CARDIFF (Reuters) - Thousands of Real Madrid and Juventus fans turned Cardiff’s city center into a sea of color as the hours ticked down to kickoff for Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated Champions League final.
After a low-key start to the Welsh capital’s festival of football, with the majority of fans only arriving on Saturday, a good-natured carnival atmosphere built throughout the day.
Real Madrid, for whom Cardiff native Gareth Bale is likely to be amongst the substitutes, are bidding for a record-extending 12th European title by becoming the first team to win the present format of the Champions League two seasons running.
Italian giants Juventus, twice European champions, have not won it since 1996 and have lost a record six finals.
Saturday’s final will be the first in the competition’s history to be played under cover with UEFA deciding last month that the retractable roof over the 74,000-seater Principality Stadium would be closed.
Outside in the city center, under cloudy skies, fans descended on Cardiff’s various landmarks with many snapping souvenir photos alongside the castle walls emblazoned with huge photographs of some of the biggest names in Champions League.
A giant inflatable Champions League trophy adorned the ramparts alongside a Welsh dragon.
Hundreds of Real fans, nearly all of them wearing replica shirts, staged impromptu games of football in the busy shopping streets and went through their repertoire of club anthems.
Many sought out Wales international Bales’s bar named “Elevens” after the number on his shirt.
They were in confident mood.
“Real Madrid is going to win. We are going to go home and we are going to celebrate. 2-0. (Cristiano) Ronaldo is going to score today. You will see that,” Real fan Jakob insisted while his friend Carlos went further. “I think we are going to destroy Juventus.”
Juventus fans will need no reminding that they lost to Real Madrid in the 1998 final held in Amsterdam and two years ago fell to Barcelona in Berlin.
“Above all, this time around, we should overcome our psychological problem. Because we have lost too many finals. And this time it should go well, I hope so with all my heart,” Juve fan Fabio Bramvilla, wearing the classic black and white striped Juventus jersey, said.
Another Juventus supporter carried a banner with the slogan “Santo Gigi” above a photo of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who, at 39, could become the oldest player to win the European Cup.
Cardiff, the spiritual home of Welsh rugby, is used to staging large sporting events, but the security operation in place for Saturday’s showpiece is the largest ever in Wales.
Thousands of police officers have been deployed in the city center which has been shut down to traffic.
“It is going really well so far. The weather is nice, the crowds are very highly spirited and everyone is enjoying having a photograph with South Wales police,” one officer said.
“It’s a festival atmosphere really.”
Real have banged in 32 goals — Ronaldo scoring 10 — to reach the final and are slight favorites with bookies with William Hills offering only 10-11 with Juve evens.
Unsurprisingly Ronaldo, the highest scorer in European Cup history, is favorite to score the opening goal.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar