Ten years ago, one of the most remarkable European finals in history—perhaps the most remarkable—ended in suitably dramatic circumstances, as Liverpool came from three goals down to beat AC Milan in a penalty shootout and win the UEFA Champions League.
Rafa Benitez's side were written off by almost everyone when they went in at half-time at the Ataturk Stadium 3-0 down, but three goals in the opening 15 minutes of the second half changed the match entirely. After a few close escapes, it was down to penalties. Liverpool won the shootout and the Miracle of Istanbul was confirmed, as the Reds became only the third club—and the first from England—to become European champions five times.
Experienced midfielder Didi Hamann was a key participant in that roller-coaster evening. In his own words, he relives that remarkable day, one that started with him being left out of the Liverpool starting lineup and ended with him being handed the responsibility of taking his side's first penalty in the decisive shootout.
The Road to Istanbul
We had endured our fair share of dramatic moments just to reach the final. The one that sticks in the mind, not just for me but probably all fans, is the goal Steven Gerrard scored against Olympiakos to get us into the last 16.
The other was the final whistle against Chelsea after the semi-final because that was the loudest I heard Anfield in all my time at Liverpool. It was just incredible, an outpouring of emotion after a really tense tie. We drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge but went 1-0 up early at home. Then they bombarded us for the last half hour. I’ve never experienced anything like the scenes at Anfield after the final whistle. Pure elation, relief and joy, and I don’t think anybody left the stadium for about an hour. It was fantastic.
Once we were into the last 16, we were probably a longer shot than most to reach the final. We certainly weren’t favourites. We beat Bayer Leverkusen pretty comfortably, which gave us a certain amount of confidence. Then we were up against Juventus and found a way past them. And then it was on to the English champions-elect, Chelsea. When you beat two sides like that, you are obviously going to feel good about your chances.
We knew we were up against a very experienced side in AC Milan, and we also knew they had won the European Cup just two years before. But after everything we’d been through, we certainly thought we could beat them.
It was going to be a tight game, a big stage. We might have been the best side around in those circumstances because we knew exactly what was required. If you got in a dogfight with us, more often than not, we were going to come out on top. If we could do it against Chelsea and Juventus, why not AC Milan?
The Game Finally Arrives
We arrived in Istanbul the day before. After the FA Cup final and final Premier League games, there were almost two weeks before the Champions League final. That’s a long time to go without playing. The excitement started to build once we got into the second week, and then we arrived in Istanbul and everything became more real: You saw all the banners already up, the fans from both teams milling around the streets, the stadium in the distance. You knew the game was upon you.
I had a pretty settled night's sleep. There was obviously anticipation, but we had a lot of experienced campaigners in our side—we’d played in FA Cup finals, League Cup finals, UEFA Cup finals—so we were all pretty calm.
For most top professionals, when you go into such a game, one of the keys is to not burn too much energy beforehand. Sometimes, you can get so excited and wound up that by the time the game comes, you’ve actually got nothing left. As it was an evening game, you basically had a full day to kill beforehand, so you had to be as calm as possible.
We stayed on English time, even though Turkey is two hours ahead. The game didn’t kick off until 9:45 p.m. local time, so you have to rearrange things slightly. Breakfast was always optional at Liverpool. Some of the players would go for a late-morning walk afterward just to stretch the legs.
There was a team meeting just before 1 p.m. and lunch after that. That was the same arrangement we had all season. The atmosphere at the meals was probably a bit more tense than usual, but on the whole, you need to do the same things that got you into that position in the first place.
After that, most of us went to try to get another couple of hours' worth of sleep. We then had a final team meeting before leaving for the ground. The manager, Rafa Benitez, showed us clips of Liverpool's four previous European Cup victories, a little montage of those winning moments. At the end, he looked at us and said, “In 20 years' time, that could be us.” It was something he had never done before, but I think he wanted to underline the opportunity we had and put that in our minds before we arrived at the ground.
We had the same routine for such games: We’d have a look at the pitch and the stadium about 90 minutes before kick-off, then we’d go back into the changing room prior to the warm-ups and Rafa would tell us the starting lineup. He ran through the team as he always did, and that’s when I found out I wasn’t going to be starting the game.
There had been no indication that I wasn’t going to start. I’d had a medial ligament injury a few months earlier, but I’d played against Chelsea in the semi-final and a few games thereafter, so there were no issues on that front. As a player, you have a pretty good idea of whether you are going to play at any given game, and I was pretty confident I was going to start the final. It was a surprise that I didn’t.
Rafa didn’t explain his decision to me, but he didn’t need to. He can only pick 11 players. I wasn’t one of the 11 he selected for the game, and that’s just the way it was. There is nothing to explain really—he obviously wanted to include Harry Kewell, a player who could make a difference, and that was probably the reason. I was disappointed, but at the same time, I had to stay focused because if someone got injured in the warm-up or early in the game, then I'd have to be in the right state of mind to come on.
The warm-up wasn’t fun, though. I kicked the ball around with the other subs while the starters went through some final preparations. At that point, you start to hope the final half hour passes quickly so the game starts.
Kick-Off: Disaster Strikes
We had worked very hard to get to the final, and then the game starts and AC Milan go ahead after a minute. Paolo Maldini scored from an Andrea Pirlo free-kick, a set-piece goal—these things happen, and you cannot really blame anyone for it.
We should have had a penalty soon after. Alessandro Nesta handled the ball inside his box, but the referee waved that one away. Before you know it, Hernan Crespo had made it 2-0 and, minutes later, 3-0. At that point, you do think, "That's it—the game is lost."
It’s disappointing to watch a game like that because we worked so hard to get there and now might not even enter the second half with a chance, but it’s just one of those things. AC Milan were a very good team who exposed and exploited every weakness we showed them in that first 45 minutes.
We made a substitution in the first half—Harry had to come off and Vladimir Smicer came on—so I didn’t really have a clue what Rafa was going to do at the break. As we had already made a change, I didn’t really see what the next move was.
Sometimes, you go in at the break and think maybe we should change this or maybe the manager should do that, but I was just completely empty—I didn’t think about anything that could or would happen.
We walked into the dressing room, and the lads were down and heads were bowed, but Rafa was always the same. He was probably the only one in that room who still believed we could turn it around. He just very simply said, "We’re making a change: Steve Finnan is coming off and Didi is coming on." After that, he went through the team for the second half and how Stevie was going further up the pitch because we needed a goal and needed a goal quickly.
We went to three at the back. I was going to be in the center of midfield with Xabi Alonso. Rafa then explained a few bits on how we were now going to defend corners. I was in the dressing room for just two or three minutes because I had to get back out there and warm up.
People might be disappointed, but there was no rousing speech—there really wasn’t an awful lot to say. But in the changing room, we could hear the Liverpool fans still singing out in the stands, and that stuck with us. They obviously still believed we could turn it around, so we went back out there determined to see what could happen.
A Comeback for the Ages
We had played in that formation, with that system, quite a few times. And it was quite a regular thing for me to play in the middle with Xabi—Stevie a bit further forward—so it wasn’t difficult to settle into the rhythm of the game. We didn’t have to worry about that because we didn’t have any rhythm in the first half anyway!
The first aim was to not concede another goal—at 4-0, you know that would have finished the game. We had to try to score the first goal. We knew that would change the mood in our heads, in their heads, in the stadium. And that’s exactly what happened.
We got the goal after nine minutes—a great header by Stevie—and everyone started believing. All of a sudden, AC Milan's players thought they could be in for a game here.
We knew we were a team capable of coming back strongly. We had beaten Arsenal at the death in the 2001 FA Cup, and we always had a great team spirit and great togetherness. We never knew when we were beaten, and we always found ways out of difficult situations.
At half-time, it was probably hope at best. After the first goal, it was belief: We’re in with a squeak here.
Then Vladdy scored two minutes later, and after an hour, Xabi turned home a penalty at the second attempt to make the score 3-3. We’d done the hard part, but we certainly didn’t think we were automatically going to go on and win the game in normal time.
We had to adjust the mindset. I think we knew full well that if we conceded to make it 4-3, we probably didn't have the energy reserves to come back again. If we could win it in 90 minutes or 120 minutes, then great, but the most important thing was to not concede again.
They began to play much better and really began to control the game. They brought on some top players in Jon Dahl Tomasson, Serginho and Manuel Rui Costa. We were very tired toward the end, and we did well to hang on to get to extra time. That was the first target achieved.
I remember there were a couple of chances. Djimi Traore cleared one off the line, and they had a few near misses—everyone obviously remembers the double save Jerzy Dudek made from Andriy Shevchenko. Those were the biggest moments, but we didn’t have too many chances ourselves. There were some very tired players on that pitch, probably more of them on our side because we had to work very hard. They really did play very well apart from that 15-minute spell after half-time.
Jamie Carragher went down with cramp a few times, and I actually broke a metatarsal in my foot landing after a header about six minutes from time. But there was no question about going off—and we just had to hang on in there and get to penalties. Even at the time, I felt that was going to be our best chance to win it.
The Lottery of Penalties
If I remember correctly, the only time we practised penalties was in pre-season, about 10 months before the final. Rafa had just taken over, and two or three sessions after he started, we finished training and he asked every player to take three penalties. That was the only time. We never practised before any of the knockout ties or in the buildup to the final.
I assume Rafa had a pretty good idea who was going to take the penalties, although things obviously changed because Xabi missed one in the game itself and Harry Kewell and Milan Baros had both gone off, and they all might have taken penalties.
In the end, I went first. Rafa just came up to me at the final whistle and asked, “Are you going to take one?” And I nodded. A couple of minutes later, he came back and said, “You’re taking the first one.”
That was it. I didn’t even know who was taking the other four. I didn’t want to know; I didn’t need to know.
In my professional career before that night, I think I had only taken two penalties—I missed against Birmingham in the League Cup final and missed one when I was playing for Newcastle United in a cup match. So leading up to that final, I believe I had a 100 per cent penalty record: took two and missed two!
It was made a little bit easier because Serginho blasted Milan’s first penalty over the bar, so even if I missed, we wouldn’t be behind. That took the pressure off a little bit. At the same time, I was aware that it was a big moment psychologically; it was a golden opportunity to put us ahead for the first time on the night.
It’s a long walk to the penalty spot. You have a long time to think, and that doesn't always help. I knew I had to commit to my penalty. Dida was a big goalkeeper, with those long arms, and when I walked up, I didn’t see much room to put the ball around him beneath the crossbar or between the posts.
I made up my mind I was going to go to my left because I thought it was easier to generate pace going across my body. And I thought if he makes an early move that way, then I’m going to change at the last minute. But if he doesn’t move, I’m going to try to hit to my left above waist height—because that way it’s harder for him to save.
Fortunately, it worked out.
The overwhelming emotion is relief. There’s an outside chance you could get called on again, so you are not completely free, but it was great because you basically think, "That’s my night’s work done. I can’t do anything more now. What will be will be." We were winning 1-0. We had an advantage—a small advantage, but we had a great chance to come away with the trophy.
I’d watched the Bayern Munich final against Manchester United, so I knew not to take anything for granted. But when Andrea Pirlo missed and Djibril Cisse scored, I thought we had to win this now. But then Jon Dahl Tomasson scored and John Arne Riise missed, so all of a sudden, things turned again. You think you’ve won a game, but suddenly, you are worried about losing it.
I think Pirlo wrote in his book that he felt suicidal after the game, and you can understand that feeling because when you think you’ve won and you don’t, it just hurts horribly. When Riise missed, I did think, "Oh my God, we could lose this!"
But Vladdy put his away, which meant we had two chances to win the competition. Fortunately, we only needed one—Dudek saved Shevchenko’s penalty and all hell broke loose!
It’s just pure relief—pure excitement. We all ran up to Jerzy, and there were just delirious scenes. We did a lap of honour for the fans with the trophy, but it was just an absolute blur of emotions.
I don’t think we were fully aware of the magnitude of it all at the time. We got back into the dressing room and there weren’t really celebrations. We were just sitting there, shaking our heads, wondering how we’d done it. Obviously, you realise that something monumental has just happened, something that may never happen ever again in a game of that importance, but there were no wild celebrations.
It was surreal, in a way, to come back to the same dressing room where, two hours earlier, we thought our chance had gone and to now have the trophy in there with us.
We flew back the following morning, and in the intervening hours, we did have a bit of a celebration with friends and family and the chairman and club officials. But the players were obviously looking forward to coming home, and that is probably the thing that sticks in the mind: the homecoming.
There were over a million people out in the streets to greet us, and that was a hugely special moment. To see that many people, having won the trophy for the first time in 21 years, it was something really special.
Didi's reflections, 10 years on...
There are two main prizes for a professional footballer over the course of his career: In club football, there is the Champions League, and in international football, there is the World Cup.
I managed to play in the finals of both, and I won one of them—and in the most dramatic way possible. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career, especially the way we did it and especially doing it for a club such as Liverpool.
We had a lot of good times, a lot of successful times, but that is the one moment that stands out above all others.
Why were we able to achieve what we did? I think character was key. Belief, togetherness, good decision-making under pressure, those were all attributes we had in abundance. When the chips were down, we were great. We were a good team that, for whatever reason, never really had the consistency to challenge for the Premier League. But at that time, I don’t think there were many better cup teams around than us.
When the going got tough, I don’t think there was a better team than us. Istanbul underlined that.
Dietmar Hamann was talking to Bleacher Report's Alex Dimond.