FC Barcelona and Real Madrid played an incredible series of four editions of El Clasico across three competitions. Their rivalry and those matches were the biggest story of 2011.
As a sport that spans the globe, association football provides compelling stories in a number of different countries. We pick one story from ten different leagues to examine in our league in review.
The virtues of sport are rather subjective. The reason I do not find baseball particularly interesting could be the exact same reason you love the sport. While some find American football's constant stoppages to be unbearable, some love the opportunity to discuss what just happened, or to just get a drink. What is almost impossible to dislike, however, is the far-reaching nature of association football.
Whether or not you like the sport, it's hard not to appreciate the way in which the widespread nature of the game can give those who love the sport an endless supply of things to talk about. The different cultural nuances of soccer-loving countries can create compelling stories that, for instance, sound absurd to those from the United Kingdom and the United States, but completely normal to those in South America.
It is, for that reason, this 2011 year in review column will feature just one story from 10 different countries. Football is played, thought about and covered by journalists in a mind-blowing number of different ways. Only the most ethnocentric and xenophobic of soccer fans are truly convinced that the game is inherently better one way than another. Instead of treating the sport like one that is anything but global, here are ten of the best stories of the year, from 10 different leagues.
English Premier League
The striker carousel, and Newcastle United getting the last laugh - It seems like so long ago. In January of 2011, Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres made their high profile moves. Chelsea purchased Torres for a jaw-dropping £50 million, causing Liverpool to buy Andy Carroll from Newcastle for £35 million. Though almost everyone agreed that both teams overpaid for their stars, they were supposed to contribute at a very high level.
Not only have Carroll and Torres not lived up to their transfer fees, they've both been absolute disasters. If the teams could do it all over again, both Liverpool and Chelsea would like to go back to the way it was. Incredibly, as disastrous as the moves were for two teams, one team came out of this striker carousel very happy.
In June, Newcastle signed Demba Ba for nothing. Not a cent. He scored seven goals in 12 games for West Ham United, but the bigger clubs weren't interested. So far, in 2011, Ba has 14 league goals for Newcastle in 17 games. He can add to that tally on Friday. Liverpool and Chelsea spent tens of millions of pounds to get worse, while Newcastle sold a player for £35 million, bought no expensive players, and improved significantly.
Four Clasicos in a month - The late-season series between Barcelona and Real Madrid last spring was unprecedented, and it may never be seen again. In less than four weeks, the two teams played four editions of El Clasico across three competitions. The first match, a league match, resulted in a draw that virtually locked up La Liga for Barcelona. Real Madrid got them back in the second match, winning 1-0 in extra time to lift the Copa Del Rey. Barcelona got the last laugh, winning the first leg of their Champions League semifinal at the Santiago Bernabeu, rendering the fourth game meaningless.
Regardless of that fourth match, the series was incredible to watch. Until Pepe's red card in the 61st minute of the third game, it got more compelling with each passing minute. Lionel Messi's 76th minute goal effectively ended what was, until that point, the highest level of football that the world has perhaps ever seen.
The Old Lady returns to the top - Following the Calciopoli scandal, Juventus were forced to vacate their 2005-06 Serie A title and spend 2006-07 in Serie B, from which they won promotion. They've been expected to quickly ascend to the top since being promoted back to the top flight of Italian football, but have not yet qualified for the UEFA Champions League. After a series of disappointments, Juventus have finally returned to the top of the pile in Italy.
Manager Antonio Conte has turned out to be an excellent hire, while the club has made a number of impressive signings in the last year. Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vucinic, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Marcelo Estigarribia and Stephan Lichtsteiner have all met or exceeded expectations. Juventus look like a lock for a Champions League berth, and no matter your opinion on Calciopoli, European football is better when the Old Lady is a big club.
Jurgen Klopp's Dortmund Revolution - While the Champions League was not kind to Borussia Dortmund in their first attempt under Jurgen Klopp, they appear set to make a return visit. For the second season in a row, Der BVB is matching Bayern Munich and contending for a title while playing beautiful football. Mario Götze is one of the best young talents in the world, and their depth is unparalleled in Germany.
When Klopp took over at Dortmund, they were a club in financial trouble with little going for them but a strong group of youth players. Klopp implemented a system, made a few value signings, nurtured his young players and built a powerhouse for an incredibly small sum of money. They have still yet to completely replace Nuri Sahin after his departure to Real Madrid, but Ilkay Gündogan appeared to finally find his footing in his last couple of matches, while Moritz Leitner will be a first team player within the next year to 18 months.
There aren't too many teams in the world more fun to watch to Dortmund. It's incredible that a team can play such wonderful football and compete with the best clubs in the world while spending so little, and it's an accomplishment worthy of endless praise.
Major League Soccer
Beckham isn't just a flashy name - David Beckham was brought to the LA Galaxy to bring soccer into the mainstream. While he didn't accomplish that, he will be leaving Major League Soccer as a bigger and more financially healthy league than when he joined, if he does leave the Galaxy this winter. He was criticized -- sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly -- for not putting the Galaxy first during his time with the team. That is, until this season.
In what was likely his final year with the Galaxy, Beckham was a footballer first and foremost. As if he really felt that he had something to prove to the die-hard Galaxy and MLS fans that are in it for the actual soccer, he played his heart out all season long. He was obviously suffering from serious back pain in a number of crucial games and played anyway, providing his teammates with spectacular through balls while it looked like he could barely walk.
Love him or hate him, Beckham played through pain for his team this season and led them to a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double. He did everything we make mediocre athletes into cult heroes for doing, and he did it while playing 'Hollywood balls' and making Hollywood appearances.
Ajax's roller coaster year - No team has gone through more of a roller coaster ride in 2011 than Ajax. With the team struggling and Luis Suarez departed to Liverpool, Ajax appointed Frank de Boer as manager to right the ship. He did just that, guiding the team to the 2010-11 Eredivisie title. In the transfer window, Ajax made moves that were widely praised. They were favorites to win Eredivise and they were thought to have a good chance of advancing to the Champions League knockout stages. Everything was going great in Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, things have not gone according to plan. The team was knocked out of Champions League in bizarre fashion as Lyon improbably made up a seven-goal gap on the final day. As of Round 17, Ajax sits fourth in the Eredivise. There has been scandal in the boardroom, with accusations of the legendary Johan Cruyff making racist remarks about Edgar Davids making headlines. The year started terribly for Ajax, reached their highest point in years this summer, then dipped down to a spectacular new low.
PSG is now obnoxiously rich - First Chelsea, then Manchester City, then Malaga. Now, Paris Saint-Germain. The Ligue 1 outfit was purchased by the Qatar Investment Authority in the summer and is on their way towards being the world's new big-spending superpower. They've already paid an exorbitant sum of money for Javier Pastore and are now heavily linked to Manchester City's Carlos Tevez and AC Milan's Alexandre Pato.
Ligue 1 is a strong league, but is nowhere near the standard (or UEFA coefficient) of the top four leagues in Europe at the moment. It remains to be seen whether or not PSG can become a serious contender for the UEFA Champions League in the short term. Will they be a lone superpower in a decent league? Will they encourage investment in other French clubs? Or will the entire project fail spectacularly? This all remains to be seen.
River Plate relegated- It's always a massive story when one of the biggest clubs in a country is relegated. Corinthians, Newcastle United, Deportivo La Coruña and AS Monaco are among the biggest teams to get relegated in the last five years (due to poor play), but does anything really compare to the relegation of River Plate? With 33 domestic titles, two Copa Libertadores titles and one of the best youth academies in the world, they are almost certainly the biggest team to be relegated for footballing reasons in recent history.
Relegation can happen to anyone in most leagues. A team can have one terrible season and go down. In Argentina, however, a team has to be consistently poor. Relegation is based on a coefficient system, and the system was designed to prevent River Plate and their rivals Boca Juniors from ever getting relegated. River ended up in a relegation playoff anyway and lost to Belgrano. Their performance and relegation incited riots both inside and outside of El Monumental.
To make matters worse for River fans, Boca Juniors won the 2011 Apertura in their absence. Because the system that was designed to prevent River from getting relegated failed spectacularly, AFA has voted to create a 38 team top flight next season. That wasn't a joke.
Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A
Santos returns to their glory days - Neymar is the new Pele, and he's got a great team of players around him. Santos FC won Copa Libertadores in 2011 and made it to the final of the Club World Cup against Barcelona, establishing themselves as perhaps the biggest team in South America for the first time since Pele departed Santos for New York.
Much like Pele, who could have gone on to play for any team in the world, Santos star Neymar plans to stick around for a while. The likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona have already had inquiries turned away. More likely than not, it seems that Neymar will stay with Santos through the 2014 World Cup before moving on to greener pastures. If he can manage to just maintain his level of play, he'll command one of the biggest transfer fees of all time. He's only 20, he's first choice for Brazil and the Brasileirao gets better every year, so he'll probably improve.
Along with fellow young star Paulo Henrique Ganso, veteran Elano and budding teenage star Felipe Anderson, Neymar could be leading Santos to heights that a Brazilian club has never reached.
Mexican Primera Division
The rise of the Tijuana Xolos - Perhaps the best kept secret in American soccer is that the most watched competition is not the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, or Major League Soccer. By a wide margin, the most popular football league in the United States is the Mexican Primera. This year, the Tijuana Xolos were promoted to the top flight of Mexican football, and they're making an effort to turn their proximity to the United States and the popularity of the league in Southern California, in particular, into a serious commercial opportunity.
The team already has a website dedicated to organizing trips to Xolos games for Americans. They already had one American player coming into the 2011 Apertura, young star Joe Corona. They've added two more in this transfer window, bringing in Edgar Castillo and Greg Garza. Currently, they are the only Mexican Primera club that uses their official social media pages to communicate with fans in both Spanish and English. For once, a team is doing more about the Mexican Primera's popularity in the United States than simply cashing the American TV rights checks.
For more on the Xolos' rise to the top flight, their history and their efforts to penetrate the American market, check out this piece by Eben Lehman, easily my favorite piece of writing about the sport that I've seen in 2011.