‘Let them win now’
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
He need only step onto the steps of the Estádio José Alvalade during Sporting Portugal’s home games or he is invariably reminded by onlookers of that one day: May 5, 2005.
Or better: the 122nd minute of the UEFA Cup semifinal between AZ and Sporting Clube de Portugal that took place then.
In the eighty official games Miguel Garcia played for Sporting Clube de Portugal, he did score two goals. One of those two goals eighteen years ago marked the 3-2 that sealed the elimination of AZ. It earned him a nickname to which he is bound for life.
O Herói de Alkmaar. The Hero of Alkmaar.
He was not a player of name or fame. Not at all, even, it sounds laughing. “Yet there is no Sporting supporter who does not know me.”
It was a goal that changed his life forever, sounds by phone from Lisbon, where he currently works in the world of real estate. The former right-back (40) buys up old properties in the center of the Portuguese capital, renovates them and then sells them again.
Besides that goal, made by head from a corner kick, Garcia remembers two things in particular from that memorable semifinal, 24 hours after PSV’s elimination in the Champions League by AC Milan.
The 8,000 frantic supporters in the Alkmaarderhout. And the wrong attitude with which Sporting started the game.
“We played in a very small stadium where the crowd was sitting on top of the pitch and raging tremendously the whole match. No matter what we tried, we didn’t get into our game for a moment. On the one hand because we could hardly get out on that soggy, heavy pitch.”
“On the other hand, I dare say now, because maybe we underestimated AZ a bit. It was a club we didn’t know at all. We should have known better. A club doesn’t just end up in the semifinals of the UEFA Cup.”
Sporting previously eliminated such renowned clubs as Feyenoord, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United in the UEFA Cup tournament. Garcia says he has no concrete memories of the game at De Kuip, in February 2005.
“I only remember that after one of the goals we were greeted with a huge beer shower from the stands.” That Sporting’s players were pelted from the stands, Portuguese goalkeeper Ricardo heard a fireworks bomb explode next to him and the match was eventually suspended for 20 minutes, Garcia has repressed.
Whereas Sporting was wary of big-name clubs, AZ’s spirited opposition in the semi-final match came as a complete surprise to the Portuguese.
“Of the clubs we feared, to our surprise we had won that UEFA tournament relatively easily. Against the easiest opponent on paper, we played our two most difficult games. Even at home in Lisbon we didn’t get beyond a 2-1 victory.”
Garcia: “AZ’s game just didn’t suit us. It defended very stiffly and with the ball at foot the players were very strong. AZ created a lot of chances, I remember. Again, we didn’t expect so much opposition for a moment. This was by far the best team we faced that year. Tactically very strong. It doesn’t surprise me that Co Adriaanse became coach of FC Porto the following year.”
Sporting’s elimination, Garcia remembers clearly, was actually already a fact on the late evening of that fifth of May. Until the Portuguese were awarded a corner after two hours and two minutes of play.
“In youth, as a defender, I often had to go forward when a corner kick was given. That way I scored quite a few goals as a young player. Suddenly, in Alkmaar, I was assigned to strengthen the attack together with our goalkeeper.”
Garcia did as he was told. With his head, he headed in the liberating 3-2 at the first post from a not so tight corner kick by Chilean substitute Rodrigo Tello. “The rest is history.”
Besides that all-deciding goal, the physically demanding encounter against Adriaanse’s team provided Garcia with a second lasting memory. “At one point I was hit by a shoe above my lip. There is still a scar there from the four stitches that had to be put in.”
At the airport in Lisbon the day after the match the players were welcomed by thousands of supporters. However, there was also a personal tragedy playing out on the banks of the Tagus that day.
During the match in Alkmaar, Portuguese television commentator Jorge Perestelo was so overwhelmed by the unexpected hit in the stands that he became unwell and died once back home in Lisbon. Medics at the autopsy held that his emotional outburst a day before had retroactively fatally wounded him.
Two lost finals
The goal also brought Garcia little luck. In the final of the UEFA Cup, Sporting lost 3-1 to CSKA Moscow, note in their own stadium.
Six years later, Garcia, this time in the shirt of SC Braga, was in the final of the Europa League. A stunt of the highest order, although he once again fell short of a top prize. In Dublin, the win went to, nota bene, arch-rival FC Porto by a minimal margin.
By then, Garcia was already the prototype of the soccer nomad. In 2007 he transferred from Sporting to Italy’s Reggina, for which he did not play a single official match. He continued his quest for happiness at Olhanense, SC Braga, Orduspor, RCD Mallorca and, in India, NorthEast United and Sporting Clube de Goa. In 269 matches, he did score four goals.
If his schedule permits, Garcia will sit in front of the tube on Thursday to watch the second Conference League semifinal between AZ and West Ham United. Which of the two clubs he hopes will advance to the final match in Prague? “AZ.”
“AZ and West Ham are two teams that are equally strong. West Ham is not doing well in the Premier League at the moment and AZ has to take advantage of that. The odds are fifty-fifty. There is no clear favorite.”
The reason for Garcia to hope for an Alkmaar win is the status of both Dutch and Portuguese soccer. “Both countries have excellent players running around. The only problem is that we only train soccer players. As soon as someone stands out, he is sold to Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona or Real Madrid. That’s very unfortunate.”
“Therefore, let AZ win. As far as I’m concerned, big money doesn’t always and everywhere have to prevail.”