International Season Review

SPAIN: Homegrown
Barcelona, winner of an unprecedented triple in 2009, will go as one of the great clubs in the history of European soccer.

You will get an argument from Hristo Stoitchkov, star on Barca's celebrated "Dream Team" of the early 1990s, but the 2009 Barca team - winner of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League - is the greatest Barcelona team of all time.

Barcelona finished with 158 goals in all competitions and 105 in La Liga - two short of matching Real Madrid's record 107 goals scored during the 1989-90 season.

Barcelona's frontline of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry combined for 97 goals, more than any other major European team scored.

They benefited from exceptional support in midfield, where never have a pair of players dominated with such skill as the diminutive duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

All season long, Barca's defense was viewed as its weak link, but Daniel Alves, Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez and Eric Abidal are no slouches. Completely realigned because of Marquez's injury and suspensions to Daniel Alves and Abidal for the Champions League final, the Barca defense effectively shut down Manchester United.

The 2-0 win over United was the last of a series of dominating performances by Barcelona over the last six months at home and in Europe.

In back-to-back home games, Barcelona pummeled seven-time French champion Lyon, 5-2, with four goals coming in a span of 18 minutes and buried German champion Bayern Munich, 4-0.

Barcelona's 6-2 win at Real Madrid in early May marked the fifth time it scored six goals in a La Liga game in 2008-09.

All the credit for Barcelona's success goes to its homegrown policy - seven starters in the Champions League final played in its youth system - and its homegrown coach, Pep Guardiola.

"Without the ball," Guardiola insisted, "we are a horrible team."

Trouble was, no one got to see if Guardiola was correct.

Guardiola's philosophy of getting his players to press high, win possession and keep it perfectly suited their short passing game.

ENGLAND: End of an era
Real Madrid's recent purchases of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and Kaka from AC Milan signaled the end of an era - the end of the English Premier League's dominance.

For more than a year, United rejected Madrid's advances, but in the end, its owners, the Glazer family, couldn't pass up the offer of more than $130 million for Ronaldo - not when the club's debts approached $1 billion.

Manchester City coveted Kaka but couldn't finalize a deal to bring him to England in January. Four months later, Real Madrid accomplished what City's Dubai owners could not pull off.

Economic pressures make it unlikely that EPL clubs will be able to sustain the spending levels that have attracted many of the world's best players.

The massive debt - $5 billion - EPL clubs are reported to owe is almost 60 percent more than all the revenues they earned in 2007-08.

The big four - Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal - is reported to account for two-thirds of the debt. (In the case of United and Liverpool, both were bought by American owners, who financed the deals with huge loans.)

More than 40 percent of the revenues came from television rights, and there was no guarantee that those revenues will continue to grow. (EPL television partner Setanta neared bankruptcy in early June.)

Other issues are at work, increasing fears the EPL bubble will burst.

The pound has declined sharply against the euro in the last two and a half years (though it has risen against its low of late December), decreasing the purchasing power of EPL clubs on the European transfer market.

The British government has decided to raise the top income tax rate to 50 percent in 2011, putting EPL clubs at a big disadvantage vis-a-vis clubs in Spain, where the top personal income tax rates are half those in Britain.

It's the norm in Europe to bargain in terms of net pay, meaning EPL clubs will have to shell out 20 percent more so their players can take home the same money next year that they did this year.

GERMANY: Dynamic duo

One came to Germany from Brazil by way of France. The other grew up in Bosnia and played in the Czech Republic before moving to Germany.

Grafite and Edin Dzeko formed an unlikely duo, the stars of Wolfsburg's first Bundesliga championship.

Grafite and Dzeko combined to score 54 goals, breaking the Bundesliga record for goals by two players on the same team set by Bayern Munich's Gerd Mueller and Uli Hoeness in 1971-72 and 1972-73 (53 goals).

Grafite was in and out of the lineup with injuries yet scored 28 goals in 25 games.

His goal against Bayern Munich -- the final goal in a 5-1 win - was called the best goal in the history of the Bundesliga. He cut out five different Bayern players, including its keeper, before slotting the ball into the empty net with a reverse back-heel.

The ball rolled so slowly that Wolfsburg teammate Andrea Barzagli joked, "I was blowing it in from the back."

The goal was so amazing television cameras even caught Bayern coach Juergen Klinsmann smiling on the sidelines.

Grafite, 30, once earned extra cash by selling garbage-can liners and played at eight clubs in Brazil before moving to French club Le Mans in 2006.

Like Grafite, Dzeko joined Wolfsburg in 2007, arriving from small Czech club Teplice.

The 23-year-old Bosnian caught fire in the second half of the 2008-09, netting hat tricks in key wins over Hoffenheim and Hannover and scoring 21 of his 26 goals. He finished with 36 goals in all competitions and earned German Player of the Year honors.

They had help from Zvjezdan Misimovic, whose 22 assists broke a 14-year-old league record.

Misimovic, 29, has been called the best midfielder in the Bundesliga but bounced around three clubs before arriving at Wolfsburg last summer.

Dzeko, Misimovic and former Saint Louis University star Vedad Ibisevic (18 goals in 17 games for Hoffenheim before being injured) form the nucleus of the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team that has a shot at qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

ITALY: Special One
Jose Mourinho loves to talk. Mostly about himself. At his first press conference after taking charge at Chelsea following his Champions League title with Porto in 2004, he suggested, "I think I'm a special one."

That name stuck through three-plus tumultuous seasons at Chelsea and followed him to Inter Milan, where he tried a different approach.

"This time I am a normal manager in a special club," the Portuguese coach said after joining Inter a year ago.

But Mourinho isn't your normal coach. Asked by a reporter from The New York Times in late winter to explain the secret to his coaching success, Mourinho said it was in his genes.

Under Mourinho, Inter became the first Italian team in half a century to capture four scudetti - Serie A championships - in a row, winning by a 10-point margin.

But his first season wasn't without controversy. He infuriated rival Serie A coaches, charging that their presidents picked the starting lineups for them.

While Mourinho molded Chelsea in his own image, he inherited a club steeped in tradition at Inter Milan.

Mourinho's job was to build on that tradition - and lead Inter back to the top of Europe. But Inter, which has not won the European Cup since 1965, didn't get past the round of 16, falling to Manchester United.

Mourinho didn't endear himself to Interisti last fall when he criticized them for their lack of support.

"When things get difficult," he said, "it is as though we are playing away from home. I think this team deserves better support."

For all its recent success, Inter's often-cautious play hasn't won over the critical Italian media.

For much of the spring, there was talk of Mourinho leaving, perhaps for Real Madrid. Mourinho wouldn't close the door on the rumor, saying that there was a 0.01 percent chance that he's leave.

"It just means that I am closer to Inter than to Real," he said.

Mourinho ended up extending his contract at Inter through the 2011-12 season, meaning that Inter fans and rival coaches aren't done with him quite yet.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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