Liverpool, Gazza and the bizarre mid-season six-a-side tournament of 97


Imagine the uproar if UEFA announced they were to launch a mid-season six-a-side tournament involving four major European teams.

Well, bizarrely, that’s exactly what happened in January 1997 when Ajax, AC Milan, Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers took part in the Euro Sixes at the Amsterdam Arena.

The two-day tournament was the brainchild of Johan Cruyff and consisted of six round-robin games, divided into four eight-minute quarters, plus a final and third-place play-off. Squads were made up of 11 players per game, with substitutions allowed at any point.

You could be forgiven for assuming the line-ups consisted of barely-head-of reserve players, but you’d be wrong. Each club received £120,000 for taking part in the Sony MiniDisc-sponsored tournament and, presumably as part of the deal, all took strong squads.

Remarkably, the opening round of fixtures took place on a Monday, just one day after Milan and Liverpool had played competitive games.

Perhaps the tournament had been on the minds of the Reds’ players – they surrendered a 2-0 lead at Chelsea to lose 4-2 in an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Stamford Bridge on the Sunday. It was the first time since 1964 they had lost a game after being two up.

Rangers at least had one day off following their fixture on the Saturday, while Ajax, the hosts and club where Cruyff made his name, were conveniently on a winter break.

The first of the games, in front of more than 21,000 fans under the arena’s retractable roof, saw Rangers thrashed 6-2 by Ajax, with Patrick Kluivert and Kiki Musampa both scoring twice.

Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars were also on target, with Jorg Albertz and Gordon Durie grabbing the Scottish champions’ consolations.

If Gers boss Walter Smith was not already questioning the merits of the competition, he undoubtedly would have been when Paul Gascoigne hurt his ankle in a collision with Ajax goalkeeper Fred Grim. He later left the stadium on crutches.

The newly-laid pitch was hardly in the best of conditions – and also that huge penalty areas, full-size goals and linesmen were in operation. The whole event was bizarre in the extreme.

As it turns out, Gascoigne’s injury was so serious that he missed England’s World Cup qualifier against Italy at Wembley 16 days later. With Gascoigne absent, Glenn Hoddle’s side were beaten 1-0, courtesy of a goal from Gianfranco Zola.

In fact, Gascoigne did not return for around three months and never really recaptured his form once fit again, leading to him famously missing out on a place in Hoddle’s squad for the 1998 World Cup. It was a hell of a price to pay for an exhibition game.

Back to the Euro Sixes, things did not get any better for the British clubs when Liverpool were trounced 5-0 by Milan in the second game of the day, with a brilliant Edgar Davids goal the highlight.

Again, the state of the pitch is clearly shown to be far from perfect.

Things got worse for Liverpool in their second game as they lost 7-3 to Rangers. Dominic Matteo (2) and John Barnes were on target for Roy Evans’ side, but Ally McCoist (2), Albertz (2), Derek McInnes, Greg Shields and Peter van Vossen ensured a comfortable win for the Gers.

Milan went on to beat Ajax 6-2 in the final with Roberto Baggio, who scored directly from a corner, named Player of the Tournament, but they were beaten 3-2 at home by Sampdoria the following Sunday and finished down in 11th in Serie A that season.

Rangers drew 0-0 that weekend at home against Hearts but went on to win the Scottish Premiership despite the prolonged absence of Gascoigne, while Liverpool, who were top of the Premier League at the time of the tournament, eventually finished down in fourth.

The Euro Sixes, unsurprisingly, never returned.

By Mark Holmes

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