A marked divergence develops on 21 May of each year among the Celtic fraternity. Between those who played in the Uefa Cup final of 2003, and those who watched it.
That baking-hot evening in the Andalusian capital has attained mythical status among the club’s support, irrespective of the 3-2 extra-time loss to Porto that denied Celtic a fairytale ending in their first European final for 33 years.
The team and their legions acquired the nickname, The Bhoys from Seville. However, for Martin O’Neill and his players, it might be more apt to talk of the battlescars from Seville. In the near two decades since, I have spoken to many of the combatants from the Parkhead club about their brush with continental glory. Regret and grimaces have forever been the order of the day. The 60,000 army of Celtic supporters that descended on the city that evening – shy of the 80,000 figure of legend – is not something over which they marvel. It tends to merely make their sense of misery all the more profound.
Celtic almost upset a Porto side that Jose Mourinho would lead to Champions League success a year later because of the majesty of Henrik Larsson. Two glorious headed equalisers from the Swede, in a display that represented his crowning achievement across seven years at the club, have never offered any consolation to him.
Even with the first his 200th for the club – netted two minutes into a second half that ended with Derelei puncturing Celtic’s resistance – and his second a snap of the muscles that almost allowed the ball to defy the laws of geometry. A counter that came three minutes after Dmitri Alenichev’s 54th-minute strike.
“There were a lot of Celtic fans there. I had a lot of friends as well, coming down to see the game, including my father,” said Larsson reflecting on the final three years ago that he earned for his team with nine goals across the earlier rounds.
“But it still hurts when I talk about it, because I think it’s a game we should have won, and the Celtic fans deserved that. But that’s the way it goes. Now there is a lot of water under the bridge, so we just have to get on with it.”
Deriving any sort of pride over what was failure 17 years ago has also proved impossible for O’Neill. I have spoken to him about the encounter on several occasions. He told me he could never watch it back, and when encouraged to see the feat of reaching the decider as something to savour, always had the same pay off: “Ultimately we lost. That’s it.”
That wasn’t even it for Shaun Maloney. The attacker only appeared for the second period of extra-time with the score tied at 2-2 – which prevented the silver-goal method of settling extra-time coming into play for the first time – and Celtic reduced to 10 men following Bobo Balde’s red card for a second bookable offence in the 96th minute. But, following Derlei’s strike to make it 3-2 with five minutes of time remaining, for which keeper Robert Douglas is sometimes unfairly maligned, in the closing seconds Maloney had a free-kick at the edge of the area. It was to be Celtic’s last opportunity to strike back for a third time, but he could only send it sailing over the bar.
Almost a full decade later, the moment came up in conversation with him. “I still think about that every day,” he lamented, the cerebral performer without equal in those I have encountered across 30 years reporting on the game for his capacity to beat himself up over any disappointments that came his way on a football pitch.
Maloney looks to his own part in any downfall. Few among the Celtic support have been able to get over what befell their team that evening. In a bar beside the majestic Seville cathedral later that evening, I was almost set upon by a Celtic supporter after he asked me my thoughts on the ‘cheating’ that had gone on in the final. A common theme in recollections of the occasion, the Celtic faithful were incensed by the play-acting and time-wasting of Mourinho’s men. Indeed, their ridiculously over-the-top, race-off-the-pitch celebrations for the winner elicited a typically acidic quip from O’Neill. “I thought they’d gone off into town to celebrate,” he said.
To that narked supporter, though, I had said cheating took different forms. For, while Porto keeper Victor Baia rolling for 80 yards after feigning that Ulrik Laursen had clipped his leg in the closing minutes was pathetic, in truth Celtic did not cover themselves in glory with their crude physicality in the final.
World Soccer, as well as Tom Lappin in The Scotsman, were critical of Celtic’s overly-aggressive style, and it doesn’t stand up well on repeated viewing. Balde may have been the only man to be dismissed, but the over-zealous nature of challenges by Alan Thompson, Joos Valgaeren and Laursen suggests O’Neill’s men may have been fortunate in that regard against more nimble opponents.
Celtic supporters tend to airbrush that out of any review of the event. What they alight upon, naturally, is that there was an accolade that came the club’s way following it. With no arrests among the massed ranks of supporters who travelled from Scotland for the final Celtic were awarded the Fifa Fair Play award. It is, perhaps, why they have such a different attitude to what went on in the southern tip of Spain. Mourinho, in fairness, hasn’t forgotten their input, as evidenced by his memories of this momentous win in his career. “When I was at Porto my team also played in the Uefa Cup final against a Scottish side – it was Celtic. I’ve never seen such emotional people. It was unbelievable.” Indeed.
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