Quote of the Year
“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.” -Jerome Valcke, April 2013.
Five Things We’ve Unlearned in 2013
1. Lionel Messi is untouchable
At this time last year, the only player spoken in the same breath as Lionel Messi was Gerd Mueller, the German poacher who scored 85 goals for Bayern and Germany in 1972, setting a world record for most goals scored in a calendar year. That’s because in 2012 Messi bested that long-standing feat by scoring 86 goals for club and country, one of several records he broke in an incredible year for the then 25 year-old Argentine forward. It seemed impossible that anyone could ever catch him in the ‘Best in the World’ stakes.
And yet here we are 12 months later with Messi recovering from a hamstring injury picked up against Real Betis on November 10th, while the press chat up Cristiano Ronaldo and whether he will finally get the Ballon D’Or nod many feels he deserves. That’s because Ronaldo has had a breakout year of his own, scoring 69 goals in 60 appearances, an unheard of rate of return for any player, let alone a winger.
Meanwhile Luis Suarez continues to score at an impossible pace, with 19 league goals already this season, a tally that puts in Dixie Dean territory. In Spain, Diego Costa is making noise at Atletico Madrid with his own 19 goal tally. The idea that Messi will continue through 2013 as the Best in the World now seems in doubt, and what was once a one horse race now looks like a slightly more crowded field. Football may be better off for it.
2. Man United are just as strong without Alex Ferguson
Alex Ferguson’s retirement in early May of this year, though expected for the past few season, still managed to take everyone by surprise. But this is how we were told it would happen—a sudden announcement, and done—the end of the most successful era in British football history. Only a few days after the initial news broke it was announced that David Moyes, the Everton manager whose tenure lasted an impressive eleven years, would take SAF’s place. Ferguson knew the transition would not be easy, and pleaded with supporters at his retirement speech:
I’d also like to remind you that when we had bad times here the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me – your job now is to stand by our new manger. That is important.
Now in December, some are predicting a 65 point finish for Man United, who are currently in 8th place on 28 points, 8 back from league leaders Liverpool FC. Last year that total would have put them in 6th place, ahead of Everton, the team which this season finally managed to defeat Man United at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years. That would be the lowest finish for United in 22 years.
When Ferguson spoke about bad times as manager, he was in part referring to the relatively barren period (not including a Cup Winners Cup and FA Cup of course) in his first five years at the club. Of course times were different then…qualification for Europe wasn’t even an option with the English club ban. Now it is essential an essential component of revenue. Whether United will brave the storm as Moyes builds his team remains to be seen heading into 2014…
3. There is no better club in the world than Barcelona
It was then hailed as major power shift in European football. In April Bayern Munich, under the then lame duck manager Jupp Heynckes, had defeated the mighty Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League semifinal. The win put them in the final which they won 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, capping off an incredible year for German, and specifically Bavarian, soccer. At the close of the wildly successful 2012-13 season, Bayern won the treble, picking up the DFB Pokal, the Bundesliga, and the Champions League trophies. It seemed as if the mighty Barcelona had finally been knocked off their perch as the best team in Europe. Not only that, but the favourite son of the Spanish giant would be taking the reins at Bayern for the 2013-14 season.
Still, many predicted (including yours truly) that Pep Guardiola’s time at the Allianz would not be a simple cakewalk. Bayern played a short-passing style under Heynckes, but were also reliant on expert crossing and strong, tall players in the box to score. Guardiola however was a straight tiki-taka man. How quickly would Bayern adjust?
Doubts were partly assuaged with a European Super Cup win on penalties against Chelsea in August, but this season Bayern continue to look scarily unstoppable under the new guy. Bayern are 14-2-0 in the Bundesliga, with 42 goals scored and 8 conceded, a 34 goal difference nearly double that of the next highest in the league (Dortmund’s at 18). Meanwhile in the Champions League, BM topped Group D, tied on points with Man City with a 5-0-1 record. As if that weren’t enough, Guardiola’s team just picked up with the Club World Cup with a 2-0 win over Raja Casablanca in the final. Bayern are now the team to avoid in any and all competitions.
4. Brazil’s love of football would trump any misgivings about World Cup organization
On the outside, a World Cup in Brazil should be a no-brainer. Here is a country that owns the trophy, having secured it five times since the competition began. Here is a country that has never won it it on home soil, and still reels from the devastating loss against Uruguay in 1950 at a packed Maracana, a defeat which shocked a generation out of complacency and into the history books not eight years later in Sweden when a young Pele helped the Seleção to their first ever World Cup. Here is a country that produces footballers the way some nations produce wheat.
That of course is the pat, romantic answer of the non-resident for whom Brazil exists only as a series of highlight reels of beaches, samba, and Garrincha. The reality is much more mundane, and much less carefree. It turns that Brazilians love football, but they also value things like affordable transportation, healthcare, schooling, and other public services. They also want less corruption and police brutality. And they would prefer these things over putting on an expensive tournament for which FIFA pays no tax. They made this known at the Confederation Cup this summer, and chances are they will make it known again next year at the big show.
Though officials say they welcome ‘democratic’ demonstrations as legitimate, they warn against violence. Whether the 2014 World Cup might provide a valuable lesson to FIFA’s dealings with host countries is up in the air.
5. Football media’s rep is solid as ever
A football tournament in Qatar that never was reported as an exclusive for a major paper, the result of a tipster who cut-and-pasted a headline from a French satirical website. An ESPNFC columnist who sparked ire when he wrote a glowing appraisal of the nation after accepting an all-expenses trip to the country. “EXCLUSIVES” posing as exclusives which were not actually exclusive.
These kinds of things happen in every field of news reporting, but they seem to be more egregious in football circles. They can take away from much of the excellent work being done by dedicated reporters. Here’s hoping 2014 improves that a little.
Tactical Trends of 2013
I have no authority upon which to base any of these claims, as I don’t really know if I believe one can string out “trends” based on an enormous number of matches from different national leagues and competitions over an entire year. Yet there is some meta stuff I noticed. One—some skepticism now about the ability of tactics alone to ‘explain’ results. Two—the rise of Gary Neville as a decent, straight forward tactical analyst for Sky Sports, who offers clear, subjective explanations for why certain teams succeed/fail. Three—the whole backlash against zonal marking (the tactic, Cox is still in fine fettle), which was mentioned by announcers after almost every goal conceded from a set-piece (“It’s that zonal marking etc.). Four—the intriguing integration of statistical analysis into tactical pieces, a marriage made in hell perhaps for the purist but one which could service the game a lot. Five—the continued dominance of 4-2-3-1. This formation is just not going away. Plus some experimenting with three men defence and wing-backs again, this time at Liverpool with Sturridge/Suarez up front.
Goal of the Year
For me, a thousand times this:
Good Read of the Year
Brian Phillips (who else), with this superb story on Brazil and media perception. A sample:
And this matters, because it’s happening again. Most soccer fans know the story of the referee-beheading in Brazil at this point, and I’d guess that a lot of them have sort of loosely filed it under “World Cup–related” in their minds. Same with the murder of Joao Rodrigo Silva Santos. But how many people outside Brazil know anything about the massive ongoing protests there over corruption, police brutality, inequality, and cost-of-living increases related to the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics? How many people know about the forcible evictions of thousands of favela-dwellers to make room for new sports infrastructure?