Club & country, greed & glory
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.
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,
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
There seems to be no end to the money flooding into English soccer from TV and foreign investors. Chelsea and England captain
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.
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
While a degree of normality returned to
In England, Manchester United won its first title since '03 with a side constructed by manager
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
The domination of the Champions League by clubs from just a few countries was the primary challenge facing new UEFA president
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
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
Two players bucking the trend of big-money European transfers were Beckham and
Riquelme's departure from Villarreal was inevitable after falling out with coach
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.
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
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
Brazil demonstrated its strength in depth, with
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
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
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
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
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
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.