of play, United attacking with speed, fast breaks, and using the full width of the field. In Lionel Messi, who plays as a withdrawn center forward, Barca has the man who is by common consent the greatest footballer of his generation; in Wayne Rooney, who will very likely adopt a similar position for United, tucked in behind the Mexican phenom Javier Hernandez, the English team has a man, who when on song, is one of Messi's few rivals.

Calling United "English," of course, is a matter of shorthand. Manchester is indeed in England, and United have just won the English Premier League. But the club is owned by Americans (the Glazer family, who also own the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and managed — don't you ever forget it — by a Scot, Alex Ferguson. The 11 players who are likely to start on Saturday come (from back to front) from The Netherlands; Brazil, Serbia, England, France; Ecuador, England, Wales, South Korea; England and Mexico. Barca has not stood apart from the globalization of soccer — otherwise Messi, an Argentine, would not be in the team — but its side, to a remarkable extent in the modern age, has as its core men who grew up playing the game in Catalonia and were spotted by Barca's legendary youth-development program.

It's enough to make the mouth water — and to dig deep into pockets for a ticket. The top official ticket price for the final is just short of $500, but if you don't have one already, you'll have to pay a lot more than that. In London the day before the game, websites were advertising nosebleed seats for some $3,000, and there were reports that some touts were asking $12,000 for a ticket — a lot of money to pay given that no amount of dosh will save you from the always miserable trek out to the stadium in northwest London, whether you go by car (don't) or tube (do — but be prepared to feel like a cooked sardine.)

The game's in the "new" Wembley Stadium, a stunning piece of architecture finished late, amid a blizzard of lawsuits, in 2007. The old Wembley — the Empire Stadium — held five European finals. Two of them were won by English clubs; United, in 1968 beating Benfica of Lisbon, and Liverpool defeating FC Brugge in 1978. (I was there. Souness to Dalglish? I can still see it.)

As against that home-nation advantage for United, two years ago, when they met in Rome, Barca comprehensively outplayed — and out thought — Ferguson's team, which is why they are clear favorites with the bookies. But this is a pretty great United side, coming into top form at just the right moment. My money's on Nemanja Vidic, United's Serb center back and captain, holding aloft the famous "big ears" trophy when all is done. The important thing: Wherever you are and whatever you're doing Saturday evening, London time, don't miss the game.