It's that time of year again where we look back on a selection from the standout soccer stories in the year just passed. Here's the best of 2011:
1. The women's World Cup. If you ignore Justin Bieber (not as difficult as some people make it seem), this summer's women's World Cup was the top trending topic on Twitter in 2011. It did not get much build up, but the tournament went viral from the very first day, when a capacity crowd watched Germany defeat Canada in Berlin. By the time Japan won the trophy three weeks later, millions of people were chattering about it on blogs and social media the world over (more than 7,000 tweets a second during the final!). Losing the final on penalties was a cruel end for the U.S., which had by then made a household name even of Megan Rapinoe's hair, but at least WPS has now won its battle for sanctioning.
2. Barcelona establishes its greatness. Another year, another extension to the trophy room at Camp Nou: in 2011, Pep Guardiola's side won a third consecutive La Liga title (May), a second Champions League in three seasons (also in May), the Spanish Supercopa (mid-August), the UEFA European Super Cup (late August) and the FIFA Club World Cup (December). For the third year in a row, the club dominates the Ballon d'Or shortlist; Xavi and Lionel Messi will compete with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, as they did in 2009, and Messi will probably win, as he did in 2009 and 2010. And, to cap it all off, Barcelona finally welcomed back Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal after a will-they-won't-they storyline so protracted that even Days of our Lives scriptwriters would have killed it off sooner. Who cares that the team can't afford color photocopying, right?
3. Match-fixing scandals. As you read this, Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim is in prison, and he could end up staying there for a long time if convicted of his alleged part in a match-fixing ring (though the country's president, Abdullah Gul, has handily just reduced the maximum jail terms for match-fixing offenses). Almost 100 people have been charged following investigations into league games in Turkey, including Besiktas coach Tayfur Havutcu. There's an unseemly court battle under way in Zimbabwe, where Gift Banda, Patrick Hokonya and Samukeliso Silengane deny orchestrating match-fixing. In Croatia, 15 players and team staff were convicted of fixing national league matches, and two officials have been arrested on suspicion of taking cash for making sure matches would be refereed fairly. What dystopia is this?
4. Hollywood finish for Beckham. It takes more effort to dislike David Beckham than it does to succumb to the charming, childish glee he continues to get from playing the game, and only a true miser (or Dynamo fan) can argue that it didn't seem perfectly scripted that the L.A. Galaxy should win the MLS Cup this year thanks to a goal that Beckham helped to set up. OnSI.com, Steve Davis wondered if the result marked the start of an era in which the MLS title would require designated players. Over at the L.A. Times, they were understandably feeling a little less academic about it: "Yeah, our funky little soccer team just won a big whopping title."
5. Record British transfers flop. The fact that Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish insists that striker Andy Carroll is the 'minus-£15 million man' is a grim synopsis of 2011 for Britain's record transfers. Carroll, the most expensive British player ever at £35 million ($54M), has been of such limited use to Liverpool that being cheaper than Fernando Torres is something of an accomplishment. As for Torres, whose £50 million ($80M) transfer fee is the biggest ever between two British clubs, the year has yielded just nine goals (is it really only three years since he was in the running for the Ballon d'Or?) but plenty of jeering from Merseyside. Having sold him on before there was any chance to see a Torres-Suarez partnership in action, Liverpool insisted the striker had put in a late transfer request, but Torres says the deal was done long before deadline day: "Liverpool fans have stuck with the story the club gave and they don't know the real story." Perhaps 2012 will bring us the facts.
6. Lille tango in Paris. 2009: Bordeaux. 2010: Marseille. 2011: Lille. Hang on, Lille? For a third consecutive year, the winners of Ligue 1 also clinched the French Cup, but few would have predicted at the start of the 2010/11 season that Lille -- without a title in 57 years -- would be the name etched in to both trophies. Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Paris St Germain are supposed to have things sewn up, but the big-timers were, like the rest of the league, unable to cope with Lille's deadly combination of power, speed and skill. "When my players will meet again in 15 or 20 years, they will have incredible memories together," said the coach, Rudi Garcia, though a reunion might be necessary sooner than that. Lille diligently assembled a thrilling side but has lost Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye, and Adil Rami already since the summer, with Moussa Sow and Eden Hazard the subject of frantic speculation ahead of the January transfer window.
7. AC Milan triumph. You won't often see a goalless draw prompt such jubilation, but a 0-0 tie at Rome's Stadio Olimpico on May 9 secured AC Milan's first Scudetto since 2003-04, and ended a run of five consecutive Serie A titles won across town by Internazionale. Not a bad first season in charge for Massimo Allegri (whose side conceded a minuscule 24 goals in 38 games) and Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for whom it was -- get this -- an eighth consecutive title-winning season. Thanks in no small part to goals from Edinson Cavani, Napoli finished in third (qualifying for the Champions League, where already this season Cavani's goals have helped to put Manchester City out).
8. Manchester roars ... and then coughs a little bit. The 2010/11 English domestic season ended with Manchester City lifting the FA Cup, its first trophy for 35 years, and Manchester United winning a record 19th Premier League title with a game to spare. In the opening weeks of this season, United put 14 goals past Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea while City plowed through the opening fixtures like a tank in a shopping mall, even thumping the neighbors 6-1 at Old Trafford. The rest of England was miffed until both teams were put out of the Champions League at the group stage -- virtually unheard of at United since the mid-90s, and the first time two English clubs have failed to get out of the groups.
9. Sepp Blatter lends a hand. Few organizations have embraced the maxim 'Keep calm and carry on' with such enthusiasm as FIFA. Last year's corruption allegations have snowballed all the way through the past 12 months, skittling Mohamed bin Hammam and Jack Warner; now Brazil's Ex-Co rep Ricardo Teixeira faces allegations of money-laundering and doubts have been expressed as to the independence of FIFA's "independent governance committee." Blatter rounded off the year in exemplary style by suggesting that players who are racially abused by opponents should shake hands and get on with it.
10. A Special One-Two-Three. Back before he boarded the "Chelsea In Crisis!" rollercoaster, Andre Villas-Boas enjoyed the velvety monotony of winning most of the time. When Porto beat Maritimo 2-0 in mid-May, the club closed the season (Villas-Boas' first in charge) with a 27-3-0 record in the Portuguese Liga. Playing mouthwatering soccer, Porto had already clinched the title at the start of April by winning 2-1 at Benfica, and before May was over they would go on to lift the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League trophy. "He is in his dream position already," said club president Pinto da Costa, as the batphone went berserk at Stamford Bridge. (Porto remains unbeaten after 12 games of the 2011/12 Liga season under the new manager, Vítor Pereira.)
My favorite moment: It can't really be described as one of the year's biggest stories, but watching Raul climb in to the crowd and celebrate with Schalke fans after beating Internazionale in the Champions League was truly fantastic.
Honorable mention: St Pauli may have been relegated from Germany's Bundesliga 1 at the first opportunity, but it notched its first win over neighboring Hamburg since 1977.
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