Liverpool's players return to Merseyside today no doubt laden with an array of snazzy gizmos, everything from fifth-generation iPods to the latest Sony handheld game consoles, but they will be weighed down more by a numbing sense of injustice. The first goal they had shipped in two months wrecked their attempt at world domination here, though it was the infuriating memory of a linesman's flag which will hound them home.
So incensed was Rafael Benítez at the performance of the Mexican referee Benito Archundia, and his Canadian assistant Hector Vergara in particular, that he remonstrated with both at the final whistle before making a beeline for the Fifa president Sepp Blatter. His frustration centred on the decision to disallow his substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle's 89th-minute attempt, the linesman having flagged Luis García offside in the build-up, though it effectively extended to Fifa's running of the tournament.
"It was a private conversation," said Benítez. "We knew that one of the goals was a goal, clear. You wouldn't get a Mexican referee and a Canadian linesman in the final of the World Cup."
The other "goals" to which the Spaniard referred were a further two disallowed conversions - a García header and a Sami Hyypia close-range prod - after the interval, though the first was offside and Xabi Alonso's corner had drifted behind prior to the Finn's tap-in. The last time Liverpool graced a major final, back in Turkey in May, they had scored three second-half goals to haul in Milan; to be denied three here grated. "We feel cheated," said García as the Premiership side departed this arena wearing a collection of scowls and silver medals whereas the Brazilians gleamed with gold.
What luck Liverpool deserved had clearly been spent in Istanbul. The snarl that accompanied Sinama-Pongolle's, Harry Kewell's and García's protestations at the end while Sao Paulo players cried with joy provided a suitably surreal finale as this much-maligned competition petered out. The South Americans, their advantage established midway through the opening period, had been more content to time-waste than seek further reward, with the statistics of the occasion revealing Liverpool's domination. Yet, in amassing 21 shots to Sao Paulo's four and 17 corners to their opponents' none, Benítez's side should never have needed a late goal to provide parity.
It was profligacy which ultimately cost them, the troubling tone set in the opening 79 seconds when Fernando Morientes headed Steven Gerrard's cross wide. Indeed, in a 10-minute period before the interval Liverpool might have scored four, with the enigmatic García flicking a header on to the bar and then placing another the wrong side of Rogerio Ceni's post. Gerrard, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the area, and García again, this time well denied by the goalkeeper, completed a miserable flurry of missed chances.
By then Liverpool trailed, sliced apart by Aloisio's pass and Mineiro's calm finish beyond José Reina. It had been 1,041 minutes of competitive football since the Merseysiders had last leaked, and rarely did they threaten to crumble again. But their inability to penetrate at the other end was enough to undermine their challenge. The excellent Kewell had Rogerio tipping his cross-shot on to the bar, with the goalkeeper doing wonderfully well to paw away Gerrard's free-kick and suffocate García's attempt before the linesman's flag sapped momentum for good.
When Benítez would have welcomed the assistant's intervention, Diego Lugano crudely hacking down Gerrard as the midfielder threatened to tear alone into the Brazilian half, the referee flashed yellow where his card might have been red. "I would like to know what is a sending off," bemoaned the Spaniard. "The rules say that if you can't play the ball and you foul the player it's a red card. It was unbelievable that the referee didn't show the red card for that foul. I tried to show respect for the other team but I was disappointed with how the situation was controlled by the referee.
"I cannot understand why only three minutes were added on [at the end]. I talked to the officials at the end of the game but you can't change things. But something has to change if Fifa want to give importance to this competition. To play [the third-place play-off] immediately before the final and not water the pitch isn't the most common thing. I tried to have a lot of respect but I think we deserved to win."
In defeat Liverpool will wonder whether it really was worth the logistical realities of competing in this tournament, involving as it did a 6,000-mile trek around the world, the draining effects of jet lag and the sight of Manchester United accumulating a six-point advantage above them in second place. How they react back home, with Newcastle - and Michael Owen - and Everton to come next week, will define their season.
Sao Paulo (3-5-2): Rogerio ·; Fabao, Lugano ·, Edcarlos; Cicinho, Mineiro, Josue, Danilo, Junior; Amoroso 6, Aloisio (Grafite, 75).
Subs not used: Christian, Alex, Denilson, Fabio Santos, Renan, Flavio Donizete, Thiago, Richardlyson, Souza, Bosco, Flavio Kretzer.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock (Riise, 79); Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko (Sinama-Pongolle, 79), Kewell; Luis García; Morientes (Crouch, 85).
Subs not used: Dudek, Cissé, Carson, Josemi, Traoré. Referee: B Archundia (Mex).
Record of British clubs
2005 Sao Paulo (Braz) 1 Liverpool 0
1999 Manchester United (Eng) 1 Palmeiras (Braz) 0
1984 Independiente (Arg) 1 Liverpool 0
1982 Penarol (Uru) 2 Aston Villa 0
1981 Flamengo (Braz) 3 Liverpool 0
1980 Nacional (Uru) 1 Nottm Forest 0
1968 Estudiantes (Arg) 2 Manchester United 1 on aggregate
1967 Racing Club (Arg) 1 Celtic 0; after 2-2 on aggregate
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