‘Without football it is impossible to live’
Fear the walking dead. And the hugging, laughing, screaming dead. And, most importantly, fear the weeping dead.
That’s the message for Liverpool heading into the Uefa Champions League final in Madrid on June 1 after Tottenham Hotspur matched their English rivals’ miracle of 24 hours earlier to set up one of the most unlikely finales in the history of football’s premier club competition.
Spurs will ride a flood of tears into Madrid after somehow coming from 3-0 down to subdue a majestic Ajax side in Amsterdam.
Grown men descended into blubbering wrecks in the aftermath of a comeback that somehow eclipsed Liverpool’s miraculous reversal of the same scoreline against Barcelona in the first semi-final.
Liverpool’s subjugation of the Spanish superpower at Anfield following a 3-0 first leg drubbing in Barcelona was deeply unexpected, but it unfolded at home against a team of fat cat millionaires that played with a level of entitlement matched only in scale by their appalling lack of effort.
Spurs slayed their dragon on a foreign field, having trailed badly well into the second half of the second leg of a tie in which they seemed certain to be gallant losers until almost the final kick of the game.
Liverpool’s comeback was muscular, worthy and unstoppable. Spurs’ was that of a corpse in a horror movie somehow rising from the dead after being shot with silver bullets, stabbed through the heart with a wooden stake and run over by a dump truck.
Bein Sports pundit and self-appointed special one Jose Mourinho almost summed up it best when he described the semi-finals as lessons for life from football: “In life, anything is impossible.”
The challenges of offering punditry in a second language may have caused Mourinho to flash that weighty observation off the cross bar – but he will have summed up the feelings of Ajax fans perfectly.
As Spurs wept with joy, Ajax and Dutch football simply wept.
“Not for me,” was legendary Dutch pass master Ruud Gullit’s rebuttal of a suggestion by former Liverpool star John Barnes that the planet had just witnessed the greatest week of football in history.
Ajax’s pain will be intensified by the knowledge the whales of the European game will now hoover up their brigade of young stars like platinum-plated plankton.
Their 19-year-old captain, Matthijs de Ligt, is on the wish list of just about every club with a bottomless chequebook. Having scored in the opening minutes but failed by a nanosecond to get his foot down in time to block Lucas Moura’s stupendous winner, de Ligt will depart Amsterdam in agony rather than melancholy ecstasy.
So, so close.
Mourinho was almost convincing in his protestations that he didn’t want to criticise Ajax for their naivety in sticking to an attacking philosophy when, at 3-0 up, common sense demanded a more cautious approach.
“They are going to watch the final on television with their philosophy,” the Portuguese mastermind observed.
As for Spurs, whose comeback was masterminded by an Argentine manager using a giant Spaniard and a diminutive Brazilian to perfectly execute an old school English long ball approach?
“They used very well the dark football,” Mourinho purred. “And they were lucky – the gods were with them.”
The mastermind of Spurs’ ridiculously sublime moment, Mauricio Pochettino, had channelled Buzz Lightyear in the build-up to the match.
“We have the spirit in the team that we can achieve anything,” the former international Argentinian centre back had said. “You need to set your dreams to infinity and beyond. We are living the dream.”
Pochettino knew full well that, having somehow escaped from pool play despite managing just a solitary draw in their first three matches, and survived a furious Manchester City assault in the quarterfinal thanks only to the last gasp intervention of a video review that erased a Man City winner, Spurs’ dream was already being funded by house money.
Still, yet another reincarnation was too much for Pochettino, who dissolved into floods of tears after watching Lucas Moura complete a brilliant hat trick with 95.01 showing on the clock of a match in which the final whistle was due at 95.00.
“It is still difficult to talk,” Pochettino said after taking 20 minutes to compose himself. “The emotion is amazing. Thank you, football. This type of emotion, without football it is impossible to live. It is difficult to describe with words what we are living now.”
His emotion wasn’t, he insisted, the human body’s way of shedding stress.
“When you work and you feel the love it is not stress. It is a passion. And the emotion we showed today was a passion to love this sport.
“I am so grateful to be a coach, to be in football and to be living this type of moment,” he said before the tears returned.
Mourinho, never one not to exploit a tactical opening, rammed Pochettino’s tears down the throats of every fan who had ever dared to suggest the central actors in what is surely sport’s greatest drama weren’t emotionally invested in their work.
“Sometimes football fans think they care more than us. Sometimes they don’t know what we are behind the scenes. We are normally a very lonely person, in the sense that football consumes a lot.
“This is a manifestation of all of that. He thanks the players, he thanks the fans. He thinks about the family. The people that he loves and the people that love him. I feel [it is] very normal that he is crying. It is a very beautiful way to show that for us – managers and players – it means much more than for the ordinary fan.”
A good point well made – but having endured the unendurable as they watched their teams somehow produce the impossible, it’s unlikely Spurs and Liverpool fans will be buying it.