On the day of 25th May 2005 all the gods came on earth to watch one of the most exciting encounters. AC Milan, Italy’s powerhouse, in fact Europe’s powerhouse then, clash against the so called minnows Liverpool (again then). With the road building to all action final of European Champions League 2005, Istanbul, even I got butterflies flying slowly in my stomach. I was very well aware with the fact that its always 1 out of 100 Indian football fans loving and liking Liverpool win. So with that proportion in mind, it was also pretty clear that I am the only Liverpool fan in the entire TV hall of 50 and more.
It’s difficult for ones not following football to carry on reading, but I insist you better do because this is more with passion and emotions than the beautiful game. It’s really a daring job to sit in front of host of fans who are cheering the opponents and suddenly you get a chance to take a fist at them. That’s what happened when Liverpool took on Chelsea in the semi finals. One of the most controversial goals by Luis Garcia booked ticket of Liverpool for the grand finale. But it also put some thing emotionally in me too. Being only Liverpool fan I could envy all blues but I also provoked them. So a final was on and I came first to TV hall and occupied the first row chair. As my mind was worried what’s going to happen today, my stomach was slowly feeling butterflies. Slowly people started filling the room. Every new person entered the hall gave a nasty stare at me and laughed at the Liverpool line up. Well, nothings wrong, I had provoked them and all were waiting to humiliate me and more ever it was all very small line up against the most established line up of AC Milan.
I was very confident of my side for that night. Why not? Ask any Liverpool fan, anywhere in the world, you get one reply – ‘Steven Gerrard’. The only soul that still lights Anfield. For layman geeks, don’t mistake him to a dead man, but a very prolific player of Liverpool and an inspirational captain. He can turn table upside down in dying moments just like that.
TV room was full and temperature went high because of too many people breathing and also too many people aspiring their teams. The line up was displayed on TV. Everybody started shouting and cheering the Italian line up. Looking at it and any opposition will loose half the heart, three fourth the game, and completely the game. It started with their captain Paulo Maldini, a veteran Left Back, followed by Nesta, Stam and that angry looking Guttoso. This defense will make all the strikers to think when they will be substituted out safely. The line up moved to midfield Kaka, Seedorf, Tomasson and lastly their fierce strike force: Schevchenko and Hernan Crespo. Even I praised their lineup for the caliber each one of these players has established.
Now the time was of booing and hooting because Liverpool line up was being shown. Dudek, the goalie, with broken defence of Sami Hyppia and Jamie Carragher, John Arjine Riise followed by Midfield Smicer, Alonso and the moment all I waited for, Steven Gerrard, Captain, English International, 26 years. My heart shouted and cheered loudly than the booing of others in the hall. I carefully noticed few true football fans, respecting Gerrard by applauding. I didn’t know it was their fear, rather only fear, or tribute to him.
The match kicked off with whistle blown by referee. The sounds in the stadium rose to heavens as if they all invited gods to witness the action. The lights flashed and all the camera clicks showed pierced the TV screens and pointed out, if there is heaven then its right there in Istanbul. I know it’s hard to feel such emotions but a true fan will always feel it. In India, I mean our TV hall, NIE Hostel, Mysore, roared as if entire Istanbul has come inside the room.
The initial shock was on for me very soon in the first half. The most dramatic start one can see, Maldini, Captain scoring in less than a minute past the kick off. Milan took the lead within a minute from the start. Then TV hall turned hell out there for me. Each true Milan fan shouting at me, waving their shirts at me and few using words against Liverpool but in fact aimed at me. I could feel their effort to make me jealous but I was determined to keep things cool and just replied – still a long way to go. The entire stadium roared to heavens. But like me, there was a small group out there sad. Few cried, few raised hands in agony, few raised their eye brows in disbelief, and few raised their hats and hit back to ground in surprise. But in all this each one of us also raised one thing that kept us still on – HOPE. This humiliation was not all it. We had knife into our wounds very soon. Hernan Crespo increased the comfortable 1 goal lead to safest 2 goal lead after 39 minutes. There was no match for the happiness and joy for the Milan fans as they jumped one over the other. They didn’t bother getting hurt by things they collide while they jump together in air and thump back to earth. All those blue fans (Chelsea fans) had the opportunity to en cash their jealous and disappointment I created in them, literally each one of them taking their turns to insult me. At Liverpool camp, the things followed in the same manner and as the joy was falling down hope was raising equally. I guess gods were not all that happy with it and things got worse still. Milan scored again from Hernan Crespo in the first half making 2 – 0 lead to a guaranteed 3 – 0 lead. Milan fans were exhausted I guess with too much celebration and blues who were present to insult me were also fed up of doing. Everybody started pitying me and poor Dudek. He should have some assistance from the defenders.
For Liverpool relief, the referee blew whistle and pointed fingers to the dressing rooms. At half time, the score line showed very impressing 3 – 0 for Milan. This was the moment all those great people behaved like Kittens. It was just half time and all players started waving their hands to the crowd, which is normally done after winning a match. They hugged each other and exchanged congratulations among themselves. And all Milan fans went out to gasp fresh air and rest their highly elated hearts. While Blues starting leaving to rooms to sleep as they had finished what they wanted to do – insult me. I was grasping the moments of previous heroics of Liverpool and hoping the god in red – Steven Gerrard does yet another miracle. The post match reports tell that the Milan players had wine and champagne spilling all over out of celebrations. It was taken for all considerations that AC Milan has won the European Champions League 2003. But what happened in Liverpool dressing room is still a mystery. Only Rafa, Liverpool manager, and the players know it. I guess every player was more humiliated by the Milan celebrations at half time than those agonizing three goals. That probably has motivated every player.
All the people returned to their respective seats in TV room with normal chit chat other than football. I guess they too took it granted that Liverpool is thrashed. But one heart was still pumping with energies and hope in the first row. The telecast resumed and players started to walk out one by one from dressing room. All my body was eyes when Steven Gerrard walked out with unusual face of seriousness. It was determination of the game a head. There is a theory of nature when something gets too much its leveled off by bringing it down. That’s what exactly happened in second half. The remaining 45 minutes was written in Liverpool’s name rather Liverpool wrote remaining 45 minutes in its name.
Leading by example is captain’s prime attribute. Many believe that there is no much job for captain in a match of football. But I believe that its leader’s job to pump the team when the chips are down. How a captain does it, by doing the needy.
Steven Gerrard, undoubtedly the most influential captain of modern football did it. From beginning of second half, Liverpool was very aggressive and constantly attacking. But there was no conversion happening at the D – area. It required someone to break the dead lock. What a moment it was just after 54 minutes, none other than Steven Gerrard headed past the Italian defense and put the ball at the back of the net. Score Board read Milan 3 – 1 Liverpool. The celebrations of Gerrard was really inspiring one after the goal. It motivated each and every one with his frequent swing of hands in air together and running around the ground enthusiastically. It was smiling time for Liverpool stand and of course me too. But with lots to achieve a head I kept my celebrations to a low key. Who could have imagined that this happiness is going to be doubled very soon? Couple of minutes later, 56 minutes up and Smicer shot the ball into the corner of the net and I am sure with even two goal keepers in the D – Area, still they couldn’t have stopped it. Again the voice roared in the stadium but this time from Liverpool stand. My heart started jumping like a gross hopper of happiness and I started cheering with my hands raised in air. Now Milan was slowly feeling the heat. I could see the sweat on the faces of boys around me. They still tell me that it’ because of perspiration but I know when we sweat like that. Even I had sweat ON MY forehead half an hour before. There was no limit to celebrations on the ground. Everybody falling was on one another with all their eyes still reflecting the focus. Happiness or sadness always comes in plenty. six more minutes later, at 60 minutes a key tackle which earned Liverpool all deserved penalty. The crowd raised their hands into air. Liverpool fans were happy and rose and Milan fans rose out of disbelief. I was jumping around the seat and enjoying all the stares aimed at me by boys around. But it didn’t last because I was surprised to see Alonso take the spot kick instead of Gerrard. But I was equally confident of Alonso too. When referee checked with goalie, Dida, and whistled for the kick, there was absolute silence in the crowd and in the hall. Suddenly the livewire at Istanbul came to dead stop. Each step Alonso ran from his run up towards the ball, the heart started beating fast, faster and if it had stopped for any reasons at that moment, I would have had a heart attack for sure. Alonso kicked the ball but Dida got minute leg to the ball and stopped. The ball rebounded back all to find Alonso who was still in place after taking the kick. Dida had fell down in an attempt to stop penalty but last thing he wanted was to see ball rebounding back to Alonso. He took a chip at ball and sent it to straight top corner.
Can u believe it, within spare of 10 minutes Liverpool got back in level 3- 3? What seemed to be a comfortable 3 – 0 lead was brought down to ailing 3 – 3 leveled score. Even I don’t know when I was so happy at last time. That screen which showed the score details still is as green as lawn grass in my mind. Response from Milan camp in the hall was pin drop silence. I could almost feel the echoes of my shouts of happiness. The serious faces of Milan camp and players revealed their perplexed state wondering how it happened within 10 minutes? Believe me it happened just like that, u know Steven Gerrard was there, just like that.
The game ended in a draw 3 – 3 and referee pointed to extra time. Extra time was mostly a low key performance from both sides as most of them had exhausted. In extra time, Andriy Schevchenko had a golden chance to write his name in golden letters to his Italian club. A open goal one –on – one situation, even Dudek didn’t know how he saved that goal. Till then people who thought poor Dudek turned hero. His eyes revealed the surprise of saving it. Its like an analogy that everybody is talented and its just matter of time to find that niche. I guess that very moment Dudek felt very strong about him and confident than ever before.
The game ended 3 – 3 even after extra time and it went on to most exciting stage – The Penalties. For Liverpool Hamann, Smicer and Dijbril Cisse didn’t do any mistake in putting the ball past Dida. It’s exciting for us watching but a real tension string for the players, one wrong shot and its gone to other team. It happened the same way, again Andriy Schevchenko, one of the established international strikers, took the shot very slowly with an aim of chip. Though Dudek had dived already to his right still managed to get a part of his leg to stop the ball. The hero for the moment, the very own poor man, Dudek. My turn to take on all the boys one by one in hall, but I was so involved in happiness I thought of relishing it myself than hurting others. But then even Milan fans in hostel and crowd were applauding Liverpool’s effort.
The final score card stood:
AC Milan Liverpool
Maldini 1, Gerrard 54,
Crespo 39, 44 Smicer 56,
The 2005 Champions League Final between Liverpool FC and AC Milan will go down in history as one of the most exciting ever. Going behind to three (yes three!) goals in the first half Liverpool looked dead and buried at half time. Then they pulled something miraculous out of nothing and drew level by scoring three in a brief but beautiful 6 minute spell that shook the Italians. The match went into extra time and although Milan went close in the final minutes Liverpool held on for penalties which were taken at the end where all six previous goals had been scored. With an estimated 40,000 Liverpool supporters cheering on their heroes, Dudek made two fantastic saves thus bringing the European Cup back to Anfield for the first time in 21 years. All players were called one by one and handed over the medals and I cried when that moment arrived. The speaker announced – ‘The Winning Captain Steven Gerrarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd’. Nobody who had made the trip to Istanbul will forget the moment Steven Gerrard hoisted the trophy above his head - pure magic! And as one of the banners in the mid levels proclaimed "Liverpool's fifth European Cup - Normal Service is Resumed". The celebration time was on with players having their respective national flags on back and waving to crowd. The result will be a shrine which pays homage to arguably Liverpool's greatest achievement and will provide you with hours of enjoyment reliving those moments (recorded by media and in the memory of friends) again and again whether you leapt for joy when Alonso slam dunked his rebound into the top of the net or burst into tears of laughter when Cisse danced around the Cup in delight. I also understand Smicer partied in Taksim Square with everyone and I'm sure there were loads of you who grabbed some great shots of him puffing on his huge cigar! It was night to remember. The crowd went mad and my heart cried of happiness. The showdown was brought to an end with really a dramatic finish. Till this day, 2005 Euro Champions League finals still remembered as display of character and determination.
In all this I left out one man - Rafael Benitez, Liverpool manager. He was silent man behind the scene of the dramatic show down. He made all those intelligent moves and stood by his team. And only he knows how he has felt after the match because I know its all because of his precious words at the half time. I know many Milan fans are not happy with this document but I personally believe that night was show of determination and character. Only Liverpool would have done it. The line, the club and the man – Steven Gerrard mean a lot to me as I have got an identity in my hostel as greatest Liverpool fan in the hostel. All Milan fans in hall waited, rather, honored me to leave the hall first and I felt the sense of gratitude to follow Liverpool even with its poor track. It still goes true, being Liverpool fan, that line which stands tall at Anfield (Liverpool stadium) will always remain true.“ You Will Never Walk Alone”. Liverpool went with cup, pride and glory. Fans went with wishes and happiness. I went with tears in my eyes.