The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football
As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on
Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.
Return of the Prodigal Son
Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.
Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.
And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.
Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.
The Oil League
Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn. Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.
Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.
But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.
Underdog Story of the Year
Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.
Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.
The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.
Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.
Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshiko went on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.
Year of the Minnows
Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA. Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.
Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.
They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.
The Thing About 18
Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.
The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale. Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.
At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.
Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.
The Era Continues
While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.
1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.
Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986 under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.
Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.
Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.
Transfer Deal of the Year
Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.
Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.
Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunning hat trick against Parma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.
But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.
Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)
Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.
Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.
Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.
That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.
Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.
Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.
Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.
The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.
I Can’t Believe This Happened
Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.
Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.
The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detail but one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.
Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.
Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.
The most whacky celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympic run. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrate it.
Best Football Performances
Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.
Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.
However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.
Best Performance by a Footballer
This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by with this performance by Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, do this and this and this and of course this makes him a complete entertainer.
Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!