Glory for Spain and Messi but problems never far away
YEARENDER-SOCCER-2012-MESSI:Glory for Spain and Messi but problems never far away
By Mike Collett
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Spain's glorious third successive triumph in a major tournament and individual goalscoring brilliance from Argentine Lionel Messi will be remembered as soccer's golden hallmarks of 2012.
But the year was also marred by tragedy and death in Egypt and the Netherlands and a worrying escalation of racism in Europe.
It was a year too when the soccer world shifted on its axis and finally spun away from its 19th century roots when 21st century goalline technology, officially sanctioned by world governing body FIFA, was used for the first time in December's Club World Cup finals in Japan.
That tournament, which ended on Sunday, saw Corinthians of Brazil crowned as the best club team in the world - an accolade most people would agree rightfully belongs to Barcelona.
But in one of the great upsets of the year, Barcelona failed to win the Champions League which seemed pre-ordained for them when they somehow lost to Chelsea on aggregate in the semi-finals after Messi, proving he was only human after all, missed a penalty in the second leg.
He had however scored 90 goals with two weeks of the year remaining, beating West Germany's former striker Gerd Mueller's 40-year-old record for goals scored in a calendar year.
Chelsea, who finished sixth in the Premier League in May, went on to Munich for the Champions League final.
Written off by virtually all of Europe's media before they played Barcelona, they again confounded the critics by beating Bayern Munich on penalties in their own stadium to become the first London club to lift the European Cup in its 57-year history.
Despite also winning the FA Cup, it was not a year without huge problems for the now deposed European champions, who are owned and run by the ruthless billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Six months after leading the club to the greatest night in their 107-year history, coach Roberto Di Matteo was cast aside by the Russian - just before Chelsea became the first defending champions to be eliminated from the group stage of the competition.
Their tilt at the world club title also ended in failure when they lost to Corinthians.
Their triumphs were further blemished by racist controversies involving captain John Terry - found guilty and banned by the English FA despite being cleared in an earlier court case - and unfounded allegations made by the club against Premier League and FIFA referee Mark Clattenburg.
Spain were untroubled by controversies at Euro 2012 and basked in the glory of their record 4-0 final victory over Italy on a memorable night in Kiev in July which put the "cherry on the cake" of a superb tournament, according to former UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh.
Inspired by their brilliant midfielder Andres Iniesta, UEFA's Player of the Tournament, Spain also strengthened their claim to be regarded among the best international teams ever after becoming the first nation to win back-to-back European Championships - either side of their 2010 World Cup triumph.
On the domestic front, Real Madrid ended Barcelona's run of three straight La Liga titles but dreams of a first European club decider between Real and Barca ended when Real lost on penalties to Bayern the night after Barca were eliminated by Chelsea.
Barca have continued to wow audiences and are well clear in La Liga this term even after talismanic but exhausted coach Pep Guardiola handed the reins to assistant Tito Vilanova in May.
The Catalans have also been hugely inspired by Messi, who at the relatively young age of 25 is fast securing his place among the greats with much of his career still ahead of him, injuries notwithstanding.
Although Barca missed out on the major prizes, their passing style enthralled millions and while Messi is adored in Catalonia, he also won over his more sceptical Argentine compatriots as he led the national team to seven wins and two draws in nine matches including World Cup qualifiers and friendlies.
Among his 90 goals were 12 for his country including hat-tricks against Switzerland and Brazil as he equalled former striker Gabriel Batistuta's Argentina record tally in a calendar year.
And while the likes of Spain and Messi - and his Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo - can delight and inspire, soccer can also cause untold suffering as events in Egypt and the Netherlands proved.
One of soccer's worst tragedies happened on February 1 in Port Said, when more than 70 Egyptian fans died following a riot at a league match between Al-Masry of Port Said and Al-Ahly of Cairo with many supporters, police and other officials knifed to death.
The riot was underpinned by extreme political tensions following the recent upheavals in the country and led to the Egyptian League being suspended.
More than 33,000 amateur games were also cancelled in the Netherlands this month following the death of a linesman who was beaten up and killed after giving a decision in a junior match.
Another bleak problem is the rise of overt racism, most notably in eastern Europe, where Serbia's already tarnished reputation was further besmirched by racial chants in an Under-21 match against England.
UEFA's subsequent punishment against Serbia - a 80,000 euros fine - less than they fined Danish striker Niklas Bendtner for showing a logo on his underpants at Euro 2012 - was widely condemned as being too lenient and racism is one problem UEFA still has to resolve.
The year's other big tournaments ended in a win for Zambia in January's African Nations Cup and gold medals for Mexico, shock winners over Brazil, and the United States women's team at the London Olympics.
While Real Madrid recaptured the title in Spain, mega-rich Manchester City ended an even longer wait in England, winning a thrilling Premier League title race with a victory secured in the final seconds of the final match to become champions for the first time in 44 years.
City's Abu Dhabi owners have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the club, a model being followed by the Qatari backers of Paris St Germain, with the French side now regarded as the wealthiest in the world.
The impact of UEFA's new Financial Fair Play rules, which require clubs to balance the books, will be keenly watched across the continent in the coming years to see if the likes of City and PSG can continue their spending.
But while money for now can go a long way in buying success, it can also lead to serious trouble if not accounted for properly as Rangers found in Scotland.
No club in the world has won more domestic titles than Rangers, who have been Scottish champions 54 times, but they now find themselves playing in the fourth and bottom tier of the league after effectively losing a battle with the taxman and being liquidated.
A re-birth has led to the new club playing among the minnows of Annan Athletic, East Stirling and Montrose.
Still if Rangers need any incentive for their redemption, they need only look to Italy's Juventus, who went unbeaten throughout the 2011-12 Serie A campaign to lift the title last May - just four seasons after returning from a match-fixing demotion to Serie B. (Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid and Rex Gowar in Argentina, editing by Mark Meadows)