THERE were times, on Wednesday night, when the Stadio Olympico appeared determined to remind Liverpool of their mortality, even in a Champions League campaign in which their high-octane, high-tempo and high-risk swashbuckling football has seen them soaring closer to the heavens and all the purity and beauty that resides there.
Jurgen Klopp and his men had to suffer, and ride their luck at times as some close refereeing calls, including two massive penalty appeals which could have been given on another day, went against their spirited hosts, and had to be ruthless on the two occasions they were presented with openings, to reach the Promised Land of another Champions League final.
Rome, the Italian city forever associated with the Vatican, has also had to deal with the stunning coincidence twice in the past, in 1978 and in 2005, that there is some mystical link between Liverpool’s triumph in the Champions League and the death of Popes.
Like Pope John Paul VI dying in June 1978 and his successor, Pope John Paul I, dying suddenly three months later — just 33 days after his election — and Liverpool being crowned champions of Europe in the very same year.
A Liverpool side which, the previous year in 1977, had won their first European Cup title by using Rome’s Stadio Olympico to provide the setting for their success story with a 3-1 demolition of German club Borussia Monchengladbach in the final.
The same Liverpool which would come to the same Stadio Olympico in Rome, seven years later, to silence a city brimming with expectations as they beat Roma, in their stadium and in their city, in a penalty shootout drama, with Bruce Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs antics providing a classic motion picture to the remarkable ending and immortalising the moment of triumph.
Like Pope John Paul II, the one who had been elected in the year Liverpool won the European Cup in 1978 — in a remarkable year in which the Roman Catholic witnessed three Popes in five months — also dying in 2005, the year the Reds completed a sensational comeback, from three goals down, as if they were being powered by some divine aid, to beat AC Milan and be crowned champions of Europe in Istanbul, Turkey.
And, on Wednesday, Rome — the city where the independent state of the Vatican, with an area of 44 hectares and a population of about 1 000 people, is located — appeared determined to inflict its revenge on Liverpool in a European Champions League semi-final battle which almost provided a miracle for its resident football club
In the end, the Reds prevailed, in a game where one less goal for them would have seen them being eliminated, and another goal for the hosts would have taken the game into extra-time, with the two legs of their monumental showdown producing 13 goals — itself a record in terms of the number of goals ever scored in a showdown at this level of the competition.
And, when all the chaos had ended, it was Liverpool who were celebrating — as they did in 1977 when they won the final of this tournament inside the same stadium, and as they did in 1984, when they held their nerves to defeat Roma in another final, in the same ground.
Even for a die-hard lifelong Manchester United fan like myself, for whom Liverpool represent the ultimate rivals and whose troubles often provide a cheer to my soul, it’s hard to resist the temptation of saluting these Reds, if not for the beauty of their poetry paraded in their football, then just for the magnificence of their attacking values and the strength they possess in abundance in that area.
An incredible 46 goals scored, in this campaign alone, something which no football club has done before in the 62-year history of this competition, a refreshing throwback to an era when football was as beautiful as it was fashionable, when a 17-year-old Pele arrived in Sweden at the 1958 World Cup and then played the starring role for Brazil in thrashing the hosts 5-2 in the final.
When Pele and his Golden Brigade of 1970 ran rings around the Italians, in the final of the World Cup, en-route to a 4-0 hammering of their opponents in Mexico City, when Real Madrid edged French club Stade de Reims 4-3 in Paris in 1956 to win their first European Cup, when they thrashed German side Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in Glasgow, Scotland, in the final of the 1960 tournament.
When Benfica edged Barcelona 3-2 in the final in Bern, Germany, in 1961 and then defended their crown with a 5-3 defeat of Real Madrid in Amsterdam the following year, when AC Milan hammered Barcelona 4-0 in the final in Athens in 1994, when Borussia Dortmund beat Juventus 3-1 in Munich in the 1997 final, when Liverpool came from the dead to draw 3-3 against AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 and when Barcelona destroyed my Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley in 2011
For Liverpool, to score twice in Rome against plucky opponents who had never conceded a home goal in this campaign all season, who had restricted Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to firing blanks in the quarter-final, was remarkable in itself.
And, now, they seem to have fate singing in their corner, given they were European champions in 1981, when a royal wedding saw Prince Charles marry Diana Spencer, and they were European champions again in 2005, when Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles.
Of course, there is a royal wedding again this year, with Prince Harry marrying Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on May 19, just a week before Liverpool plunge into their Champions League final showdown against Real Madrid in Kiev.
You don’t need to believe in fate, but it has a way of expressing itself and every time Juventus have met an English side in this tournament, the final has always featured a side from England and, once Liverpool were the last team standing, and with the Italians having met Tottenham in the Round of 16, the Reds had history of a place in Kiev virtually guaranteed.
THE KLOPP MODEL IS WHAT OUR COACHES BADLY WANT TO REVIVE INTEREST IN OUR GAME
Klopp’s all-attack high-energy Liverpool provides a refreshing contrast to the ugliness of the football which defensive monsters like Jose Mourinho have believe in as they go about polluting the beautiful game and turning it into an 11-Aside football version of chess in their world where the goalkeeper wins the Player of the Year for the third season in a row.
Or an ultra-defensive prophet like Diego Simeone who has successfully turned football into a very, very boring game where his teams are set out to ensure they never concede, they never entertain, they even seduce you to sleep, somewhere along the action, and when you wake up 30 minutes later you find you haven’t missed anything.
Of course, I understand some will argue that defence is also part of the game, that it’s an art, a virtue, a quality that has to be refined and perfected and that is why Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are in the Europa Cup final, a tournament which Mourinho won last year, and why they have both been successful in their jobs
But this game, clearly, is at its very best when teams have a commitment to attack each other, throwing everything they have at the opponents, and that is what helps it attract its patronage, what brings the fans to the stadiums, and why its biggest stars — the likes of Messi, Cristiano, Zidane, Maradona, Pele, Best, Neymar and Di Stefano — have always been those who make the difference in attack.
For a long time, now, the domestic Premiership has suffered from the absence of coaches whose first instincts are to attack, and players who can feel comfortable under the tutelage of such gaffers knowing fully well they are singing the same song, and the result has been a boring product which has driven many fans away from our stadiums.
In our flirtation with darkness, we have embraced a culture where it’s normal that the top goal-scorer in our Premiership scores a dozen goals in 30 or 34 games, with more than a quarter of them coming from the penalty spot, and at the end of the season we give him his Golden Boot award, we have a drink to toast that assumed success at the Soccer Star of the Year awards and we drift away to our annual holidays.
We have let the cancer spread, believing it is normal for us to become an extension of Super Diski, where it’s part of the DNA of that retirement league for the best striker in the season to score half-a-dozen goals, and he still gets honoured, at the end of the season, for a job well done and providing the schoolboys with an ironic example of a fine marksman in this game.
Our coaches, desperate to save their jobs, have generally gone for a safety-first approach where the thrust has always been to try not to lose matches, which means defence, defence and more defence, because as long as their teams don’t concede, they won’t be defeated in those encounters, while they gamble on getting a lucky break for the one goal to win games.
British coach Mark Harrison told me that our players never seem comfortable on the ball, there is always a rush to do things, a rush to release the ball, a rush to pump it forward, and I can’t agree with him more.
We have glorified mediocrity, for far too long, lying to each other that the game has changed, defence was now the biggest weapon for success, and attack has become a luxury, and we have celebrated while the last three Golden Boot winners — Dominic Chungwa (17), Leonard Tsipa (11) and Knox Mutizwa (14) — have, in three years, combined for a total of 42 goals, which is four short of what Moses Chunga scored on his own when he grabbed 46 goals in 1986.
Even if we add the 12 goals which Charles Sibanda scored in 2014 to win the Golden Boot, we get 54 goals, and that tally still is only eight goals more than what Chunga scored on his own when he banged 46 goals in 1986.
Somehow, we didn’t see the anomaly, in the mist of our celebrations and our comfort with mediocrity, that Tsipa could win the Golden Boot, with 18 goals in 2004, and then come back onto the scene — as a 35-year-old in the twilight of his career — to win the same award with 11 goals two years ago.
But, crucially, and that is even more damning, nine times in the past 10 years, the team that has been crowned champions of our domestic Premiership has failed to score goals, as a group of players, than Chunga on his own in 1986.
Last year, only two clubs — Dynamos (55) and Ngezi Platinum (54) — scored more goals than Chunga’s tally, as an individual in 1986, while Tsholotsho and Chapungu’s combined total was 44 goals — two less than what Bambo scored on his own in 1986.
Just three years ago, only one team, during the entire Castle Lager Premiership campaign, FC Platinum, scored more goals than Chunga did, while WhaWha and Dongo, who were relegated at the end of the season, scored a combined 35 goals
Buffaloes and Tsholotsho scored a combined 44 goals and that, too, fell short of the 46 goals that the former Zimbabwe skipper scored in 1986.
Suddenly, a CAPS United side that was scoring 79 goals, en-route to winning the league championship in 2004, scored only 29 goals this season in 2015, with seven of those goals coming in their last three matches of the season.
We certainly can’t go on like this, saying it’s business as usual, when a football revolution — which places emphasis on the attacking aspects of the game — is taking place around the world because, if we continue deceiving each other that it’s the way it should be, the fans will continue looking elsewhere, like watching Klopp’s Liverpool on television than come to our stadiums.
IMAGINE IF MADINDA CAN DO IT FOR ADAMSKI BY WINNING THE LEAGUE THIS YEAR?
When Liverpool qualified for the Champions League final on Wednesday night, it marked the end of six years of waiting for an English club to appear in the deciding game for the tournament with Chelsea having been the last, in 2012, when they shocked Bayern Munich in their own Allianz Arena home to be crowned champions after a penalty shootout.
It’s also six years now since we lost Adam Ndlovu, as perfect a symbol of attacking football — both as a player and a coach — as they will ever come in this country.
A footballer who was good enough to attract the interest of Sir Alex Ferguson and get an invitation for trials at Old Trafford only to unfortunately arrive at the same time Eric Cantona made his mind to make the switch from Leeds to Manchester United.
Adamski was true to his values of attacking football, something which was natural to him, given he was a very good forward for all the clubs he played for and also for the Warriors where, now and again, he would pop up with some big goals.
And, six years after he was cruelly taken away from us in that tragic car crash, his brother Madinda — himself a firm believer in attacking football which was the hallmark of his playing days with his pace and brilliance — helping him distinguish himself as a genuine superstar — finds himself with the tough task of reviving a Bosso side which he claims had lost its identity in the past few years.
Madinda, never one to be commanded to do things he doesn’t believe in, who will always stick to his values and his principles, has gone about making some big changes at the country’s oldest football club by infusing some youngsters and changing the way Bosso have been playing.
It’s still early days, and there will be days which will be dark and which will test the patience of both the fans and the club’s leadership, but so far the first signs are encouraging and while their defeat in Ngezi was a setback, it wasn’t a disaster, and what is crucial is that they competed and would have been full value for a point.
They haven’t set the league alight with goals, but you can’t fault them for creating countless opportunities and Madinda says that’s only the first part of his revolution, to convince his troops that they can give themselves a chance to score by remaining committed to the attacking values which he believes in and, with time, they will start getting the goals their creativity deserves.
You can see the masterplan that he has, the refusal to do business as usual, and to invest in some youngsters who have the freedom and passion to make a difference and we have seen some beautiful goals coming from Barbourfields this season.
Of course, like every Bosso coach, he will be ultimately be judged by winning silverware, especially the league championship, and he knows that.
But just for a minute imagine if fate smiles on him, he provides the City of Kings with a league title, won playing football the correct way, to cheer its spirits this season — exactly half-a-dozen years when this city united to mourn the death of Adamski.
Don’t tell me you don’t believe in fate when Liverpool are in the final of the Champions League in the year another royal wedding is on the cards.