It’s a crisp spring day on the campus of Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, with the sun bursting through somber Puget Sound skies for what feels like the first time in months. The transitional nature of the weather is fitting as Seattle Sounders FC Assistant Coach Djimi Traore sits down for a conversation about one of the most tempestuous matches in the history of professional club soccer. For a man with more than 250 professional appearances for the likes of European giants Liverpool and Marseille, in addition to his two seasons in Rave Green, one specific match stands out above all others.
“What I realized after the game — and even today — is how important this match was. People still ask me about that game. It’s crazy for me. There are so many games you play in your life, in your career, and people still remember what I did that day,” said Traore.
The match in question is the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final. The most prestigious and lucrative continental club football championship in the world, the Champions League pits the top professional sides in European football against one other in a no-holds-barred knockout competition. The 2005 Final took place in Istanbul between traditional powers AC Milan of Italy and English side Liverpool, and as Traore reflects on the contest ahead of this year’s Champions League Final, he’s still struck by the events that unfolded 12 years ago.
“Even if a movie was made about this match, no one would be able to watch it and take it seriously. They would say, ‘No that’s too much. It’s not possible.’ But we did it,” remarked the former Liverpool defender.
The match itself is famous for perhaps the most miraculous comeback in soccer history. After conceding three first-half goals to perennial Champions League contender AC Milan — seven-time winner of Europe’s elite continental championship — hope was extinguished for Liverpool and its throngs of traveling supporters from northwest England by the first half whistle. Once a storied side that had survived the crucible of the European Cup on four title-winning occasions between 1977 and 1984, the achievements of legendary players like Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush seemed like a distant memory. Though no English side has won more European Cups than Liverpool, a fifth title in 2005 seemed all but impossible following the first 45 minutes of play at the Atatürk Stadium that night in Istanbul.
Traore continues, “There’s the pressure before the game, the start of that match, and then suddenly you’re down 3-0 by halftime. My wife was in the stands that day. She was crying because she thought the match was over.”
Milan’s side that season was a virtual all-star team, led by all-time greats like captain Paolo Maldini, a virtuoso midfield anchored by Holland’s Clarence Seedorf and Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo, in addition to a forward line comprised of lethal Argentine striker Hernán Crespo, Ukrainian standout Andriy Shevchenko and eventual FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká. Even Milan’s more understated players carried weight, with hardmen like Gennaro Gattuso and Jaap Stam packing a punch that Osvaldo Alonso would admire. From the outset, it was a slaughter.
Maldini grabbed the match by the horns, recording the first goal in the opening minute of play. Liverpool was forced to weather attack after attack from Milan until Crespo finally broke the match wide open by bagging a brace late in the first half. The former Chelsea forward’s goals came in the 39th and 44th minutes, respectively, leaving Liverpool gasping for air and searching for answers at the intermission.
Sounders FC television play-by-play voice Keith Costigan has covered Liverpool for FOX Sports extensively throughout his career, and as a proud supporter of the club since childhood, his memory of the occasion remains sharp.
Said Costigan, “The game had everything. You had a superstar AC Milan team who were conquering and 3-0 up at halftime, led by Crespo, Shevchenko and Kaká. And then you had a Liverpool team that was essentially pieced together. You had Steven Gerrard, a young up-and-coming midfielder, and then you had young players like Djimi. It didn’t seem possible, but that unlikely group of players put together the greatest comeback you’re ever going to see in a Champions League match.”
The counterpunch that Liverpool mustered in the opening portion of the second half is still a sequence of events that defies logic.
“It happened so fast,” said Traore. “One thing I learned in England is that you never give up until the referee blows the whistle. That was the mentality of our group. We had been together for many years, and we had been in bad situations and had come back before. And then in six minutes you score three goals. But when the third goal happened, that is when the game changed for us. Because there was still a lot of time still to play!”
Gerrard was becoming one of the world’s top midfielders in 2005, but the Merseyside native and future England captain cemented his legacy throughout this installment of the Champions League tournament. His first goal in the 54th minute planted a seed of belief into his club, and when veteran Czech midfielder Vladimir Šmicer bagged the second tally two minutes later, Liverpool’s fans erupted. Riding this tidal wave of momentum, redemption was near after Gerrard won a penalty and Xavi Alonso stepped up to take it in the 60th minute. Even the spot kick itself was improbable, with the Spaniard converting his own rebound after Milan’s Brazilian goalkeeper Dida made the initial save.
Costigan cites Traore’s toughness and versatility throughout the contest, particularly with so much time remaining in the second half to defend against Milan’s potent attack.
“The game really encapsulated Djimi because there was a tactical shift needed in the second half. With Liverpool down so heavily, [manager] Rafa Benitez had told Djimi he was going to come off for another midfielder. But [defender] Steve Finnan was injured, forcing Djimi to defend a really open game in that second half. You had to be a certain kind of defender with pace that could defend in open space against Milan, and with Liverpool living on the edge, Djimi played a big part in one of the best defensive displays to weather the rest of that game.”
For his part, Traore played the entire contest through both periods of extra time, even making a goal-line clearance to keep his side level. And when Liverpool ran the penalty shootout gauntlet, it was euphoria for Traore, his teammates and Liverpool supporters across the globe.
“The best moment was celebrating with my teammates…with that group of players we have a connection for life now. When we got back to Liverpool, you realized what a crazy thing we did. I’ve never seen so many people all together in my life.”
Traore’s distinguished professional career reached its crescendo in Seattle, with the Frenchman plying his trade in the Emerald City from 2013 through 2014, culminating in the 2014 Supporters’ Shield and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title. Yet beyond those trophies, it’s Traore’s continued cultural impact on the club that holds the most meaning for him personally and the people he influences.
Former Sounder and current Newcastle United defender DeAndre Yedlin underscores this notion, speaking about Traore following Newcastle’s recent promotion to the English Premier League.
“I think the first day I met Djimi he introduced himself and I knew who he was, obviously, but I didn’t know how much of a mentor he would become for me,” said Yedlin. “He’s almost like a father figure…he’s been huge for me. My ex-girlfriend and I would babysit for his kids, and he would have us over for dinner. I was 20 at the time and he was inviting me over for dinner and taking me out to places. It just showed how much he cared and obviously I appreciate that. He made me feel much more comfortable.”
Traore remains close with Yedlin, and the mentorship aspect of his current position is something he’s retained from his days as a veteran player.
“When I was young, I always went to the veteran guys to learn on and off the field, especially off the field. Guys I respected gave me good advice, and you always learned from it. When I arrived in Seattle, we had players like DeAndre, and we became friends. And even though there was a big age difference, he always approached me and asked me questions, and I tried to help him and give him the same advice I received. I wanted to pass that experience onto someone, and that’s the same reason I chose my path in coaching.”
Sounders FC Head Coach Brian Schmezter recalls the first day Traore arrived in Seattle, and how his obvious leadership continues to be an asset for the club.
Said Schmetzer, “The first day Djimi stepped on the field, you could tell right away his character and his intentions on helping the team win. It was clearly evident. We feel, I feel, that the club is a relationship between the fans and the players. That’s the club. Djimi understands that because he played for the club and gets that and he felt that. He’s played in some big games for our team and across his overall career. His [experience] helps perpetuate this idea of a club, a true club. These are moments that continue to be created through good people like Djimi.”
Traore has embraced Seattle and received a reciprocal display of warmth from the community as a player and a coach. His relationship with the city and feelings of affection toward it are a central part of why Traore and his wife Malena, along with their nine-year-old son Noah and four-year-old daughter Malia, have planted permanent roots here. When he looks back at the totality of his playing days, there’s a smile on the Frenchman’s face when recounting his good fortune and experience.
“One thing I feel very lucky about from my career is that I experienced playing for three top clubs in three different leagues,” said Traore. “I learned a lot playing for the most popular team in France, Marseille. It’s a big club. With Liverpool, it’s also a big club in England. Everybody knows it. And with the Seattle Sounders, it’s the same. For me, I was lucky to experience three different cultures at three big clubs. I’m lucky to have enjoyed those experiences, they helped my character as a player.”
Especially that one night in Istanbul.
After returning from a recent trip to Liverpool on behalf of FOX Sports, Costigan noted that Traore has made more than a few permanent marks on his former home. Upon seeing Liverpool’s famed Spion Kop — one of the world’s largest supporters’ sections that is steeped in tradition — Costigan noted the following: “There’s a big mural on the side of the Kop right now, and it’s of the 2005 players running as they win the penalty shootout and realize they’re going to lift the Champions League trophy. Djimi is right there in the mix. He’ll always be remembered for the part he played in the greatest night of Liverpool’s history.”