Illuminating the sporting highlights of 2011

The year 2011 witnessed the birth of a new global superstar, as Neymar inspired Santos to a first Copa Libertadores title since 1963 and threatened to crash Europe’s hegemony of the Ballon d’Or.

Already a YouTube sensation due to his distinctive Mohawk hairstyle and jaw-dropping dribbling ability, Neymar confirmed his reputation by guiding Pele’s old club back to the summit of the South American game.

He scored the opening goal in the 2-1 defeat of Uruguayan giants Penarol in the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final before stealing the show and finishing top scorer as Brazil won the under-20 South American Championship.

He could not repeat his success with the senior side at the Copa America but the 19-year-old was still the only player based outside Europe to be named on the 23-man shortlist for the Fifa Ballon d’Or.

His performances for club and country saw him strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid but in November he committed himself to Santos until the 2014 World Cup when he will carry the hopes of the host nation on his shoulders.

Enduring image
One of the year’s most enduring images captured Pele embracing Neymar after the Copa Libertadores final in the middle of the Pacaembu pitch in Sao Paulo.

The great Brazilian was even moved to declare Neymar a “more complete” player than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi but Neymar came out second-best in Sunday’s Club World Cup final as Messi scored twice in a 4-0 Barca win.

“Messi is the best, there’s no question about that,” said Santos coach Muricy Ramalho.

“He’s been building up to be the best player for many years, but Neymar is improving and in the future he will be the best.”

With Brazil and hosts Argentina both crashing in the last eight at the Copa America, Uruguay were able to claim a 15th continental crown, which followed on from their superb fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup.

Old enemies
After eliminating old enemies Argentina on penalties and beating Peru 2-0 in the semi-finals, they crushed Paraguay 3-0 in the final through an early strike from player of the tournament Luis Suarez and a Diego Forlan brace.

“I’m really proud of the way we played and the way we did it,” said Uruguay captain Diego Lugano after hoisting aloft the trophy at Buenos Aires’ fabled Estadio Monumental. “We’ve made a lot of people very happy.”

A month after controversially winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar welcomed the cream of the Asian continent to Doha for the Asian Cup in January.

Although a logistical success, the tournament was notable for poor attendances but it concluded with a high-quality final decided by a fine extra-time volley from Tadaneri Lee that gave Japan a 1-0 win over Australia.

The Blue Samurai also tasted success in the women’s game with Japan securing their first ever World Cup title after beating the US on penalties in the final in Frankfurt in July.

Mexico had two reasons to celebrate as well, following up their triumph in the Concacaf Gold Cup with success in the Under-17 World Cup on home soil.

Black year
For all the on-pitch spectacle, 2011 will go down as a black year for world football’s governing body Fifa after a succession of corruption scandals saw the organisation’s name dragged through the gutter.

Sepp Blatter won a fourth consecutive term as president in June but only after his main rival, Mohamed bin Hammam, had been removed from the race over bribery allegations that would eventually earn him a lifetime ban.

“I cannot go now,” vowed Blatter in December. “I haven’t finished my mission. The organisation’s image needs to be improved.”

The Fifa chief also announced plans to introduce goal-line technology in time for the 2014 World Cup, despite objections from Uefa president Michel Platini.

As 2012 approached, football fans had reason to reflect on the losses of some of the game’s most cherished names.

England great Nat Lofthouse, former Hungary star Florian Albert and Socrates, captain of the acclaimed 1982 Brazil World Cup side, all passed away, while the sport was stunned by the tragic suicide of Wales coach Gary Speed. — AFP

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