Madrid was at the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak by 11 March 2020 and had closed its schools, suspended its regional parliament and all events with more than 1,000 people in response. La Liga had decided to stage matches behind closed doors and the all-Basque Copa del Rey final between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad had been postponed indefinitely.
Yet 3,000 Atlético Madrid supporters were among a crowd of 52,267 inside Anfield that night, staying in Liverpool hotels, travelling on public transport and celebrating in Liverpool pubs after knocking the holders out of the Champions League. Local hospitals reported an additional 37 deaths shortly afterwards.
Atlético return to Anfield on Wednesday for the first time since that last-16 second leg tie, the final “mass gathering” in English football before Mikel Arteta’s positive test – not government intervention – brought the sport to an abrupt halt lasting three months. In the moments before this week’s Champions League group game begins there is sure to be focus on a simple handshake between Jürgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The sideshow will underline how swiftly we have slipped back into dramatising the trivial.
There was furore following Liverpool’s 3-2 win at the Wanda Metropolitano two weeks ago when Simeone, as is his wont, sprinted straight down the tunnel on the final whistle and ignored Klopp’s outstretched hand. They did not shake hands on 11 March 2020 either, and for more serious, sinister reasons than the Atlético manager’s stated dislike of a “forced” post-match routine. “A handshake with forceps,” as he calls the brief union between a manager high on victory and another despairing in defeat.
“None of us knew what the influence of the pandemic would be on the football world or the world itself,” recalls Pepijn Lijnders, Liverpool’s assistant manager. “But I remember us having discussions around that time about whether it was right for Madrid fans to come.
“I remember us speaking before the game about not shaking hands, not having mascots, all these things. I remember a friend of Jürgen calling him and saying: ‘Make sure you don’t shake Simeone’s hand.’ That’s a good one after what happened the other week! We knew something was completely wrong and we felt it probably wasn’t right to allow Madrid fans to come at that time to our ground.”
Lijnders admits Liverpool’s preparations for the tie were unaffected by the growing threat of the virus and, looking back at the sports pages from that day, Alisson’s absence through injury and Klopp warning his players not to fall for any gamesmanship by Atlético appeared more pressing concerns. Behind the scenes, however, the Liverpool manager was becoming increasingly concerned.
“He told me that going ahead with the game in those conditions was a criminal act,” revealed Carlo Ancelotti, the then Everton manager, who spoke to Klopp days afterwards. “I think he was right.” The German’s unease was evident when he walked out of the Anfield tunnel before kick-off and rebuked fans for leaning over and reaching out for a high five.
“Jürgen has said that was the first game he has gone into not in a football mood,” Lijnders adds. “I was just convinced we would go through, just as I was convinced we were going through before Barça [the 4-0 semi-final second leg win the year before].
“It was really strange. I am probably too obsessed with football, too obsessed with our club and too obsessed with the result. I was really worried about what was going on in Italy and couldn’t see how that would not come to us, but that’s why you are a professional as well. When your mindset has to go, you go. Around training we really tried to prepare the team as best as we could and our preparation was excellent.”
The assistant manager’s work on the Atlético game did not end with the 3-2 defeat. He sent players clips of their individual performances to analyse during lockdown. “If you don’t win there is feedback, even then,” Lijnders says with a smile. “It was not easy for a few players to deal with but if you want to achieve things you have to look in the mirror and be really honest.”
The preliminary report into the government’s early response to the pandemic – one of the worst public health failures in UK history, according to findings led by two Conservative former cabinet ministers – reveals the devastating impact of allowing the game to take place. It reads: “Events that may have spread the virus proceeded – such as the football match between Liverpool FC and Atlético Madrid on 11 March – the day the coronavirus was categorised as a pandemic by the WHO [World Health Organization] – with a reported crowd of over 50,000, and the Cheltenham Festival of Racing between 10 and 13 March, attracting more than 250,000 people.
“Subsequent analysis suggested that there were an additional 37 and 41 deaths respectively at local hospitals after these events. However, it is not clear whether those deaths were as a result of attendance at the events themselves or associated activities such as travel or congregation in pubs.”
The family of Richard Mawson have no doubt the 70-year-old died as a consequence of attending the Atlético game and are among those calling for an independent inquiry into the decision to stage it. Mawson, a lifelong Liverpool fan who attended the gym twice a week, fell ill with coronavirus a fortnight after the game and died after a short time on a ventilator.
His son, Jamie, told the Liverpool Echo: “He had been walking the same route to his seat at Anfield for 50 years, through Stanley Park and past the away fans at Anfield Road. We know he had walked through the Atlético fans who were gathered outside the ground on his way to his seat. It all fits. He got ill almost exactly two weeks after that game and had hardly been anywhere else.”
Mawson’s wife, Mary, added: “It was 3am when I called the ambulance. I was stuck looking out of the window as my husband of 50 years was taken away. He was like a lamb to the slaughter. He never came back. The only time I saw him again was to say goodbye over a video. It was awful. We could only have 10 people at his funeral.”
Peter Middleman, a season ticket holder for 36 years, was also among the Anfield crowd. As north-west regional secretary of the National Education Union he helped introduce social distancing measures, extra hygiene and plans for home working for a 35-strong team in Bolton a week before the national lockdown was announced by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, on 23 March. Twelve days earlier against Atlético, however, uncertainty reigned in the absence of government leadership.
“We all knew something was coming,” Middleman recalls. “But it was hard to manage your own fears against the business-as-usual approach elsewhere. The prime minister was boasting at that time about shaking people’s hands in hospital and saying we should continue to do so.
“I wasn’t surprised the game went ahead and I’d be lying if I said I had doubts about going, but I was sitting in the main stand, and the fella who sits next to me travels over from Germany, and we knew there were 3,000 Madrid supporters in the city who were largely coming into contact with staff in hotels, restaurants and pubs and who didn’t have a choice.
“In the days afterwards I questioned how wise it was to allow the game to go ahead when the authorities clearly knew how bad the situation was in Madrid. If they’d have banned away supporters from that game it would have seemed a rational measure.
“If we knew then what we know now I’m sure the game would not have gone ahead but, at the same time, there was a recklessness about the herd immunity approach that the government were taking. And Uefa would have been looking to protect the bottom line of their product. People have undoubtedly paid with their lives for it.”