Istanbul, For the First Time
For the first 27 years of my life, my attitude about soccer was one of contempt, that is if I even thought of it at all. Dull. Yawn inducing. A game kids’ parents made them play instead of contact sports. I was convinced it would never matter in the U.S. It wasn’t until the 2014 World Cup that I gave soccer a fair chance, and I became a Liverpool fan after (of all people) Tim Howard and company convinced me I was overlooking something worthwhile. As a result, there are many pieces of Liverpool history I’ve missed in my lifetime. For the last seven years, I’ve known the legend of Istanbul, but it was only last week that I watched the match for the first time. Even knowing how the story ended, it was still a wild ride. The most famous of Liverpool’s European nights. What was it like through fresh eyes?
The opening moments were surreal as the announcers discussed Liverpool ending the season behind Everton in the league. I practically spit out my drink because the idea of Everton being successful, well ever, boggles my mind. I was still trying to come to terms with “Everton” and “top four” being used in the same sentence when Maldini found the back on the net for Milan. Scored too early? Or the beginning of a loooong night?
About 14 minutes in my heart was in my throat when Luis Garcia chested the ball off the goal line; in real-time, I feared a handball, but Garcia probably still has the bruised sternum to prove me wrong. The disallowed goal on 29 minutes felt ominous; sure Milan was offside, but they still carved up the Reds backline with ease. It truly foreshadowed the ease of Crespo’s brace. A lovely counterattack in the 39th – an advertisement for the beautiful game. The effortlessness with which Milan set him up one on one with the keeper in the 44th, and the pure class of how he lifted it over Dudek, made Milan seem like worthy champions. 3-0. Hand Ancelotti the trophy. Sigh.
While Gerrard’s header belongs on every Liverpool, UEFA, and Stevie G highlight reel, it really felt against the run of play. So much so it didn’t feel like it could be a turning point with Milan looking like they’d score a 4th at any moment. Smicer making me eat those words two minutes later was the moment that, if I’d been watching live, I’d have begun to believe. The Alonso penalty save and rebound goal was so fast I could barely react to the save before it was 3-3. Perhaps the wildest part of this game for me is that it has 6 goals in 60 minutes, and then 0 goals in 60 minutes (although both teams had plenty of chances to win it in regulation).
I’ve always considered penalty shootouts an utterly stupid way to end a game and a perverse way of deciding a championship. It would be like settling Game 7 of the World Series with a home run derby, or the NBA Finals with a 3 point shooting contest. It is an individual skill challenge only tangentially related to the team sport that went before it. But it is dramatic and exciting and I can never look away. And seeing Smicer and Carragher both go down with either cramps or muscle pulls in extra time is a good reminder of the cost of my preference for an unlimited number of periods of extra time until it is no longer tied.
As for the penalties themselves: Dudek, oh Dudek. The dancing to psych out the kicker, coming so far off his line to save Milan’s second attempt, repeatedly handing the ball to the penalty taker but dropping it before the guy could get hold of it. Complete and total shithousery. I’d have wanted to punch him if he were in net for Milan, but coming from a Red, I loved every minute of it. Who’d have thought a keeper could concede 3 goals in the first half and walk away a hero? He, as much as anyone, is why from Paris down to Turkey we’ve won the f***ing lot!!