Liverpool's magnificent team will return to John Lennon Airport Thursday afternoon to a welcome the equal of anything that greeted the city's Fab Four, after winning the European Cup in one of the most extraordinary finals in the competition's 50-year history. As the red half of the city turns out for a victory parade, the players will be trailed home by the 40,000 or so supporters who annexed Istanbul to Merseyside Wednesday night in celebration of one of soccer's greatest comebacks.
Three goals down in 42 minutes and thoroughly outclassed by tournament favorites AC Milan, Liverpool, led by their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, hauled the game back to 3-3, before defying the English stereotype to win 3-2 on penalties, and keep the trophy after winning it for a fifth time. Gerrard said: "I'm on top of the world. Every one of us deserves it -- it hasn't sunk in yet and I'm finding it hard to talk. This is the best night of my life."
The decisive moment came when goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek saved from Andreii Shevchenko, arguably the most lethal striker in the world. Dudek revealed later that Bruce Grobbelaar's antics in the 1984 final, where his wobbly-legged dance confused Roma's penalty takers, had been an inspiration. "I don't know how I did it. It was fantastic," he said.
The fans in the Ataturk stadium didn't know how they'd done it either. "My nerves are shattered," said Simon Smith from Felixstowe in Suffolk. "We were totally gone at halftime, we were dead and buried, but fair play to Rafa, he changed it 'round."
Nishil Kariam, a 32-year-old surveyor from Leicester, said: "It's the best atmosphere in the world. I've spent around 2,000 pounds on this trip, but this only happens once in a lifetime."
The party began early in Liverpool Wednesday night with fans taking to the streets. Phil Lye, 42, a steward at the club's Anfield ground, said: "I just can't believe the scenes here this evening." One man in his 20s, naked but for a pair of socks and a large flag, ran along the streets of terrace houses near the stadium.
The jubilation was not confined to diehard reds.
Despite attending a private dinner Wednesday night, Tony Blair managed to catch the final few minutes of the game. The prime minister -- a Newcastle United fan -- sent a message of congratulation to the Liverpool team Wednesday night, which read: "Unbelievable. Incredible. Brilliant. The whole country is very proud of you." Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is understood to have telephoned Blair to pass on his congratulations.
The night's unexpected climax was perfectly in keeping with Rafael Benitez side's progress to the club's fifth European Cup. They were minutes from elimination in the group stage, a 33-1 chance when the knockout rounds began, and had to defeat Italian and English champions Juventus and Chelsea to reach Istanbul. After finishing fifth in the Premiership they are not even guaranteed the opportunity to defend the title won so thrillingly Wednesday night, and Uefa will face a concerted campaign to change the rules to let them compete next year.
Benitez said: "We talked at halftime and told the players that we needed to believe, that we couldn't go and play 45 more minutes in front of our own fans and lose by four or five goals."
Gerrard, Benitez and the rest of the victorious players were the toast of the supporters who flooded into Taksim Square in celebration after the game. There was little sign of anyone taking to their beds -- apart, that is, from the Liverpool fan who left at halftime, throwing his scarf to the floor as he went. He will be the only scouser with any regrets Thursday morning.