Poor World Cup final sums up bad year for game

From the earliest days of January to the last days of December, this was a year of tragedy, scandal and controversy for the world’s most popular sport.

Even the first World Cup finals in Africa, held in South Africa in the Southern hemisphere’s winter months of June and July, left a bitter-sweet memory, rather than a golden one to cherish for generations.

As well as a poor World Cup, soccer suffered tragedy when gunmen attacked the Togo team at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola at the start of the year.

There was scandal at the pinnacle of the game with Fifa suspending two of its executive committee members after allegations that they were prepared to sell their votes to decide the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Fifa’s controversial decision to award the 2022 finals to Qatar, despite fears from Fifa’s own inspectors about playing in the Arabian summer heat, also made headlines around the world.

While there were great on-field triumphs, including Inter Milan becoming European champions for the first time since 1965 and the continuing brilliant form of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, some top clubs, afflicted by poor financial management, struggled to cope with debts.

The World Cup represented a success for South Africa which organised a safe, largely crime-free tournament with enthusiastic crowds and a unique atmosphere, but it had few memorable matches and a truly awful final.

The game, which ended in a deserved 1-0 win for Spain over a cynical The Netherlands side thanks to Andres Iniesta’s winner four minutes before the end of extra time, was a spiteful affair of 13 yellow cards and a sending-off for Dutchman Johnny Heitinga.

A lack of goals, bitterly cold weather at the first winter World Cup in 32 years and a shortage of stand-out performances throughout, all contributed to the sense of anti-climax.

French revolt
The unpredictable flight of the Jabulani ball may have been one factor; others were the lack of goals and a prevalence of draws in the opening round.

That trend concerns Fiaf so much it has convened a task force to try to improve matters for the 2014 finals in Brazil.

The game’s biggest names failed to impress in South Africa. Perhaps the players were tired after long, tough European seasons but Messi, Kaka, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney did not score a goal between them, while Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo scored only one goal each.

Italy’s reign as world champions ended in first-round elimination while France, runners-up four years earlier, imploded with a player revolt over the expulsion of Nicolas Anelka and they went home, like Italy, without winning a match.

France was convulsed by the antics of its team, sparking a national inquiry which ended with some players receiving bans and unpopular coach Raymond Domenech losing his job.

His replacement Laurent Blanc suspended all 23 World Cup squad members for his first match in charge while Anelka’s 18-match ban effectively ended his international career.

African teams also disappointed with five of the six eliminated in the group stage, including South Africa, the first host team to fail to reach the knockout rounds.

While the World Cup was disappointing, at least it avoided much of the crime many in the West had predicted, especially after the attack on the Togo team in January when a bus carrying the squad came under gunfire in the Angolan separatist enclave of Cabinda. A bus driver, the team’s assistant manager and a media officer died.

The Togo squad returned home and withdrew from the tournament which continued without them and was eventually won by Egypt.

Fifa scandal
At the end of the year Fifa’s decision to name the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals on the same day effectively led to the governing body’s biggest scandal since it came into existence 106 years ago.

Following allegations by the Sunday Times newspaper in London that two Fifa executives were prepared to sell their votes for cash, Fifa were forced to investigate and somewhat reluctantly suspended and fined six officials, two of them from the decision-making executive committee.

Allegations of collusion among voting committee members continued to dominate headlines after Fifa awarded the 2018 finals to Russia and, more surprisingly, the 2022 finals to Qatar, the tiny Arab country of 1,6-million people where summer temperatures can reach °50C.

Since those decisions were taken on December 2, Fifa president Sepp Blatter has fiercely defended them, saying taking the World Cup to new territories such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East made perfect sense and was part of Fifa’s gift in developing the game around the world.

Much of the world’s attention, as always, was focused on UEFA’s Champions League which ended in triumph for Jose Mourinho who became only the third man to win the European Cup with two different clubs when his Inter Milan beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in the final in Madrid in May.

It was Inter’s first continental triumph for 45 years and followed an Italian Cup and League double, before Mourinho left for Real Madrid. They added the Club World Cup to their honours this month — their fifth trophy of the year.

Although Messi had a poor World Cup he inspired Barcelona to the Spanish title, while Atletico Madrid brought more success to Spain by beating unlikely finalists Fulham in the Europa Cup final in Hamburg.

There were also Cup and League doubles for Chelsea in England and Bayern Munich in Germany.

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These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

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