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Šmicer's final memories and Prague pride

UEFA Europa Conference League final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer expects Prague to prove a fitting venue, as he recounts his own brushes with continental glory at Liverpool.

UEFA Europa Conference League final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer
UEFA Europa Conference League final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer AFP via Getty Images

This article also appears in the official UEFA Europa Conference League final programme. Get your copy here!

Vladímir Šmícer knows a fair amount about European finals. The former Liverpool midfielder finished on the winning side in two famous showpiece games, helping the Reds beat Deportivo Alavés 5-4 via a golden goal to lift the UEFA Cup in 2001 and burying a fantastic strike during their comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League decider.

Now the official ambassador of the 2023 UEFA Europa Conference League final, the man who began and ended his career at Slavia Praha reflects on those glittering campaigns and lifts the lid on the proud football culture of host city Prague.

Liverpool had to overcome some strong teams to win the 2000/01 UEFA Cup, but they were also given a scare by Czech side Slovan Liberec in the second round...

It was the first time in history that Liverpool had played in Czechia. I was so excited but a bit nervous that Liberec could surprise us somehow. They had played well in the first leg, but we won 1-0. In Liberec we were losing for a period of the match and they made it hard for us. [Manager] Gérard Houllier was demanding. He told us we were not at Liverpool just to be there and enjoy it: we were there to win something for the club. He said our best chances were in the cup competitions, as we were behind the best Premier League teams.

Wins against Olympiacos, Roma and Porto set up a semi-final tie with Barcelona. You ground out a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou, then won the Anfield return 1-0. 

In the first match we had only one shot on goal and that came from a free-kick. We were under tremendous pressure and mainly concentrated on being defensively solid. Barcelona gave us a hard time and were the better team, but we survived all their attempts to score. The second leg at Anfield was such a big game. The fans helped us and Gary McAllister scored a penalty, so we advanced to the final.

Liverpool beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final just four days before the UEFA Cup decider against Alavés in Dortmund. How did you manage two huge games in such a short period? 

I started the FA Cup final so I was on the bench for the European final and came on around the 60th minute, which was soon after Alavés had come back from 3-1 to 3-3. We were all sure it would be a defensive-minded game, but it turned into an incredible goal fest. We won thanks to an Alavés own goal three minutes before the end. It was a golden goal, so the game immediately ended. It was sad for Alavés. They had ten men from around 100 minutes on and finished with nine at the end of extra time – it was a foul on me and their player got a red card. From that free-kick, their defender [Delfí Geli] ended up heading into his own net. So… 5-4, nine goals in total.

2001 UEFA Cup final highlights: Liverpool 5-4 Alavés

At 3-1 up, then leading 4-3 with two minutes remaining, you must have thought the game was won? 

I was disappointed with Alavés' late equaliser because it was the last corner and I was sure that afterwards it would all be over and we could celebrate, but Jordi Cruyff scored to make it 4-4. I thought winning the UEFA Cup was just not meant to be, that it wasn't going to be our day.

How did you feel at full time when you knew it very much was your day?

It was really nice, and Patrik Berger was there with me. We'd grown up together at Slavia Praha and with the national team. It was just the two of us, so we thought we'd be among the few Czech players to win the UEFA Cup and we were extremely happy. Then, of course, it meant a lot for the supporters and the club. It was the third trophy we won that season, which caused huge euphoria. It was a tremendous success.

A few years later you replaced Harry Kewell early on in the 2005 Champions League final, then scored the second goal in that fightback from 3-0 down. 

The goal during that match is the one I cherish most from my career because it meant I was able to lift that trophy above my head. The fact I got to play was amazing as I'd missed a lot of that season due to injury. After I got my chance around the 20th minute, I wanted to contribute and enjoy the game. I knew it was going to be my final match for Liverpool and I had to show the fans something. The result was beyond our wildest expectations. I'd never scored a goal from such a central position. I didn't see any other possible option – I kicked the ball and scored a beautiful goal.

2005 Champions League final highlights: Milan 3-3 Liverpool (2-3 pens)

You also converted a penalty in the shoot-out win… 

Scoring the penalty was the cherry on top of the cake. I was very nervous. I knew it was my last kick for Liverpool, that my contract was up and I'd be leaving. If I scored, I could always go back to Liverpool with my head held high; if not, I could never show my face there again! That's what was at stake with that one kick. Nobody had really heard anything out of me that season and then I left a hero. I was the guy who somehow helped Liverpool win that final. Maybe it really is better to leave when you're at the top.

You were integral to another staggering comeback, this time on the international stage, scoring the winner with two minutes remaining when Czechia beat the Netherlands 3-2 after trailing 2-0 at EURO 2004. 

I'd scored at the EURO in 1996 and 2000 and wanted to make it three in a row. I was on the end of a fantastic pass from Karel Poborský and put the ball into the empty net. But, man, you have to be there, you have to get involved! That wasn't just a good Czech national team, it was a fantastic one. And I really regret that we didn't reach the final in 2004 because we had to win that tournament.

Vladimír Šmicer celebrates his late winner against Netherlands in 2004
Vladimír Šmicer celebrates his late winner against Netherlands in 2004Bongarts/Getty Images

Ahead of the second Europa Conference League final, what are your views on the competition and the opportunities it provides for clubs beneath the elite tier? 

It's positive that more teams have the chance to play in Europe. Fans of clubs that would never qualify for the Champions League or Europa League can follow their team all over Europe and have new experiences. It's quickly found a fanbase and is only going to get better. More young players can test themselves, which is another big plus point. If the Conference League did not exist, clubs such as Slovácko, Plzeň and Slavia would not play in Europe every year. Now they have the opportunity.

You started and finished your career with Slavia. What can you tell us about the city's football culture? 

There is a real rivalry between Slavia and Sparta. Slavia have put together a good team recently; their infrastructure has improved, they have a new stadium and they've started to compete with Sparta. Around 15 to 20 years ago, Sparta were the side with the better stadium and won all the titles, but recently it's the other way around. Bohemians are doing fairly well too. Their supporters raised money to avoid the club going bust. Their fans have always been passionate and they have a core role compared to the supporters of other clubs.

Do you feel a sense of pride that Prague is staging this European final? 

I'm very happy that Prague has the chance to host such a great event. Prague is an awesome place and it's situated right in the middle of Europe, so it's very accessible for people. It's not such a big stadium, but the atmosphere there is brilliant and both finalists will enjoy it.

Get the official final programme

Get the lowdown on finalists West Ham and Fiorentina and look back at another memorable campaign with official 2023 Europa Conference League final programme. Soak up the tactical analysis, find out all you need to know about Prague and Eden Arena, pore over the season's European football map and enjoy final ambassador Vladimír Šmicer reliving his glory days. Get your copy here!

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