In a World Cup year, everybody cares about soccer, but since my bosses won't let me withhold SB Nation's Soccer Stories of the Year while getting assurances you'll come back in 2011, allow me to entice you with some headlines you'll likely see in The Two-Aught-Double-One®. For example:
- Fives Clubs' Title Hopes Alive In Premier League's Final Week (not sensational enough)
- Barcelona's Trip To Real Madrid Could Alter Earth's Rotation (too unrealistic)
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho, Gennaro Gattuso Banned After Mid-Match Brawl (OK, this will happen)
- In Wake Of Milan Brawl, Ronaldinho Seeks Solace Of Southern California (but this, unfortunately, won't)
To most mainstream sports connoisseurs, that list will be too obscure, but consider the sport's five biggest stories from 2010 and what world soccer neophytes knew about them at the beginning of the year. Hardcore soccer fans have become used to the idea of Spain being a world power, Lionel Messi as this generation's Pele, Landon Donovan defining this era of U.S. Soccer, and FIFA being a less credible version of the International Olympic Committee. For others, that information would have been ignored had the World Cup not brought soccer center stage. Now Messi, Donovan, and Blatter are lingua ludo franca.
Beyond those headline hoggers, a number of other stories (our honorable mentions) would have beeped on the radars of even casual fans. In no particular order:
- Barcelona remains the world's most iconic club, becoming one of the best club teams in history,
- Clubs all over Europe (including Barcelona) saw their bank accounts run dry, leading to one English Premier League to approach bankruptcy while a team in Spain was disqualified from European competition,
- José Mourinho's legend grew, winning his second Champions League, leading Inter Milan to three trophies,
- The Big Four cartel in England was busted, Liverpool was sent crashing, with the Boston Red Sox owners having to save them, and
- The world had "4-2-3-1" hammered into their dreams (and nightmares).
Yet none of those narratives captivated as much as 2010's top five stories, a list that starts with ... you. Continuing SB Nation's Best of 2010 series, here are my choices for the year's top soccer stories.
5. You Watched Us! You Really Watched Us! For a little while.
Once every four years, even the most ardent soccer hater can justify tuning into the world's game, though often that viewership turns into research for four years worth of pejorative, protectionist clichés. This year the mainstream media got their weapons upgrade with Nigel de Jong's kung fu kick, a scoreless regulation and a record number of cards - all of which were beside the point.
You watched, damn it, and in record numbers. And we have proof. World Cup viewership in the United States as up 41 percent from four years ago, and no clones, that doesn't just mean two more people showed up at my apartment (though that happened, also). Over 24million people in U.S. watched the World Cup, with Spain's final victory over the Netherlands becoming the most watched men's soccer game in television history.
Add in record breaking viewership for the English Premier League, promising (if mixed) ratings for the Champions League final, and the success of November's Clasico and it's becoming more difficult for even the most moronic of morning hosts to dismiss the game. Not that they won't keep trying. Not that there isn't a ways to go.
4. Yes, That Just Happened, And You're Welcome. Love, Landon Donovan.
My love of American football started when Marcus Allen reversed field on the Redskins in January 1984. Some may have become baseball fans thanks to Kirk Gibson in 1988, while Tiger Woods adorning an ugly green blazer in 1997 ignited halcyon days on the links. Every major sport - in each successive generation - has its iconic moments, be it your grandfather's memories of Jerry West's 60-feet heave against the Knicks or your nephew canonizing Cain Velazquez's destruction of Brock Lesnar.
Perhaps that's why soccer's had a hard time catching-on in the States. Not only have people been antagonistic, but they haven't had anything to latch onto. What's the single memory from the States advancing in 1994? Which goal do people remember most from the Mexico win in 2002? Was beating Spain in 2009 enough?
None of those questions mattered after June 23. That's when this happened, as seen from the stands at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria:
Landon Donovan gave a beacon to two generations of soccer fans. The millions of kids currently playing the game have their Gibson home run, their Allen touchdown run. And for the millions of kids in the preceding generation - the men and women who've seen the sport they loved as a child become decreasingly important in their lives - Donovan sparked an excitement that transcended the traditional soccer audience, giving them reason to believe that keeping soccer in their lives will meet with a reward.
Donovan's goal may not have been Bobby Thompson's shot heard 'round the world, but it was the shot felt 'round the U.S. soccer world
3. Pele? Good. Maradona? Better. Lionel Messi? Right there.
At least, that's what the saying (awkwardly) will be, if only for a little while longer. At some point, Lionel Messi may pass both Pele and Maradona, and while the Argentine's inability to dominate in South Africa means he'll have to wait four years before convincing those who maintain a World Cup focus, the man they used to call Flea has transcended his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi's peers are now characters in folklore, with the 23-year-old attacker in the process of weaving his own legacy - the seeds of tales which will blossom into apocryphal points of comparison in the Pele-Maradona-Messi debate.
In 55 matches for Barcelona in 2010, Messi has scored 59 goals, a span that peaked on April 6. Then, Arsenal went to the Nou Camp tied 2-2 after the first leg of the teams' Champions League quarterfinal. In the 18th minute, Nicklas Bendtner gave Arsenal a 3-2 lead. Three minutes later, Messi scored the first of four goals, leading Barcelona to a 6-3 aggregate victory, leading Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, (when describing Messi's final goal) to say "It looks impossible but he makes it possible." Apocryphal, but appropriate.
Even if you want to resist comparisons across generations, Messi is unquestionably the best player of his time, a distinct that became indisputable in 2010.
2. FOR SALE: Two World Cups. New. No Experience Necessary. Price Negotiable.
Uh, so what happened is ... We still don't really know. It looks really suspicious that both Russia and Qatar were awarded World Cups. There are various reports of corruption and an overall sense that FIFA screwed the pooch (at the rate of €10 million per vote), but we don't have a good idea of how many votes were sold, to whom, for how much, or what effect it had on the process. We don't know if the euphemistically-labeled whistle blowers were just failed bribers. All we know is that we don't know, giving us a world were we have no confidence in the sport's governing body. Moving forward, the question is whether FIFA is the NCAA or a boxing governing body, destined to thrive or live off live support. Those two choices are a Showcase Showdown with two dining room sets. What happened to the new car?
1. España: The Lionel Messi of soccer nations.
Is Spain the best international team ever? For one World Cup cycle, they played like it. Between the end of the 2008 European Championships (which they won) and the awarding of the 2010 World Cup, Spain lost twice. Emerging at a time when Mourinho-esque pragmatism was starting to dominate world tactics, La Roja's reliance on technique, passing, speed, and movement renewed faith in the ability to win beautifully. Unfortunately, because no other nation has the depth or type of players Spain possesses, Spain's world title is unlikely to set a trend, though in the long run, that may prove a virtue. While the soccer world would be more eloquent if everybody played like Spain, the scarcity of the Spaniards' style only highlights their greatness.