A year of controversies

On a high... Lionel Messi (centre) celebrates along with Barcelona team-mates after winning the Club World Cup final against Santos FC of Brazil.-AP On a high... Lionel Messi (centre) celebrates along with Barcelona team-mates after winning the Club World Cup final against Santos FC of Brazil.

The heroics of Messi and Barcelona and Japan's fairytale victory in the women's World Cup were pushed to the background as allegations of corruption and racism took over. By Ayon Sengupta.

The year 2011 wasn't really a memorable one for football. Allegations of corruption and nepotism at the highest offices of the world governing body, FIFA, consumed more space in the media than the nonchalant mastery of Lionel Messi and his unstoppable Barcelona side.

FIFA was beleaguered with troubles as one ill-conceived decision after another came to haunt its mandarins. President Sepp Blatter, though, managed to ride past controversies and scandals to hold on to his seat for another term. Another contender for the top post, Mohammad bin Hammam, an ally of Blatter not very long ago, was less lucky as he was dubiously expelled for life from all activities related to the sport. He was accused of manipulating and bribing the voters. (Hammam's murky role in earlier election campaigns of Blatter is well documented.)

However, after winning the battle of what according to Sportstar columnist Brian Glanville is “two crooks”, Blatter turned a new leaf and set up a new Independent Governance Committee to probe the corruption scandal. Old files, it is believed, have been re-opened and all crucial decisions made, including awarding of the World Cup to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022), are being scrutinised.

Surprisingly, a 10-year-old kickback case that led to former FIFA president Joao Havelange's resignation from the International Olympic Council is also possibly going to be scrutinised. Interestingly, Havelange was Blatter's mentor and predecessor at FIFA.

Blatter's so-called crusade might attain some credibility with the appointment of Mark Pieth, a professor from the University of Basel and a former member of an independent inquiry team on Iraq's oil-for-food programme scam, as the head of an independent committee to advise on the reorganisation of FIFA's governance. However, it's still to be seen whether a body extensively criticised for a lack of transparency and accountability can be persuaded for a much-needed, comprehensive overall.

Racism came to haunt the beautiful game once again. England captain John Terry and Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez were accused of racially abusing opponents. (Suarez has been banned for eight games by the English FA while Terry's fate is yet to be known at the time of writing this piece.) France's coach Laurent Blanc, too, came close to losing his job after a crass comment on racial quotas at training academies.

To make matters worse, the FIFA President committed a howler once again. In November he was forced to apologise for causing an outrage by suggesting that racial incidents between players on the field could be settled just with a handshake at the end of a game.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter managed to ride past controversies to win another term.-AP

Shifting attention to on-field action, in South America the fancied teams, host Argentina and Brazil, failed to impress at the Copa America. With Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Suarez hunting together upfront, Uruguay, which had a surprising run in the 2010 World Cup where it reached the semifinals, routed Paraguay 3-0 in the final to win its first continental title since 1995.

In Europe, though, there were no such tremors as Barcelona continued to stay well ahead of its challengers. Riding on the rigid cohesiveness of its home-grown players, the Catalan giants continued to dominate, winning its third straight La Liga title and a third Champions League medal in six years. Barcelona also won the Club World Cup tournament in Japan to end the year on a high.

Messi as usual continued in his quest to surpass himself. His immeasurable skill and a new urge to score saw the Barcelona striker notch up 53 goals in 55 games in the 2010-2011 season. Messi is likely to win his third FIFA World Player of the Year award.

On a more sombre note, Wales manager and former player Gary Speed committed suicide (he hanged himself at his home). The Brazilian sorcerer, Socrates, too died after a life-long flirtation with the bottle and fags.

Elsewhere, American Samoa tasted its first ever win after a decade long humiliation of just defeats.

Japan had a fairytale run in the Women's World Cup in Germany. Devastated by tsunami and earthquake and with 20,000 people dead or missing, the nation had a rare moment to cheer after its women's team scored an improbable victory in the final. Japan equalised against the fancied United States twice, first in the 81st minute and then with three minutes of extra time remaining, before winning the shootout 3-1.

However, such heroics were pushed to the background as scandals and controversies took over.