The end of the year doesn’t mean much for the soccer world. For most leagues, the New Year comes just halfway through the season. The pundits may discuss the end-of-year statistics – if a club is at X place at the New Year, then they have Y chance of winning the league or Z chance of being relegated – but few fans pay much attention to the end of one year and beginning of the next. It’s the end of the season, usually in May, that counts. Nevertheless, I’m taking a look back over 2012 at some of the highs and a few of the lows.
Let’s get the low points over with first. Racism continues to be a problem at games in many countries. Sometimes it’s an incident in the middle of a match when a player behaves rashly and speaks before he thinks. Mostly, though, racist taunts and gestures come from the stands. Monkey gestures and sounds, bananas thrown onto fields, hateful Hitler chants, and more come from the fans. Most are aimed at black players, though anti-Semitic and anti-Asian chants have also made their appearance. National and international soccer associations impose punishment and fines when they can, but the problem persists. No less shameful is the violence that stems from fanatical supporters of a club or national team. The soccer hooliganism of the 1980s is thankfully behind us, but there are still incidents of fans beating up rival fans. In November, fans of Tottenham Hotspurs (London club) were attacked and one man was stabbed and nearly beaten to death in Rome, where the club was playing Lazio (Roman club) in the Europa League competition. While such violent acts are not common, this is a case of ‘one is one too many.’ Sports lovers are passionate about their teams, but in the end, they need to be reminded that it’s just a game. It shouldn’t be a matter of life or death.
Now to happier moments of the year and three events stand out as highlights: Chelsea’s victory in the Champions League, Spain’s historic win in Euro 2012, and Lionel Messi record-breaking accomplishments. The Champions League is generally considered the most important trophy a club can win even though it includes only European clubs. The top clubs compete all season long for a place in the final at a pre-determined location. For 2012, the final would take place in Munich in the stadium that Bayern Munich calls home. Not many fans thought that Bayern Munich would get to the finals in their home town and even fewer Chelsea fans believed their club would make it. Both teams played the odds-on favorites in the semi-finals: Real Madrid and Barcelona. When the Spanish teams lost, Chelsea flew from London to Munich to face Bayern Munich, considered by most to be the favorites now, to play them on their home ground. The game went to overtime and then to the nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out. Bayern was favored even more in those final moments. Germans usually win the shoot-outs; the English usually do not. Unbelievingly, the German team faltered. Then Didier Drogba stepped up for the final kick and won it for Chelsea – a first in the club’s history and a first for any London club.
In July, Spain, the reigning 2008 European and 2010 World champions, became European champions again. They were the favorites, true, but the Netherlands and Germany were expected to be strong contenders. The Netherlands team imploded and left the competition early. After a surprising semi-final result in which Italy beat Germany, Italy made it to the final to face Spain. Then Spain beat them soundly, 4-0. It was a historic victory; no other team has won three consecutive major international championships. There will be enormous pressure on them in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Finally, the Argentina international and Barcelona player Lionel Messi has had a big year, again. On the personal side, his first child, a son, was born. On the professional side, he broke several major soccer records. He became his club’s greatest scorer ever and La Liga’s most successful scorer at the end of last season. For 40 years the German player Gerd Müller had held the record for the most goals scored in a calendar year: 85. Before Müller, there had been Pele with 75 goals back in 1958. Messi not only topped 85 goals but went on to score a total of 91 goals for the year. How long will it take someone to break Messi’s record? Perhaps he’ll do it himself. So there you have it – a few of the big moments. A lot happened in 2012 in the soccer world, more than I could possibly capture here. Stay tuned for the next big moments, coming up in 2013!