How I found a Champions League winner's medal, and its true owner
PARIS -- I've spent the last 10 days carrying a Champions League gold medal in my backpack.
Two Saturdays ago, Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the Champions League final at London's Wembley Stadium, finishing at about 9:30 p.m. Seeing as how my flight to Paris was departing less than 10 hours later, I did not get a hotel room and set out to spend as much time as possible after the match inside Wembley Stadium.
By about 1 a.m., maybe a dozen journalists remained, along with security and clean-up crews, and I decided to try to a) walk on the pitch and b) check out the VIP seating area. Security stopped me a few steps into the former, but I had no problems with the latter.
I walked by where soccer and international sports royalty sat, including UEFA president Michel Platini. I knew this because their name tags were still attached to their cushioned blue seats. I'm an Olympics fan above all else, so when I saw International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge's name tag, I decided that would be a pretty cool souvenir.
I leaned over the seat and approached Rogge's tag. I felt my shoe hit something. I retreated, looked down, squatted and brushed aside confetti. There it was: a Champions League player's gold medal.
I looked left. I looked right. Nobody could see me. I slipped the medal into my back pocket, got up and got the heck out of Wembley.
The medal toured London overnight on four near-empty double-decker buses to Heathrow, where I walked past dozens of Bayern and Dortmund fans sleeping on airport seats, curbs and their own luggage.
It wasn't until Tuesday that I gave it more thought. (I'm a little more than halfway through a European assignment for SI.com that began with the Champions League final on May 25 and will end with the French Open men's final on Sunday.) Could I find which Bayern Munich player it belonged to?
I searched on YouTube for "Champions League Bayern celebration," expecting to find video of players passing the championship trophy down the line in the VIP area, as is custom, where I found the medal. Maybe I could see if any were missing medals, perhaps falling off while they jumped around.
I found several clips of Bayern striker Mario Mandzukic's medal flopping on his lanyard and, yes, eventually coming unhooked. I continued watching. Teammate Franck Ribery grabbed the medal and gave it back to Mandzukic.
Back to the search results. I clicked on a 3-minute, 27-second video. I glued my eyes through to 3:20, when I saw a player with a lanyard, but no medal. I had a pretty good idea which player it was, but I Google Image searched and compared headshots to confirm. It was defender Jerome Boateng.
But how did I know Boateng didn't recover his medal later in the VIP area? I searched Sports Illustrated's photo wire. It showed images of Boateng during the on-field celebration, after leaving the stands, with his lanyard on, and still no medal. Bingo.
With the help of SI senior writer Grant Wahl, I contacted Bayern Munich official Martin Hägele and cheekily asked if anybody on the club had lost his winner's medal. Two days passed without a response.
Determined, I emailed again: "I think I found Jerome Boateng's medal. Please respond if he's missing it."
This time I heard back.
"It is indeed Jerome's medal. Can you please send the small trophy to my hands," Hägele wrote Thursday, listing an address in Munich.
I asked if I could interview Boateng, and I received a phone call from the player Tuesday.
Boateng said he realized he lost the medal during the third stage of their celebration (in the locker room after celebrating in the stands and on the field).
"[My teammates were] all laughing in the dressing room when I said I lost my medal, when I saw I had my necklace but no medal," Boateng said. "Because I was like screaming, where's my medal? Who took it? They all looked to me. They saw the necklace without it. They laughed at me, and they said 'Oh, go search, my friend.'"
Ribery, the star French winger who recently spooked strangers from a store window display, gave Boateng the most grief.
"He said, Go on the whole pitch again and look for your medal,'" Boateng said.
Boateng only searched the dressing room. He quickly gave up hope that night.
"How can you find the medal when you jump around upstairs, the medal falls down somewhere where the fans sit?" he said. "You will never get it back."
The details of my email to Hägele began to circulate late last week. One soccer reporter found out, emailed me but promised not to scoop me out of my own story. I kept the medal hidden at Roland Garros, where I am stationed in an international media room next to a German journalist. (I was not assigned a media desk here, but I took the only free one I could find the first day and nobody has kicked me out yet.)
Boateng eventually got word.
"I have a surprise for you," a Bayern official told him. "He said, 'You will see,'" Boateng said. "Then Martin [Hägele] came to me and said somebody found my medal. I was really happy."
It wasn't the first time Boateng, 24, lost a medal. He remembered playing with his first professional club, Hertha Berlin, and a similar jumping around celebration.
"That one I didn't get back," said Boateng, who keeps his medals and trophies at his parents' homes.
Boateng earned another medal three days ago when Bayern beat Stuttgart to win the German Cup, capping an historic season where it captured a treble -- the Bundesliga, Champions League and German Cup crowns. What had happened the week before weighed on him as he celebrated.
"The whole time every minute I looked on it, if [the medal's] still there, I put my hand on it when I jumped," he said. "This one I didn't lose."