The last game before everything changed – through the eyes of the people there


11 March 2020. 22.31 GMT.

With seconds left, Atletico Madrid’s Alvaro Morata slides a finish past Liverpool’s Adrian to complete a remarkable victory.

As the ball hits the net, 3,000 Atletico fans erupt and manager Diego Simeone celebrates before them.

But as the lights went out on Liverpool’s Champions League defence so they did on football – Covid-19 shutting the game down for three months and leaving European grounds empty indefinitely.

A subsequent investigation found the game was one of two major sporting events that week, along with the Cheltenham Festival, that ’caused increased suffering and death’

Indeed, by the end of March 2020, Liverpool was a suspected coronavirus ‘hotspot’, with one of the highest suspected number of cases in the UK.

One year on from the last match before a full house, we’ve spoken to those who were inside Anfield to find out what it was like.

A unique build-up
When Liverpool lost 1-0 in Madrid on 18 February, with only nine Covid cases confirmed in the UK at the time, there were only hints of the impending tumult.

Liverpool supporter and co-host of podcast The Anfield Wrap John Gibbons was there and says it was no different to usual.

“We treated it like a normal European away game. Everyone was in the bars having a good time.”

For Liverpool’s then first-team physio Chris Rohrbeck, it was a similar story.

“We stayed in a bubble on our visit to Madrid as we usually would for a European game,” he says.

“There was talk of coronavirus but for us at the time, it was something happening in China, far away.”

John Murray, part of the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary team for both legs, describes a different atmosphere.

“When we went to Spain, we had deliberately kept ourselves to ourselves.

“There was a feeling something was going to happen.”

In the background, Covid-19 was spreading rapidly, putting sporting fixtures in Italy behind closed doors or postponing them completely.

The day before the second leg at Anfield, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said “some things are more important than football” and urged players and supporters not to shake hands during the game.

That evening, Valencia’s Champions League match with Atalanta was played without fans and the Spanish football federation moved La Liga games behind closed doors.

However, Arsenal’s Premier League game against Manchester City, scheduled for that Wednesday, was postponed ‘as a precautionary measure’ after several Gunners players went into self-isolation.

It was clear everything was changing.

By that point, Spain had the sixth highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world – and numbers were rising quickly.

Spanish journalist Hugo Condes from Onda Cero radio station travelled to Liverpool the day before the game.

“We wondered if, when we landed, they’d just send us back without getting off the plane,” he says.

“When we arrived, I saw pictures of people buying food and toilet paper – it was like a zombie movie.”

The ‘last’ game
“Liverpool is not a massive city,” says Gibbons. “On European games, visiting fans are in the centre all day and make a great atmosphere.

“Atletico fans see some of themselves in us so it’s a good relationship.”

For players, the virus was a talking point but the Liverpool team were trying to focus on the game.

“Everyone was aware of what was going on,” explains Rohrbeck. “But we were behind in the tie and we needed to push it away.

“We had to go by what the politicians were saying.

“We were so busy preparing that there was no point thinking of anything else.”

Inside Anfield, hand sanitiser had multiplied and Rohrbeck says he was washing his hands more than usual.

“But we didn’t have face masks, there were no guidelines to follow,” he recalled.

“It still felt normal.”

At 16:30 though, the World Health Organisation labelled the new coronavirus as a pandemic and that made it real for Murray.

“I heard the 5 Live news bulletin and it suddenly came closer to home,” he says.

“There we were, expecting 60,000 fans inside Anfield, including 3,000 who’d somehow been allowed to travel from Madrid.

“They came in first as well so when I reported the team news, they were already in the ground.”

Condes had similar thoughts. “When we started broadcasting, I spoke about the Covid situation.


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