If Manchester City wins the Champions League title on Saturday, it will be mission complete for the Abu Dhabi-backed club (Pic: AFP)
It was called the 'Miracle of Istanbul' the last time the Champions League final was in Turkey. It has taken nearly two decades to miraculously bring the game back. Istanbul was supposed to host the 2020 Champions League final. It didn't happen. Then the 2021 final. Also didn't happen.
Finally, though, Istanbul's time has come again Â¿ 18 years after Liverpool somehow overcame AC Milan's 3-0 first-half lead to win the iconic European Cup trophy on penalties.
On Friday, the city was dressed in the indigo-themed "Istanbul 23" flags, and banners on streets, bridges and in metro stations welcomed the Inter Milan and Manchester City teams and fans arriving for Saturday's title match.
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At a waterside park in the Yenikapi port district, on the European side of the city looking across the Bosphorus Strait to Asia, concerts and DJ performances started Thursday at a free Fan Festival site.
"The city is vibrant with the Champions League," Turkish soccer federation president Mehmet BÃ¼yÃ¼keksi told The Associated Press through an interpreter on Friday.
For Turkey and its soccer hotbed city, the three-year delay is almost forgotten.
The "patience, enthusiasm, devotion and warm welcome" from the host country was praised by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.
"You waited for this moment too long, and I want you to enjoy this occasion as much as the players and fans from both clubs," Ceferin wrote in the match program.
UEFA said its Foundation for Children charity donated and distributed surplus merchandise to other countries through NGOs and projects it works with.
Back in 2020, the coronavirus outbreak was formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11 hours before Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain hosted Champions League games.
Six days later, when UEFA postponed the 2020 European Championship, soccer across the continent had shut down. There was talk Istanbul could still host the Champions League final, plus the semifinals as single games.
That proved optimistic. In mid-June, UEFA would decide on sending the eight eventual quarterfinalists to Lisbon for a mini-tournament in August with no fans and almost completely empty stadiums. Man City had to wait until Aug. 7 to host and beat Real Madrid in the round of 16 Â¿ more than five months after the first leg in Spain.
The timeline was even tighter in May 2021 when the Turkish soccer federation and Istanbul prepared to host a final with about 10,000 fans in the 72,000-capacity Ataturk Olympic Stadium.
On Saturday, the Ataturk Olympic Stadium will be full, including at least 20,000 fans from each club to create a real hosting experience once again.
(With AP inputs)