Messi shines in a dirty year for the ‘Beautiful Game’
FOOTBALL in 2011 was dominated by events off the field rather than on it.
Barcelona and Lionel Messi continued to provide some of the most sparkling performances in the sport’s long history and Uruguay further overshadowed Brazil and Argentina at the top of the South American game, but headlines around the world were dominated by allegations of corruption and bribery at FIFA.
The sport’s governing body was beset by allegations as behind-the-scenes politicking was thrust into the spotlight by the fallout from its decision to give future World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.
Sepp Blatter was re-elected unopposed as FIFA president but the year was almost out before he announced details of long-promised reforms. Blatter’s position at the top of FIFA was secured after his only rival for the presidency, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, was forced to withdraw from the June election over bribery allegations that later led to a lifetime ban from the sport.
Blatter has hinted that his new Independent Governance Committee could examine cases including the decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar. Even the 10- year- old kickbacks case that led to former FIFA President Joao Havelange’s resignation from the IOC is being picked over.
The 95-year-old Havelange, Blatter’s mentor and predecessor, joined the IOC in 1963 and was its longest-standing member until he resigned in December, days before he faced possible suspension for allegedly taking a $1 million kickback from World Cup marketing deals while FIFA president.
Blatter was also forced to apologise in November for causing outrage among players, officials and even sponsors by suggesting that racial incidents between players on the field could be settled by a hand- shake at the end of a game.
The topic of racism surfaced several times through the year, with England captain John Terry and Uruguay forward Luis Suarez both accused of abusing opponents, while France coach Laurent Blanc came close to resigning following a row about quotas at training academies.
Another immediate challenge facing Blatter and FIFA is the state of Brazil’s preparations to host the 2014 World Cup, which are mired in infighting, corruption allegations and a simple lack of progress.
Organising committee head Ricardo Teixeira – himself linked to the ISL kickback case that claimed Havelange – was embroiled in allegations of bribery and money laundering that saw Brazil sports minister Orlando Silva forced out in October. The Brazil government has yet to pass the necessary laws to allow the country to stage the tournament and stadium construction is behind schedule.
Brazilian football was dealt a series of blows in 2011, with the death of former captain Socrates after a lifetime of heavy drinking, a quarter-final exit at the Copa America and Santos’ 4- 0 drubbing by Barcelona in the final of the Club World Cup.
Brazil had already failed to impress at Copa America before it missed all four of its penalty kicks in a 2-0 shootout loss to Paraguay.
If there was any consolation, it was that rival Argentina exited at the same stage and in the same manner against eventual champion Uruguay.
With Diego Forlan and Suarez up front, Uruguay built on its surprise run to the 2010 World Cup semi- finals and routed Paraguay 3-0 in the final to win its first continental title since 1995.
There was no such shift in power in Europe, where champions Spain remained the team to beat.
With Spain stars including Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Sergio Busquets in its squad, Barcelona dominated the club scene with a third straight domestic league title, a third Champions League title in six years and the 13th trophy of coach Pep Guardiola’s three and a half year tenure at the Club World Cup.
Predictably, Barcelona’s star player wasn't Spanish.
Messi continued to draw comparisons with all- time great Diego Maradona with his seemingly unstoppable dribbling, rampant goal scoring and imaginative set-up play.
The Argentine finished the 2010/11 season with 53 goals in all competitions – including one in the 3- 1 Champions League final win over Manchester United – and is almost certain to win FIFA'S world player of the year award for a third straight year.
Elsewhere, American Samoa won its first ever match, but if there was a feel-good story, it was Japan’s success at the Women’s World Cup in Germany.
Their country devastated by a tsunami and earthquake that left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing, the Japanese players vowed they would inspire their homeland.
They did it with an improbable victory in the final, equalising against the favoured United States in the 81st minute and again with three minutes of extra time remaining before winning a shootout 3-1. – Sapa-ap
THE BEST: Lionel Messi and Barça swept all before them in 2011.