They say an elephant never forgets. Neither, it seems, do Ayrshire cabbies.
Well over a decade on and thousands of miles away from the stifling heat of Seville, Costinha was in the back of a taxi in a dreich Scotland, with a storm brewing in the seat in front.
Beside him sat former Porto team-mate Maniche, the man he stood alongside in the Estadio Olimpico on 21 May, 2003. In front of him? A football-loving Scottish taxi driver with a grudge.
“The Uefa Cup final against Celtic was a funny one,” Costinha told the Scottish FA’s Coach Education podcast.
“When I was doing my A Licence in Scotland, I picked up a cab to go to Largs and the taxi driver was a Celtic supporter. He said ‘Where are you from?’. I said we came from Portugal. ‘Oh I remember I was in Seville, we lost a game to those bastards from Porto!’
“I said to Maniche ‘don’t say nothing because he’s going to throw us out of the car’. It was so funny.”
The winding road to Seville
The fact midfielder Costinha describes it as funny perhaps suggests he fully doesn’t understand the frustration felt in the Celtic camp.
The pain of the estimated 80,000 fans in Seville – a guestimate given the figure fluctuates from 40,000 to 400,000 depending on who you speak to – was only heightened by the palpable excitement that built throughout the run. Their quest was quite something and allowed fans to believe their 36-year wait for a European trophy may well be at an end.
Suduva of Lithuania were scudded 10-1 on aggregate; Blackburn Rovers were dismissed without conceding; Celta Vigo edged out on away goals; Stuttgart despatched in a 5-4 aggregate thriller. By the time Liverpool were beaten 3-1 over two legs, the notion of seeing off Boavista in the last four seemed written in the stars.
“We got a generous semi-final draw and, with all respect to Boavista, we were thinking what an opportunity it was to get to the final,” said striker Chris Sutton.
Martin O’Neill’s 50th unbeaten game at home earned a 1-1 home draw with the Portuguese, Henrik Larsson scoring and missing a penalty with Joos Valgaeren netting an own goal. But despite a fraught night at the Estadio do Bessa, a prodded shot from the talismanic Swede crept into the back of the net with 12 minutes left to send Celtic to Seville.
“I tried to slip the ball to John Hartson but thankfully the defender slide-tackled and the ball came back to me,” said Larsson of the goal. “I didn’t get much on it and it certainly didn’t go in the right direction but it doesn’t matter.”
Former Celtic midfielder Alan Thompson recalled: “I remember almost every second of that game. It was awful. I remember looking at the clock to see how long there was to go and it was as if time stood still. That was a long 12 minutes. To say it felt like 12 days would be accurate.”
Not watching it back & war of words
The embers of frustration, and in some cases anger, still burn in many connected with Celtic even 17 years on. Manager O’Neill says he still hasn’t watched the full game back. Sutton described it as the hardest defeat of his career.
Derlei and Dmitri Alenichev twice gave Porto the lead – only for Larsson to haul Celtic level twice, rekindling hopes of adding to their 1967 European Cup win in Lisbon.
But when Derlei restored Porto’s lead with only five minutes of extra-time left, a side Celtic down to 10 men after Bobo Balde’s red card could not mount another recovery. Instead, their angst was only heightened with allegations of play-acting and time wasting levelled at their opposition.
“I will probably get into trouble for this, but it was poor sportsmanship,” O’Neill said afterwards. “The rolling over, the time wasting. But they have beaten us, well done to them and it’s up to us to learn from this. It is a steep learning curve, but this was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
“We came roaring back every time they scored a goal and, if when we had 11 against 11 in extra time, I think we were the more mentally strong, But it was not to be with Bobo getting sent off. It was a massive blow.”
Porto manager Jose Mourinho, who would go on to lead the Portuguese side to the Champions League title the following season, had a different opinion.
“I’d prefer to ask whether the behaviour of the Celtic players was normal in your country,” he said post-match. “What Balde did to Deco in front of me could have ended his career.
“The referee wanted to end the game with 11 against 11 and I think maybe he was a bit afraid to send anyone off. There was a lot of commitment in Celtic’s game, commitment, toughness and aggression. I’m tempted to use another word – but I won’t.”
Coming up short & best-behaved Bhoys
Celtic’s huge following in Spain was later recognised by Fifa, with the 2003 Fair Play award given to them for “exemplary fair and cordial conduct” during their side’s run.
While the supporters were being lauded, there was little time for them or their players to dwell. Just four days later, O’Neill’s side took to the field in a nerve-jangling season finale, both them and Rangers locked on 94 points.
As it transpired, a 4-0 win at Rugby Park would not be enough for Celtic, with Rangers’ 6-1 trouncing of Dunfermline clinching the title for the Ibrox side. Thompson would miss a penalty in Ayrshire, while Larsson also struck the upright, two pivotal moments given the league was lost by a solitary goal.
“The truth is we haven’t anything tangible to show for an incredible year, but I know there are boys on their way back from Seville who would take it again,” said O’Neill at Rugby Park.
“I would imagine we could play for another century and not have the same heartbreak. But in the cold light of day the players have been astonishingly brilliant this season.
“The evenings at Ewood Park, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart – they don’t come around too often. The way football is going, the big boys getting stronger, it might be a long time before a Scottish team gets to another European final.”
How many of Celtic’s Uefa Cup final squad can you name?
Score: 0 / 18