The Nutter with the Putter

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The history of English teams on ‘bonding trips’ is checkered; footballers have thrown a bottle of vodka at a car filled with US Marines, each other through shop windows, and fractured the jaws of sleeping teammates in card game disputes. When Kieron Dryer, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand vacationed in Cyprus at the turn of the century, they ended up on the cover of the News of the World, which later serialized their autobiographical mea culpas.*

In February of 2007 Rafael Benítez took the Liverpool 1st team squad to Barringtons Golf & Health Spa in Vale do Lobo to prepare for their Champions League knockout round match against holders Barcelona. The squad visited Monty’s Restaurant and Bar on their night off, where red-headed Norwegian full back John Arne Riise took umbrage at striker Craig Bellamy’s aggressive attempts to get him to sing Red Red Wine in the karaoke competition. Bellamy, in turn, was vexed by Riise’s umbrage, which he felt diminished him before the others, though he reckoned, ‘The situation was calmed down then, but when I was walking back to the hotel with Steve Finnan, I lost control for a few seconds. I went and confronted Ginger’–possibly swinging his golf club at Riise’s knee–and by Sunday, Riise and Bellamy were on the cover of News of the World.

Liverpool released photographs of the joyful squad in training, including one of midfielder Xabi Alonso and Bellamy (christened ‘The Nutter with the Putter’ by the red tops with self-reflexive ‘now being dubbed’s’) locked in an awkward three-way embrace with Riise. John Arne was beaming in every shot, though according to reporters who’d spoken to his mother in Norway he was actually pretty upset.

Most pundits had dismissed Liverpool’s chances of progressing against Barcelona before they’d gone to Monty’s, a conviction which hardened in the 14th minute at the Nou Camp, when Ronaldinho raced up the pitch while setting Gianluca Zambrotta free down the left; replicating the pose of the Discobolus, Zambrotta crossed to Deco, who headed the ball into the lower corner of Liverpool’s net. The Barcelona fans were on their feet, clapping and snapping pictures, Barça’s injured Samuel Eto’o applauded politely from a box, and Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard grimaced. Barcelona settled and began to dominate the match.

Twenty-nine goalless minutes elapsed before Steve Finnan crossed from the right and his ball found Bellamy in the left of Barça’s box. Bellamy headed it into the keeper Victor Valdés, who carried it over the line and fumbled the ball. Dirk Kuyt smacked it in for insurance as Bellamy celebrated his goal by pantomiming a golf swing, while Steven Gerrard laughed heartily, Barcelona’s captain Carles Puyol thrust his entire body forward in frustration, gesticulating, and Valdés rested his hands on his hips and shook his head in disgust. The teams were tied when the whistle blew at half-time.

Liverpool menaced Barça’s defense in the second half–Valdés made two more saves. With sixteen minutes remaining, Kuyt and Valdés collided in the box, sent the ball flying straight up to Rafa Márquez, who chested it down but accidentally passed it back to Bellamy who found Riise, unmarked and hovering slightly to the left in the 18-yard box. Riise shot the ball straight into the back of the net before Valdés had gotten his bearings.

‘And Liverpool, are leading Barcelona in the Nou Camp, two goals to one!’

Carles Puyol thrust his entire body forward in frustration, gesticulating, Valdés rested his hands on his hips and shook his head in disgust, while Riise slid across the grass on his knees with the fundamental exuberance which had made Bellamy anxious to see what he’d do with Red Red Wine. Liverpool won the match 2-1.

‘You simply couldn’t make it up,’ was the round consensus.

‘The best week of my life at Liverpool,’ Bellamy, fined £80,000 by the club, declared to the Daily Mirror.

‘It’s almost poetic…’ a BBC reporter prodded Benítez.

‘A coincidence,’ the manager corrected him.

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Photographs: The 2007 UEFA Champions League Final in Athens, Greece.

* i.e. ‘It was not one of those tiny cameras you can get these days. It was a bloody huge thing, you couldn’t miss it.’

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