Emotional Anfield farewell for Sami Hyypiä, captaining Liverpool for one last cameo appearance
Fans showed their appreciation for ten years' loyal service
By William Moore
There may have been other, more important “life or death” struggles going on in the last round of matches in the English Premiership on Sunday, but all Finnish eyes - and those of Liverpool fans - were on events at Anfield, where Sami Hyypiä was expected to play his 464th and last match in a Liverpool shirt.
The 35-year-old central defender recently turned down an offer from Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez to stay on with the club as a player-coach, in favour of a two-year contract with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where the intensely competitive Hyypiä expects to be more involved on the pitch in the sunset of his career.
In recent weeks, since the announcement of his impending departure, there have been countless paeans of praise to the tall Finn, brought to Merseyside ten years ago for the paltry sum of £2.6 million from Willem II in Holland.
In each case the pattern has been the same: Hyypiä has been a magnificent and persistently loyal servant for his club, has played less than a handful of sub-par games in an entire decade at the very top, has been an exemplary role model to others on the pitch, in the dressing-room, and also in civilian life, and has taken the rough with the smooth - for example the removal of the captain’s armband in favour of Steven Gerrard in 2003 or his lack of first-team appearances this season - in a manner that exudes sheer class and has won the respect of players and fans like.
Nobody, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool supporters of rival teams, has found a bad word to say about him - even to the point where Liverpool colleagues have been asked point-blank to find some dirt to dish.
Quite simply, Hyypiä is adored at Liverpool, probably even more than Finnish fans can understand.
Sami Hyypiä is family - half of the supporters have probably forgotten he’s “foreign”.
They don’t toss the term “legend” around with gay abandon there, either, but Hyypiä could open a decent-sized library of press cuttings containing the L-word attached to his name.
Hence it was only natural that in the last match of the season, at home to Tottenham, Hyypiä’s name was sung persistently and enthusiastically by hardcore fans on The Kop, who had also produced an impressive giant card-mosaic featuring the word “SAMI” in red, sandwiched between two blue-and white Finnish flags.
As the game wore on and Liverpool’s victory became more certain - they eventually won 3-1 to secure the runner-up spot in the Premier League - the fans’ shouts and chants became more determined and the tenor changed, moving through a strident “Sami ON, ON, ON” to a pair of flat-out petulant imperatives to the manager: “WE-WANT-SAMI!” and “Rafa, Rafa, Bring Him ON!”
Benitez - who picked up a good deal of stick from the Finnish TV-pundits (and even from some hardcore Liverpool fans) for not bowing to sentiment and putting Sami Hyypiä in his starting line-up and making him captain for the day - finally threw in the towel in the 84th minute.
In a move that was in fact probably well-choreographed by all parties beforehand, he took off Steven Gerrard, and the captain passed the armband to Hyypiä.
The Finn received a lengthy standing ovation, raucous roars of approval every time he touched the ball, and he also came tantalisingly close to having the last laugh on his lack of selection by scoring a trademark goal from a set-piece.
His flying header was just scrambled off the Tottenham line in the dying seconds of the game.
If it had gone in, the chances are the roof of the Kop End would have blown off.
At the final whistle, it all got a bit too much for a player who has never shirked giving or taking hard knocks, and the tears started to come.
Hyypiä has probably more often been the sort of player whose shoulders others used to cry on, but now he was palpably embarrassed and overcome by all the attention.
He buried his head in his shirt, and his colleagues covered his blushes by rushing up and hoisting him into the air and chairing him off the field one last time.
Some minutes later, the Liverpool squad came out again, accompanied in many cases by their children.
They took a lap of honour to salute the home crowd at the end of a campaign that saw the team falling just short of giving Hyypiä a Premiership Champions’ medal to complete his impressive collection of silverwear (in spite of the fact that Liverpool lost only twice all season and gave champions Manchester United a humiliating 4-1 thrashing at Old Trafford).
Hyypiä - accompanied by his two sons - led the players around the ground, with the others at a respectful distance behind him.
He has much to look back on: 464 first-team appearances, an impressive tally of 35 goals, winners’ medals in the European Champions League, the UEFA Cup, the FA cup (twice), the League Cup (also twice), an astonishing 57 consecutive full appearances in European competitions between November 2001 and February 2006, and arguably an even greater though less tangible achievement: he went through an entire Premiership, Cup, and European season in 2000-2001 without a single yellow or red card.
Anyone who is a 6'4" central defender - charged with stopping anything and everyone - will tell you this is practically impossible.
He was voted Sports Personality of the Year in Finland in 2001, and has been selected as Finnish footballer of the year no fewer than seven times.
Hyypiä also has a good deal to look forward to: loyal to the last, he preferred to make a completely fresh start in another country, rather than playing against his old team-mates for some other Premiership side, and Bayer Leverkusen have a young team who need his experience at the heart of the defence.
They can also look at his pedigree and know he will always give 110% and will fight tooth and nail for a place in the starting XI over the next two years.
Before that, Finland’s national team will be looking to Sami Hyypiä to add to his total of 97 senior caps, as Finland face Liechtenstein and Russia in World Cup qualifiers in June.
And when his playing days are done, “the door will always be open" to a return to a coaching position in Liverpool - if that is the Finnish FA don’t snap him up first.
By no means all footballers have the wherewithal to adjust to coaching or management, but the common consensus seems to be that Sami Hyypiä's reading of the game is second-to-none, and he clearly commands respect by example.
We wish him all the best. He has been a fantastic ambassador for the country, just as he has for Liverpool Football Club.
*The best anyone could come up with was an amusing incident involving Sami Hyypiä and former Liverpool colleague Emile Heskey, who also met on opposite sides in an international between Finland and England in 2001. Striker Heskey went down rather easily after a challenge by Hyypiä, and the referee showed the defender a yellow card. Hyypiä was somewhat incensed at his colleague's ability to dive, and when the players returned to Liverpool after their international duties Emile Heskey apparently found a gift-wrapped snorkel, diving mask, and a pair of flippers waiting for him in his dressing-room locker.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Loyal Liverpool servant Hyypiä chooses Germany and Bayer Leverkusen (5.5.2009)
Sami Hyypiä (Wikipedia)
Liverpool FC (includes video of Hyypiä´s last appearance)