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The Inside Track | SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES

Big Year Opens Door to 2006 World Cup

January 01, 2006|GRAHAME L. JONES

For better or worse, the soccer year is over, the triumphs and failures having been shared in their usual unequal measure. Looking back, the view changes depending on the prism used.

In the United States, 2005 was the year that Bruce Arena became the first coach to twice qualify the national team for the World Cup, having also done so in 2001.

It was the year that the Galaxy, under Coach Steve Sampson, also "did the double," winning the Major League Soccer championship and the U.S. Open Cup.

It was the year that Landon Donovan returned from Germany, his play inspiring the Galaxy to its twin titles.

And it was the year that Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake first stepped onto the field -- if only to trip badly -- and the year in which the San Jose Earthquakes were unceremoniously shunted off to Houston.

American goalkeeper Kasey Keller, deservedly, was chosen as U.S. Soccer's player of the year. On the women's side, midfielder Kristine Lilly, with 299 international games to her credit, was an equally deserving winner.

Above all, though, 2005 provided an end to the marathon, two-year World Cup qualifying process with Trinidad and Tobago becoming the 32nd and last team to earn its place in Germany '06.

The "Soca Warriors" will be one of six new teams on the World Cup stage in the June 9-July 9 tournament. Angola, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo and Ukraine are the other newcomers.

How the World Cup teams, new and old, will fare is left to be told. In 2005, the big winners came from England and Brazil.

In England, the formula for success was simple: Add a deep-thinking foreign coach to a deep-pocketed foreign owner, blend in a wildly assorted mix of foreign players and wait for the Premier League trophy to arrive.

That's what Chelsea did. Powered by the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the London club by its Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, and guided by the astute decisions of its Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, the Blues ended a 50-year drought by winning the championship at a canter.

No one could keep up with Frank Lampard, John Terry, Damian Duff, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Didier Drogba and all the rest. They still can't.

Chelsea is the runaway leader of the Premier League going into 2006, and American fans would do well to follow the team's progress this year. Two of its players, goalkeeper Petr Cech and midfielder Michael Essien, will start for the Czech Republic and Ghana, respectively, against the U.S. in the World Cup in June.

Meanwhile, it was another English team, Liverpool, that produced the most astonishing performance of the year -- coming from three goals down at halftime to defeat Italy's AC Milan on penalty kicks in the European Champions League final at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Turkey.

"The Miracle of Istanbul," they called it, after second-half goals by Steve Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso, had canceled out a first-minute goal by Milan's Paolo Maldini and two more first-half strikes by Hernan Crespo.

Liverpool got through the 30 minutes of overtime and then won on penalty kicks, 3-2, to become European champion for the first time in 21 years and the fifth time overall. Only AC Milan (six) and Real Madrid (nine) have won more.

"To win the trophy in the way we did was unbelievable, ridiculous, amazing," Liverpool's Polish goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, wrote in England's Guardian newspaper. "I still do not really know how those things happened."

What could be accomplished in Istanbul last May could not be repeated in Yokohama in December, however, and Liverpool was defeated, 1-0, in the final of the FIFA Club World Championship in Japan, by South American champion Sao Paulo of Brazil. A first-half goal by Sao Paulo's Mineiro did the trick.

Also in December, another Brazilian, the broad-smiling Ronaldinho, was voted FIFA's world player of the year for the second consecutive year.

Last May, Ronaldinho had led Barcelona to its first Spanish championship in six years and last June he guided Brazil to victory in the FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany, the highlight of which was the Brazilians' comprehensive demolition of Argentina in the final. Brazil won the game, 4-1, underlining the defending world champions' status as favorites heading into the World Cup.

Ronaldinho, a likable fellow when compared to compatriot Ronaldo, described his second player-of-the-year award as "a huge joy" and said he hoped to win it "over and over again."

He was a clear winner over Chelsea's Lampard and Ronaldinho's Barcelona teammate, Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon.

Germany's Birgit Prinz won the women's honor for the third year in a row, ahead of Brazil's Marta and Shannon Boxx of the U.S.

Argentina gained something out of 2005, its under-20 team winning the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands behind the inspiration of star-in-the-making Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho's 18-year-old teammate at Barcelona.

Messi scored six goals in the tournament, including two in the final as Argentina defeated Nigeria, 2-1.

It was also in 2005 that Manchester United, the world's wealthiest club, was bought by American Malcolm Glazer, much to the vocal dismay of United fans.

The club also lost one of its -- and the sport's -- greatest players with the death in November of Irish magician George Best at age 59. Characters such as Best are few and far between today, and so it is with one of many memorable Best quotes that a wrap-up of 2005 must end.

"If you'd given me a choice of beating four men and smashing in a goal from 30 yards against Liverpool or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice," he said in 1991.

"Luckily, I had both. It's just that you do one of those things in front of 50,000 people."

A glass is raised to 2006.

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