B/R World Football Awards 2012: Starring Messi, Ibrahimovic, Spain and Chelsea
Another year has come to pass in world football, and in its small hours arrives the undeniable urge for reflection.
2012 was the year Spain made history at the Euros, Chelsea achieved the improbable in the Champions League, Manchester City won the Premier League at its death, the U.S. women and Mexican men were golden and Lionel Messi's otherworldly genius marched on the record books.
We saw Juventus go unbeaten for an entire Serie A season in Italy, Borussia Dortmund take a brilliant young team to a second successive German title and Cristiano Ronaldo inspire Real Madrid to break Barcelona's hold in La Liga.
Montpellier held off the challenge of PSG to win the French title, David Beckham said goodbye to the L.A. Galaxy with a second MLS Cup, the stars of Neymar and Stephan El Shaarawy rose and Radamel Falcao's prolific goal-scoring made him the hottest transfer target in Europe.
Not everything was to be celebrated. Racism blighted the game too often, diving was never far from the agenda, match-fixing scandals smeared Italy again and the behaviour of football fans was found wanting on several occasions.
But the good far outweighed the bad. Football's popularity continues to rise—not least where Bleacher Report makes its home, in the U.S.—and the reason for that can be found in its unfailing capacity to enthral, entertain and surprise us.
You just can't write some of the stuff we saw in 2012—Chelsea's triumph in Munich, Sergio Aguero's Premier League winner, Mario Balotelli's double for Italy against Germany, the U.S. women's comeback against Canada at the Olympics and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal against England, to name but a few.
The B/R World Football Awards appeared for the first time in 2011. They're back a year later and with our audience having doubled.
2012 was a great year for football. Here's hoping 2013 will be even better.
Defining Moment of the Year
3rd: Alex Morgan seals U.S. comeback against Canada at the Olympics—WATCH
2nd: Chelsea win the Champions League—WATCH
WINNER: Sergio Aguero wins the Premier League title
It has to be Aguero's goal. Manchester City were seconds away from handing the Premier League title to their great rivals across town, Manchester United. Their long-suffering fans were on the edge of disaster, but Aguero's flashed shot stole ecstasy from agony and gave City the most dramatic title success in history.
Morgan's winner for the U.S. women's team against Canada was another to cap a remarkable comeback and will be told as the defining moment of their run to Olympic gold.
Chelsea's Champions League triumph on German soil was the most unlikely story of 2012. Drogba's goal earned extra-time against Bayern Munich, and it was Drogba again who stepped up to win the Blues their first European title.
Goal of the Year
3rd: Lionel Messi, Argentina vs. Brazil—WATCH
2nd: Neymar, Santos vs. Internacional—WATCH
WINNER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden vs. England
Lionel Messi's hat trick for Argentina against Brazil in June was rounded off with stunning individual goal that showcased his tight control, elusive running and dead-aim shooting. Were we finally seeing the Messi of Barcelona on the international stage?
That goal was good, but not nearly as good as the one scored by his potential successor as the world's best player, Brazilian magician Neymar. Neymar's mazy dribble and finish against Internacional tells you everything you need to know about his talent.
But the winner has to be Ibrahimovic's absurdly brilliant goal for Sweden against England—his fourth of the game and a goal that will live on long after his ponytail has left the pitch for the last time.
Who would even think of doing that but Zlatan? Who would be able to execute that but Zlatan? Like him or loathe him, you just have to admit there's never been a player quite like him.
Team of the Year
Martin Rose/Getty Images
Honorable mentions: Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund
3rd: Chelsea, Champions League winners
2nd: U.S. women's team, Olympic gold medalists
WINNERS: Spain, Euro 2012 winners
Chelsea's Champions League dream looked over after their 3-1 defeat at Napoli. Andre Villas-Boas paid the price with his job and we assumed the remainder of the season would see Roberto Di Matteo and his team going through the motions.
Di Matteo and his team had other ideas. They thumped Napoli 4-1 in the return, beat Benfica and Barcelona to reach the final and then took down Bayern Munich in their own backyard to become European champions.
Chelsea were far from the best team in 2012, but no team came together like they did after the sacking of Villas-Boas.
The U.S. women's team were expected to take gold in London. But living up to expectation is not always easy, and it took their very best to see off Canada in the semifinals and gain revenge on Japan in the gold-medal match. Stars like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach shone bright, and the U.S. entertained us from start to finish.
We can't say the same for Spain's Euro 2012 campaign, but nobody can beat their achievement of claiming a third successive major title. Everybody tried to stop them, but nobody could. When you win a final 4-0 you're clearly doing something very right.
Coach of the Year
Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Honorable mentions: Jurgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund), Pep Guardiola (Barcelona), Antonio Conte (Juventus)
3rd: Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid
2nd: Pia Sundhage. U.S. women's national team
WINNER: Vicente del Bosque, Spanish national team
Jose Mourinho led his Real Madrid team on a stunning drive to the Spanish title and took them within a penalty shootout of reaching the Champions League final. As a response to the challenge laid down by Barcelona, it was mightily impressive.
Pia Sundhage stepped down as U.S. women's coach in September, but not before leading her brilliant team to gold at the London Olympics and overseeing nine months of dominance from the best and most attack-minded team in the women's game.
But the winner has to be Del Bosque, who led Spain to a historic third successive major title at Euro 2012. There were those who criticised his tactics and accused him of being negative, but Spain's 4-0 demolition of Italy in the final was the sweetest of retorts.
Player of the Year
Honorable mentions: Andrea Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Xavi, Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie, Iker Casillas, Petr Cech, Marco Reus
3rd: Andres Iniesta
2nd: Cristiano Ronaldo
WINNER: Lionel Messi
No surprises here, Messi is the best player of his generation and has a gift unmatched right now. As balanced in temperament as he is on his feet, the Argentine's goal-scoring feats in 2012 are the stuff of PlayStation ridiculousness—even Zlatan thinks so.
Ronaldo's assault on the 2011-12 season made him more deserving of comparison than ever, but the goose-stepping Portuguese still occasionally falls victim to the frailties of his temperament. Ronaldo made some big statements at Euro 2012, but he needed to bring home either that trophy or the Champions League to take Messi's crown.
Had he done so, he'd only have been borrowing it.
If Messi and Ronaldo are world football's blockbuster stars, then Iniesta is the genius director whose work is never short of inspired. He was integral to Spain's triumph at Euro 2012 and continues to make Barcelona tick with his instinctive passing and movement.
Young Player of the Year (21 or Under)
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Honorable mentions: Christian Eriksen, Isco, Mario Gotze
3rd: Stephan El Shaarawy
2nd: Eden Hazard
Neymar scored freely for Santos and the Brazil national team in 2012 and appears to be taking the responsibility of being football's next messiah in his leggy stride. A move to Europe is inevitable, and Neymar is already the desire of every owner with a big enough bank balance to afford him.
Some thought Hazard would struggle to adapt to life in the Premier League, but the Belgian has dazzled for Chelsea and been arguably their best player so far this season. English football is very lucky to have him.
As for El Shaarawy, he wouldn't have even been in the conversation in August, but the little Pharaoh has been on a goal binge in Italy and cast himself as AC Milan's saviour. Can he lead them to the promised land? Not on his own, but he has certainly lifted the San Siro gloom of late.
God-Like Veteran of the Year
WINNER: Andrea Pirlo
Pirlo needs an award, so I've made one up for him. The bearded genius conducted Juventus' midfield to the Serie A title and was one of the best players at the Euro Championship in Italy's colours. His passing is sublime, his mind a thing of sporting beauty and his scoring ability has produced goals like this.
What's not to like?
Madcap Entertainer of the Year
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Honorable mention: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
WINNER: Mario Balotelli
Zlatan deserves consideration for being Zlatan, but there's no match for Balotelli in the entertainment stakes. The Manchester City and Italy striker is a relentless controversy machine, and he ought to be on the payroll with every tabloid newspaper in England.
Here's a snapshot of a year in the life of Mario:
January: Stamps on Tottenham's Scott Parker, charged by the FA (Daily Mail).
June: Puts in a blistering attacking performance as Italy down Germany in the semifinals of Euro 2012—scoring both goals in a 2-1 win.
August: Pictured shoehorning girls into his Bentley after a night out and fitting the extras into a van. All were reportedly headed back to Mario's for a party (Daily Mail).
September: Reportedly clashes in the tunnel with manager Roberto Mancini after 1-1 draw with Arsenal (The Sun).
December: Takes Manchester City to tribunal after being ordered to pay two weeks' wages in relation to disciplinary problems during the 2011-12 season. Later decides to accept said fine (BBC).
What next? Your guess is as good as Mario's.
Villain of the Year
Bethany Clarke/Getty Images
LOSER: John Terry
Chelsea captain John Terry has not won many friends in 2012. Though he was cleared of racially abusing QPR's Anton Ferdinand by a Magistrates' Court, an independent FA panel found him guilty and imposed a four-game ban and £220,000 fine.
Terry went to Euro 2012 with the accusation hanging over him, but he retired from international duty shortly before the FA verdict.
When you throw in the red card against Barcelona that saw him miss the Champions League final, it's not exactly been a vintage year for the man some still know as "John Terry: captain, leader, legend."
Terry leaves 2012 with his reputation forever stained.
Hero of the Year
Julian Finney/Getty Images
WINNER: Fabrice Muamba
Football was witness to several events this year that put the game in perspective.
Just recently Barcelona's coach Tito Vilanova has undergone surgery after suffering a relapse of a tumor. At the same time, we see the heartening return of Eric Abidal to the Barca squad, after the midfielder spent nine months recovering from an operation on his liver.
2012 will also be remembered as the year we finally got closer to justice for the 96 victims of the tragic Hillsborough disaster in 1989. There will be a new police enquiry. The original verdicts of "accidental death" have been overturned.
Difficult times call for strength, and none were stronger in 2012 than Fabrice Muamba, who suffered from cardiac arrest playing for Bolton against Tottenham in March and earned the admiration of the world in his recovery.
Muamba's heart stopped for 78 minutes. He would have died but for the intervention of medics at White Hart Lane and has since announced his retirement from football, aged just 24.
"When told I wouldn't play again I didn't cry; I was just grateful to be alive," he said, as per BBC.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
And with that our thoughts turn to 2013 and its endless possibilities.
By the time we're back here in 12 months' time we'll have new Champions League winners to hail and we'll know the teams heading to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
A lot will happen between now and then. All you have to do is sit back and watch.
And read about it at Bleacher Report, of course.