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Ilkay Gündogan finally gets his Champions League moment

Matt Pearson Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul
June 10, 2023

Manchester City have won the Champions League for the first time, after a 1-0 victory over Inter Milan in Istanbul. German midfielder Ilkay Gündogan was at the heart of a victory sealed by Rodri's strike.

UEFA Champions League | Finale | Manchester City vs Inter Mailand

The first player to join the Pep Guardiola revolution at Manchester City seemed a fitting man to lift the trophy that was the cornerstone of its manifesto.

That this nervy, but ultimately triumphant, evening in the Turkish capital could be Ilkay Gündogan's last game for City may close the circle, it's hard to believe that his work here is done.

City's, for now, certainly is. A 68th-minute strike from Spanish midfielder Rodri was enough to secure the first Champions League title for the club and their owners from the United Arab Emirates, and a first for Guardiola since 2011.

"It’s an honor not only to be captain of the team, but also to be a member of this team and to play here, to be part of this great club," Gündogan told DAZN after the match.

Rodri seals the deal

The tension, which had been ratcheting up with each passing minute was suddenly released by the opener.

The clutch of City players in the box rushed for the corner flag. Substitutes and coaching staff charged on from the other side of the field. Guardiola celebrated then schemed. And their captain? Well, Gündogan gave Erling Haaland a cursory hug on the way past, re-tied his laces, pulled up his socks and plodded back to his own half.

UEFA Champions League | Finale | Manchester City vs Inter Mailand
Rodri's strike midway through the second half secured City's first Champions League title.Image: Kieran McManus//Shutterstock/IMAGO

A calm and undemonstrative presence on the park, the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder is not the most obvious choice for captain of a side who must, leaving aside the financial charges against them for now, go down as one of modern football's greatest after completing the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

"He's been doing this stuff since he came here. He's not the loudest player but he's exceptional," said Kevin de Bruyne prematch. "Whenever it gets tough, he's there. He scores incredible goals, he's important, he's our captain. I've always had a good relationship [with him] so hopefully he can stay longer."

Gündogan's future was not the focus of his and City's evening. But with his contract expiring this month, the 32-year-old has a decision to make soon. With the sort of timing which has made him an increasingly potent goal threat in recent years, Gündogan has emphatically highlighted his worth in recent weeks. A brace in the FA Cup final sealed the second stage of City's treble and his composure, experience and quality on the ball on Saturday helped completed the set.

City exorcise 'ghosts of the past'

In truth, both the skipper and his team were a notch below their best for much of Saturday's match. Though Guardiola's men exerted plenty of control they were sloppy and indecisive, particularly after De Bruyne limped off, in sharp contrast to the last few months of this season. Yet still, when they took the lead, it was difficult to argue it was not deserved.

But it still wasn't quite enough to send City up through the gears, with Inter, and substitute Romelu Lukaku in particular, wasting some huge opportunities.

Depending on where he ends up, Gündogan may not get many more opportunities to win this competition, after finally succeeding following failures in 2013 with Dortmund and in 2021 with City. "There were ghosts of the past for some of the guys," admitted the skipper.

If it is to be his last game for the Premier League side, it could scarcely have been scripted better. The talk of Turkey all week had been of the "two Turks" playing here. 

Two Turks in Istanbul

Gündogan and Inter's Hakan Calhanoglu were both born, four years apart, in the west of Germany but have taken different paths on the international stage despite a shared Turkish heritage. " He’s playing for Germany I’m playing for Turkey," said Calhanoglu ahead of the match. "I respect his decision but I know it’s important for two Turks to play in the final of the Champions League."

Though nationality is a complex, individualized and sometimes fraught concept, particularly where Germany and Turkey are involved, UEFA's records will show that, despite six having made the final, a Turkish player has still not won the competition.

Neither, according to the record books, have the United Arab Emirates. But, for all the pressing, passing and physicality of City, the 115 charges of financial irregularity laid at their door (and their history of similar matters with UEFA) will, inevitably, cast its shadow.

UEFA Champions League | Finale | Manchester City vs Inter Mailand | Guardiola
Guardiola has now won the Champions League three times, ending his 11-year wait to lift the European Cup again.Image: Matthew Childs/REUTERS

Sportswashing accusations hang heavy

City's owner and the UAE's vice-president, Sheikh Mansour, attending a City match for only the second time since their takeover in 2008, will, no doubt, continue to brush aside financial and human rights concerns and concentrate on the undoubtedly sensational team that's been smartly built despite them. Which is exactly how sportswashing works.

For Gündogan and the rest of the players though, this was just sport. Winning, losing. Delivering, faltering. Scoring, hitting the keeper. As the whistle blew and the sky blue contingent on the bench raced, arms and mouths wide, to those in the stands, Gündogan went the other way, consoling every Inter player in turn before joining his charges in the celebrations. "I also know very well how it feels to lose this final. Accordingly, I congratulated all our opponents."

His moment would come later when he lifted that trophy. Sometimes leadership is more than shouting, scoring or spending.

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