LIVERPOOL: New European champions Liverpool got a rousing hero’s welcome from home-town fans on Thursday, but behind the scenes pressure was growing on UEFA to let the club defend their title next season.
An estimated 500,000 Liverpudlians lined the 16km route towards the Anfield stadium as the victorious side – and its hard-won silverware – travelled through in a red, open-top bus emblazoned with the words: “Liverpool FC, Champions of Europe 2005”.
In one of the most dramatic European finals ever, underdogs Liverpool won the Champions League on penalties on Wednesday against AC Milan after pegging back a 0-3 half-time deficit to 3-3.
Around 30,000 Liverpool fans travelled to Istanbul to support their team, and many times more that number could be seen crushed into the streets, on roofs, traffic lights and balconies or hanging off the entrance gates at Anfield to welcome the team home.
As the parade began – well after its 6.30pm (1730GMT) scheduled start – manager Rafael Benitez, inspirational captain Steven Gerrard and the rest of the team took turns to stand at the front of the bus with the Champions League trophy, waving to the crowd.
“We could be looking at up to half a million people” who turned the streets into a surging sea of red chequered Liverpool flags, said Ged Poynton, stadium manager at Anfield.
But amid the joy, there was growing anger against the decision by UEFA to stick by rules which bar Liverpool from defending the trophy which the club won for the fifth time.
The British government got involved in the row, with Sports Minister Richard Caborn contacting European football’s governing body to argue it would be “a travesty” if Liverpool were excluded.
The Merseysiders’ fifth-place finish in the English Premier League means they have not qualified for next season’s competition according to the UEFA rule book, as title-holders do not automatically defend the trophy.
UEFA spokesman William Gaillard said that despite the emotion, the organisation had no plans to change their rules.
Gaillard highlighted the precedent set in the 2000-01 season, when Real Madrid defended the Cup after finishing fifth only because the Spanish Football Federation decided to hand them Real Zaragoza’s place.
“The rules are what they are,” Gaillard told BBC Radio. “It is a tough decision to make but it is not for us to make, it is for the (English) FA and they told us Everton would be the fourth English club.
Caborn said the government and FA were pressing the issue.
“I have raised the matter with UEFA’s chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson and said it would be a travesty if Liverpool were not allowed to play in next year’s competition, particularly after such an amazing final,” Caborn said.
“They should re-think this issue and I think they will have to. Nothing is set in stone and it seems only right that the winners should have automatic re-entry rather than having to qualify through the domestic system. It is only common sense.”
Reaction to the stunning Liverpool victory – described by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “unbelievable, incredible, brilliant” – continued to pour in.
Queen Elizabeth II, back from Canada, called the win “remarkable”.
Earlier on Thursday the victorious team’s plane had touched down at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, with Benitez and Gerrard walking down the steps carrying the trophy between them to cheers from airport workers.
One of the Spanish manager’s first jobs will be to convince inspirational skipper Gerrard to stay at Liverpool, his home-town club.
Gerrard sparked the Istanbul fightback with a marvellous header shortly after the restart and, following their second goal by Vladimir Smicer, he was brought down for the penalty kick six minutes later which allowed Xabi Alonso to equalise at 3-3.
Much of Liverpool was nursing a hangover on Thursday, with an organisation representing private businesses estimating that 20% of the city’s workforce had taken the day off work. – AFP