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Soccer soars above game
- Liverpool back from wilderness with miracle at Istanbul

May 26: Back in India it was well past midnight, eyes were sleep-laden and the match on the telly was dissipating into a no-contest. Hernan Crespo, the Argentine forward, had just coolly slotted home the second goal for AC Milan.

It’s not known on which side India’s sympathies lay, but no matter how much the admiration for the evergreen Paolo Maldini or amazement at the Brazilian Kaka’s midfield brilliance, a fair number would have been silently praying for the underdogs in red, Liverpool.

Until the second goal. For many that was the time to hit the bed and for most a few minutes later when Crespo struck the third in the Champions League final that decides the best team in Europe. Maldini had opened the score with the fastest goal in a European Cup final with a volley in the first minute.

At halftime, some Liverpool fans were crying but there were some who sang: “We’re gonna win 4-3.”

No one believed them. So while most of India was sleeping, an English club ' not yet sold to a Russian, like Chelsea, or an American, like Manchester United ' performed miracles thrice, 3-1, 3-2 and 3-3, within six minutes and then went another step in Istanbul.

Playing its first European Cup final in two decades, Liverpool survived a torrid half-hour of extra time and won on penalties, coming back from the dead not in this match alone but as a footballing power. It has gone 15 years without winning the domestic league after having dominated European football in the late 1970s and ’80s.

A measure of that domination was in evidence last night when Liverpool took home the trophy, having won it five times.

Who would have known' Least of all Michael Owen, the baby-faced Liverpool and England forward who went to Real Madrid this season, hoping to end years of watching fellow English teams, Man U, Arsenal and Chelsea, play in Europe’s top tournament on the telly in the team dressing room and contemplating the future.

Steven Gerrard, now the Liverpool captain, was in that crowd of watchers, too. He stayed, Owen didn’t. The millions more Owen is earning at Real will not buy him a touch of the European Cup Gerrard was softly kissing last night after leading the unheard-of second-half fightback with Liverpool’s first goal and setting up the third by winning a penalty.

Real, Europe’s star team, went out of the championship as Liverpool, the team from an English port town that had fallen on bad times from the position of a thriving industrial centre, journeyed quietly through the rounds to enter the quarters and then the semifinals.

The Reds met the Blues ' Chelsea, the English league champions which cost its Russian owner millions of sterling pounds.

When Liverpool won that, too, its fans were not heard singing “Money can’t buy you football glory”, but they could well have, taking inspiration from their city’s most famous quartet. “Money can’t buy me love,” the Beatles had sung.

If further evidence were needed, look no farther than Gerrard, who said he felt “on top of the world”. Both Chelsea and Real are apparently interested in signing him, but after the victory, he said: “I’m going to talk very soon with the chairman and the manager but it’s looking good.”

The match and its aftermath are overlaid with irony. Goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who saved two penalties in the shoot-out and was very much the hero after Gerrard, will be leaving at the end of the season.

On the other side, for Maldini, at 36 ' though he still looks as if he could carry on in Milan’s defence for some years ' last night’s could well be the last Champions League final. In the end, Milan’s defence was made to appear a trifle too slow before a Liverpool that threw at it more than just football skill.

And then the final irony, after a heroic night. European football’s governing body said Liverpool would not get to defend their title because they do not even qualify for the Champions League next year.

Liverpool finished fifth in the English Premier League and England is allowed to send only the top four teams to the European tournament.

Tonight, however, that will not be on Liverpool city’s mind when their champion team parades through the streets on an open-top bus.

Some are saying the victory mirrors the rebirth of the city following decades of high unemployment and urban decay. Northern England has reinvented itself as a destination for tourists and innovative business after struggling when its old industries started dying during the 1980s.

And the city that produced the Beatles believes its latest stunning sporting success will aid its own recovery.

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