Players from the Past

On the day that Liverpool go for glory in Kiev, it seems appropriate that this column should focus on a player who had such a central role in the Reds’ most recent European Cup triumph 13 years ago. Luis Garcia might only have been at Anfield for three years, but in his first season he netted some crucial goals en route to Istanbul, not least the decisive strike in the semi-final which still ranks as a major bone of contention for Chelsea supporters.

The Catalan native joined Barcelona as a boy, working his way up through the various underage groups before making the club’s B team upon reaching adulthood. First team appearances at the Nou Camp were understandably hard to come by in early years, with loan spells at Real Valladolid, Toledo and Tenerife around the turn of the century. It was in the Canary Islands that Garcia linked up with Rafael Benitez, the intelligent young coach who led Tenerife into the Primera Liga in 2001. The young attacker was one of the team’s best players in that promotion season and after another productive loan spell at Valladolid, he would be sold to Atletico Madrid in an unusual deal which saw him play a season in the capital before returning to Barcelona for an additional fee. It was during 2003/04, his first season as a Nou Camp regular, that Garcia caught the eye in a team that recovered from a disastrous campaign the year before to finish second.

When Benitez went to Liverpool in summer 2004, he made the diminutive Spaniard one of his first signings. Kopites weren’t quite sure what to make him first, given his less than robust physique and adorning of a hairband. A goal on his Anfield debut against West Brom helped win over some of the doubters and Garcia soon established himself as a player who could do great things, although he had a tendency to go missing in unglamorous away fixtures, many of which Liverpool lost in 2004/05.

It was in the Champions League that he dazzled, scoring six times on the Reds’ run to the final. This included goals in both legs against Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16, along with a long distance beauty to put Liverpool 2-0 up against Juventus in the quarter-final first leg at Anfield. It proved to be a significant strike as Juve pulled a goal back but were held 0-0 in Turin, setting up a tense semi-final against Chelsea. After a goalless first leg, the Blues went to Anfield having just clinched their first Premier League title.

Three minutes after kick-off, Milan Baros was barged over by Petr Cech in front of goal. Amid the vain screams for a penalty, Garcia latched onto the loose ball and stabbed it goalwards. William Gallas sprinted back and hooked the ball away, but not before the referee confirmed that it had crossed the line and signalled a goal. Chelsea’s pursuit of an away goal was in vain and they complained vehemently about Garcia’s winner, insisting that it has not gone over the goalline. Not that the Spaniard was bothered; he then wrote his name into Liverpool folklore by helping the Reds to that sensational triumph against AC Milan in Istanbul.

Garcia’s second season at Anfield was not quite as prolific, although he still contributed some vital goals, including a late winner against Arsenal on Valentine’s Day and another exquisite long-range effort to beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals at Old Trafford. Liverpool went on to win the cup that year, enabling Garcia to claim another famous semi-final winner over Chelsea, although he missed the final against West Ham due to suspension. His contribution during 2006/07 would be minimal, with newer arrivals often preferred to the Spaniard. During a 3-6 League Cup defeat to Arsenal midway through that season, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, ruling him out for the rest of the campaign. That sorry night at Anfield proved to be Garcia’s final appearance for Liverpool, an unfairly subdued way to go out after his heroics in 2005.

He returned to Atletico Madrid in July 2007, with Fernando Torres moving in the opposite direction, and would get to play at Anfield again in autumn 2008 when Atletico were in the same Champions League group as Liverpool. He found it hard to claim a regular first team place at the Vicente Calderon, though, and moved to Racing Santander in 2009, where he had a mediocre season with the relegation battlers. A year later, he tried his luck with Panathinaikos in Greece, playing there for a season before taking in some more far-flung destinations.

Garcia would spent three years in Mexico, firstly with Puebla and then signing for Pumas UNAM. He retired from playing aged 35 in early 2014 but was persuaded to reach for his boots again later that year, becoming the marquee signing at Atletico de Kolkata in the Indian Super League. He only had a few short months in India before, in 2016, he played for a season with Central Coast Mariners in Australia.

It’s now been more than a decade since Garcia last featured for Liverpool, but the club remains close to his heart and he has returned to Anfield for several testimonial or friendly matches, as well as regularly showing support for the team on social media. That affection has been returned by supporters who, to this day, chant about him being “five foot seven and football heaven”. One Irish pundit might have taken a rather different view, labelling him as “a Spanish midget with an Alice band”, but amongst those who regularly frequent the Kop, Luis Garcia remains an iconic figure and will continue to do so for his enormous contributions to Liverpool’s fifth European Cup. In a few hours time, it might no longer be the club’s most recent.