Soccer

2011: Year of FIFA scandals

2011-12-21 16:21
Sepp Blatter (File)

London - Soccer in 2011 was dominated by events off the field rather than on it.

Barcelona and Lionel Messi continued to provide some of the most sparkling performances in the sport's long history and Uruguay further overshadowed Brazil and Argentina at the top of the South American game, but headlines around the world were dominated by allegations of corruption and bribery at FIFA.

The sport's governing body was beset by allegations as behind-the-scenes politicking was thrust into the spotlight by the fallout from its 2010 decision to give future World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Sepp Blatter was re-elected unopposed as FIFA president but the year was almost out before he announced details of long-promised reforms.

Blatter's position at the top of FIFA was secured after his only rival for the presidency, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, was forced to withdraw from the June election over bribery allegations that later led to a lifetime ban from the sport.

Blatter has hinted that his new Independent Governance Committee could examine cases including the decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar. Even the 10-year-old kickbacks case that led to former FIFA President Joao Havelange's resignation from the IOC is being picked over.

The 95-year-old Havelange, Blatter's mentor and predecessor, joined the IOC in 1963 and was its longest-standing member. He resigned in December, days before he faced possible suspension for allegedly taking a $1 million kickback from World Cup marketing deals while FIFA president.

The IOC closed its ethics investigation into Havelange after his resignation.

The appointment of a University of Basel professor - who formerly served on an independent inquiry team examining alleged corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food program - to spearhead reforms lends credibility to Blatter's committee.

But whether a body widely criticised for a lack of transparency and accountability can be persuaded of the need for comprehensive change remains to be seen.

Blatter was forced to apologise in November for causing outrage among players, officials and even sponsors by suggesting that racial incidents between players on the field could be settled by a handshake at the end of a game.

The topic of racism surfaced several times through the year, with England captain John Terry and Uruguay forward Luis Suarez both accused of abusing opponents, while France coach Laurent Blanc came close to resigning following a row about quotas at training academies.

Blanc acknowledged that his crude language in a conversation with French Football Federation colleagues was wrong and offensive but said the debate over whether dual nationals of African descent should be in the French system remained valid.

Blanc was cleared of discrimination by the FFF.

Another immediate challenge facing Blatter and FIFA is the state of Brazil's preparations to host the 2014 World Cup, which are mired in infighting, corruption allegations and a simple lack of progress.

Organising committee head Ricardo Teixeira - himself linked to the ISL kickback case that claimed Havelange - was embroiled in allegations of bribery and money laundering that saw Brazil's sports minister Orlando Silva forced out in October.

The Brazilian government has yet to pass the necessary laws to allow the country to stage the tournament and stadium construction is behind schedule.

"The executive committee is worried about that," Blatter said. "I will myself take up the World Cup in a presidential level and in the first or second month of next year I will go and meet the head of state."

And in a sign of the tensions between various factions, Teixeira snubbed Pele from the 2014 qualifying draw in Rio in July only to see state president Dilma Rouseff appoint the former national team great as her government's World Cup ambassador.

Brazilian football was dealt a series of blows in 2011, with the death of former captain Socrates after a lifetime of heavy drinking, a quarter-final exit at the Copa America and Santos' 4-0 drubbing by Barcelona in the final of the Club World Cup.

Brazil had already failed to impress at Copa America before they missed all four of their penalty kicks in a 2-0 shootout loss to Paraguay. If there was any consolation, it was that rivals Argentina exited at the same stage and in the same manner against eventual champions Uruguay.

With Diego Forlan and Suarez up front, Uruguay built on their surprise run to the 2010 World Cup semi-finals and routed Paraguay 3-0 in the final to win their first continental title since 1995.

There was no such shift in power in Europe, where world and European champions Spain remained the team to beat.

With Spain stars including Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Sergio Busquets in their squad, Barcelona dominated the club scene with a third straight domestic league title, a third Champions League title in six years and the 13th trophy of coach Pep Guardiola's three-and-a-half year tenure at the Club World Cup.

Predictably, though, Barcelona's star player wasn't Spanish.

Messi continued to draw comparisons with all-time great Diego Maradona with his seemingly unstoppable dribbling, rampant goal scoring and imaginative set-up play.

The Argentine finished the 2010-11 season with 53 goals in all competitions - including one in the 3-1 Champions League final win over Manchester United - and is almost certain to win FIFA's world player of the year award for a third straight year.

"We have good players in the team, but he makes the difference," Guardiola said. "We can compete, but without him we would not have that qualitative leap that we do have with him."

Elsewhere, American Samoa won their first ever match, North Korea were kicked out of the next Women's World Cup after five players tested positive for steroids at this year's tournament, more than 100 players at the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico tested positive for clenbuterol after eating local meat, and Wales manager Gary Speed was founded hanged at home.

But if there was a feel-good story, it was Japan's success at the Women's World Cup in Germany.

With their country devastated by a tsunami and earthquake that left nearly 20 000 people dead or missing, the Japanese players vowed they would inspire their homeland. The did it with an improbable victory in the final, equalising against the favoured United States in the 81st minute and again with three minutes of extra time remaining before winning a shootout 3-1.

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