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Finalissima 2022: The Cherry on top to end the season

With 'Finalissima', a new competition appeared on the international calendar: a match between the winner of the Copa America and the winner of the European Championship. A new prestigious prize or a practice game in disguise? We went to investigate.

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'No way!' The barman of The Butcher's Hook, the Chelsea pub opposite Stamford Bridge, looks at me in disbelief. A final at Wembley between Italy and Argentina? Never heard of it. Here in West London, the sale of Chelsea is the talk of the day. At least, on non match-days the pub where the club was founded is practically deserted. Fortunately, a couple of Argentines walked in to reinforce my story. Finalissima? Si!

Now, it's hard to say that London will be turned upside down for Finalissima 2022. The city is under the spell of Queen Elizabeth's upcoming jubilee next weekend. If it were up to the English, the season would be over. England's approaching Nations League matches are nothing more than a necessary evil at the end of the season. Let alone a match between two other countries for a cup that nobody knows.

Still, the initiative is quite nice, an attempt to revive the old Artemio Franchi Cup: a match between the winner of Copa America and the Euros, last played in 1993. Now, supported by UEFA and its South American sister CONMEBOL, it should be a success.

As if UEFA were not quite sure what to expect either, the tickets were offered for free sale in March out of the blue. They were also reasonably priced, with prices ranging from £25 to £55. It could have been worse, given the poster and the venue. They sold like hot cakes.

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For the Italians, it is no more than a way to plaster over the cracks. The sensational elimination from the World Cup in Qatar (with a goal from North Macedonia in injury time) is still fresh in the memory, and the Azzurri are back together for the first time since that blunder. On holy ground, that is, because 11 months ago they became European champions here at Wembley.

How different is it for the Argentines, who have the wind in their sails. The team are undefeated for almost three years, but in that period they have only played countries from their own continent. A showdown with a top European team with a cup at stake? Vamos.

How much the Argentine national team lives on in the population was already noticeable the evening before the match. In the heart of London, some 1000 Argentines took over Trafalgar Square with their chants and banners, and also on the match day, you don't have to look far to find Argentine fans. They are clearly in the majority, something that is remarkable at first glance, but there is something behind it. Their banners tell the story. Mallorca, Almeria, Roma: these are mainly 'European' Argentines. For the Argentine diaspora in Europe, this is the perfect opportunity to see their national team live for once and to win a prize as well. Although there are many more Italians living in London, it is much less exciting for them. The distance to their home country is shorter, and besides, Italy already played in London last summer.

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However, there are also Italian fans around Wembley. They are in Boxpark Wembley, a kind of event hall next to the stadium, with food stands and long bars. An obviously London DJ whips up the Italians with all the cliché Italian music you can think of, from 'A far l'amore comincia tu' to 'Volare' and of course the Italian national anthem, but it goes down like a treat.

At the other end of Wembley, the Argentines are having a party in their own way, just in the stadium square. A small orchestra stands in the middle of the crowd, practically invisible to the jumping and shirt-waving fans. In the evening sun, they sing about Messi, Maradona, and mock the English and Italy's failure to go to the World Cup.

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Once inside Wembley Stadium, which is always impressive, it is striking how many Argentines there are. At least two-thirds of the stadium are in favour for Argentina and the albiceleste can be seen in every block. After an obligatory opening ceremony and two impressive national anthems, Giorgio Chiellini receives a kind of oeuvre award before his last international match.

Friendliness all round, but then an entertaining match unfolds on the cutting edge, with Argentina dominating from minute one. Led by Lionel Messi, who is having one of his best nights. Before half time, he led the way, flanked by Lautaro Martínez and Angel di María, to a 2-0 lead. Italy had had enough and Robert Mancini started to make changes at will. It typifies the difference between the perception of both teams in this match. Argentina is sharper but also notices long before the final whistle that Italy is finished. When Paulo Dybala scores 3-0 in injury time, the party can really begin.

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And a party it really is. Substitutes come running out onto the pitch in no time. All the Argentine players are wearing their specially printed champion's shirts, and captain Messi is being cheered on by the entire team. When he receives the trophy after the Man of the Match award, a hurricane of noise breaks out at Wembley, whose archway now bears the colours of the Argentine flag. When Opus - Live is Life is started, in memory of that other great Argentine, the team celebrates with its supporters.

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Well after the final whistle, Rodrigo de Paul and Giovani lo Celso are still busy with scissors. They cut up the goal net at the West Stand and take it away as a souvenir. If there is any doubt that this is a real prize, this is the answer. Of course, Finalissima does not have the prestige of a European or a World Cup, but Argentina has shown it is worth fighting for. For a tournament or prize to resonate with football fans, players need to step up and show they are serious about it. Argentina has already set a good example. We look forward to the next one, hopefully in a fiery stadium somewhere in South America.

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Image: BSR Agency, SANTOS