Iraq steals the show

(AFP)                      

 
 

AC Milan, Manchester United and Real Madrid added more cups to their glittering trophy rooms but the war-torn country of Iraq provided the most unexpected and memorable moment for football in 2007.


Milan avenged their defeat to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final with a 2-1 win over the same opponents in Athens, while Manchester United were crowned English champions for the first time since 2004 and Madrid won their 30th Spanish title, but their first since 2003.

However, Iraq’s 1-0 triumph over Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final in Jakarta on July 29 was a victory that transcended sport.

Iraq’s unexpected win was a triumph for human spirit as much as for the athleticism and skill of their players.

Few people gave them any hope of making it past the group stages. Their squad was a patchwork of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish players, fractured by the sectarian violence in their homeland which touched almost all their players, most of whom had friends and relatives killed in the conflict.

Goalkeeper Noor Sari’s brother-in-law was killed just before the tournament, midfielder Nashat Akram’s relatives were kidnapped, then murdered, and Hawar Mulla Mohammad’s stepmother died two days before the quarter-final.

Iraq went into the final riding a wave of global sentiment, but were still not expected to beat Saudi Arabia, who were bidding to become the first country to win the title for a fourth time.

Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud scored the only goal to complete one of sport’s great fairytales with Pope Benedict declaring he hoped it would help to bring peace

to the country.


Familiar stories were unfolding in Europe.

However, some of those who had been central to the story of European football for many years left centre stage. In January, the 17-year reign of Uefa president Lennart Johansson, 77, came to an end at the Uefa Congress in Dusseldorf, when he was beaten in a vote by former French great Michel Platini, 26 years his junior.

Platini wasted little time in talking about the changes he wanted to make to the game, especially “democratising” the Champions League with more champions from some of Europe’s smaller nations taking part.

After months of debate, those changes were revealed in November, on the same weekend that Uefa announced they had turned over to the police details of 15 matches which they suspected could have been fixed for betting purposes – another problem that never stops blighting the game.

The sport was also dogged by violence which culminated in two deaths in Italy – one a policeman and the other a fan – prompting EU authorities to propose the formation of a new special police force for sport.

Football’s relationship with the law, increasingly complex since the Bosman Ruling on freedom for players 12 years ago, is likely to come under pressure next year if Fifa president Sepp Blatter proceeds with his proposal to re-introduce national quotas to the game.

On the field, it was mainly a case of the usual suspects triumphing with AC Milan being crowned champions of Europe for the seventh time – after Uefa initially did not want them to compete as a result of the 2006 Italian match-fixing scandal.

They also won the Club World Cup final, beating Argentina’s Boca Juniors 4-2.

In England, Manchester United regained the title that Chelsea had won in 2005 and 2006. Chelsea lost “the Special One” – their title-winning coach Jose Mourinho – in September.

Steve McClaren was sacked as England coach in the wake of their stunning failure to make the Euro 2008 finals, and replaced by Italian Fabio Capello .

Boca Juniors emerged as the champions of South America after beating Brazil’s Gremio 5-0 on aggregate in the final of the Libertadores Cup – the first time a team had kept a clean sheet over the two legs since 1969.

Kaka of Milan was named European Footballer of the Year (Ballon d’Or).

The highest profile tragedy this year was at Sevilla where 22-year-old Spanish star Antonio Puerta collapsed after a heart attack and died three days later. (Reuters)
 
 
 
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