Barça a beacon in murky year

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The brilliance of Barcelona and the grubby goings-on at the top of the game came together in juxtaposition one night in late May to highlight the good and bad in football in 2011.

Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi had woven his spell on the pitch as the Spanish side gave a masterclass against Manchester United at Wembley to lift the Champions League title.

But while football was celebrating one of the best club sides of all time, there was an unwanted commotion off-stage as corruption controversies affecting world governing body Fifa took a new twist.

Joseph Blatter was not at Wembley to see Barça at their best.

The Fifa president was reportedly too busy preparing his defence in a Fifa ethics probe just days before he stood for re-election.

Blatter was facing a challenge from Asia confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam, who had pledged more transparency at the top.

But now Bin Hammam, vice-president Jack Warner and Blatter himself were being probed over corruption allegations which had surfaced in the presidential race.

Warner had already threatened Fifa with a “football tsunami,” but no one expected the long and at times acrimonious presidential race to end with Bin Hammam pulling out on Barcelona’s night of magic.

The same day, the ethics committee dropped its probe against Blatter and the 75-year-old Swiss was left to stand unopposed for a fourth term as head of Fifa a few days later at its congress in Zurich.

Bin Hammam was later given a lifetime ban for allegedly trying to buy votes from Caribbean football officials in the run-up to the election, while Warner resigned from all football posts.

“We will put the Fifa ship back on the right course in clear, transparent waters,” said Blatter on his re-election, pledging among other things a change to the way World Cup hosts are chosen amid allegations of bribery and corruption ahead of the executive committee vote for Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) in December 2010.

Later in the year he announced an independent governance committee, but the year ended with Blatter still wrestling with corruption issues concerning the collapsed sports marketing agency ISL.

Blatter’s predecessor as Fifa president, Joao Havelange, meanwhile resigned as member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) days before an IOC ethics committee report on allegations of bribes from ISL.

Off-field problems also affecting the game included match-fixing, a continuing concern for national and international football federations, with Italy and Turkey — the Turkish federation banned Fenerbahce from the Champions League — among countries affected.

The start of Italy’s Serie A season was also delayed in a row over a collective player contract and on whether or not clubs could prevent players under contract from training with the first team.
Meanwhile, the death of Wales manager Gary Speed, who took his life in November, was a sombre moment for the game.

Barcelona’s 3-1 defeat of Manchester United in the Champions League final proved a chastening experience for United manager Sir Alex Ferguson following his side’s 2-0 loss to BarÇa in the final in Rome in 2009.

“Nobody’s given us a hiding like that, but they deserve it,” he said.

“In my time as manager, it’s the best team I’ve faced.”

Worse was to follow at the end of the year as United crashed out of the 2011-12 Champions League to Basle at the group stage.

Barça meanwhile also won the Spanish league title and were competing for the World Club Cup, while United were Premier League winners, AC Milan topped Serie A and a young Borussia Dortmund side were surprise Bundesliga champions.

In other major competition, Japan first won the Asian Cup and its women’s squad upset hosts Germany in the quarter-finals before beating the United States in the final to take the women’s World Cup title, a morale booster for the country battered earlier in the year by the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

Uruguay lifted the Copa America as hosts Argentina and mighty Brazil went out in the quarter-finals, and Porto beat Braga in the first-ever all-Portuguese final in the Europa League.

World and European champions Spain and Germany both won all their Euro 2012 qualifiers as football looked forward to next year and the 16-nation tournament in Ukraine and Poland.