The year 2005 was dominated by the qualification campaigns for the World Cup in Germany in June 2006 and by parts of two superb seasons of European Champions League football. The latter competition is now generally regarded as the best in the world, though Sao Paolo of Brazil was able to claim the title of World Club champion with a somewhat fortuitous win over Liverpool, the European champion club, in Japan in December. More of that later.
Among the leagues the English Premier League continued to claim the most attention, though the standard of football may not have been higher than that in Italy, Spain or Argentina. However, the resources which poured into the English game in past years showed signs of drying up despite Roman Abramovich’s continued underwriting of large losses by Chelsea and the take-over of Manchester United by the American Malcolm Glazer. This latter move was highly leveraged and United is now saddled with debts which may well be unserviceable in future, particularly if they do not perform well in European competition.
Australia’s move from the Oceania to the Asian Confederation of FIFA, which will take place on 1 January 2006 may well turn out to be the most significant international football event affecting this country. Even more than the stunning World Cup qualification secured in a gut-wrenching penalty shoot-out victory over Uruguay at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney in November. For the future Australia will play in national and club competitions at a high standard which attract huge fan support both at the grounds and on television which will have important implications for the finance of the game in this country. The successful start of the domestic A-League, which has attracted above expected attendances and some significant sponsorship, is another good sign for the game.
Australia’s reputation was somewhat tarnished by Multiplex’s problems with new Wembley Stadium which it is building. This will end up costing local investors, and may not be ready in time for 2006 FA Cup Final. The Football Association have booked the Millennium Stadium at Cardiff as a back-up.
The Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho has come of age this year winning both World and European player of the year awards by a huge margin from some excellent players like Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrard and Thierry Henry. Even the Real Madrid crowd gave him a standing ovation when he destroyed Real with its Galacticos including David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu in November. Barcelona also have one to watch for the future in Lionel Messi, star of the World Youth Cup who is already cutting it in the Primera Liga. The young Argentine is so good he is not being described as the next Maradona but the first Lionel Messi. In England Wayne Rooney has had a mercurial year with some stunning performances for club and country, but he could not help Manchester United qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
By late November the 32 places in the World Cup draw had been settled. The surprise packets this year included Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, led by the ever smiling Dwight Yorke, who has had an excellent season with Sydney FC in the new Australian A-League, and three of the African qualifiers, Togo, Angola and the Ivory Coast. Ghana was more expected, but the absence of Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa was not. Australia is drawn in Group F along with defending champion Brazil, Asian champion Japan and Croatia. Qualification owes a great deal to Dutch coach Guus Hiddink and a fair slice of luck this time, making up for some raw deals in the past. Can Australia qualify from this group? It will need something special against three more fancied teams, but it is possible given a good start against Japan. Expect to see changes in the Australian line-up by June as Hiddink will pick players he thinks can do a job for him, not reputations. It is hard to go past Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy as winner, but if you want a dark horse then perhaps Ukraine led by Andriy Shevchenko might be worth a bet. England fancies its chances but will do well to get to the semi-finals.
The Champions League has now settled down as what is almost a European league with the G14 clubs dominating. The G14 is a self-selected group of top clubs from the major European Leagues who have set themselves up as a pressure group to try to obtain a larger share of the revenue accruing to the world game. Another of their recent initiatives is an attempt to force national associations to compensate them for injuries incurred by their players when representing their country. In this season’s Champions League, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Ajaxm Barcelona, Werder Bremen, Villareal, Benfica, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Hiddink’s PSV, Lyon, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Rangers got through the qualifying rounds, with only the last of these being unexpected. Lyon has an excellent side and is predicted to do well, while Chelsea and Barcelona have been drawn to meet in a replay of last year’s epic clash. The UEFA Cup looks like it is going the way of the Cup-Winners Cup as a consolation prize for the also rans. It may well be that a two-tier format of a European league will be formalised in the next few years to head off a breakaway by the leading clubs.
National competitions remain interesting with the emphasis shifting towards European qualification, especially if the top spot is predetermined by the end of the calendar year as is the case in several countries. Chelsea, Barcelona, Lyon, Juventus and Celtic can probably put their feet up domestically and still win their respective leagues, though Osasuna have made a bold challenge in Spain. In England, Tottenham Hotspur under Martin Jol look threatening to Manchester United, Liverpool and a fading Arsenal for the European places, while Hearts challenge in Scotland has stalled since Valery Romanov replaced the excellent George Burley with Graham Rix, who is still under a cloud for earlier sexual misdemeanours. Burley has just been appointed head coach at Southampton in the English Championship where he will work with Sir Clive Woodward as Director of Football. Woodward was better known for coaching the English rugby union team to the last World Rugby Cup.
FIFA’s egregious president Sepp Blatter continues to produce contradictory plans for the world game. His World Club championship adds fixtures to an already congested calendar and yet produces a final in which the leading European team will play the South American champion with the rest making up the numbers (except that Manchester United let everyone down last time). Sao Paolo got an early breakaway goal against Liverpool and held on to win as Liverpool had three goals chalked off and missed a barrow-load of chances. While the Australian press thought that Sydney FC did well to finish in 5th place, the overseas writers were highly condemnatory of the standard of the also-rans in the ersatz tournament, which is not really going to develop the game in any meaningful way.
So what will be my memories of the world game in 2005? The brilliance of Ronaldinho, and the precocious talent of young Messi and the game of two halves which was last season’s Champions League final, when Liverpool recovered from a mauling by AC Milan to gain a draw and then held on by the skin of its teeth for penalties which it won. Then there was Australia’s similar exercise against Uruguay and the irony that Mark Schwarzer should have been watching Zeljko Kalac in goal for the ultimate shoot-out instead of saving the penalties that allowed John Aloisi to fulfil his and all our dreams with the final kick. The downside was the capitulation of Celtic to a young Australian called Scott McDonald, who scored not once but twice for Motherwell in the last few minutes of the final match of the season in Scotland to deny the Hoops a league championship it had dominated. Oh, and my home town club Ayr United going through another season without anything to show for it. A bit like Geelong in the footy. The year 2005 was not a great year, but a good one. Let’s hope 2006 is even better.
(This was broadcast on FM94.7 The Pulse at 1.30 pm on Saturday, 24 December 2005 on the Soccer Show with Tonci Prusac, Liam Tench and James Muir. An edited version appeared in the Geelong Advertiser on Friday 30 December 2005, p. 39.)