How Manchester United’s Champions League victory in 1999 inspired my approach to life
They were a team that never lost, they merely ran out of time
I was just 12 years old when it happened.
I was just a kid growing up in Asia, specifically, in a tiny island state called Singapore. It was way past my bed time when the game was played. European games typically started at 3:45am and lasted till the wee hours when it would soon be time for us to wake up blearily and prepare for school.
It was a time before live sports on TV became such exorbitantly commercial affairs and European Champions League matches were still being broadcast over free to air channels in Singapore.
I remember waking up near the start of the second half and my plan was to sneak into the living room and watch the match. I wasn't expecting my dad to already be on the sofa, watching the match.
I was the soccer fan at home, my dad was never a fan, at least not of European football, but he displayed a passion for the Singapore National Team and for being a witness to some of their games in regional competitions within the comfort of home via live telecasts of games — especially in games where we were battling our neighbors up north. The Singapore — Malaysia encounters were often passionate affairs.
He might have had a friendly wager with a colleague that day or perhaps he was also meant to witness something magical.
Growing up, I was a Manchester United fan and would mimic David Beckham’s way of striking the ball when we played the game during recess or afterschool— curling it with the inside of the right foot, while simultaneously stretching out the left arm in a near 45 degree angle while allowing the right shoulder to hang loose by the side.
My family knew about my growing appreciation for Manchester United and for playing the game during recess and after school with my classmates. We also kicked about before class and I remember a whole bunch of us kicking a tennis ball on a basketball court before 7:20am in the morning of school days.
I saved up my limited pocket money and bought copies of the official Manchester United magazine from time to time. I actually got two autographs from Phil Neville after writing something in to one of their ‘Ask Phil’ segments on two separate occasions.
It was Manchester United’s first appearance in the Champions League Final since its last European Cup triumph in 1968 under Sir Matt Busby. It was a big deal for me as a young supporter of Manchester United and I had wanted to witness the game live on TV.
I was not expecting to see my dad in the living room when I snuck out, but fortunately, he did not force me to go back to bed.
I wanted United to win. The minutes were ticking down and they didn't seem to be getting much of a sniff at goal. It seemed like they were going to lose in the Final and fall short of completing a historic Treble by adding the Champions League title to their Premier League title, the FA Cup.
They were losing for over 90 minutes out of 90 minutes of regulation time and they were heading towards the last few added minutes of injury time.
Then, it happened. The most magical of moments taking place in a little less than 3 minutes right after yet another near scare as Carsten Jancker hit the crossbar with his effort.
The fourth official held up the board, indicating 3 minutes of injury time. A mere 180 seconds stood between Bayern Munich and the glory of lifting the trophy.
Decorative ribbons in the Bavarian team’s colors were already being tied onto the Champions League Trophy in anticipation of a trophy presentation to Bayern Munich.
Manchester United forced a corner and their custodian, The Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel came all the way up to the opposing penalty box to try and force something from the corner.
Can Manchester United score? They always score said the Commentator, referencing to the legend of United in coming back from behind in the dying minutes of the game to breath new life into an almost lost cause.
David Beckham floated it into the box. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but Teddy Sheringham got a foot in and the ball went over the line. The impossible has started. Sheringham’s goal was clocked at 90:36.
The United team collected the ball and ran back to their own half, willing the German side to kick off and to play out the remaining 2 minutes on the clock. Less than 30 seconds later, United got another corner and that was when the impossible was completed and history was made.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got on the end of yet another David Beckham corner via a Teddy Sheringham knock down, and his extended foot came in contact with the ball and booted it into the roof of the Bayern Munich net.
It was a surreal moment to be a witness to.
Bayern Munich were crushed — their players visibly distraught and in disbelief as United players celebrated a historic treble and the most magical of comebacks ever. It was perhaps the most dramatic way to win in a final.
As a young fan, I was fortunate to have witnessed a magical moment like that, from halfway across the world. Admittedly, I have tried to refresh my memory by searching for highlights of that amazing game online.
I have continued my support of Manchester United and keeping tabs on their progress over the years, mostly through newspapers and in recent years, via websites like Soccernet.com and the official Manchester United site, especially when live telecasts became only available over cable TV.
It was only recently that I came to realize how that magical comeback win in 1999 had a much larger influence on my life than I had been aware of.
I was preparing to do a talk on ‘Unfair Competition’ and I found myself referencing the famous win of 1999 in Barcelona as I related it as an example of how we can apply the cheat code of ‘CannotLose’ in our lives.
It was a terrifyingly simple idea that if we choose to believe that we cannot lose, we will never end up as a loser because in spite of whatever the result might be at this point in time, as long as we choose to believe that we can overcome the odds that are stacked against us, to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past and to do our very best at doing a darn good job at getting a win the next time we have a chance to win — and win big, then, we have a chance of getting that win for ourselves eventually and become a winner in life.
As I thought about it, that was when I stumbled upon the beauty and romanticism of what my childhood experience of watching Manchester United launch a comeback win against Bayern Munich on that fateful night in 1999 really meant.
It was one of those imprints that got seared into my head without me being too aware of it when it first got imprinted.
The team of 1999, were a team that had such strong, steely resolve, determination and belief in their ability to win in spite of overwhelming odds, in spite of what the clock might say, that they were said to be a team that never lost. They merely ran out of time.
It was because of that belief and their persistence in continuing to create chance after chance even when time was quickly ticking away that helped put them in a position where they were able to create a magical moment like that and to pen in their own remarkable chapter in sporting history.
Growing up, there were many people who would say that United were lucky to win the Champions League and complete a previously unprecedented treble. They were not respected for their dominance in Europe and their second European triumph was even regarded as extremely fortunate or a ‘fluke’.
I don’t think there’s anything shameful of being lucky because Winners make their own luck.
They may not have been exceptionally dominant in a tactical manner like Barcelona in the recent years but Manchester United to me, was never just about a footballing philosophy. It wasn’t just about tactics or statistics.
It was always about the qualities of the team, the fighting spirit, the character of the team in never giving up and the moments of brilliance and sometimes sheer artistry. (I know there will be non-United fans who will be quick to point out a whole host of unsavoury transgressions by United players over the years, but that’s not within the scope of what I am discussing in this write-up and I’m certainly in no position to make any excuses or defence on anyone’s behalf. I am just a supporter and I choose to focus on how positive qualities and aspects in sports can have a positive influence on life and our approach to it.)
United’s triumph in the 1999 Champions League final was an inspiring moment for any soccer fan and anyone who needed a spark of inspiration in seeing evidence that magical things do happen to those who keep going and choose not to give up.
They were literally 180 seconds away from losing, but they swung the tie around 180 degrees and walked away as winners.
It is such a beautiful and inspiring moment that it would do no justice to only preserve this memory as a part of sporting history and to retain it within the exclusive consciousness of soccer fans or Manchester United fans.
The spirit of 1999 should be something that each and everyone of us can cultivate within ourselves as we approach the challenges we face in our daily lives.
If Manchester United can lose for 90 minutes and comeback to win big in the last 180 seconds, imagine how our lives would be if we apply the same attitude, belief and resolve in becoming winners and to not give up until we ‘run out of time’.
Since our lives are not merely 90 minutes long with injury time, the only way we can realistically ‘lose’ is if we choose to give up before our time is up or when we actually ‘run out of time’ — which in the case of life means that we literally drop dead, perhaps, what we need to do is to remind ourselves about how Manchester United never gave up in the final 0f 1999 even when the odds were stacked against them and they were running out of time.
Each of us have that chance to make something of ourselves and to become winners in history.
It is a romantic idea that might sound too good to be true for some, but it is enough for me to keep trying and to keep going even when the odds are against me, even when I fall behind in comparison to my peers in the early stages of life.
As long as I believe that I have a chance of emerging as a winner by the end of the day when my time runs out, that is reason enough for me to keep going and to keep trying by creating chance after chance to allow something magical to happen.
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