As the year winds down and we bid farewell to 2011, there comes a need in people’s lives to recap the year that was. From ESPN to ABC (and presumably BBC for our friends across the pond), media outlets are doing their countdown lists that look at moments that were gained and people who were lost.
It has become as much of a tradition as dropping the ball in Times Square.
Here on B/R we have compiled many best of 2011 lists. Some analytical (World Football 2011 Tactical Review), some newsy (25 Biggest Football News Stories of 2011) and some funny (World Football: 50 Most Ludicrous Moments of 2011).
The thing about these three lists, the other 20 or so that have been published here and the 1000’s that exist out in the world ranging everything from weddings to toasters, is they are all very subjective and really don’t account for much more than a way of organizing something into a package that people will want to see who is ‘#1’ on the list.
I want to try and avoid that kind of self indulgence here. I want to actually construct a list based on some sort of merits that speak beyond the stats and trophies and more to the heart of the sport and sports itself.
So if you want a nice simple top ten list to debate endlessly about who belongs where with no real parameters of guidance beyond your own opinion here you go:
5) AC Milan
6) Schalke 04
So have at the vultures of fame.
But if you are more inclined to see a list that is a little different and takes much more into account than fan fare, popularity and hype, then please read on this. This slideshow looks at performance in light of the situation. If a team achieved beyond its means and how much of an impact that achievement had on the club and the fan base.
As always debate is highly encouraged through comments and I am sure there will be plenty of disagreements. But please keep it civil, nothing gets solved through arrogance and loud mouthing one another.
2011 Accomplishments: Currently 1st in Serie A
The footballing world took a major hit in 2006 when Juventus was relegated to Serie B amongst a match fixing scandal. To no ones surprise it would be there only year in which they did not compete in italy’s top division, but the effects of such a punishment resonated for years to come. But perhaps they have finally turned the corner and are once again establishing themselves as an elite team in the world.
Though they struggled to the finish line last season and were not able to finish better than seventh, they had a strong summer, spending big to bring in the likes of Alessandro Matri and Simone Pepe from rival clubs. It is apparent that the allure of Turin is promising once again. While the greats from the ’06 World Cup squad have found it a great place for one last hurrah.
The moves have paid off, with the sitting tied on points for top of the table with rivals AC Milan. The fact that their poor finish in previous years has kept them out of European competitions, will keep their focus on conquering Italy and hopefully seeing them add to their record for most Italian titles.
Juventus may not have had the most successful year of the other clubs on this list, but with them becoming a power once again is not only great for Italian football, but the worlds game. We all miss seeing the zebra stripe jerseys in Champions League and some of the best defensive play in all the world.
2011 Accomplishments: Copa America Champions; Pan Am Games 3rd place
Before Pele helped Brazil master the beautiful game. Before Maradonna brought a fierceness to the sport in Argentina, Uruguay was the powerhouse of South America. Taking two of the first four World Cups that were played (they did not participate in ’34 and ’38), the small nation tucked between the continents two largest countries was a force to be reckoned with. But since then they tailed off becoming more and more obsolete in the world’s game.
With only six South American titles over the last 60 years (three of which were on home soil) and a showing never better than the round of sixteen since the ’74 World Cup, few had reason to fear this once great footballing nation.
However, the summer of 2010 began to turn things around for los Celestes. A surprise finish of fourth place in South Africa, gained them some notoriety and they rode all the way through to the summer of 2011.
In what turned out to be one of the most unpredictable tournaments in recent memory, the favorites such as Brazil and Argentina found their way out early in the games, leaving the field wide open for the taking.
Finishing second in their group behind Chile, the Uruguayan’s drew hosts Argentina in the knockout round. But the underdogs would not be deterred as they outlasted Messi and crew to get a win on penalties. The victory gave them the momentum going forward as they seemd to get stronger each game, before finally blowing out Paraguay in the championship 3-0, on the back of some tremendous play by tournament MVP Luis Suarez.
South Africa announced the arrival of this squad and 2011 proved it was not a fluke. This squad is the real deal with an amazing amount of talent, chemistry and perhaps most importantly youth. With a squad average age hovering just around the mid-twenties, they will be a force to be reckon with for years to come. Players such as Suarez and Álvaro Pereira have already established themselves as top level talent and with names like Edinson Cavani, Sebastián Coates and Diego Godín quickly becoming the hottest young names in the world, there is no telling what this team can do for years to come.
2011 Accomplishments: Ligue 1 Champions; Coupe de France Champions; Currently 3rd in Ligue 1
Lille for many years was thought to be a farm team for the rest of Europe. Players were brought in at a young age, developed then shipped off to the highest bidder. This made the club always respectable amongst footballing community, but kept their trophy case empty for the better part of the past 50 years.
That was until this past season.
Consistently improving from season to season over the past handful of years, the Mastiffs finally reached prominence this past summer winning the double in France, the league and the domestic cup. On the back of some young talent in Eden Hazard and Moussa Sow they cruised through the season, winning by eight points and leading the league in both goals and goals against.
Through all of this, the real genius behind this rising machine is manager Rudi Garcia. He has single handily brought the club to an elite level and has them competing against the very best in Europe. His offensive minded approach the game had the media declaring them the “Barca of the north,” entertaining the fans with aggressive and quick play.
Lille struggled in their Champions League campaign this season, bowing out early with a disappointing finish of dead last in their group. But few will blame a side that struggles in a competition of experience given the fact that this was the highest level of footballing many of their youngsters had ever played.
Currently sitting in third place in Ligue 1 and only four points back of league leaders PSG, they are in prime position to move up and reclaim their title. As long as they can keep at bay the menacing of the world’s greedy and rich clubs, they will continue to pose a threat to all who play them.
2011 Accomplishments: FA Cup; Currently 1st in the English Premier League
When Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought City back in 2008 he immediately infused the club with a new fortune of wealth. In his first two seasons backing the club, he spent over £150 million on players bringing the likes of Robinho, Gareth Barry and Carlos Tevez to Manchester Stadium all in an attempt to finally usurp power from their fabled neighbors Manchester United.
But it was finally last season where all of the Sheikh’s money paid off bringing the club their first trophy in 35 years and a third place finish level on points with Chelsea. Though this may seem small an insignificant, a runner-up spot and an FA Cup if you are a follower of a historically great club, but for a team that has always been seen as the ‘other’ club it was a major stepping stone to becoming a world power.
This summer, the Sheik went all out making major signings in Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and the hot target this summer Sergio Aguero to solidify a squad that is not only expected to challenge for the title, but win it convincingly.
On October 23rd, City made their first major impression that they may have finally arrived as they destroyed United 6-1 at Old Trafford, the biggest win in the derby’s history since 1926.
Aguero is an early favorite for EPL player of the year and wayward Mario Balotelli has finally found his stride as he is dominating defenses and scoring goals on a consistent basis.
However, City has struggled as of late including dropped points to Chelsea and West Brom, as well as being disappointingly knocked out of Champions League. But they are still in prime position to take give them their first ever Premier League title and repeat as FA Cup champions. At the very least, they now have the fire power to make the case that they are indeed the best team in Manchester.
2011 Accomplishments: Serie A Champions; Currently 2nd in Serie A; Currently in Rd. of 16 in Champions League
After watching five straight seasons of the scudetto being raised in the San Siro by men dressed in blue, the once proud Red and Blacks were finally able to wrestle the Italian title away from their fierce rivals Inter last season.
After a 3-1 win over Palermo in November 2010, Milan took control of the league and held the position at the top of the table for 28 straight league matches.
The team itself has the makeup of castaways and apparent has beens, with names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho leading the way of once bright talents who failed miserably elsewhere. But manager Massimiliano Allegri has them all playing at the highest of level as they continue their success into this season.
Infused with some younger blood, such as Brazilian stud Pato the team earned a shock tie against Barcelona at Nou Camp to open this seasons Champions League campaign. Now in the knockout stages they are well in line to advance further if they can knock off Arsenal in the round of 16.
Things started much tougher in Italy itself as the team dropped points early and were all the way down to 15th place. But going undefeated in their last 11 and winning nine of those has put them right back at the top only below Juventus on head to head record.
It will be tough going forward as the competitions pile up on the boys from Milan as opposed to Juventus who is not in a European competition. But should they stay the course they set in 2011, there is little reason to doubt that they will not recapture the Italian crown and perhaps more in Europe.
2011 Accomplishments: Copa del Rey Champions; Runners-Up ‘10-‘11 in La Liga; Semi-Finalists in ’10-’11 Champions League; Currently 1st in La Liga; Currently in Rd. of 16 in Champions League
The most accomplished team in Spain and the world, Real Madrid is going through what only their fans would call tough times. With their last trophy coming in 2008, they have struggled against not only European competition, but their hated rivals Barcelona, who have taken nearly every major trophy in the past three years, outshining the team from the capital.
However, 2011 seemed to be a turning point. Last season in April, Madrid finally overcame the hurdle, beating Barcelona 1-0 in extra time to earn them the Copa del Rey, manager Jose Mourinho’s first trophy in charge at the Bernabeu. It may have not been the most important piece of silverware they were after, but it was important in showing that Barca could be beat.
This season they seemed to have found a groove that fits them. In Champions League they walked through the group stage winning all six games, allowing only two goals. Christiano Ronaldo is playing with new sense of maturity and Karim Benzema has reinvigorated to be one of the most lethal CF’s in the game. Sitting atop of the La Liga table heading into winter break, gives them their best opportunity in some years to finally be champs of Spain again.
2011 Accomplishments: 2011 Women’s World Cup Champions
This past March, we were all reminded how little sports actually meant. On the afternoon of the 11th, the small fishing town of Fukuskima, Japan was quietly going about its business, as the earth moved 40 miles east. A 9.0 earthquake had rumbled below the ocean’s surface and sent a massive tidal wave toward the thin island nation. Sirens went off to warn of evacuations, but for the many, the idea of out running a force as great as Mother Nature was impossible.
In the west, we awoke from our sleep to only see one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. Water swept over the land, unapologetically, carrying with it everything from semi trucks, to boats, to homes, miles inland and leaves them there without a thought. A nuclear power plant on the coast was fatally damaged, and the reactor was in danger of having a meltdown and leaking radiation all over the Eastern hemisphere. It was truly one of the saddest days in modern history.
The following weekend, the rest of the world went on, but everyone recognized the great tragedy that had taken place. Football players and club showed their support by replacing banners calling for their managers head with prayers for the victims. Funds were set up at stadiums to collect donations to help the survivors. And players celebrated their goals with recognizing how strong the people of Japan are.
Despite all of this, Japan was still weeping and wondering how they will move on. That was until the summer came around and their women’s national team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sporting history.
The women’s game is dominated by a handful of teams. The US, Germany and Brazil are the favorites every tournament and teams like Japan more act as stiff barriers to these countries goal of winning it all. It seemed thing would go as clock work with Japan losing to the hosts Germany 2-0 in the tournaments opening match. But thent they found a groove winning the next two, which was enough to see them barely getting into the knockout round.
There they say Germany again where against all odds they upset the favorites with a narrow 1-0 victory. They would then go on to beat Sweden easily 3-1 in the semis and set up a showdown with the US in the final.
In what was arguably the greatest game of the 2011 calendar year, Japan clawed back twice from certain death with only minutes to go each time to make the score 2-2 and send it to penalties. There, three straight US women missed their spot takes, giving Japan their first ever FIFA World Cup and something that the nation could be proud of again.
This is by far the least talented team on this list. Every other side would destroy them. But what they accomplished this past year far exceeds not only their expectations, but meaning for their fan base that the other nine. Winning that trophy was a way of not only moving on, but thanking the world for their support. Even the US women had a tough time looking as disappointed as you would imagine, knowing that for them it is just a moment of happiness, but for the country of Japan, it was a new beginning.
2011 Accomplishments: English Premier League Champions; Community Shield Champions; ’10-’11 Champions League Runners-up; Currently 2nd in English Premier League
Many people would no longer say the English game is Liverpool’s play and everyone else just has bit parts. The last decade has seen a massive shift in that theory as the Reds have fallen into near obscurity, missing out on Champions League two years in a row and their northern rivals Manchester United coming on as the preeminent team in England. And this past year saw that shift finally become complete.
On May 14th, United Blackburn in a dull 1-1 draw, but that point was the most important in the clubs history as it was the one that gave secured their 19th English title and set them alone as the club with the most of its kind, finally surpassing Liverpool who had been the holders for as long as time can remember.
In Europe they made an impressive run all the way to the final, knocking off Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke 04, before they faced Barcelona where they battled them to a 3-1 defeat.
This season has not gone as well as perhaps the United fan base would like. Getting off to a slow start in the league saw them dropping points while their cross-town rivals City sprinted out of the gate to an electrifying start. Things went even worse in Champions League as they were not able to advance out of their relatively easy group.
However, this seems to be a year that the goal winning titles is not as important as shutting up their new noisy neighbors. With City also out of Champions League, United do not need to worry about being bettered there. City also seems to be winded after that sprint start and slowed down considerably, to put the two Manchester’s level on points a top the Premier League.
Though the last few things may indicate that United has had a spotty year at best, it is difficult to ever take away from something that statistically declares you are the best team in the country. And now with a fierce rivalry brewing in the north west, United have something to prove for years to come.
2011 Accomplishments: Liga ZON Sagres Champions; Millennium Cup Champions; Europa League Champions; Portuguese Super Cup Champions; Currently 1st in Liga ZON Sagres
In what can only be described as an utterly historic season, Porto was by far and undeniably the best team in all of Portugal. The titles speak loud enough, completing the treble for the first time since Jose Mourinho coached. But what made it so definitive was the way it was won.
In first place from match day two, they never dropped a spot, conceding only 13 goals, no losses and ultimately winning the league by a margin of 21 points. In Europa league they enjoyed similar dominance, going undefeated in the tournament and walking though the knockout rounds before beating rivals Braga in the final.
What is even more impressive is they did it under the guidance of the young first year manager Andre Villas-Boas. Once the scout for Jose Mourniho at the club, Villas-Boas was now the man in charge and his innovative 4-3-3 aggressive attack formation suited his players perfectly as they dominated possession and pinned competition deep in their own half.
The performance of Porto in 2011 was never reflected more than in the departure of Villas-Boas to Chelsea. His success in a single season at the club made him the hottest name in managing and the prize of many. It was difficult for the 33 year old to resist the temptations of the big time money. But despite him leaving, Porto has continued their great play, proving that perhaps the players deserve much more credit than has been awarded to them.
With the likes of Falcao leaving for bigger clubs and more money, one would expect the team to find it difficult to continue their success, but with a core of Hulk, Moutinho and Rolando, there is little doubt that they will win more titles this year and many to come.
2011 Accomplishments: La Liga Champions; Champions League Champions; Spanish Super Cup Champions; Copa del Rey Runner-ups; FIFA Club World Cup Champions; Currently 2nd place in La Liga; Currently in Rd. of 16 in Champions League
For all the talk I have made about not going off of stats and titles, it is still too difficult to argue for anyone other than Barcelona as the best team of 2011. Only an extra time loss to Madird kept them from a treble season as they continued to prove time and time again that they are by far the best team in the world.
What makes them number one on this list however, is not the handful of trophies they won over the past year, but rather the way in which they did it. In every single match they come up against a big time opponent, someone who could really challenge them, they seem to put them away with ease.
They did it to Madrid, three out of four times last year. They did it to United in the Champions League final. They did it to Madrid, three times this season on already. And they did it to Santos at what was meant to be one of the most exciting games of the season (a 4-0 for Braca).
The continually destroy opponents and have perhaps the best chemistry and cast of and club ever. Everyone seems to be on the same page not only tactically, but emotionally. When they went into the Bernabeu a few weeks ago to play their first El Clasico of this La Liga campaign, they were the underdogs for the first time in a few years. After going behind only minutes into the match, they were able to stay their course and earn a dominating 3-1 victory that proved Madrid still had a ways to go in proving that they are the best team in Spain and the world.
Still three points back in the league, they have some catching up to do. But if history proves anything it’s that the best team always prevails and right now and over the past year there is none better than Barcelona.