London — There is no getting away from it: This year the Beautiful Game has been tarnished — not so much by those who play it, but by the dubious men who have appointed themselves soccer’s rule makers and enforcers.
On the field, though, beauty did flicker. It always will while there is a Lionel Messi, a Neymar, a Luis Suárez.
Off the field, the United States Justice Department’s investigation into suspected FIFA corruption, which prompted a wave of arrests that started in May, has rounded up so many insiders that the sport’s governing body is now virtually dysfunctional.
So the year has been overshadowed by cops and robbers, and next year (and perhaps beyond) these men will get their days in court. FIFA is supposed to renew itself with a Feb. 26 presidential election, which, if held, might well end with Middle Eastern leadership of the world’s most popular sport.
Meanwhile, the law must run its course in the United States, the only country to attempt to tackle what some of us have long been asking: What really has been going on at FIFA, all the way back to when the Brazilian João Havelange become the body’s president in 1974?
One of the saddest aspects of the current dragnet is the alleged implication of Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer, both once icons of their sport.
Platini was a marvelous playmaker who inspired France to win a European Championship, in 1984 at home, and was co-organizer of the 1998 World Cup, which France also won at home. Beckenbauer topped that. He won a European Championship in 1972 and a World Cup in 1974 as captain of West Germany, won another World Cup as coach in 1990 and led the organizing committee for a third in 2006. He effectively created his own role as a “libero” who glided out of defense with such composure that even when he suffered a broken clavicle during a 1970 World Cup semifinal, he imperiously finished the game.
As the year turns, both Beckenbauer and Platini are on the back foot, trying to establish their innocence amid allegations of financial wrongdoing. The sad thing is that they are in the dock of pubic opinion at all: Their place should have been among the knights of the game, alongside Pelé and Bobby Charlton.
It’s impossible, of course, to live in the past. And there is no need to in a year when Messi, Neymar and Suárez are playing on the same team.
This time last year, it wasn’t yet clear how Luis Enrique, the Barcelona coach, would fit the three into one lineup. Now we know. They adapted, especially Messi, who became a playmaker and not just the top finisher of what is now called the Barça Trident.
This trio, all South Americans, scored a combined 133 goals this calendar year. And Barcelona won everything: La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and the Club World Cup. But it can be argued that the greatest single victory came in November, when Barcelona beat Real Madrid, 4-0, at Madrid’s Bernabéu Stadium.
It was a stunning display, accomplished without the injured Messi, against a Madrid team that included Messi’s closest rival as the superstar of the modern game, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barça is not just these three. It would be remiss not to note that the man who did most to impose Barcelona’s supremacy that day was the mercurial Andrés Iniesta, the quiet, almost delicate midfielder who never seems to play a loose pass or allow the ball to escape his feet.
It has been a year of change for Barcelona. Xavi Hernández, the team’s longtime midfield architect, departed to play out his days in Qatar. It could have been a devastating loss, as it was to English and Italian soccer when Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo left Liverpool and Juventus to finish their careers in Major League Soccer in the United States. All three players were once-in-a-lifetime contributors to their teams.
As Messi said this month: “It’s been an amazing year. The time when we won everything under Pep Guardiola looked unrepeatable. We genuinely weren’t sure we would get close to that again.”
But, he added: “We’ve become more direct as a team. We haven’t lost our ideology of keeping hold of the ball, but we incorporated the idea that, with a couple of touches, we can get in front of the opponent’s goal.”
With due deference to Enrique — who was prepared to upset Messi for a time to achieve that transition in style — it is still a game about players. We might wonder, however, if some players will ever grow into their talents and grow wise to this being a team game.
Take Mario Balotelli, for example. In 2014, Liverpool gambled $24 million to buy him, not including salary, for the Italian’s heavyweight power and innate excellence of control and (when it suits him) movement. Alas, in 16 Premier League appearances — few of them full games — Balotelli contributed just one goal and so little else that not only was he sent packing, but, shortly after, Liverpool fired Coach Brendan Rodgers as well.
“Mario has changed radically,” insisted Adriano Galliani, chief executive of A.C. Milan, which took him on loan over the summer. “He has an extraordinary attitude. He’s the first to breakfast at 8.30 a.m. He’s probably realized this is his last chance, and he won’t waste it.”
If only. Super Mario’s contribution so far has been to start two games, play two as a substitute and score one goal. That might be harsh judgment, because Balotelli required groin surgery in November and is not expected to be back to full strength before January. He is in mid-career at age 25. There is time for him to be a great center forward, but 2015 goes down as another year wasted for him.
In England, Leicester City made 2015 the best year in its modest history. Leicester saved its Premier League status with huge hunger and team spirit at the end of last season, and carried that form into the new campaign, with the team in first place at Christmas.
Jamie Vardy, an Englishman recruited from the depths of non-league soccer, and Riyad Mahrez, an Algerian bought from Le Havre in France, scored goals in just about every game this season. And they got one each when Leicester outplayed, or at least outfought, last season’s champion, Chelsea.
But that is sports: Nobody wins forever. Chelsea’s problems rest on many men, but they have much to do with a woman, too. Eva Carneiro, Chelsea’s senior team doctor since 2011, did what her profession expects of her during a game in August when she ran to tend to an injured player, Eden Hazard.
Chelsea’s coach, José Mourinho, railed at her. He later stated publicly that when she and the chief physiotherapist, Jon Fearn, rushed to aid Hazard, they were “impulsive and naïve” and lacked understanding of the game. Mourinho barred them from first-team activity; Hazard — last season’s player of the year — subsequently lost his form; and Carneiro is suing the club and Mourinho, claiming victimization and discrimination.
A judge will hear the case on Jan. 6, but Mourinho didn’t make it until then at Chelsea. With his team floundering near the bottom of the Premier League after the worst defense of the title in history, he was fired last week. Justice tends to move quicker in soccer than in court.
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