Sunday 9th April 2006
by Nick Townsend, The Independent
He will never quite live it down. Nor would John Arne Riise particularly want to underplay his emotional response that night at a fervent Anfield when he indulged in an impromptu strip down to his underwear. Not for him a mere lap of honour in celebration of Liverpool's progress to the Champions' League final at the expense of Chelsea; the Norwegian preferred a lap dance for the delectation of the faithful. It spoke more eloquently for his affinity with Liverpool than words ever could.
"It was just pure reaction," Riise recalls, with the broadest of smiles. "At first, I was going to give my shirt away and throw it into the Kop, but people were screaming for 'more'. Well, I didn't have much more to give... so my shorts had to go as well."
The Liverpool left-back adds in an accent in which the Mersey sound is increasingly merging with the natural enunciation of this son of the fjords: "I was so tired at the end, and when the fourth official put up 'six mins' [added time] I thought, 'It's not possible'. We had already worked so hard as a team. Then Eidur Gudjohnsen got that chance. Every time I see a replay I think, 'He must score'. Fortunately, he didn't. I will never forget Istanbul, but that night at Anfield will stay with me, too."
If that revelry confirmed that Riise possessed the lean, hardened physique to caper about in his underpants without inviting scorn, it also reinforced what it meant for him and his team to defeat their nemesis in recent months, Chelsea. Now they prepare for another collision of leviathans in their FA Cup semi-final a week on Saturday.
The inevitable edge is ground all the keener by Steven Gerrard's initial planned defection to the London club, a position from which he recanted before he could be burnt at the stake of the Kop's displeasure. "Stevie showed what this club means to him," says Riise. "Not just because he didn't go to Chelsea, where the money would have been awesome, but because he's committed himself here, where he's the captain, he's our best player, and the fans love him. I think he made the right decision. Hopefully, he can show that over the next four years by winning more trophies here."
And a World Cup winner's medal too? Riise believes Gerr-ard's importance to the England cause cannot be overstated. "With most great players, you see a weakness in their game," he says. "With Stevie you don't find any. He's physically very strong. He can run all day. He's good with his head. He's aggressive. His passing and shooting are exceptional. For England to have him in the best possible condition is very important. If he plays well, and Rooney and Beckham do too - you never know."
Riise's belief that Gerrard has acted wisely in staying true to his roots is no imputation against Jose Mourinho's coaching prowess. Indeed, to the contrary. "Chelsea have bought players for a lot of money, which other teams don't have, but the manager, who is a very good coach, still has to mould them into a team," he insists. "Mourinho's created a side who are really hard to beat. That's why the buzz we got from defeating them in that Champions' League semi-final was so unbelievable."
Discussion of the champions brings us, somehow inevitably, to the vexed subject of cheating and diving - the dismissal of Liverpool's goalkeeper Jose Reina at Stamford Bridge being the most recent controversial incident between the sides - although Chelsea are far from being the only offenders. Bolton Wanderers, whom Liverpool face this afternoon, are reportedly top of the "Cheats League", with four of their players cautioned this season for "simulation". However, Riise does not believe incidents have increased, but that they are being detected more frequently and highlighted.
He adds: "For a defender, it's irritating when you know you haven't touched a player and he falls down, but then you just forget about it. I'm not too fussed about it. It happens all the time. I might have done it a few times without knowing I'm doing it, because if you only get a slight touch it's easy to go down."
Such insouciance may give rise to the impression that Riise is a member of a footballers' diplomatic mission. The truth is that he displays a maturity beyond his 25 years, in deed as well as word. Remarkably, for a defender, in his five seasons at Anfield, his aggregate is five cautions. This season, he has received not one in 45 games.
"I think that is very strange," he says. "Obviously, I do tackle, but maybe it's because I have a good relationship with the referees? I know I should have a few more yellow cards. Maybe I need to be more aggressive in certain areas. But I don't believe you should play to get yellow cards in order to get respect."
He adds: "I'm not a player to get involved in brawls or arguing with the referee; I just walk away. I don't want to get stupid yellow, or even red, cards. I don't see the point of shouting and yelling at the referee. I respect the referee, and opposition players, and I love the game."Riise has done so since he was a four-year-old, and he has always yearned to play in England. "To come to Liverpool was an even bigger dream, because they are massive in Norway, along with Man U. I remember admiring players like Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and John Barnes on the TV, and I also looked up to Michael Owen although he's the same age as me."
However, Riise willingly concedes that he never set out to emulate those performers. "I don't have the technique of some others, but I've always had a powerful shot and my physical stamina," explains the player whose international team-mates call him The Machine. "I would run every morning before school and every night before I went to bed. Then, at 17, I went to Monaco [under Jean Tigana], because I wanted to improve my tactical awareness and my technique for a couple of years."
That time in the principality was a crucial part of his development, not least because it allowed him an escape from a troubled family life. Not only were his parents, Berit and Hans, divorced when Riise was seven, but his father, who died of cancer in 2000, had been jailed for more than two years because of domestic violence.
"If you're living somewhere where they don't speak English and you don't speak French, you have to grow up very quickly," he says. "My time at Monaco was very good for me. It was hard sometimes, but you learn so much. Mentally, you become so much tougher. That means you can go through difficult patches, football-wise and in your private life, and you can get on with it. Mentally, I've been lucky because I moved away from all that other stuff. It's made me the player I am."
Riise announced his arrival at Anfield emphatically by scoring on his debut in the 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich in the 2001 Super Cup. That left foot has become a significant piece of Liverpool armoury. "In my first season, I scored nine goals. But the next season, I realised that because I was so eager to go forward, the opposition capitalised on that as it was always open behind me. So I knew I needed to improve my defending. As soon as the boss [Rafa Benitez] arrived he just said: 'You're left-back. I want you to play left-back'. Now I know my first job is to defend. He has worked a lot on my tackling and my awareness."
That increased resilience throughout the entire Liverpool rearguard has led to the club and their supporters harbouring realistic aspirations of securing a first title since 1990. "It will be hard, because we know that Chelsea may take another step up, but we believe that we can go on and win the Premier League next year," Riise maintains. "However, we must put pressure on Chelsea from the beginning. This season, we lost too many at the start, and it's hard to play catch-up."
A return to the Champions' League final has eluded Liverpool this season, but Riise's emotions are genuine when he declares: "Hopefully, for English football, Arsenal will go all the way. Of course, Istanbul comes into your mind, particularly at this time. It was my best moment in football."
He insists that he and his team-mates never jettisoned belief, even at three goals adrift. "It's not easy, especially against Milan in the time we had left," he says. "But the manager did a great job. He was so calm, and he just told us to go out there and show what we were made of. He also said, 'Get the first goal, and you never know what will happen'. It's strengthened us. Because of that night in Istanbul, any time that situation comes up again, we know what can happen. And many other teams, of course, use us as an example.
Divorced from his wife, Guri, Riise described himself as "single". He adds somewhat coyly: "There are many lovely girls in England... but I just take life as it comes. And football is my life at the moment."
So, as we say, he is playing the field. Anfield regulars will be content if Riise continues to cover every inch of it.
Life and times...from Monaco to the Mersey
NAME: John Arne Semundseth Riise.
BORN: 24 September 1980, Molde, Norway.
VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 14st.
CAREER: Aalesunds FK, Norway 1997-98; 25 games, 5 goals. Monaco, France (fee £700,000) 1998-2001; 48 games, 5 goals. Liverpool (fee £4.6m) from June 2001; 249 games, 25 goals. Debut for Norway v Iceland, 2000; capped 51 times, 5 goals.
HONOURS: French championship 2000; French Super Cup '01. Norwegian PFA Player of the Year, Athlete of the Year '01. European Super Cup '01; Carling Cup '03 (runners-up '05); European Cup '05; European Super Cup '05.
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Nick Townsend, Independent