15 years on, Liverpool greats Smicer and Berger still shake their heads at one of the craziest European finals ever
Reds’ treble-winning Czech stars reflect on historic night
Try telling Patrik Berger that the Uefa Cup is a lesser tournament and his response scotches that notion.
“You have players in the world who were unbelievable players and they never won any trophies. I think you play for trophies, and I was lucky enough to play for Liverpool and to win trophies. Since 2005, Liverpool didn’t win much. I won five trophies in one season! For me it’s about history and it’s great to be a part of the history of such a huge club.”
Berger and his former Reds wingman Vladimir Smicer are talking in Hong Kong, where they’ll take part in the annual HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens tournament this weekend.
The pain of the current Liverpool team’s capitulation in the Europa League final during the small hours of Thursday morning is still fresh, but the former stars can cheer themselves up by remembering that incredible night 15 years ago when, as a part of Gerard Houllier’s treble-winning side, they scooped Uefa’s minor competition.
It didn’t feel quite so minor that night in 2001, though: 48,050 fans, mostly Liverpool supporters, rocked the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund on one of the most frenzied nights in the competition’s storied history.
Liverpool had made steady, methodical progress to the final, edging European heavyweights Roma, Porto and Barcelona, scoring 14 goals and conceding just five in 12 matches on the way to Dortmund.
In contrast, their Spanish opponents, Alaves, making their debut in continental competition having been in Spain’s fourth tier just 11 years earlier, had netted an impressive 31 times but also conceded 15 times as they progressed.
The writing was on the wall for an open finale, but no one could have imagined how the match was going to play out.
“It seemed like an easy final for us,” recalls Smicer. “I remember that we were 2-0 up quite quickly and I thought it was going to be a good final. Suddenly it was 4-4 and we were into extra time! It was tougher than I thought.”
Liverpool had appeared to be cantering to a third Uefa Cup crown after quickly going 2-0 and then 3-1 up before half-time. But in scenes not dissimilar to the horror show in Switzerland that Liverpool fans were forced to endure on Thursday morning, Houllier’s men conceded two goals in quick succession to allow Alaves back into the match at 3-3.
Liverpool grabbed a fourth with less than 20 minutes remaining and finally their fans thought they had done enough to seal victory, only for former Manchester United player and son of the late Johan Cruyff, Jordi, to grab an equaliser and send the incredible tie into extra time.
Alaves had two men sent off in extra time yet still poured forward, and in the end it took a deflected free-kick from Liverpool’s talismanic 36-year-old playmaker Gary McAllister to win the match. The joy – and relief – was palpable.
“I remember the winning goal,” says Smicer, his face lighting up. “From that moment we knew we had won the game – a sudden death goal. It was an own goal, but that didn’t matter to us. We were celebrating. And it was a European trophy for us. Not too many Czech players have won European trophies, so I was very happy.”
“Actually, just yesterday I saw on TV a little clip of Gary McAllister,” interrupts Berger. “It was absolutely awesome to see because they were clips from the game then he was talking about his feelings during the game. It’s funny, in 2001 we knew the FA Cup final and the Uefa Cup final were coming up, and when the boys were talking most of the English boys said they would rather win the FA Cup, and the foreign players were saying they would rather win the Uefa Cup, so to make it easier we won both!”
Fifteen years have passed since that incredible Dortmund night. But it’s one that has gone down in Liverpool folklore and the memories are still fresh for the Czech duo.
“Time is flying – it’s crazy,” says Berger. “But what I remember most was the celebration after the game! It was a rollercoaster – a crazy game. A game to remember. It was probably written in the sky that we were gonna be the winners that night. That’s the Liverpool way.”
‘He’s Czech, he’s great, he’s Paddy Berger’s mate, Vladimir, Vladimir’, sang the Anfield crowd throughout the six years that Smicer played for Liverpool, the team he supported as a boy in Decin, Czechoslovakia. And he’s perhaps best remembered for what turned out to be the final contribution of his trophy-laden stay at Anfield: the second goal in the great comeback of the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan, the Miracle in Istanbul. Another game that has gone down in history as one of the finest the competition has witnessed.
But he’s bullish about just how much that treble triumph of 2001 meant to him.
“I don’t want to make a big difference between the FA Cup, Uefa Cup or Champions League, it was always something special to win for the team,” says Smicer. “You might think ‘ah, the League Cup is easy compared to the Champions League’, but still it’s a final. It’s always great that if you play in the final, you win the final.”
The chorus of the Liverpool crowd couldn’t have been more right. Today, Berger and Smicer remain close friends. They enjoyed a spell playing together and managing a team in the Czech lower leagues before joining the Masters circuit, and now the two golf fanatics travel the world together seeing new places and getting a round in as they compete in exhibition games.
“We’re crazy golfers, so we like to play,” says Berger, whose career was cut short by injury. “We are lucky enough to play exhibition games all around the world. We played for Liverpool in Sydney at the beginning of the year, now we’re here. We have Masters football coming up, so we have six or seven games during the year. I love travelling and I get to go to places I’ve never been before, so I absolutely love what I do at the moment.”
If trophies and history are the most important thing, Berger and his fellow countryman Smicer have ensured that they will forever be associated with conquering Europe together during their time together at Liverpool. And that’s not bad for two mates from Czech Republic.