European magic in Madrid gives Liverpool stories a happy ending

Virgil Van Dijk sticks his tongue out as he lifts the Champions League trophy. Picture: Getty.
Virgil Van Dijk sticks his tongue out as he lifts the Champions League trophy. Picture: Getty.
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There is something unique about the way Jurgen Klopp unites his players. His centre-back, Virgil Van Dijk, alluded to it, but found it hard to put exactly into words. He says things that “touched us,” Van Dijk said. “It’s not like you only play for yourself, you play for everyone who’s been connected, you play for everyone who is always there for you.”

Liverpool’s Champions League glory was built upon players from different backgrounds and with different stories to tell.

Well into the early
hours after the final, as the players meandered through the Madrid mixed zone – the area where the media can stop players for a chat – goalkeeper Alisson looking slightly worse-for-wear as he marched through with the giant Champions League trophy clutched between his consistently safe hands and plenty of players with red streaks in their hair already, a few of them stopped to share theirs.

Jordan Henderson

When Henderson’s father, Brian, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014 he asked his son not to see him while he had treatment, as he did not wish for him to see the suffering. Henderson felt, at the time, as though he needed to up his game to help his father’s recovery.

A video was captured after the final on Saturday, which went viral online, of the midfielder walking over to the sideline and embracing his father in a huge hug and crying into his shoulder, shortly after lifting the trophy.

“My dad has been through a lot over the past few years,” Henderson says. “Tonight I am sure he will be so proud to see us win the game and win the Champions League. It will mean the world to him. I am just glad I can put a smile on his face.”

Criticism has never been far from Henderson’s side. From Sir Alex Ferguson turning down the chance to sign him because he thought he ran strangely, to the suggestions he could not quite hack it against the very best central midfielders.

Henderson could not have cared less as he held that Champions League trophy in his hands for the first time.

“My dream as a kid was to win trophies, my best friend sent us a picture this morning of me kissing a trophy when I was about ten, so that gave me even more motivation,” he says. “The trophy was gold and it was quite big and I’m kissing it. That gave us motivation.”

Mohamed Salah

A year ago, Salah, inset, was being hauled down by Sergio Ramos, their arms entwined (some say intentionally so by the Real Madrid defender), in a collision that would end Salah’s Champions League final in the 30th minute. He would not recover properly in time for the World Cup.

But Salah believes in fate, and the idea that everything happens for a reason. After 23 seconds against Spurs, when Liverpool were awarded a penalty, Salah had a chance at redemption, and he took it.

In the lead up to Saturday’s final, he had looked at pictures of the Ramos challenge to channel his emotion. “I looked at the picture from last year before the game,” he says. “We were a little bit disappointed after the final and now we are back and have won it again, the sixth time for Liverpool, it is something great.”

How did it make him feel? “Disappointment. I was very disappointed that I got injured after 30 minutes and we lost the game. It was something to motivate me to win today.”

Virgil Van Dijk

Van Dijk has always sought to play for clubs he believed would treat him like family. At Groningen, where he broke through in the Netherlands. At Celtic, where the Premier League began to take notice. At Southampton, where he forged a reputation that convinced Klopp to make him the world’s most expensive defender. At Liverpool, he has perhaps found the biggest family of all.

You can see it in the tens of thousands of reds who flew to Madrid, outnumbering Spurs fans by three to one at a guess, most ticketless but just wanting to be close to the final.

“It makes you happy, even before the game to see all those fans in the square – 50,000 people I think – and you’re so excited,” Van Dijk says. “Normally I get a little sleep before a match, but it was difficult. I was like, ready to go, ready to see my family, see all the fans and to come out for the warm-up, it was a special feeling.

“We want to keep working hard for all of these fans but also for your team-mates next to you, for everyone working in the club, that works for you and want to make every day the best you can get basically.”