Nicky Allt woke up the day after with a hangover, which might have been the only predictable development from that one night in Istanbul. Because even some Liverpool fans who didn’t drink felt a little dizzy for a long while after witnessing what might have been the greatest comeback in the history of sports.
Allt walked along a deserted beach in Bulgaria, trying hard to beat the headache but warmly embracing the notion he would have to write about what he had seen, what he had experienced, what could not adequately be summarized by even the intricate scoreline from the 2005 UEFA Champions League final: Liverpool d. Milan 3-3 (3-2 on penalties).
“I’d just witnessed a game of football that was pure theater,” he told Sporting News. “That night at the Ataturk wasn’t like a normal game of football. It finished all-hours in the morning and felt like a night of madness in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t simply football. It was high drama, it was a piece of theatre.”
And so Allt, an author, screenwriter and playwright, turned it into a piece of theater, albeit one of high comedy. His riotous play “One Night in Istanbul” premiered in 2009, and was turned into a motion picture five years later starring Steven Waddington of “The Imitation Game” and Paul Barber of “The Full Monty.”
“On the streets where I live, football is like a religion,” is how the movie begins, and this is appropriate because the Miracle of Istanbul left every fan of Liverpool Football Club with a story to tell.
Musician Elvis Costello was scheduled to play a concert that night and had delayed the start of the show to the point where he expected regulation would end. When the game went to extra time and then penalties, he had to take the stage and play his set. He peeked at a TV set over the bar at the back of the room to get an idea what was happening. Actor Clive Owen had a ticket for the game, but he was committed to do publicity for the motion picture “Sin City” and wound up in New York watching on television with co-star Mickey Rourke. Liverpool native John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” watched in London, and when it was over he took a phone call from his father who was nearly in tears and insisted, “Remember this day!”
Allt was not the only one inspired to create a film after observing the heroics of superstar Steven Gerrard, defender Jamie Carragher and goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek. A live-action short called “15 Minutes That Shook the World” was conceived by Dave Kirby, a writer and producer and Liverpool fan. There have been several books, including “The Miracle of Istanbul” by authors John L. Williams and Stephen Hopkins.
When Liverpool face reigning champion Real Madrid in the Champions League final Saturday in Kiev, it will have been 13 years and one day since the last time Liverpool raised the European Cup. That trophy still is on display, surrounded by a glass cylinder, in the Liverpool FC Story museum on the grounds at Anfield. Nearby, a video screen plays highlights of that improbable victory over AC Milan, and though reveling in those moments again can be euphoric, it’s also a shade redundant.
Liverpool fans don’t need video to remember.
Carli Lloyd is a World Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time world player of the year, but on that afternoon in 2005 she had yet to make her first appearance for the U.S. women’s national team.
“Back then, there weren’t many games that were televised on a daily basis,” Lloyd told SN. “I was always kind of a Liverpool fan, but that game kind of sealed it up for me. Just the way the fans were, hearing them at halftime getting sparked up by singing the songs. I was a huge Stevie G fan, so for me watching that miraculous comeback I became an instant fan on so many levels.
“The type of player I am – kind of blue-collar, relentless, resilient player – you can see that embedded in the culture at Liverpool. Just seeing the fan base, and how they create that environment. I’ve attended two matches in Liverpool, and they were probably two of the best matches from an environment standpoint that I’ll ever go to. It’s unbelievable what the fans do, how the stadium is electrified by the ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ song. I just love the vibe they give off. They’re fighters. And I’ll be rooting for them all the way in Champions League.”
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The start of the game could not have been worse for Liverpool, and that’s not a reference to the goal scored by Milan’s legendary defender Paolo Maldini off a free kick just 50 seconds after kickoff.
There was trouble even before that, when first-year Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez submitted his team sheet and included forward Harry Kewell as a starter rather than defensive midfielder Didi Hamann. Understand Milan was loaded with legends of the world’s game, not just Maldini. There was Kaka and Cafu of Brazil, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso of Italy, Clarence Seedorf and Jaap Stam of the Netherlands, Andriy Shevchenko of the Ukraine and Hernan Crespo of Argentina.
Liverpool’s team had young midfielders Gerrard and Xabi Alonzo, but only a fraction of the star quality of Milan. It seemed curious that Benitez decided to take such an offense-first approach given the disparity, even more so given that Kewell, injured throughout the season, had scored only a single goal in 30 previous appearances for LFC that season.
Maybe it sounds harsh, but Kewell’s greatest contribution that night was to leave with an abdominal injury after 23 minutes, yielding to veteran midfielder Vladimir Smicer, with Liverpool still behind by a goal.
Mark Madden has been the highest-rated sports talk host in Pittsburgh for much of the past three decades. He became a Liverpool fan while interning for the Pittsburgh Spirit indoor soccer team in the 80s, when players on the team shared highlight videos of LFC’s great teams with Kenny Dalglish.
“My late mother, who I was very close to, was living with me because she had a terminal illness. I stayed home to watch the game with her. She wasn’t a fan per se, but she indulged it because it was my team,” Madden told SN.
“Her favorite player was Djibril Cisse, because he had the weird hair. And he scored in the shootout, which she enjoyed. After the game, I went to Piper’s Pub, which is the local soccer bar, and got blackout drunk for maybe the last time in my life. And my mother recalled that when I returned to the house at whatever time in the morning, after getting a cab back and leaving my car on the South Side of Pittsburgh, she said, ‘You know it took you like 15 minutes to walk up the steps to the front door, right? You walked one step and took a rest. At one point, you sat down.’
“I’m a big Penguins fan, as well. A long time ago, I decided these would be the only teams I truly supported, but I would support them 100 percent. And including the Penguins’ five Stanley Cup wins, that game in 2005 ranks as one of the happiest moments of my life.”
The decision to replace Kewell with Smicer might have been fortuitous in the end, but at that moment it did nothing to stop the frequent Milan rampages through the center of midfield. And several times when those breakthroughs occurred, left back Djimi Traore found himself out of position and vulnerable to being attacked.
There was an instant late in the first half when it seemed Liverpool might tie the score, as winger Luis Garcia got the ball on the right side of the 18-yard box with forward momentum and only Maldini between himself and goalkeeper Dida. Maldini slid to the ground to try to tackle the ball away, but he didn’t get it. At least not with his feet. Garcia tried to make a move on goal and the ball struck Maldini as he was prone. It looked like a handball. It was a handball. No penalty kick was awarded.
When Milan immediately countered with another dash through the center of the field, with Traore again beaten wide by Shevchenko, the referee’s decision to ignore Maldini’s foul became doubly punishing. Shevchenko fired a beautiful pass across the box to Hernan Crespo at the far post, and Crespo reached behind Carragher to tap it in with his right toe. It was 2-0 in the 39th minute. But only for another 5 minutes, and then a Gerrard giveaway was forwarded to Kaka, whose sizzling forward ball to Crespo created the third Milan goal.
Zach Osterman has covered the Indiana Hoosiers beat for the Indianapolis Star for five years, but his affinity for Liverpool began when he was still in high school in the Atlanta area – the year of Istanbul.
“In those days, other than the two mid-week Champions League games ESPN would show, you had to have a crazy-expensive satellite or cable subscription to see anything domestic. So most of the time if I wanted to see a game I would go down to Fado Irish Pub in Buckhead,” Osterman told SN. “I loved it. But the problem was, we always lost when I went and watched. Being superstitious as any good, dumb sports fan, I probably watched a dozen games or more that season and I only saw one win. I was convinced this place was the real problem.
“I still agreed to go to Fado with a friend and my high school calculus teacher. And everything happens: Maldini, and then Crespo scores twice. At halftime, I just lost it. I was like, ‘Screw this bar. This place is cursed. We’re never going to win here. I’m going home.’ It wasn’t so much giving up on the game. So it was about a 15-20 minute drive, so I stormed out and I got on I-285, and buddy of mine called me and was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘You’re about to tie the game.’
“He basically narrated the Alonso penalty and the rebound. I missed all three Liverpool goals.”
When Hamann at last was sent into the game at halftime, taking the place of right back Steve Finnan, it seemed like it was a maneuver coming 45 minutes too late. How was a defensive midfielder going to help at that point? A lot, it turned out.
Liverpool’s midfield ceased to serve as a highway for AC Milan’s attacking force. Traore slid inside to serve as part of a three-man back line and John Arne Riise took control of the entire left side of the field, operating as both a midfielder and left back depending on what was needed, becoming a raging force in stopping Milan’s offense and pushing the ball forward.
What made the night so extraordinary was captured in an early second-half moment, when Xabi Alonso picked the ball off Seedorf near midfield and slipped a pass to Traore with the left side of the field fairly vacant. As Traore fed the ball forward to Riise with room to move, the 40,000 or so Liverpool fans at Ataturk roared. They were down 3-0, but they were not beaten.
And so when the drought finally was broken in the 54th minute – after a brilliant save by Dudek to stop a Shevchenko free kick from making it 4-0 – it seemed more had occurred than Liverpool draining some of the embarrassment from the score line. Riise’s cross into the center of the box, which found Gerrard for a header that floated over Dida into the goal’s righthand corner, became a statement of Liverpool’s intent. Gerrard retreated immediately toward the center line, slapping hands with Riise along the way, then waving his arms in an upward motion to encourage even more noise from LFC fans.
Milan’s lead was gone in six minutes.
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It was Smicer who struck next, after an odd sequence in which the assistant referee motioned for Liverpool’s Milan Baros to be called offside but the head referee allowed play to continue. That decision led rapidly to Smicer taking a pass from Hamann about 12 yards outside the box and, after a single touch, rifling the ball along the turf just inside the left post to make it 3-2.
The penalty that came just four minutes after that, when Gerrard charged into the box and was pushed from behind by Gattuso – well, that was inevitable, wasn’t it? And even though Alonso’s strike at the penalty was saved by Dida, Alonso beat everyone to the ball and rammed it into the roof of the net. It was 3-all. And that’s how it would stay for another 60 minutes: all that remained of regulation, and the energy-sapping 30 minutes of extra time.
Craig McKnight is a member of the Official Liverpool Supporters Club based in Cincinnati, which gathers regularly at the Rhinehaus in the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to watch Reds’ games. But LFC Cincinnati wasn’t formed until years later, and McKnight wasn’t in Cincinnati that night.
“I was in Poznan, Poland, at Erik the Red pub watching with Liverpool fans and drinking pints and still remember when we went 3-0 down. It felt like a stake in the heart when Crespo put his second in,” he told SN. “Even with Gerrard scoring, I still worried it was too little, too late. Then Smicer … suddenly there was hope, belief we could equalize. The bar erupted with the penalty given … everyone in the place went crazy. Beer was flying everywhere. That was the moment hope had become reality.
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“I have never been in a place that absolutely went mad with that final strike. I have never hugged so many strangers in my life; 13 years later, it still makes my heart race recalling it.”
Dudek was no legend as a goalkeeper. He was good enough to appear 127 times for Liverpool in his six seasons with the club, and 60 for Poland’s national team. On that one night in Istanbul, however, he was about as great as anyone’s ever been.
That free-kick save on Shevchenko was not his only great moment during regulation; there was more. But it really was all about the penalty shootout that decided the game. Dudek danced along the goal line, improvising his moves to distract whichever Milan player was lining up his strike. Is that why substitute Serginho, shooting first, blew his over the left corner of the goal?
Liverpool went ahead 1-0 when Hamann struck his comfortably into the left corner, just off Dida’s fingertips. Then Pirlo’s meager shot was saved by Dudek as he surged off the line, to his right. When Cisse, with a strip of blonde hair down the center of his scalp, fooled the goalkeeper into going the opposite way of his right-corner shot, Liverpool was closing in on the trophy.
Dida gave Milan life by shoving Riise’s attempt outside the left post, allowing Kaka to briefly tie the shootout at 2-all. That put a load of pressure on Smicer, but his attempt was perfect. He leaned toward the left on his entire approach, fooling Dida into jumping that direction, and then calmly struck it toward the right corner.
Dudek later recalled that when Shevchenko approached for what became the final Milan attempt, he had no idea that a save would end the game and clinch the championship for Liverpool. Maybe that helped. Shevchenko struck his shot hard to the left, and Dudek just barely lifted his left hand above his torso and knocked the ball away.
Liverpool had won. The greatest comeback ever was complete. And the party was on, for everyone in red.
At the opening of “15 Minutes That Shook the World,” the narrator says this of Liverpool: “Throughout its unique history, this proud city has twice been close to oblivion. Once, during the blitz of 1941. The other, at halftime in Istanbul.”
Because Liverpool football really is a religion, and May 25 forever will stand as its high holy day.