Sometimes the planets just align.
It’s the semi-finals of Euro 2004 and I’m stood in Wenceslas Square in Prague about to watch the Czech Republic v Greece on a huge TV screen.
I’m wearing a Milan Baros replica shirt – purchased from a nearby stall at a price which suggests it may not be wholly authentic – and the atmosphere is fizzing with expectation.
As a Liverpool fan, the Czechs have become my second favourite national team due to the Berger-Smicer-Baros connection. But why have I chosen perhaps the least high profile of the attacking trio as my boy this particular night?
Prior to the start of the tournament, I’d backed Baros at 66/1 for the Golden Boot. There was probably an element of LFC bias but some colder logic played its part too. I’ll explain. At the 2002 World Cup, Ronaldo (the more naturally-talented Brazilian version) had finished as top scorer. Some of the other star names at that tournament had, quite frankly, looked knackered after a long season of club football.
Ronaldo, by contrast, had missed a big chunk of it, only returning from a three-month injury break in March. From mid-April until the end of the domestic season in Serie A he scored four in five for Inter so appeared to have the perfect blend of freshness and form to have a huge World Cup.
And that’s how it worked out. Ronnie was magic, scoring eight goals, including two in the final, grinning constantly and even having a daft triangle cut in his hair for a massive laugh.
• • • •
• • • •
In the 2003-04 campaign, Baros’ second full season at Anfield, the Czech striker was also forced into a lengthy spell on the sidelines. In Liverpool’s fifth Premier League match – the same one that saw Lucas Neill break Jamie Carragher’s leg with a hideous tackle – Baros fell awkwardly and cracked his right ankle. It ruled him out from mid-September until late February.
But, of course, calamity can sometimes be viewed as opportunity. When looking for a Golden Boot bet for the 2004 Euros, I wanted a player who hadn’t run themselves into the ground. And there he was, right under my red Liverpool nose.
Although Baros managed just two goals in the final 13 games he played for us that season, significantly he had scored in his only start for the Czechs during that run – a 2-1 defeat against the Republic of Ireland.
In early June, the Czech Republic played two warm-up friendlies against Bulgaria and Estonia. Baros helped himself to three more goals, taking his tally to 16 in just 25 matches for his country.
Here was a player with plenty of petrol in the tank and a great international strike-rate. Throw in my Liverpool allegiance and 66/1 for the Golden Boot… yes please.
And so here I am in Wenceslas Square surrounded by an expectant crowd, preposterous amounts of Pilsner and checking the skies to see if Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (no giggling at the back) and Neptune really are in sync because the planets could not be better aligned.
The Czechs have reached the last four and Baros is on fire. They’ve won three out of three in a group containing Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia and cruised to a 3-0 victory over Denmark in the last eight. Baros has scored in every game, a brace against the Danes taking his tally to five.
My God, Milan Baros leads the race for the Golden Boot and I’m stood with his name adorned across my back in the most famous part of his Czech homeland. Life is perfect. If Good King Wenceslas is here, I’d buy him a ruddy pint and slap his back.
Of course, such golden moments never last. Just over two hours later and it’s game over. The Greeks sit deep, the Czechs aren’t crisp and, although the game ends even, an injury-time strike sends Greece to the final. A pissed off Good King Wenceslas has probably attached himself to an English stag do and is being sick near some bins.
• • • •
• • • •
Me? More sanguine than seething. While the atmosphere has gone flat, Baros still leads the race to be top scorer with five and his nearest rivals – a rampant teenager called Wayne Rooney and Dutch marksman Ruud van Nistelrooy, who have four each – have long since gone home.
The final is between hosts Portugal and Greece and there is no-one in either camp with more than two goals to their name. In other words, it will take a hat-trick to deny me the 66/1 jackpot.
Thankfully, the freak doesn’t happen as the Greeks edge it 1-0. Angelos Charisteas takes his tally to three in the 57th minute but he’s never going to score two more as Greece defend/bore their way to the title.
Baros has done it! He’s the Golden Boot winner! Cult hero status is rubber-stamped.
Now watch him shine for Liverpool next season. Rafa Benitez has just taken over and, after some frustrating times under Gerard Houllier, perhaps Baros will turn into the goal machine he is for his country.
Sadly, it never turned out that way.
He scampered, he harried, the energy was obvious. But for some reason, Baros was clinical for the Czechs but never ruthless for the Reds. If a Smicer pass set him through on goal for his country, there was only one outcome. He’d go round the goalkeeper or dink him. Simple. If Smicer split a defence at Anfield, Baros would be caught in three minds and more likely fluff his lines.
Rafa didn’t fancy him and, after one season under the Spaniard’s reign, he was sold to Aston Villa in August 2005.
However, he packed his bags for Villa Park with something very shiny in his suitcase – a Champions League winner’s medal. Baros was never the star of the show during that most extraordinary and unlikely of European triumphs but he had a big role in two of its key moments.
In the semi-final second leg against Chelsea, it was Baros’ quick-thinking and burst of pace past Ricardo Carvalho that allowed him to latch onto Steven Gerrard’s first-time pass and get a foot to the ball before being clattered by Peter Cech. In a 2005 parallel universe – one with VAR – Liverpool win a penalty, Cech is sent off and the Reds cruise to a 3-0 win. In reality, play went on and Chelsea fans are still moaning about Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost’ goal to this day.
In the final, Baros made a clever run off Milan defender Alessandro Nesta to receive Jamie Carragher’s pass and flicked a cute layoff into the path of the onrushing Gerrard. The skipper was brought down and Xabi Alonso rammed home the rebound after Dida saved the Spaniard’s penalty. It completed an absurd fightback from 3-0 down to 3-3.
That final is full of memorable images which Reds fans will never forget and Baros provided two more. Go back and watch Smicer’s goal. It’s a good hit but could have had a very different outcome had Baros not sucked in his stomach at just the right moment to let the ball fly past.
And to sum up the madness of the comeback, it’s Baros who dragged the celebrating Alonso to the ground with a well-timed rugby tackle around the neck. There will never be another night like Istanbul and it’s those moments which cement Baros’ place in Liverpool history.
A more measured analysis of his Anfield career would conclude that a tally of 19 goals in 68 games was underwhelming, especially when compared to his exploits with the Czechs where he spent most of his international career as a one-in-two man.
In the pantheon of great Liverpool strikers, Baros is a long way down the list, and yet he will be remembered fondly. More a holiday romance than a lasting relationship, but when Liverpool fans sift through the photos and watch the old videos, that dark hair and headband remind us of happy times.
One final tale perhaps says it all. Had the Czechs won Euro 2004, Baros would probably have balanced the trophy on his head and spun it on his finger before it came to perfect symmetrical rest. In the aftermath of Liverpool’s glory night in Istanbul, Baros dropped ‘Ol Big Ears and dented the handle during the victory party at the team hotel.
Instead of getting it straightened out, Anfield museum curator Stephen Done said later: “We decided not to get it repaired because it is part of the character of the cup.”
The memories he left at Liverpool were fleeting, a little unorthodox and quirky but Baros, quite literally, left a mark.
And in his national colours… well, for while in that golden (boot) summer of 2004, the planets really did align. My Czech mate outscored them all.
By Dave Tindall