Boavista v Celtic, 24 April 2003, was one of the most frustrating games of football I’ve sat through. Needing to score, for 78 minutes Celtic were moribund; they made not a single attempt on goal. Instead, they did what most teams do away from home, condensed midfield and defended, while Boavista, who would qualify for the Uefa Cup final if the game ended goalless, did much the same.
The goal appeared to take place in slow motion. Henrik Larsson moved forward to the end of the D and tried to pass to John Hartson, but a defender intercepted. Unfortunately for Boavista the ball was returned from the interception to an unmarked Larsson on the edge of the box.
It spun from his preferred right foot onto his left but the shot gently arced inches away from the goalkeeper’s grasp. The goal was a deflection, although we didn’t see it at the time. The keeper was moving his weight from right to left as the ball drifted to his left.
It may have been a turgid game of football decided by a deflection but it was also one of the most intense sporting occasions in our 125 year history. The sheer release of tension when the goal went in was incredible. 15 minutes, and one generous refereeing decision later, Celtic were in a European final.
Since then we have become accustomed to our position as a credible European team but it was very different in season 2002-03. This was the first Christmas Celtic were in Europe since 1979; each milestone along the way, Blackburn Rovers (a far more credible team at the time), Celta Vigo, Stuttgart and Liverpool, was celebrated with something close to astonishment.
The triumphs of this season, qualifying for the Champions League group stage instead of losing to Basel, then progressing to the knock out rounds, are greater than the achievements of April 2003, but they will never feel that way. That game, that season, trophy-less though it was, changed our entire landscape. Nothing would ever be the same again.
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