But if there is to be a worse fate than finishing second, we only remember it because you blew it up, stifled it, snatched it from the mouth of victory.
Sports history books are full of many examples. Golf can be particularly cruel; just think of Greg Norman’s epic collapse in the 1996 Masters or the unfortunate Jean van de Velde at the 1999 Open Championship, where he threw a three-stroke lead over the very last hole.
Such calamities can define a career or even shape the identity of a city. Atlanta in the United States is still being criticized because of the Falcons’ monumental surrender in Super Bowl LI, when they somehow lost a 25-point lead at the end of the third quarter of the NFL flagship game.
While Milan is not a city that you would associate with a sporting failure – their AC Milan and Internazionale football teams are among the most successful in Europe – there is a particular exception: during the final of the 2005 Champions League , AC Milan ran in a 3-0 lead against Liverpool and somehow left the field losing.
Earlier this month, former AC Milan goalkeeper Dida, who played in the final, told CNN: “It is really hard to imagine after this first half, which we practically achieved at perfection, that we would lose three goals. “
“The team was spectacular”
As always, the winners write history. Fifteen years later, this match is still celebrated as “The Miracle of Istanbul”, one of the greatest nights of European club football. But not for the losers; for them it was a nightmare. Milan’s perspective on that fateful night is not what you often hear.
To say that Milan was the favorite in Istanbul would have been a serious understatement; the class of 2005 was a team filled with international megastars and performers. Seven of the eleven starters from Milan had won the Champions League two years earlier.
Brazilians Cafu, Dida and Kaka were all World Cup winners, while the following summer, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta would be world champions with Italy.
Ukrainian striker Andriy Schevchenko was the winner of the 2004 Ballon d’Or, arguably the greatest individual recognition of the game and an honor that Kaka would claim later in 2007. Captain Paolo Maldini was a legend of Milan and the Italy, considered one of the best defenders in the history of the game and a player who had won four of his five European Cups at the time of this match.
“The team was spectacular,” Paolo Agostinelli, who had tickets to the match in Istanbul, told CNN Sport Milan, but had to cancel his trip within a short time. However, as he logged in to watch the game on TV, he expected only one result: “I was sure we would have won this game, I was confident. I was very confident . ”
The reason for such exhilarating optimism was not just the star galaxy of Milan; it was the perceived weakness of the opposition. Although Liverpool had already dominated the English league and European competitions, this success was – at that time – a rather distant memory.
In 2005, Liverpool’s national performance in the Premier League was so bad that they did not even qualify for the next Champions League season. They finished fifth. The starting 11 of Milan was a who’s who of international football; The Liverpool team was more like “who are you?”
In 20 years since Liverpool even contested the European Cup final, AC Milan has won it four times. Admittedly, Liverpool’s ambitions were hampered by the five-year ban on UEFA for all English teams after the Heysel stadium disaster, but whatever – they had been missing from the top table for a long time.
On the eve of the match, the teams presented their arguments to the international media. Maldini was convincing; “History matters and in recent years Milan has always been at this level.”
First-year Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez told the assembled press that he hoped for an early goal, but Maldini’s goal after just 50 seconds was not quite the point ‘he had in mind.
As Paolo Agostinelli remembers: “We were playing fabulous football, the team was confident and everything was fine, then Maldini scored. It was a sign of destiny. Maldini never scores.”
Milan purred; their Brazilian goalkeeper Dida giggled when CNN recently asked him if he had a lot to do in the first half: “Honestly, not much,” he admitted. “The focus and the team focus was extremely high.”
At halftime, two Hernan Crespo goals gave the Italians a 3-0 lead. It was a track that seemed insurmountable.
“Something unreal has happened”
Antonio Greco is called Uccio. Founder of the Gallipoli supporters club in 1984, he has always been a supporter of Milan, estimating that he has attended some 400 games. He saw them lift the European Cup in Madrid, Barcelona, Vienna, twice in Athens and also in Manchester.
“It was a great first half; the fans asked me to unveil our celebration banners.” But then, in the second half, “something unreal happened”.
What happened next became a legend in Liverpool. As the teams left the field for the fifteen-minute interval, it was difficult to say which team was losing. Fans of the Liverpool end of Atatürk Stadium challenged their scarves in the air, serenizing their heroes with hymns of praise and the dizzying swarm of “ You will never walk alone ”.
Liverpool players could hear it from their locker room and defender Sami Hyypia told CNN “” It may have given us some strength. Rafa Benitez just said, “Look, boys, this can’t go on like this. We have to give fans something to cheer about in the second half. He was fairly calm. ”
On the other side of the hall, the Milan team was also calm, or tranquillo, as Dida said: “Our coach Carlo Ancelotti was quiet; he didn’t say much, but he said that we still had to make every effort because there were 45 minutes left. Therefore, we knew we still had to make an effort. ”
Football is a sport littered with clichés, but there has never been such a “match for two”.
After the break, Liverpool looked like a completely different team; a header from their young captain Steven Gerrard made the score 3-1, and in two minutes it was 3-2, thanks to Vladimir Smicer.
Milan was shaken, as were their fans.
Back home in Italy, Agostinelli said he had stopped paying attention during halftime. His friend – a supporter of Juventus – asked if they really needed to watch the second half. But when Liverpool started scoring, television caught his attention. “I was petrified. I felt like something sinister was going up and down behind my back.”
In just 15 minutes after the restart and only six minutes after Liverpool’s first goal, the match, incredibly, was tied at 3-3. Dida saved a penalty from Xabi Alonso, but the Spaniard followed the rebound to score the tie.
Looking at Milan’s disbelief, Agostinelli said: “When I saw that Dida had made the rescue, but it was still not enough, right now, I knew it was lost.”
Inside the stadium, Milan fans witnessed an epic collapse and an extreme change of emotions. Greco was trying to deal with what he had just witnessed, he told CNN, “I was literally shocked. I couldn’t stand up anymore and my first thought was to get to the airport and get home as soon as possible. ”
When you ask players on both sides what happened, neither of them can really explain it.
Dida described the anxiety that sets in, but felt that they still had “the ability to do more in the game; we had the attackers, we had strength in our legs. Even if it was 3-3 , we still thought we could win the game. ”
“A terrible evening”
Level after 90 minutes, the game went to an additional half hour; but with the drama of an imminent penalty shootout, Milan had one last chance.
He came across their exceptional striker Schevchenko, but was twice brilliantly refused by Polish Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek. For Greco, it was final: “At that time, I really understood that AC Milan was going to lose the cup – a terrible evening.”
In the ensuing shootout, Milan missed their first penalty, Dudek saved two more and Liverpool made their most extraordinary comeback to win their fifth – and most unlikely – European Cup.
It was “The Miracle of Istanbul”, but for Milan it was “The Nightmare”, “The Tragedy”, “The Curse of Istanbul”. their fans used the three words to describe it. Their exhilarating high had been sorely wiped out in a mad spell of just six minutes.
Greco says he was still in shock when he got home and didn’t want to get off the plane. “The flight attendant must have come to convince me,” he said.
“Sometimes when we watch the game today we still can’t believe it,” said Dida. “We are still thinking about it. We are so close; how could it be?”
Often in sports, when a team has capitulated so dramatically, fans cannot help but excite them. But Agostinelli, who had attended two previous European Cup victories, says it didn’t happen here.
“They won the final in 2003; there were a lot of players that we liked. There was no tension between the fans and the team. The coach was a milanist and we all loved him. There was no resentment. It was as if we were fighting against an obscure and invincible force. It was supernatural.
“It was something so extraordinary, so impossible that only something equally impossible could fix it. And the kind of impossible happened two years later.”
Chance of revenge
In 2007, this time in Athens, Liverpool and Milan found themselves in the final of the Champions League. The chances of a rematch happening so soon would have been incredibly slim: same clubs, same managers and many of the same players. Liverpool had appreciated their miracle, but it was an opportunity for Milan to take revenge, and it was on sacred ground because since Milan had also won the Champions League at the Olympic stadium in 1994.
The match was tense, combative and even if Liverpool created more chances, it was Milan who held on. They had learned their lesson from 2005.
Dida is much happier to remember the match in Athens: “The real difference between the two matches was our concentration,” he recalls.
“It was much, much stronger than before; every aspect was under control.” Filippo Inzaghi – who was injured for the match in Istanbul – gave a 2-0 lead in each half, and Milan led 2-0, and Liverpool’s 90th-minute strike from Dirk Kuyt was just a consolation. The curse was quickly broken.
“We kissed and greeted each other, then our fathers, our sons were all there; it was a really wonderful feeling,” said Dida. “It was proof that we could have done the same thing two years ago, but we have to try to forget the game we lost and focus on what we won.”
Milan was back at the top of Europe, re-establishing itself as one of the powers of the continental game. After the game, Milan defender Gennaro Gattuso told the media, “The defeat from two years ago will stay with me a lifetime, but that’s another story. It’s our turn to celebrate now.”
At the final whistle, in the stands, Greco had an unfinished business. “It was incredible, the emotion and the joy that I felt were enormous. We finally unrolled the banner which had been rolled up since Istanbul 2005, tears in our eyes.”
Such a heartbreaking defeat has rarely been turned into such a satisfying revenge, but Athens will always be tinged with regret. Milan may have choked in 2005 and the scars from that night will never heal completely, but in 2007 they did everything they could to put him behind them. Do you expect everyone to forget it, though?
Well – it would take another miracle.