Gavin Hamilton
Tuesday January 1st, 2008

Twelve months is a long time in soccer. In 2006, Italy demonstrated the international game's ability to triumph in adversity. A year later, the club game fought back and reasserted itself over national-team concerns.

Kaká's multiple accolades as the world's best player in '07 can be directly attributed to his spectacular, goal-laden performances for AC Milan in the Champions League. In contrast, the Brazilian declined to play for his country in the biggest international tournament of the year, the Copa América.

That Ronaldinho -- the man Kaká has overtaken as the planet's most desirable player -- also opted out of the Copa confirmed that the club vs. country divide is the defining fault line of the modern game.

Nowhere is the division more pronounced than in England, where the national team's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was in stark contrast to the inexorable rise of the Premier League and its clubs, three of which reached the semifinals of the '06-07 Champions League.

In many ways, Steve McClaren's departure as England manager -- fired with a payoff of $5 million -- was symptomatic of a moneyed football culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

A host of new foreign investor-speculators have been lured by the financial power of the Premier League over the past 12 months. Such figures as Thaksin Shinawatra (Manchester City), George Gillett and Tom Hicks (Liverpool) and Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal, potentially) could have moved in on clubs in Italy or Spain. But they chose England because of the potential profits on offer through the rising value of global TV rights.

There seems to be no end to the money flooding into English soccer from TV and foreign investors. Chelsea and England captain John Terry became the highest-paid player in the Premier League when he signed a contract worth $260,000 a week. He and teammate Ashley Cole missed England's decisive Euro '08 defeat to Croatia at the new Wembley Stadium because of injuries, though both played for their club three days later.

An underlying theme of the postmortem of England's failure -- aside from the argument that foreigners were inhibiting the progress of home-grown youngsters -- was the belief that England's highly compensated players lacked motivation when selected to play for their country.

Whether that was the case or not, European club soccer was what mattered most in '07. The big beasts asserted themselves. The league titles in England, Italy and Spain were all won by traditional powers who had endured varying periods without success.

Real Madrid ended its longest trophy drought in more than 50 years when it secured its first league title. David Beckham, having been dropped by coach Fabio Capello, reveled in his new status as soccer's comeback kid to play a crucial role in the success before jetting off to a new life in America. Capello was not so lucky, despite having done what he was asked to do: introduce more discipline to a Madrid squad that had been indulged during the Galáctico era. The Italian was fired and replaced by German Bernd Schuster.

In Italy, Inter Milan again won the Serie A title. But while the '06 championship had been won by default, after Juventus and Milan were caught up in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, the '07 title was won on the pitch, Inter's first such triumph in 18 years. The return to Serie A of Juventus, which had been demoted as punishment, has provided Inter with a bigger challenge this season.

While a degree of normality returned to calcio on the field, violence flared off the pitch. A nadir was reached with the death of a police officer, Filippo Raciti, during disturbances between fans at the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo. Despite a subsequent crackdown on stadium violence, the shooting of a Lazio fan by a policeman in November prompted further violence and further soul-searching.

In England, Manchester United won its first title since '03 with a side constructed by manager Alex Ferguson around the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. The mercurial talents of Carlos Tévez were added to the mix in the summer after a protracted dispute over his contract, which was owned -- in the manner of many South American player registrations -- by an investment company, MSI.

Lyon won a sixth consecutive title in France, leaving Germany as the only one of Europe's big five leagues to have a surprise champion. Unheralded Stuttgart claimed the title, while the country's biggest club, Bayern Munich, failed to qualify for the Champions League after finishing fourth.

The Champions League was dominated by clubs from England, Italy and Spain. Although the Premier League supplied three of the semifinalists, the fourth, Milan, triumphed against Liverpool in the final in Athens to become European champion for the seventh time.

Sevilla won a second consecutive UEFA Cup, and its direct, attacking soccer and aggressive scouting and transfer-dealing worked wonders for the reputation of coach Juande Ramos. The Spaniard left Sevilla halfway through this autumn's Champions League group stage to take up a lucrative offer from Tottenham, a team with just one appearance in the European Cup, in '61-62. Ramos' salary at Spurs? Reportedly $35 million over four years, an eight-fold increase from his salary at Sevilla.

The domination of the Champions League by clubs from just a few countries was the primary challenge facing new UEFA president Michel Platini. The former France and Juventus star, who beat Swede Lennart Johansson in a close-fought election at the start of the year, quickly sought to redress the imbalance of power in the competition by proposing changes to reduce the number of places available to teams from England, Italy and Spain.

Various ideas were rejected, but eventually UEFA settled on a new system for the qualifying rounds and an increase in the number of automatic group places. From '09-10, England, Italy and Spain will each get three automatic spots, but there will also be an extra six for the champions of lower-ranked countries (the very ones who backed Platini's election campaign).

Already there are signs of a power shift to the east, specifically clubs in Russia and Ukraine, after some heavy financial investment. Zenit St. Petersburg, strongly backed by the energy company Gazprom, won its first league title since the breakup of the Soviet Union, while Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine threatened to break through into the Champions League knockout stages after spending more than $80 million on new players.

Elsewhere in the summer transfer market, the traditional superpowers flexed their muscles. Barcelona signed Thierry Henry from Arsenal for $32 million, one year after the Frenchman had rejected its advances. Manchester United also spent heavily, signing Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich for $34 million, as well as teenagers Nani and Anderson from Portugal for a combined $60 million. But the biggest spender was Real Madrid, which stole a page from the book of its rival Barcelona by going Dutch, bringing in Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Royston Drenthe.

Bayern Munich also splashed out in an attempt to cure its malaise. But while in the past, Bayern had bought the best players from elsewhere in the Bundesliga, it now looked beyond Germany's borders, bringing in, among others, Italian striker Luca Toni and French midfielder Franck Ribéry.

Two players bucking the trend of big-money European transfers were Beckham and Juan Román Riquelme. Beckham rejected offers from Europe to sign a five-year deal with Major League Soccer worth as much as $250 million. The jury is still out about his impact on American sport, but there is no denying that the Beckham "project" has garnered huge amounts of headlines.

Riquelme's departure from Villarreal was inevitable after falling out with coach Manuel Pellegrini. His return to Boca Juniors -- where he was instrumental in guiding his old club to a sixth Copa Libertadores title in June during a loan spell -- was not for lack of interest from European clubs.

Both Beckham and Riquelme also bucked another trend, by returning to play for their countries. Beckham, dropped by England after last year's World Cup, was recalled by an increasingly desperate McClaren, who decided that the former national team captain's MLS status didn't matter. Riquelme, despite not playing for Villarreal, was a central figure for Argentina at the Copa América and in the early rounds of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.

Europe-based players were not so keen on international duty. Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta both quit Italy. Jamie Carragher declined to make himself available for England, angry at being ignored following strong performances for Liverpool. And Roberto Ayala announced he would no longer play for Argentina.

But while club mattered most in Europe, it was a different story in the rest of the world. A host of international tournaments -- the Copa América, the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, the Asian Cup, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the women's World Cup -- provided proof of the vitality of the international game.

Reigning champ Germany showed it's still the dominant power in the women's game with a victory over Brazil in the final in Shanghai. Brazil had the best individual player in Marta, but the Germans had the strongest team as well as an outstanding goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer.

At the Copa América in Venezuela, Argentina responded to its defeat to Germany in the quarterfinals of the '06 World Cup with a move to an old-fashioned passing game. Under coach Alfio Basile, in his second spell in charge, the Argentineans played some delightful soccer, with Riquelme and Lionel Messi at the heart of it. But they fell apart against a rugged, pragmatic Brazil side in the final, going down 3-0.

Brazil demonstrated its strength in depth, with Robinho seizing his opportunity to shine in the absence of Kaká and Ronaldinho. But Brazil's continuing reliance on pace, power and physicality was not welcomed by neutrals.

Brazil failed to deliver at the youth championships. At the Under-20s in Canada, it lost to Spain in the second round. Many European scouts were in attendance to watch the progress of Alexandre Pato, who would eventually sign with Milan. But it was Argentina that stole the show, with Sergio Aguëro emerging as a genuine star.

Both Brazil and Argentina fared badly at the Under-17s in South Korea, where Nigeria won its third title, beating Spain on penalties in the final. Previous victories were tainted by allegations that some Nigerian players were overage, but no evidence has been provided to the team broke the rules. Hamburg signed Nigeria striker Macauley Chrisantus, the tournament's top scorer, but will have to wait until he turns 18 next year before it can offer him a professional contract.

The senior Nigeria side joined Africa's other superpowers in qualifying for next month's African Cup of Nations in Ghana. But Togo, an '06 World Cup team, missed out after losing its last game, at home to Mali.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup was again dominated by the U.S. and Mexico. The Americans beat the Mexicans 2-1 in the final but the romance was provided by Guadeloupe, which beat Canada and Honduras en route to a semifinal defeat by Mexico.

An even more inspiring story was provided by Iraq which, against all the odds, beat Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Cup. The war-torn country's victory provided hope in a year when the game was again tainted by scandal.

FIFA's new ethics committee, headed by Sebastian Coe, was exposed as toothless after FIFA vice president Jack Warner escaped any punishment for his alleged involvement in World Cup ticketing scams.

Also, the world body was humiliated in the American courts during a case between rival World Cup sponsors MasterCard and Visa. FIFA was forced to pay $90 million in compensation to existing sponsor MasterCard for going behind its back and securing a new deal with Visa. FIFA officials, including marketing chief Jerome Valcke, were found by the judge to have "lied repeatedly." Valcke was fired, only to be re-hired a few months later ... as FIFA's new general secretary.

Valcke once worked for French media giant Vivendi on a potential takeover of ISL, the collapsed sports marketing company used by FIFA to sell World Cup TV rights. A report of an ongoing investigation by a Swiss magistrate into alleged bribes paid by ISL to FIFA executives is due in '08. The investigation is the time bomb ticking away underneath FIFA's grand new glass-and-steel headquarters in the hills of Zurich, Switzerland.

The year ended with Sepp Blatter hosting the main 2010 World Cup qualifying draw in Durban. For all his charm and chutzpah, the FIFA president remains a man under pressure. He faces a huge challenge to deliver a safe and secure tournament on time and on budget in South Africa.

The South American countries set off on their long road to 2010 in October. Kaká and Ronaldinho returned to Brazil's squad for those games. Confirmation, if any was needed, that obituaries for the international game shouldn't be written just yet.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine. He contributes to on alternate Tuesdays. This story was reprinted from the January 2008 issue.

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