Magic, mystery and misery in Istanbul

I WAS most beautifully stitched up by a shoeshine man at the famous Galata Bridge in Istanbul on the calm morning before the storm of Wednesday night.

He hailed me as I sauntered by, miming that he needed a light. I obliged, and we nodded in a friendly manner.

But then he refused to give me back the lighter. Holding it close to his chest, he assured me that I was a “gentleman tourist” and since he too was a gentleman, the least he could do was return the favour by shining my admittedly scruffy shoes.

Before I knew what was happening, he had a hold of my foot and was furiously going to work with wax, cream and elbow grease. Simultaneously, he launched into a moving spiel in broken English, the key words of which were ‘child’, ‘hospital’, ‘pills’ and ‘bills’. The Turkish lira began to drop.

When I attempted to offer him some coins, he switched tack and broke into French. “Non, non,” he said. “Papier,” he pleaded, indicating that he’d prefer if I dipped into my vast reserves of folding stuff. “How much?” I asked, with a sense of something akin to impending wholesale slaughter. He replied with a figure that equated to about €20.

I laughed out loud. Sighing deeply and rolling his eyes, he allowed that he might consider dropping it to €15. In the end, I gave him six, got my lighter and figured it had all been worthwhile just to get a close-up of a master at work.

I also think I now have some slight understanding of what AC Milan must feel as they reflect on the improbable turn of events in the Ataturk.

One minute you’re in total control; the next, the ground has moved beneath your feet, and someone else is running off with what’s rightfully yours. Carlo Ancelotti’s men fell victim to a Scouse/Spanish three card trick - and must be wondering exactly how it was done.

Liverpool’s sensational victory almost amounted to a case of identity theft. Let’s face it, by half-time AC Milan were the new champions of Europe. We all knew that. Most of all, Carlo Ancelotti’s men knew it. But then, in as stark a case of role reversal as you’re ever likely to see, over the course of the next 80 minutes or so, Liverpool proceeded to divest the Milanese of their style, impregnability and, finally, their trophy.

So Liverpool are the champions of Europe, and for the depth of character they showed, deservedly so. But it would still be stretching it to say they are the best team in Europe. In so many ways, the final was their Champions’ League campaign in microcosm. Few had given them a chance of progressing against Juventus and Chelsea. The difference in Istanbul was that absolutely nobody gave them a chance of even escaping with their dignity intact, once Milan comprehensively dismantled them in the first 45.

But as they have done so often in their remarkable European campaign, Liverpool bucked the odds yet again, ensuring that May 25, 2005 will be forever remembered as the date of arguably the greatest comeback in football history.

The most difficult task in reporting the drama was to somehow avoid using the phrase “a game of two halves.” But if Milan had cruised through the first and Liverpool battled back in the second, by the time it got to the penalties, there was only ever going to be one winner. Put simply, Milan’s bottle had gone. Effectively, they had lost what they had won, and the destabilising effects on the psyche of that kind of tectonic shift is no preparation for the psychological pressure of the shoot-out.

On which point, while Milan had practised taking penalties, Liverpool hadn’t bothered. Someone who might also have to go back to the drawing board is Mario Kempes.

In the current issue of the Champions’ League magazine, the great Argentinian says he thinks a two goal lead is the most vulnerable in football. “You have to score three to be safe,” he confirms.

Sure, we can point to the arrival of Hamann as a critical turning point but, ultimately, this was a game which defied rational analysis.

In the stadium mixed zone in the wee hours, Jamie Carragher recalled the moment he ran towards the fans in triumph.

“I just took off,” he said. “And I couldn’t believe it. There must have been 40,000 Liverpool fans there - and the exact place that I ran to was where all my mates and my family were.”

The force was with Liverpool in Istanbul. And not even the most fevered imaginings of their sponsors Carlsberg will ever top this intoxicating advertisement for the game.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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