Monday, February 17, 2014

2013 That Was The Year That Was

2013 was one of those years between big tournaments with neither a World Cup, Copa America nor European Championship to savour.

That said we had the FIFA Confederations Cup which possibly saw the reign of Spain come to a crashing end as the World and European champions were thumped 3-0 by Brazil in the final in Rio.

Too much could be read into that match as the seleçao were always going to reap the advantage of the Maracana and the Confederations Cup anyway has nothing like the prestige of the longer-established trophies.

Maracana Stadium
Maracana Stadium
As a guide to the World Cup next summer, the tournament was also of limited utility. In the previous edition in South Africa in 2009, Spain were dumped out 2-0 by the USA in the semi-finals before lifting the World Cup a year later, while Brazil won the last Confederations Cup thrillingly, only to exit without a bang in the quarter-finals in South Africa.

Before we write the obituaries for La Roja, it should be noted Spain's Under 21 team cruised to victory in the UEFA 2013 championship, a sign the domestic skills factory is still turning out the talent. The core of Vicente del Bosque's senior side is not getting any younger but they still ended 2013 atop the FIFA World Rankings, with Germany in second, Argentina third and Brazil in tenth.

Reports of Spain's demise have thus been exaggerated, but it will be a challenge for anyone to beat the host nation next summer, as history favours a South American triumph.

Tiki-taka, the magical playing formula which has reigned supreme for the last five years, also took a battering in 2013. Not only did Brazil's pace and power dispatch Spain in the Confederations Cup but Barcelona's golden age was cut short in dramatic fashion.

Barça had already lost Champions League ties to Celtic and Milan before they came up against Bayern Munich in May's semi-final. A shocking 4-0 defeat in Germany was followed by a devastating 3-0 loss at the Camp Nou, conclusive proof it seemed that there were new kids on the block with better and sharper ideas.

Bayern used elements of tiki-taka in their style, and were second to Barcelona across Europe for the number of passes played, but the addition of two world-class wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben forged a faster and more powerful game.

4-2-3-1 remained the most popular formation in world football, but 4-4-2 started to make a comeback in England later in the year as managers experimented with a more attacking style and banked on defenders who had forgotten how to play against twin strikers. Elsewhere, Nigeria won the African Nations Cup and the USA the Gold Cup, while Costa Rica, Japan and the United Arab Emirates came out winners in regional competitions.

Bayern Munich was undoubtedly the club of the year, bagging the Bundesliga while breaking a number of domestic records, winning the domestic cup, Champions League and World Club Cup. Quite a farewell season for Jupp Heynckes, and an awesome ask for the incoming Pep Guardiola. Germany as a whole was flavour of the month with two Bundesliga sides reaching the Champions League Final and many an envious eye cast towards the nation's remarkable fan culture, with safe standing, affordable tickets and the highest attendances of any world league.

2014 though, will be the year of Brazil and 2013 saw its clubs capture a fourth consecutive Copa Libertadores title, with a new name on the trophy: Atletico Mineiro. Inspired by an effervescent Ronaldinho, the Belo Horizonte club ended their long wait for the continental crown defeating Paraguay's Olimpia over two legs in July.

In December's World Club Cup however, the South American champions surprisingly tripped up in the semi-finals against Morocco's Raja Casablanca.

Guangzhou Evergrande might not be a name on the lips of many fans worldwide, but their capture of the 2013 AFC Champions League title, under the tutelage of World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, was the first time a Chinese club has won their continental title since 1990 and a sign that the soccer world's biggest sleeping giant could be starting to awake.

The usual suspects Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were shortlisted for FIFA's Ballon D'Or, whose winner will be announced shortly, along with Bayern's French musketeer Frank Ribery. After three consecutive wins, Messi is expected to step aside for Ronaldo to regain the crown, following a blistering season for Real Madrid.

In football politics, a handful of new faces joined the much-maligned FIFA Executive Committee, but at its helm Sepp Blatter remained untouched, even hinting he may stand again for President in 2015, age 78. Heir apparent Michel Platini continued to undo the goodwill heaped upon him as a sane alternative to Blatter by issuing a bizarre plea for a 40-nation World Cup Finals and rugby-style sin-bins instead of yellow cards. His expansion of Euro 2016 to 24 teams and his plans for 13 host nations for Euro 2020 do not bode well either.

Brazil missed its end-of-year deadline to have its stadia ready for the World Cup finals, much to the fury of Blatter who slammed the hosts as the least prepared in his 38 years at FIFA. A summer of stress beckons for the sport's governing body with unreliable transport arrangements, probable civic disturbances and sweltering temperatures, quite apart from what happens on the field.

Qatar 2022 remains a long-burning headache, with the almost certain switch to winter 2021 all but confirmed by FIFA's General Secretary Jerome Valcke.

The rescheduling makes sense from a playing and watching perspective and should avoid clashing with the Winter Olympics, but the disruption to European domestic leagues could bring long-term repercussions in terms of big-club breakaways and damage to the Cup's prestige.

The Guardian newspaper's revelations of the use of slave labour in building the stadia came as no surprise to many, but further impugned the name of FIFA and its controversial hosting decision. A formal switch to winter could yet invoke a legal challenge from the USA, because the initial bidding documents explicitly stated the finals would take place in June and July of 2022.

But first there is Brazil 2014 to hurdle. The World Cup draw in December passed smoothly, although questions were asked when the organisers replaced two darker-skinned hosts with European-looking ones at late notice.

FIFA's World Rankings were also much slated when Colombia, Uruguay, Switzerland and Belgium were seeded for the draw, while Italy, the Netherlands, England and Portugal missed out. Group B duly became a veritable Group of Death with Spain, Chile, the Netherlands and Australia, as was Group D with England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Group G's Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA was another top-heavy one, but France, the land of Platini and Valcke, which scraped through the playoffs to qualify, ended up with the relative luxury of Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.

Finally, in 2013, football lost two Brazilian World Cup winners Gilmar and Djalma Santos, Munich air disaster survivor Bill Foulkes, Bruno Metsu, the Frenchman who took Senegal to the last eight of the 2002 World Cup, 1954 German World Cup winner Ottmar Walter and P.O.W. turned F.A. Cup hero Bert Trautmann.

Here's hoping for a stellar 2014 and a wonderful World Cup Finals.

Sean O'Conor

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