You think football has had some wild ideas and mad tournaments in recent times? Well in 1997 we saw possibly the strangest of the lot, with Liverpool taking part in a mid-season six-a-side tournament in Amsterdam.
The ‘Euro Soccer Sixes’ featured some high-profile players. Rangers had Paul Gascoigne among their squad, while Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Jari Litmanen provided the star names in the Ajax lineup.
Arrigo Sachi’s Milan featured Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Marcel Desailly, Edgar Davids and Roberto Baggio. Perhaps no wonder that the Italians went on to win the tournament in the final against the tournament hosts.
For Liverpool, the results weren’t so memorable, being thrashed 5-0 by Milan, 7-3 by Rangers and 8-1 by Ajax, before losing a third-place play-off against Rangers on penalties.
Dominic Matteo ended the tournament as the Reds’ top scorer with two goals. “It was a first for me,” he jokes, looking back on the bizarrely-timed tournament.
You can’t imagine Jurgen Klopp being too happy about such a tournament being scheduled now in the middle of January, that’s for sure. And for Liverpool in 1997, at the height of the so-called ‘Spice Boys’ squad, in Amsterdam, it was a recipe for trouble.
“Madness and chaos probably for a couple of days would spring to mind,” recalls the Scottish defender when asked what the players thought of the idea when they were first told they’d be heading to the city of the Red Light District.
Former goalkeeper Tony Warner, who got his chance in the opening game against Milan, admits it was a good job there was no social media at the time, but ‘pleaded the fifth’ when pressed on any antics that occurred on the trip.
Being around some of Europe’s best players though, for a then-23-year-old, was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I’m glad we played [it], you’re standing around world greats, no matter what environment you’re in, it’s good to be there,” he says. “Especially the level and age I was at, it was a nice experience.”
The tournament was part of the opening of the new Amsterdam Arena and the brainchild of the man who the stadium is now named after, Johan Cruyff.
“It was amazing to be around somebody like Johan Cruyff, someone who I still talk about when I talk about football to kids now,” says Matteo.
Warner remembers being in the hotel bar and seeing Cruyff with Roy Evans. “I was a little bit in awe of him,” he says.
“We didn’t do ourselves justice…”
Ending the tournament bottom, having conceded 20 goals and scored four, it’s fair to say Liverpool didn’t take it quite as seriously as their European counterparts.
“I think we really struggled and I do think it was probably down to maybe one too many [beers],” admits Matteo.
“When the games came around we’re always pretty serious, but I think the lads weren’t sure whether to really go and have a little bit of a jaunt and to have a few drinks or to take it as serious as we possibly can.
“Cruyff when he spoke to us he was saying to us ‘listen guys, you need to concentrate on it properly because we’re going to take this very seriously’. I don’t think we did ourselves any justice by maybe having a couple of nights out.
“It wasn’t like the old days of madness, but it was definitely a couple of beers that we probably shouldn’t have had. The results were very random.”
It was a Liverpool squad that had only recently returned to playing European competition and hadn’t featured against Europe’s elite in over a decade.
So for the young players in the squad especially, among them Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp, it was an experience to be around some of Europe’s top players.
“I was a little bit in awe,” admits Warner.
“We were standing watching Milan warming up, I was there with John Barnes, it was one-touch passing along the lines [on a basketball court] and it was the hardest passing along the line and it never deviated from the line. I thought, none of our lads could do this.
“I remember Baggio hit the bar from his own half, yeah it was a shortened pitch but he caught me just off the line. He let one go and I was scrambling back just hoping it didn’t drop in. Thankfully it didn’t.”
“Collymore has Baggio in a headlock…”
One thing both Matteo and Warner remember well is Stan Collymore’s quest to get Roberto Baggio’s shirt.
“Stan Collymore was always after people’s shirts,” says Matteo. “He was chasing Baggio around, shouting ‘Roberto’ in a Brummie accent. ‘Can I get your shirt?'”
“As we’re coming off the pitch, Stan Collymore has got Baggio in the biggest headlock you’ve ever seen in your life,” remembers Warner. “He literally has his hands on him, walking down the steps together.
“Stan wouldn’t leave him alone, he’s stood at the changing room door and Baggio takes his top off and Stan says ‘I want your shorts as well’ so he’s taken his shorts off!”
Warner got Paolo Maldini’s shirt, and Collymore wanted that too, offering to buy it off him. “I remember having to put the top down my tracksuit bottoms because he was hovering around me so much! I’ve still got it, it’s my most prized possession in football.”
Looking back, it’s a tournament that perhaps sums up ‘90s football, from the players on the pitch, the bizarre timing, the concept of the tournament, to the fact that it was sponsored by Sony to promote their new minidisc player.
“I remember being in the airport and we’re all crowded around John Barnes because he has this video player,” says Warner. “I guess like the size of a mini iPad now. Everyone was just sitting there, amazed at it, watching films. I took a picture of us all on my camera with a remote control!”
Different times. Now, don’t go giving any of football’s current decision-makers any ideas…
Thanks to the team at LFCHistory.net for help with research for this article.