By Robert Farkas
Third round FA Cup matchups often bring excitement to the beginning of the soccer year. 2010 was no exception. On January 3, I woke up early to a snowy Sunday in the Midwestern United States knowing that Manchester United and Leeds United were being broadcast live from Old Trafford. The primary interest I had in the match was to see Leeds United play as I had not for several years. Rising after the beginning of the match, I had in my mind that the match was primed for a postponement due to a frozen pitch. My belief was confirmed when I turned on Fox Soccer Chanel which was broadcasting a match in the 30th minute showing a 1-0 score in favor of Leeds. My suspicion was that it was likely a classic match replay of the two legendary clubs on account of a postponement. It took roughly five minutes of viewing Manchester United’s line up on the field to decide that the game was in fact live. Jermaine Beckford had given the peacocks a shock lead after nineteen minutes. Any lingering symptoms of slumber vanished as Leeds survived with their lead in tact to the half.
The psychology of the watching world was likely similar to my own. Conventional wisdom was that Manchester United would show their class and rally for three or four goals after the break and move on to fourth round play. As time began to pass in the second half, all neutrals (if such a thing exists as it relates to Manchester United) had to want Leeds to see the match through. Leeds displayed extraordinary courage. Tension grew. In around the 79th minute Robert Snodgrass rattled the bar on the Manchester United goal from a free kick. At that point, Manchester United Syndrome (the feeling that no matter how close to the finish the match gets, the equalizer or winner will come at some point) set in. The equalizer never came. The final whistle blew. Leeds had achieved an historic victory. Beckford would continue his heroics for one more round by equalizing against Spurs on a pressure filled penalty late in stoppage time at White Hart Lane. Leed’s magical run would end in the replay against Tottenham at Elland Road after having been beaten 3- 1. The memories of their short run will linger. Despite his somewhat subdued role in South Africa and Ivory Coast’s failure to win the African Cup of Nations, Didier Drogba was the player of the year for my money. He displayed his quality and strength whenever Chelsea needed it in their race to the Barclay’s Premier League Title. Without Drogba, it is quite possible that the blues would not have held off Manchester United in the final rounds of the season. At times, he truly was superman. His free kick goal in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth was truly legendary. I am still at a loss as to how he got the power he did with the technique he used. The way David James played in the final, it was going to take something of exceptional quality to complete the double for Chelsea. Drogba proved up to the task.
Another player for which the year should be remembered is Diego Milito. When it counted, he displayed an offensive consistency for Inter Milan which assisted them in obtaining their first European Championship in 45 years. His goal at Siena in the last round of Serie A play earned the nerazzurri their 5th consecutive Scudetto. The goal came at a point in the match that it appeared a breakthrough might not be in the cards. His goals against Bayern in the Champion’s League final were both of high quality, with the second leading to Martin Tyler’s memorable call “It’s his (Milito’s) night, it’s Inter’s night, It’s Mourinho’s night.” On a related note, Morinho confirmed his status as an overall managing genius with Inter’s Champion’s League Title.
Although Chelsea and Inter Milan showed their greatness, Spain was the team of the year. South Africa proved a more than worthy host for the world’s largest event. If I think about it, I can still hear the faint sound of vuvuzelas in my head. Humanity was moved by the stories of heroism displayed by those who played the beautiful game on Robben Island for years in captivity. World Cup 2010 had to be an event which was exponentially beyond their wildest dreams. I have never felt such tremendous power from a stadium over the television the way I did in the moments before the opening match between South Africa and Mexico.
A personal highlight was the fashion in which the Kiwis of New Zealand played. This was true from Winston Reid’s late equalizer against Slovakia, through a well earned draw with the reigning world champions to a draw against Paraguay. It is remarkable that a team which was destroyed the previous year at the Confederation’s Cup was able to exit the tournament without a loss.
From an American perspective, the World Cup was a mild success on the field as the team reached the knock out stage. Although I certainly believe the team was capable of accomplishing more, this was still a reasonable showing in my view. Landon Donovan’s late winner against Algeria brought the sport and national team to a general level of public excitement which heretofore had not been experienced. As a lifelong fan, this was great to see. On another positive note, American television’s coverage of the event was truly exceptional relative to past coverage. ESPN/ABC is to be commended for this.
Spain lived up to their pre-tournament billing as a favorite. Despite an early set back at the hands of the Swiss, they went on to prove that they were worthy world champions. The Spanish team will be remembered for the beautiful way in which they were able to possess the ball. They will also be remembered as the squad (primarily the same team from Euro 2008) that ended decades of unfulfilled potential in major tournaments. Although the final was not beautiful, the winners were.
I will finish with some reflections on the professional game in the CONCACAF Region as well as a note on the FIFA Club World Cup. The CONCACAF Champion’s League reached a new level of prestige in 2010. An exciting finish to an exciting final round between Pachuca and Cruz Azul was a significant reason for the competition’s ascendency. Cruz Azul was seconds from emerging victorious on goal differential (having won the first leg 2-1) in the clash between the Mexican rivals, when Edgar Benitez finished off a truly spectacular run of play with a phenomenal strike into the corner of the net. Pachuca had won the championship by virtue of the away goals rule. Celebrations of joy which were worthy of a regional championship erupted around the Estadio Hidalgo.
Another year of Major League Soccer was capped by a meeting in the final of two charter members of the league. Neither Colorado Rapids nor FC Dallas had ever won the MLS cup. Colorado Rapids overtook the favored FC Dallas in extra time on a second effort goal. Conor Casey was epic for the Rapids carrying them to victory by shear will. He should conceivably be given a look by Bob Bradley.
Despite a lackluster run of play which eventually led to the sacking of their manager after the tournament, the year ended with another Inter Milan title. The black and blue were victorious in the FIFA Club World Cup in the final against a game TP Mazembe squad from the Congo. Expanding on Martin Tyler’s comment from the Champion’s League Final above, it was truly Inter’s year. See you in 2011.