Buzzing as always

Sunil Chetri... India's Nehru Cup hero.-PTI

The world did not end after all, handing Lionel Messi more time to further fatten his already bulging goal-scoring record and for his Catalan club to continue to bedazzle opponents and fanatics alike, writes Ayon Sengupta as he analyses the year 2012 in soccer.

As the doomsday theorists pack their bags and return home after yet another hoax call, we grudgingly come back to toil (from a one-day mini-break, hoping against hope for the Mayans to, at last, predict something right — for freedom from a world of unpaid bills and unfinished work). The creation did not end after all, handing Lionel Messi more time to further fatten his already bulging goal-scoring record and for his Catalan club to continue to bedazzle opponents and fanatics alike.

While the Argentine broke yet another record (Gerd Muller’s — most goals in a calendar year), his club, though, wonderfully entertaining, failed to win any substantial accolade this year. On the home front, perpetual rival Real Madrid ended Barca’s idea of a fourth straight La Liga title and dreams of one more European crown ended with a shock semi-final knockout by eventual champion Chelsea. The team under new manager Tito Vilanova (Pep Guardiola’s one time deputy), however, has bounced back, going undefeated in the League, so far, in the 2012-13 season, opening an almost unbridgeable gap over third place Real.

In England, there was a change of guard.

The noisy neighbours (bankrolled by Qatari oil millions) at last made their voice heard and Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson saw the League title slip out of his hand on the last day of the competition. In a climactic end to the 2011-12 season, another Argentine, Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero scored an injury time winner against QPR to hand Manchester City a British title after a 44-year gap.

It was the perfect finish to a terrific campaign which saw the tide drift from one corner of the industrial town to the other with surprising regularity, as both clubs had the chance to win the coveted trophy on the final day. And the current trend of the 2012-13 season, also again predicts a two-way clash — City looking bullish and United creative with addition of players like Robin van Persie (the Dutchman single-handedly kept Arsenal competitive in 2011-12 scoring 37 goals in 48 outings) and Japanese Shinji Kagawa.

Chelsea, who finished sixth in the Premier League in May, went on win the Champions League final in Munich, downing a very talented Bayern Munich side.

Written off by analysts and aficionados, the team, under the then interim manager Roberto Di Matteo, showed determination and dedication (led from the front by old guards Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard) to beat the home side on penalties and become the first London side to lift the European Cup in its 57-year history.

But Chelsea is in disarray again, Di Matteo sacked and another interim manager (Rafa Benitez) in charge! The team has also recently earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending champion to be eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League. The side also meekly surrendered the Club World Cup final to Brazilian champion Corinthians in Tokyo in early December. (The final also saw the first time use of goal-line technology in a FIFA tournament.)

In Italy, Juventus saw a perfect end to a fairytale comeback as it won the Serie A for 2011-12 after being relegated to Serie B on match-fixing charges four years ago. But not all pictures were rosy as record 54-time Scottish League champion Rangers found itself relegated to the fourth and bottom tier of the League after facing liquidation.

In the international arena, it was again a trophy for the very talented Spanish squad. Coach Vincent del Bosque handicapped by the absence of key players Carlos Puyol and David Villa tweaked his side and often played a headless 4-6-0 formation with a false No. 9 to win the EURO in Poland/Ukraine, beating Italy 4-0 in the final. Andres Iniesta with his vision and passing was the player of the competition while another Spaniard, Fernando Torres, walked away with the top goal-scorer’s hat.

In Africa, Zambia shocked the eternal bridesmaid Ivory Coast (8-7 in penalties) to pocket the African Cup of Nations in Gabon. The team dedicated the win to the victims of the 1993 plane crash which saw the death of the entire Zambian national squad which was on its way to play a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.

2012 was also the year of the Olympics and Mexico pulled off a shock 2-1 win over favourite Brazil in the final at Wembley, London, while United States eves bagged the women’s gold, beating Japan with an identical scoreline.

India with a new coach at its helm, former Holland international Wim Koevermans, won its third Nehru Cup on the trot beating Cameroon (under-23 squad) in an exceptionally noisy Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in the national capital. Skipper Sunil Chetri, the highest scorer of the tournament, has now settled in Portugal, playing for the B side of Sporting Lisbon.

But on-and off-field violence marred the game in 2012. Over 70 fans died in football related riots in Egypt following a game between Al-Masry of Port Said and Al-Ahly of Cairo and a linesman in Holland was brutally kicked and punched to death by players in an amateur league game.

Racism, too, reared its ugly head. Chelsea skipper John Terry was fined and suspended by the English FA for abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. Eastern Europe seems to be the most polluted and Serbia was fined Euro 80,000 for racial chants by supporters during an under-21 international against England. Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg was deeply embarrassed (also putting a question mark on Russia’s ability to present an unprejudiced 2018 World Cup) when a set of fans wrote an open letter to implement a “no-black player” policy at the club. The club administration has distanced itself and rejected the plea but the bad taste will take a long time to leave the mouth.

But with 91 goals it was again a year of Messi and going by his form, very little will change, and very few will challenge his dominance in the years to come.