San Siro, 12 May 1965: a time and a place which are branded across the collective consciousness of Liverpool football club and, so it has always been said, haunted Bill Shankly to his grave. Shankly might have been a hardened campaigner when Liverpool arrived in Milan to face Internazionale – as they finally do, once again, tonight – but nothing quite prepared him for the European Cup semi-final second leg there or for the Spanish referee whose name, to this day, still extracts a flinch of recognition in the pubs around Anfield.
No one knew of Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil before Liverpool appeared with the same two-goal, first-leg advantage which they defend tonight, but everyone did by the time Shankly's (right) side trooped off after a 3-0 defeat which meant that Inter, and not they, would be back at San Siro for the final. The suspicion, fuelled by evidence of systematic bribery of referees by Italian officials from the 1960s, has always been that Liverpool were victims of forces beyond their control that night.
Shankly's psychological ruses during Liverpool's progression to San Siro showed that he was no ingénu where European competition was concerned, even though this was Liverpool's first year in the tournament.
Ahead of the second-round tie against Anderlecht, he described the Belgians as "rubbish" and then, having beaten them 3-0 at Anfield, promptly admitted they were "one of the best teams in Europe". But Milan, with a raucous 90,000 capacity crowd in attendance, was something else.
"Purple things – smoke bombs – landed on the steps in front of us and Bob Paisley's clothes were covered in smoke," the Liverpool manager recalled in his biography and his words provide a sense of how foreign, in every sense, the place must have seemed. Liverpool – 3-1 up from a first leg in which they were buoyed by overcoming Leeds 2-1 in the FA Cup final three days earlier and in which they had glittered – knew the going would be tough.
The Milanese press had somehow taken offence at their parading the FA Cup at Anfield and described the Liverpool fans as "animals." But from the start decisions began going against them. "We didn't seem to be getting anything in our favour," Ian St John recalls. "Not a throw-in or a free-kick. It was so obvious. We just couldn't get on the ball." The footage of two highly contentious Inter goals which followed might be grainy (see web address below) but the frames belong to Liverpool legend.
First came a free-kick which should have been indirect, but which Inter's Corso was allowed to fire direct, left-footed into the goal, past a bewildered Tommy Lawrence. It is impossible to discern from the footage the extent of Liverpool's protest but their anger at the second was unbridled. The winger Joaquin Peiro hared down the left wing with the ball, only for Lawrence to beat him to it, collect on the edge of his area, and run back across his area, bouncing it. Peiro sneaked up behind him, hooked it back and scored. It was a precursor of what George Best accomplished against Gordon Banks for Northern Ireland in May 1971 – but while Best's goal was disallowed, Peiro's stood.
It has almost been forgotten in the ensuing controversy that St John later found the net for Liverpool, though that goal, perhaps inevitably, was disallowed.
"I just remember running through and putting the ball in," says St John. "I don't know what the infringement was supposed to have been." With an away goal, Inter had won long before Facchetti wrapped things up with a genuine finish.
St John does not recall the referee looking him straight in the eye that night. "I didn't really see him properly," he says. But the same cannot be said for Tommy Smith, who manhandled De Mendibil after the second goal and kicked out at him as the two sides trooped off. "I hoofed him in the left ankle but he just kept on walking, just as he did when I was screaming el bastido at him," Smith recalls. "I also dragged him around [to face me] after the second goal but he just fluttered away." Just before Smith swung his leg, a bottle was also thrown from the crowd which landed inches away from the referee. "I've always said that if it had hit him he would have been unconscious and it might have opened up some inquiry into the whole business of that night," Smith says.
So what evidence is there that De Mendibil threw the match? Perhaps less than legend allows. Viewed again, that most controversial second goal does not provide incontrovertible proof of a fix. Shankly was adamant that Lawrence was fouled as Peiro and he tussled for the ball. There are also suggestions a linesman flagged and was ignored. But the footage suggests it was Lawrence who barged the Italian and that the goalkeeper might also shoulder some blame for the way the winger stole up to pinch the ball back from him. Even some of the British press gathered at San Siro that night believe Lawrence was complacent to run across his area bouncing the ball. "He [did so] casually and neglected what was going on behind him," reported journalist Horace Yates.
The Liverpool FC museum curator, Stephen Done, believes the events do not present prima facie proof that the referee was deliberately handing the game to Inter. "You have to stand back, allow the passions to fade," he says. "In the spirit of fairness, you have to say that stealing the ball as Peiro did is gamesmanship, but it was not at the time illegal. The direct free-kick seems more suspicious."
It was Yates, among the journalists, who came closest to suggesting malign influences were at play – "this referee was clearly punishing Liverpool," he wrote – but that is as severe a panning as the referee got.
Reports focused instead on Inter's gamesmanship and the partisan crowd. Michael Charters of the Liverpool Daily Post complained of "time-wasting, sham injuries and interminable back-passing." The paper quoted a Liverpool vice chairman complaining that "it is quite obvious that they will never let a British team win the European Cup." But there is no evidence from Shankly that he believed there was a conspiracy at the time. "In a game like that you hope for sanity from a referee," he told journalists. Even in his 1978 biography, Shankly, written when awareness of match-fixing was widespread, he had no more to say on the subject than this: "Inter beat us 3-0 but not even their players enjoyed the game and we didn't think two of their goals were legal."
It was the investigations which followed which allow De Mendibil's conduct to be placed in a criminal context. There had been a long-running practice in Italy of sudditanza – literally "subjection" – or a referee favouring big-name teams. But evidence emerged by the late 1960s of more systematic bribery of Italian officials. The prime mover was Dezso Solti, a Hungarian fixer who, according to the testimony of a number of officials, worked with Inter's secretary Angelo Moratti to persuade referees to fix matches and allow Inter to win. The Liverpool match sits right in the middle of a highly dubious period. In 1964 Borussia Dortmund had a key man sent off in a semi-final at San Siro while the linesman Gyorgy Vadas has told how he was offered enough dollars to buy five Mercedes to help fix it for Inter to beat Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup final.
If De Mendibil was paid to help Inter win, then he took the secret to the grave. But it is the Spaniard's extraordinary tolerance of Tommy Smith's attack which also raises suspicion for Mark Bushell, a football historian and director of World Football Exhibitions. "If he had not been got at, then why didn't he red card Smith at the end of the game?" Bushell asks. "I think the game did fit a pattern of bribery."
The positive outcome, says Done, was that the events of that Milan night hardened Liverpool to the vagaries of Europe. "Shankly and Paisley always said afterwards that you had to be canny in Europe and with five European Cups since, you have to say the club learnt," he says. "While Liverpool prospered, Inter won nothing in Europe."
How they lined up in 1965