Tokyo pose

Liverpool were supposed to be world-beaters in the early Eighties. But, given the chance to prove it, all they came up with was excuses, says Cris Freddi

The move to Tokyo saved the World Club Cup – or at least that’s how Europe saw it. Now that they no longer had to travel to South America to have lumps kicked out of them by Estudiantes and Nacional, Euro­pean clubs felt it was safe to dip their toes in again. A one-off match on neutral territory – English clubs in particular had been getting good at those. So how do you explain the first half here? Try the early goal per­haps. Liverpool weren’t especially good at recovering from those. Here they were caught flat-footed at the back by a flick from Zico that caught out Hansen and sent Nunes in to score.

Liverpool’s reaction made weird viewing. There wasn’t one. You expected Flamengo to pass the ball better and, sure enough, Liverpool needed three touches to their one, according to manager Bob Paisley, but you also thought Souness and co would put themselves about a bit. It simply never happened. At times they literally stood and watched. The third goal, for in­stance, was a carbon copy of the first, Zico sending Nunes clear again, a low cross-shot from the right beat­ing Grobbelaar as Hansen arrived too late. The Liverpool Echo muttered about offside, but it wasn’t. Nunes was just a bushy-haired target man by Brazilian stan­dards. In the age of slim, nimble strikers like Reinaldo and Careca, he won only six caps, scoring two goals. But his captain’s passes and Liverpool’s square def­ence made him look a world beater.

Earlier, Zico had hit a free-kick through a gap in the wall, the ball bounced awkwardly, Grobbelaar saved but couldn’t hold, Adilio put the ball past Phil Thompson on the line. There’s never been a more academic second half. The first had been played in a strange kind of slo-mo, by a team in a daze. Flamengo’s coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani thought Liverpool were “very disappointing” and Ray Kennedy agreed: “It was embarrassing.” So what was going on? No point asking Uncle Bob. “I’ve no explanation for it,” said Paisley. “I simply cannot understand it.” If your manager doesn’t have a clue, you know you’ve got problems. No wonder Liverpool were “unbelievably dead” in his words. “We look­ed slow in the head.”

Hard to know why he was so mystified. His players had no doubts. The blood-stained history of the event had left them wary and five players had been sent off in the Copa Libertadores play-off Flamengo had won to qualify for this match. Thompson said: “We were all a bit nervous of getting involved in any kind of trouble and we never challenged them.” Souness agreed: “We were anxious to avoid any trouble, and let them do what they wanted.” Paisley himself said he’d ordered the team “to avoid trouble at all costs… our players had been told to lie down if necessary – and it isn’t often you can ask British players to do that”.

Carpegiani, later Paraguay’s impressive coach at France 98, hadn’t been at Flamengo long, but big strides had already been made by convincing Tita to play as a central striker and other players that flexibility was the key. It made all the difference, according to Junior. Flamengo imposed their fluid system in mid­field, confounding Liverpool with their movement off the ball.

Some traditional English excuses were dragged out afterwards. Liverpool were tired, said Paisley (Flam­engo were playing their 77th match of the year). The press made references to the “hard, bumpy pitch”, which also spiked Paisley’s congratulations: “We were beaten by a better side whose superior technique gave them an advantage on that kind of pitch.”

The implication being that it was all jolly unfair. On some decent European grass, Liverpool might have been able to put their foot in a bit. Instead, said Thompson: “We stood back and let them play the way they wanted. Things could have been very different if we had got at them in our usual style.” Again, Souness agreed: “Normally we would have gone in hard, and that could have upset them.”

So Liverpool were admitting they needed the right kind of pitch to give them the chance of fouling a more talented team. Very aspirational. But even on a mud­heap, they’d have had their work cut out against Zico. Touted as the best of the “White Pelés” (the comparison was there to piss him off again after the match), he had two very disappointing World Cups, missing a crucial penalty in his last international, the 1986 quar­ter-final against France. Even in 1982, he only looked good because he was buttressed by Socrates, Cerezo and Falcao.

Nevertheless, 1981-82 was the biggest season. Three of his strikes in the World Cup were out of the top drawer and in the Libertadores final he scored all four of Flamengo’s goals, including two in the play-off. Against Liverpool, the Guardian praised his “skill and wit” and the whole team’s “amazing touch and ac­curacy”. He had an English first name – Arthur (not Artur) Antunes Coimbra – but the rest of him, on his day, was the best of Brazil

By contrast, Souness looked a poor man’s version and Dalglish was simply invisible. It says a lot when Liverpool’s best player was Craig Johnston, mak­ing his first start for them. He did well enough, shooting just wide and forcing Raul to make a decent save. Hardly his fault that it didn’t add up to very much.

The subsequent excuses were no surprise. We were all shocked. If the match was shown live over here, I didn’t see it. And I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in the highlights. Even when the third goal went in, I half-expected Liverpool to turn it round in the second half– just because they were Liverpool. The BBC recently broadcast a programme called When Liverpool Ruled The World. The title was bollocks, but you can understand it. We all thought they were pretty much invincible.

We were also guilty of thinking European teams were best, disregarding the South Americans as chop­pers and divers. We weren’t completely wrong: Racing and Estudiantes were the pits, and you can’t doubt the quality of Di Stefano’s Real Madrid, or Ajax, or Bayern, or the Milan of the early 1990s. But South America had their dynasties too. Santos won the World Club Cup twice, beating a highly rated Benfica in 1962, when their 8-4 aggregate win might have been even bigger: they led 5-0 in Lisbon before Benfica scored twice in the last three minutes. Pelé scored two in the first leg and three away from home. Next year he missed the second leg, but Santos still beat Milan after trailing 6-2 on aggregate.

Peñarol thumped Benfica 5-0 in 1961 and Real Madrid 2-0 twice in 1966. And Tele Santana’s skilful São Paulo won the Cup two years in a row, including a vivid 3-2 win over Milan in 1993. No English side won it until Manchester United in 1999, and no English player has ever scored in it.

Time for a bit of humility perhaps – but don’t expect it from Merseyside. After the Flamengo match, Liverpool chairman John Smith was all defiance: “Make no mistake, we’ll be back and next time we’ll show what we can really do.” In 1984, against an unimpressive Independiente, Liverpool lost again, 1-0.

There’s a book out now about the club’s 1987-88 season, entitled Better Than The Brazilians. But not as good as Wimbledon. Let alone our Arthur.

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month