Messi shines in a dirty year for the ‘Beau­ti­ful Game’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

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.

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