Twelve months is a long time in football. In 2006, Italy demonstrated international football’s ability to triumph in adversity. A year on, the club game fought back and reasserted itself over national team concerns.
Kaka’s multiple accolades as the world’s best player in 2007 can be directly attributed to his spectacular, goal-laden performances for Milan in the Champions League. In contrast, the Brazilian declined to play for his country in the biggest international tournament of the year, the Copa America.
That Ronaldinho, the man Kaka has now superseded as the planet’s most
desirable footballer, also opted out of the Copa confirmed that the
club-country divide is the defining fault line of the modern game.
Nowhere is the division more pronounced than in England, where the national team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was in stark contrast to the inexorable rise of the Premier League and its clubs, three of which reached the semi-finals of the 2006-07 Champions League.
In many ways, Steve McClaren’s departure as England manager – sacked with a pay-off of £2.5million – was symptomatic of a moneyed football culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
A host of new foreign investor-speculators have been lured by the financial power of the Premier League over the past 12 months. Such figures as Thaksin Shinawatra (Manchester City), George Gillett and Tom Hicks (Liverpool) and Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal, potentially) could have moved in on clubs in Italy or Spain. But they chose England because of the potential profits on offer through the rising value of global TV rights.
Money flooding in
There seems to be no end to the money flooding into English football from TV and foreign investors. Chelsea and England captain John Terry became the highest-paid player in the Premier League when signing a new contract worth £130,000 a week. He and club-mate Ashley Cole missed England’s decisive Euro 2008 defeat to Croatia at the new Wembley stadium because of injury, though both played for their club three days later.
An underlying theme of the post-mortem of England’s failure – aside from the argument that foreigners were inhibiting the progress of home-grown
youngsters – was the belief that England’s highly remunerated players lacked motivation when selected to play for their country.
Whether that was the case or not, European club football was the place that mattered in 2007. The big beasts asserted themselves. The league titles in England, Italy and Spain were all won by traditional powers who had endured varying periods without success. Real Madrid ended their longest trophy drought in over 50 years when they secured their first league title for four years. David Beckham, having been dropped by coach Fabio Capello, revelled in his new status as football’s comeback kid to play a crucial role in the success before jetting off to a new life in America. Capello was not so lucky, despite having done what he was asked to do, and introduce more discipline to a Madrid squad that had been indulged during the galactico era. The Italian was sacked and replaced by German Bernd Schuster.
In Italy, Internazionale again won the Serie A title. But while the 2006 championship had been won by default, after Juventus and Milan were caught up in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, the 2007 title was won on the pitch, Inter’s first such triumph for 18 years. The return to Serie A of Juventus, who had been demoted as punishment, has provided Inter with a bigger challenge this season.
Violence off the pitch
While a degree of normality returned to calcio’s pitchside affairs, violence flared off the pitch. A nadir was reached with the death of a police officer, Filippo Raciti, during disturbances between fans at the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo. Despite a subsequent crackdown on stadium violence, the shooting of a Lazio fan by a policeman in November prompted further violence and further soul-searching.
In England, Manchester United won their first title since 2003 with a side constructed by manager Alex Ferguson around the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. The mercurial talents of Carlos Tevez were added to the mix in the summer after a protracted dispute over his contract, which was owned, in the manner of many South American player registrations, by an investment company, MSI.
Lyon won a sixth consecutive title in France, leaving Germany as the only one of Europe’s big five leagues to have a surprise champion. Unheralded Stuttgart claimed the title, while the country’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, failed even to qualify for the Champions League after finishing fourth.
The Champions League was dominated by clubs from England, Italy and Spain. Although the Premier League supplied three of the semi-finalists, the fourth, Milan, triumphed against Liverpool in the Final in Athens, to become European champions for the seventh time.
Sevilla won a second successive UEFA Cup, and their direct, attacking
football and aggressive scouting and transfer-dealing worked wonders for the reputation of coach Juande Ramos. The Spaniard left Sevilla halfway through this autumn’s Champions League group stage to take up a lucrative offer from Tottenham, a team with just one appearance in the European Cup, in 1961-62. Ramos’ salary at Spurs? Reportedly £17.5million over four years, an eightfold increase on his remuneration at Sevilla.
The domination of the Champions League by clubs from just a few countries was the primary challenge facing new UEFA president Michel Platini. The former France and Juventus star, who beat Swede Lennart Johansson in a close-fought election at the start of the year, quickly sought to redress the imbalance of power in the competition by proposing changes to reduce the number of places available to teams from England, Italy and Spain. Various ideas were mooted, but eventually UEFA settled on a new system for the qualifying rounds and an increase in the number of automatic group places.
From 2009-10, England, Italy and Spain will each get three automatic spots, but there will also be an extra six for the champions of lower- ranked countries (the very ones who backed Platini’s election campaign). Already there are signs of a power shift to the east, specifically clubs in Russia and Ukraine after some heavy financial investment. Zenit St Petersburg, strongly backed by energy company Gazprom, won their first league title since the break-up of the Soviet Union, while Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine threatened to break through into the Champions League knockout mstages this autumn after spending more than £40million on new players.
Elsewhere in the summer transfer market, the traditional superpowers flexed their muscles. Barcelona signed Thierry Henry from Arsenal for £16m, one year after the Frenchman had rejected their advances. Manchester United also spent heavily, signing Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich for £17m, as well as teenagers Nani and Anderson from Portugal for a combined £30m. But the biggest spenders were Real Madrid, who stole a leaf from the book of their rivals Barcelona by going Dutch, bringing in Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Royston Drenthe.
Bayern Munich also splashed out in an attempt to cure their malaise.
But while in the past Bayern had bought the best players from elsewhere in the Bundesliga, they now looked beyond Germany’s borders, bringing in, among others, Italian striker Luca Toni and French midfielder Franck Ribery.
Two players bucking the trend of big-money European transfers were David Beckham and Juan Roman Riquelme. Beckham rejected offers from Europe to sign a £125m, five-year deal with Major League Soccer. The jury is still out about his impact on American sport, but there is no denying that the Beckham ‘project’ has garnered huge amounts of headlines.
Riquelme back to Boca
Riquelme’s departure from Villarreal was inevitable after falling out with coach Manuel Pellegrini. His return to Boca Juniors, where he was so influential during a loan spell at the start of the year, was not for lack of interest from European clubs.
Both Beckham and Riquelme also bucked another trend, by returning to play for their countries. Beckham, dropped by England after last year’s World Cup, was recalled by an increasingly desperate McClaren, who decided that the former national team captain’s MLS status did not matter. Riquelme, despite not playing for Villarreal, was a central figure for Argentina at the Copa America and in the early rounds of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
Europe-based players were not so keen on international duty. Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta both quit Italy. Jamie Carragher declined to make himself available for England, angry at being ignored following strong performances for Liverpool. And Roberto Ayala announced he would no longer play for Argentina.
But while club mattered most in Europe, it was a different story in the rest of the world. A host of international tournaments ¬ the Copa America, the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, the Asian Cup, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the women’s World Cup ¬ provided proof of the vitality of the international game.
Holders Germany showed they are still the dominant power in the women’s game with victory over Brazil in the Shanghai Final. Brazil had the best individual player in Marta, but the Germans had the strongest team ethic, as well as an outstanding goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer.
At the Copa America in Venezuela, Argentina responded to their defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup with a move to an old-fashioned passing game. Under coach Alfio Basile, in his second spell in charge, the Argentinians played some delightful football, with Riquelme and Lionel Messi at the heart of it. But they came unstuck against a rugged, pragmatic Brazil side in the Final, going down 3-0.
Brazil demonstrated their strength in depth, with Robinho seizing his
opportunity to shine in the absence of Kaka and Ronaldinho. But their
continuing reliance on pace, power and physicality was not welcomed by
Argentina steal show
Brazil failed to deliver at the youth championships. At the Under-20s in Canada, they lost to Spain in the second round. Many European scouts were in attendance to watch the progress of Alexandre Pato, who would eventually sign for Milan. But it was Argentina who stole the show, with Sergio Aguero emerging as a genuine star.
Both Brazil and Argentina fared badly at the Under-17s in South Korea, where Nigeria won their third title, beating Spain on penalties in the Final. Previous victories were tainted by allegations that some Nigerian players were over-age, but no evidence has been provided to suggest the class of 2007 broke the rules. Hamburg signed Nigeria striker Macauley Chrisantus, the tournament’s top scorer, but will have to wait until he turns 18 next year before they can offer him a professional contract.
The senior Nigeria side joined Africa’s other superpowers in qualifying for next month’s African Nations Cup finals in Ghana. But Togo, 2006 World Cup finalists, missed out after losing their last game, at home to Mali.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup was again dominated by the United States and Mexico. The Americans ran out 2-1 winners in the Final but the romance was provided by Guadeloupe, who beat Canada and Honduras en route to a semi-final defeat by Mexico.
An even more inspiring story was provided by Iraq who, against all the odds, beat Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Cup. The war-torn country’s victory provided hope in a year when the game was again tainted by scandal.
FIFA’s new ethics committee, headed by Sebastian Coe, was exposed as
toothless after FIFA vice-president Jack Warner escaped any sort of
punishment for his alleged involvement in World Cup ticketing scams.
Also, the world body was humiliated in the American courts during a case between rival World Cup sponsors MasterCard and Visa. FIFA was forced to pay £45m in compensation to existing sponsor MasterCard for going behind their backs and securing a new deal with Visa. FIFA officials, including marketing chief Jerome Valcke, were found by the judge to have ‘lied repeatedly’. Valcke was sacked, only to be re-hired a few months later as FIFA’s new general secretary.
Valcke once worked for French media giant Vivendi on a potential takeover of ISL, the collapsed sports marketing company used by FIFA to sell World Cup TV rights. An ongoing investigation by a Swiss magistrate into alleged bribes paid by ISL to FIFA executives is due to report in 2008. The investigation is the timebomb ticking away underneath FIFA’s grand new glass-and-steel headquarters in the Zurich hills.
The year ended with Sepp Blatter hosting the main 2010 World Cup qualifying draw in Durban. For all his charm and chutzpah, the FIFA president remains a man under pressure. He faces a huge challenge to deliver a safe and secure tournament on time and on budget in South Africa.
The South American countries set off on their long road to 2010 in October. Kaka and Ronaldinho returned to Brazil’s squad for those games. Confirmation, if any were needed, that obituaries for the international game should not be written just yet.
By Gavin Hamilton.