Liverpool icon ROBERTO FIRMINO on the pain of winning the Premier League title behind closed doors: ‘Without our fans, Anfield was just a patch of grass’
Roberto Firmino was an integral member of Jurgen Klopp’s all-conquering Liverpool side which won a sixth Champions League crown and first English league title for 30 years. In a new book, out on November 9, he discusses the joy of winning the Premier League but how it had somewhat of a bitter taste having done so in front of no fans due to Covid lockdowns…
It’s no secret to anyone. We’d conquered Europe, we conquered the world, but something was missing: we still hadn’t conquered England and that Premier League trophy was the one the fans wanted most of all.
I have no doubts that we were the best in the world during the period that spanned from the end of the 2017–18 season until March 2020, when the planet came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
We had demonstrated our strength with two Champions League finals, an entire Premier League season with just one, painful defeat, and in our performances against Barcelona, Manchester City and even Real Madrid, against whom, despite losing, we were the better side.
But the Premier League was still missing and we needed it. Liverpool hadn’t been champions since 1990. We’d come close a few times, but we had never been able to clinch the domestic title in the era when the Premier League became the most powerful league in the world.
We had a score to settle. Our team was just too good not to have a Premier League title. In 2019 we were Champions League winners and had an epic Premier League campaign, amassing 97 points. Yet, still, it eluded us. The same couldn’t happen again. It just couldn’t.
I arrived for pre-season having just won the Copa América with the Brazilian national team and I felt in the prime of my career. I couldn’t have been more confident, even though we knew we needed a near-perfect campaign if we were to win the league.
Determined, we had made a pact during pre-season: this was it, we couldn’t let a single game slip through our fingers, couldn’t ever ease off. We went into the season incredibly focused, committed to starting strongly, knowing that every point was decisive.
There was no margin for even the smallest error. And so it was. We won one match. Then another. Then another and another… and another. No one could stop us. In our first 27 games we won 26 and drew just one, against United at Old Trafford.
We were an unstoppable force, everything fitting together like clockwork. Relentless, don’t pause until it’s over. Honestly, we hardly glanced at the league table; we just kept on, committed to that original promise. Not one point gifted, not one game wasted.
Match after match. It was like a race where the runner sprints down the track, way ahead of the rest, and never looks back until it’s done. When you finally pause for breath and glance behind you, there’s no one even close.
After 26 wins in 27 games, it was clear that the title was just a matter of time and the objective had already shifted: now we wanted to win the league undefeated. We discussed this among ourselves – and why not? After all, it was win after win every week, and that finishing line got closer with no sign or intention of slowing down.
But then we had a dip in the season; a small one but enough to cost us dearly. And one that perhaps, in the long run, contributed to us losing our European and global dominance.
In February 2020 we travelled to Madrid to face Atlético in the Champions League last 16.
Diego Simeone, Atletico’s coach, perfectly identified our style, finding a way to nullify us.
It was our first defeat in five months, only the second of the season – the other had been against Napoli in the group stage – and the truth is, it shocked us. By that point in the season we had felt invincible, with a united and powerful squad. But we weren’t truly invincible.
Rocked by the Atletico result, we found that out the hard way. After Madrid there were three more defeats, which ended up being even more significant than we could have imagined. We lost 3–0 to Watford that ended our run of 18 consecutive Premier League wins and a 44-match unbeaten streak.
Our last Premier League loss had been to Manchester City more than a year earlier. Now our hopes of an undefeated title had been destroyed. It was a dreadful game. Everyone played poorly, the team seemed all over the place. I was very frustrated and irritated that day; I felt as if our wonderful campaign had counted for nothing.
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we had lost our unbeaten record in the Premier League, and got knocked out of the Champions League and the FA Cup to Chelsea. It was heartbreaking. Honestly, that was the team to win it all. That was a perfect team, a perfect combination. It should have delivered the perfect season. But it had gone.
And then, almost overnight, all that was made to feel trivial. We’ll never forget March 2020, when everything changed; everyone’s lives became affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Many lost family members or loved ones.
Defeat at Watford wasn’t just the end of our unbeaten run. Looking at what happened afterwards, it also took away our chance to be champions before the pandemic forced a halt, denying us the opportunity to share that moment with our fans.
When the authorities decided that football had to stop, we had a 25-point lead over Manchester City with just 27 points left to play for. In other words, we were champions, but we weren’t champions yet.
There were even discussions about cancelling the league altogether, which made me nervous. Can you imagine? We’d had an extraordinary, epic campaign and they were going to deny us the title?
The club organised daily routines to keep everyone fit: morning yoga, afternoon training. All the players stayed connected via Skype, with the fitness coach overseeing and leading the training sessions. It was also a way to keep us connected and bonded.
Liverpool arranged our supermarket shopping; we didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t pass my front gate in two months.
The Premier League finally resumed in June, three months after the suspension, but without the fans. We had to walk out alone. There’s no place like home. And Anfield will always be home to me.
There are football grounds and then there’s Anfield. There are many fanatical, loyal, noisy sets of fans. Where there’s football, there’s passion. But I can tell you, at Anfield, things are different.
Listen to my Brazilian friends, rivals from other clubs. They always told me how tough it is to play at Anfield! Tough for them; a blessing for us. In success and failure, at Anfield I always felt loved. I always had my special place and they never wanted me to leave it.
But at that moment, they were the ones who had to leave. The pandemic took away the Liverpool fans’ chance to support us, share with us the moment they had waited for even longer than us; to release a cheer that had been trapped in their throats for 30 years. How sad that felt! How sorely they were missed!
Less than a week after the restart of the Premier League, we were champions. It was a special moment. Different, of course. The joy was there, we jumped and embraced each other, but it wasn’t a celebration like the others. There was no escaping the feeling that something was not right, that something had been denied to us.
Liverpool fans had waited 30 years to celebrate the title and, when it came, they could only shout, ‘We are the champions!’ from within their own homes. It wasn’t bitter, of course not. It was a moment of great joy that I shared with my team-mates, but it could have been better.
A month later we played our last game at Anfield. I scored, as we defeated Chelsea 5-3, and we finally lifted that trophy we had dreamed of for so long. A huge stage was set up in the Kop, where our loudest fans should have been standing.
It was the ideal place for the celebration, a gesture of solidarity with our absent supporters. There, one legend, Kenny Dalglish, presented the trophy to another: Jordan Henderson.
Outside the ground, big crowds were expected, even though gatherings were prohibited. Several thousand fans were there with us, through the walls on the other side of the stands. Fireworks painted the sky red. I wanted to be out there with them, or have them on the ground with us, but couldn’t.
The reality was that our ground had become just a patch of grass and concrete. Some teams suffered more from playing without fans during the pandemic, some less. We suffered much more than anyone without our supporters. It just never felt right.
Playing football without a crowd is horrible. The fans are our fuel: we play for them, perform for them; we want to bring them joy. Without them, there’s no spectacle, no sentiment. They even tried to pipe crowd noise through the sound system to simulate atmosphere, but you can’t replace real people or emulate emotion.