International Year in Review

It was a year for triumph and tragedy. Champions were crowned on three continents, and a new generation of stars dominated the international club scene. But 2007 was also marked by tragedy as Italian soccer descended into violence.

European delight

APRIL 10, MANCHESTER, ENGLAND. You have to go back more than 40 years to find such a lopsided score so late in Europe's most important competition.

Manchester United's 7-1 victory over Roma in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal series was certainly the performance of the year.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson marveled at the speed of United's play and its penetration.

"That's absolutely the best night of European football we've had here," he said. "We never expected to win 7-1, but the quality of our game was so high."

It was a performance - highlighted by two goals and an assist by the Portuguese maestro Cristiano Ronaldo (left) - that Ferguson used to press the point that the English game had passed Spanish soccer as the best in Europe.

With three of the four semifinalists in the 2007 Champions League, the English Premier League certainly had a case.

Messi magic

APRIL 18, BARCELONA. It was only a cup game - in a series Barcelona would, unbelievably, later lose - but Argentina Lionel Messi's goal against Getafe was the goal of the year - indeed, one of the greatest goals ever scored.

Messi broke away from two defenders in his own half, raced toward the Getafe goal and swerved away from two more defenders on the edge of the area before rounding keeper Luis Garcia and lifting the ball into the net from a tight angle.

If Messi's goal sounds like fellow Argentine Diego Maradona's goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, it's because it was. The two goals were amazingly similar.

Even the rival Madrid press lauded the goal. Marca's headline was "Messidona." The Catalan daily Sport ran a large mug shot of Messi with a caption reading, "If you want to disguise yourself as God, simply cut this out and put it on."

The person most disappointed by Messi's goal was Getafe coach Bernd Schuster. Schuster, who has since moved to Real Madrid, would have preferred that his players cheated to prevent such a wonderful effort.

"We should have fouled him," he said. "He can't be allowed to reach the area like that."

Forza Milan

MAY 23, ATHENS. Two years after blowing a 3-0 halftime lead against Liverpool and losing on penalty kicks in the final, AC Milan gained revenge with a 2-1 victory over the Reds in the UEFA Champions League final, its seventh title in Europe's most important club competition.

Milan was fortunate to even be in the Champions League - the penalty for its part in the "Calciopoli" match-fixing scandal was reduced from 44 points to 30 on appeal, keeping it in Serie A's top four in the revised standings - but there was no denying that it was Europe soccer's best team with European soccer's best player, Kaka, in 2007.

Kaka (No. 22) finished as the Champion League's leading scorer with 10 goals and almost single-handedly derailed Manchester United in the semifinals. In the final, Kaka set up Filippo Inzaghi the second of his two goals.

"The first goal opened up the game," said Inzaghi, "but the second was certainly more beautiful."

Money maker

MAY 31, ZURICH. Sepp Blatter was reelected, without opposition, for a third term as FIFA president. It was hard to believe, considering the contentious campaigns that preceded his election as FIFA president in 1998, succeeding the Brazilian Joao Havelange, and his reelection in 2002.

In 1998, Blatter defeated UEFA president Lennat Johansson amid charges of bribery and voter fraud. In 2002, FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen - Blatter's successor and former protégé - turned on his boss, presenting a 30-page document that accused Blatter and his political cronies of mismanagement and corruption. "Have you ever heard of Brutus?" was how Blatter reacted to Zen-Ruffinen's charges, which came up in the midst of Blatter's campaign fight against African confederation president Issa Hayatou.

Financial issues that FIFA faced in 2002 are a thing of the past. In March, FIFA announced profits of $250 million for 2006, boosted by earnings from the World Cup. Significantly, the controversial security instrument executed in 2001 in response to FIFA's uncertain financial situation brought in a surplus of $184 million after full repayment.

Going forward, FIFA is expected to spend $690 million on development projects over the next four years. "We are not a bank," Blatter says. "It's not important how much money we have but rather what we do with it."

Real Comeback

JUNE 17, MADRID. Real Madrid ended its longest trophy drought in 53 years and David Beckham went out as a champion when the Merengues clinched La Liga title with a 3-1 win over Mallorca on the final day of the season.

Madrid and Barcelona both finished with 76 points, but Madrid won the tiebreaker - head-to-head. The championship capped a remarkable comeback for Madrid, which chased down Barca late in the season, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.

As was often the case late in the season, the Merengues needed to come from behind to earn the win over Mallorca. Without leading scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy and Beckham, who both limped off the field with injuries, Madrid won with three second-half goals.

"I couldn't have dreamt it any better," said Beckham, who was benched when he signed to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in January but was reinstalled in the starting lineup to spark Real's comeback campaign.

Happy at home

JUNE 21. PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL. Playmaker or goalscorer? Fans who saw Argentine Juan Roman Riquelme (with hat) at the 2006 World Cup would call him a playmaker, but 2007 was the year he was a goalscorer.

Boca Juniors had all but wrapped up its sixth Libertadores Cup title when it traveled to Porto Alegre for the second leg of the final against Gremio with a 3-0 lead. But Riquelme, who scored on a free kick in the first leg, added two more goals to give Boca a 5-0 aggregate win. They were the only two goals Gremio conceded at home in the entire Libertadores Cup campaign.

The stint at Boca was a brief interlude of happiness for Riquelme - "For the first time in a long time I can truly say that I am happy again," he said - who was playing on loan from Villarreal. Riquelme later returned to Villarreal, where he spent the fall languishing on the bench.

That hasn't stopped Romi from scoring goals - for Argentina - including several highlight reel goals on free kicks in World Cup qualifying.

Gold standard

JUNE 24, CHICAGO. The best match of the year? For drama, excitement and end-to-end action, there was nothing quite like the 2007 Gold Cup final between the USA and Mexico.

The Americans won, 2-1, to repeat as Gold Cup champions and continue their dominance of the Tricolores, against whom they are unbeaten in nine games at home (8-0-1) this decade.

The USA-Mexico final before 60,000 fans at Soldier Field was a fitting climax to the ninth edition of the Gold Cup, which has grown in stature since its launch in 1991. The 2007 Gold Cup drew an average of 36,859 fans, putting it on a par with the European Championship, which averaged 37,306 in Portugal three years ago.

The USA-Mexico final was big hit on Univision. It was until then the third most-viewed Spanish-language sports telecast of all time and drew 40 percent more television households than did the concluding game of the NHL's Stanley Cup finals on NBC.

Dunga's vindication

JULY 15, MARACAIBO, VENEZUELA. "We're totally ruined. Losing like this hurts your soul."

Esteban Cambiasso spoke for all his Argentina teammates after they endured the humiliation of losing to Brazil, 3-0, in the 2007 Copa America final.

While Argentina had brought all its biggest stars - Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme - to Venezuela, most of Brazil's big names, notably Ronaldinho and Kaka, skipped the tournament.

"Lots of people criticized our team," said Robinho, the tournament's top scorer with six goals and its MVP, "but we're the champions."

The victory was vindication for Brazil coach Dunga, heavily criticized in the Brazilian media, practically since he took the job in June 2006.

The attacks intensified when Brazil lost to Mexico, 2-0, in its first game at the Copa America. Dunga's use of three holding midfielders - Gilberto Silva, Josue and Mineiro - did not fit the image of samba soccer.

Dunga, the captain of Brazil's 1994 World Cup championship team, credited his players for persevering when no one believed in them.

"They are winners, they come from families who financially are not so well off," he said. "Nobody has given them anything, they've worked hard for this and so they deserve it."

'Your day, Iraqi'

JULY 29, JAKARTA. Iraq achieved the year's most dramatic victory, beating Saudi Arabia, 1-0, in the Asian Cup final and setting off wild celebrations back home.

On a team dominated by Shiites, Younis Mahmoud, a Sunni exiled in Qatar, scored the game's only goal on a header off a corner from Hawar Mulla Mohammed, a Kurd playing in Cyprus.

The Lions of Mesopotamia had done what no one else had been able to do in war-torn Iraq: unify the nation behind a single cause. "El Youm Omak Ya Iraq" ("This is your day, O Iraqi"), the popular song by Hossam al Rassam, could be heard everywhere in Iraq.

But all the players couldn't return home to join the celebrations. Mahmoud, raised in al-Dibs, a predominately Arab town near the Kurdish oil capital of Kirkuk, left Iraq in 2003, first to play in the UAE, then Qatar.

"I don't want the Iraqi people to be angry with me," he said. "If I go back with the team, anybody could kill me or try to hurt me."

Young Gunners

OCT. 23, LONDON. Would Arsenal survive the loss of star Thierry Henry, transferred to Barcelona in the summer?

Arsene Wenger's Gunners answered in the affirmative with a spectacular fall campaign, topped by their 7-0 demolition of Slavia Prague in the UEFA Champions League.

The Gunners are young, talented and almost entirely foreign. With the exception of English teenager Theo Walcott, Wenger's charges were recruited from foreign clubs.

Unable or unwilling to spend the big money that other English clubs have spent on transfer fees, Arsenal has relied on discovering young talent that it could buy at little or no cost.

Case in point: Spaniard Cesc Fabregas (above), plucked away from Barcelona at the age of 16.

Fabregas started the goalfest against Slavia with a stunning strike in the fifth minute and finished off the best of the goals, a four-player combination from one end of the field to the other involving Belarusian Alexander Hleb, Togolese Adebayor, Walcott and Fabregas.

'Pure madness'

NOV. 11, AREZZO, ITALY. The year ended as it began for Italian soccer - with tragedy.

Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri was shot and killed by a policeman, who arrived at a service station on the A-1 autostrada to stop a disturbance between traveling Lazio and Juventus fans.

News of the shooting touched off rioting across the peninsula. Dutch star Clarence Seedorf described the scenes at the Atalanta-AC Milan game - called after nine minutes - "like a civil war." Fans caused extensive damage to the Italian Olympic Committee headquarters next to Rome's Olympic Stadium.

"What happened in Bergamo and Rome is pure madness," said Italy national team coach Roberto Donadoni.

In February, a policeman was killed in riots outside Catania's Sicilian derby with Palermo.

At the heart of the trouble are "ultras" who've thrived in the poor conditions that exist at many stadiums and used soccer as a forum to create havoc.

At Sandri's funeral (right), his parish priest spoke out against the violence. "There will be justice for Gabriele, but it has to be human justice, not a vendetta."

(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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