Soccer predictions for 2012
A young and talented Germany is a serious threat to end Spain's dominance
With competition from China and the UAE, MLS will find it harder to sign big names
After several near misses in the African Nations Cup, Ghana could finally win it
1. Germany could be the new Spain. The average age of the Germany team that started in a 3-0 win over Holland last month, playing a fast-paced and flexible style more reminiscent of the Dutch team of the 1970s, was 24.5. By the time the game ended, it was down to 23.4. Forward Miroslav Klose is the only player over 30 in the squad and there is young talent waiting in the wings wherever you look. Two from Mesut Ozil (23), Toni Kroos (21), and Mario Goetze (19) make up the creative fulcrum that supplies a three-pronged attack with Lukas Podolski (26) and Thomas Muller (22) either side of Mario Gomez (26), whose 22 goals in 22 games this season (at time of writing) puts him in the company of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie.
Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the Euro 2008 final, and by the same score in the 2010 World Cup semifinal, one of the best games in the tournament. If, as expected, the two sides meet again in the Euro 2012 final, this time there might be a different outcome -- and a new dominant force in world football.
2. French soccer will become sexy again. In the late '80s and early '90s, the world's best players all wanted to play in France. Enzo Francescoli, Rudi Voller, Dragan Stojkovic and Chris Waddle were at Marseille; George Weah and Glenn Hoddle at Monaco while a few years later, and Rai, Valdo and Leonardo played for Paris Saint-Germain. Leonardo is back at PSG as sports director, and overseeing a revolution at the club thanks to funding from new owners Qatari Sports Investments (QSI). QSI spent €42 million ($54.7M) on Javier Pastore, one of nine new signings in the summer, and is set to confirm the arrival of David Beckham and a big-name coach (possibly Rafael Benitez or maybe Frank Rijkaard) in January.
PSG will not be the only beneficiaries of Qatari funding next year. Broadcaster Al-Jazeera has agreed to a €90M-per-year deal ($117M) to show Ligue 1 matches, and a €60M-per-year deal ($78M) for Champions League game. English clubs' summer failures to sign the likes of Yann M'Vila, Andre Ayew, Eden Hazard and Blaise Matuidi show that the talent drain from France to England is already slowing down. With the extra funding, France will soon become an attractive option for top players.
3. Second Season Syndrome will work for Jose Mourinho -- but Real Madrid must plan ahead. Mourinho always said that we should judge his work in Madrid not on his first campaign, which was not too bad (Real Madrid's 92-point tally would have won La Liga in nine of the last 10 seasons, and it did win the Copa del Rey), but on his second season at the Bernabeu. Historically, that's when his teams have performed best. At Porto, in his second full season, the team won the Portuguese league and the Champions League; at Chelsea, it repeated its league success; and at Inter Milan, it won a league, Cup and Champions League treble, ending a 45-year wait for the European trophy.
This season Real Madrid is a true Mourinho side, no longer reliant solely on Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance. Despite its weaknesses, which were apparent in losing the recent home Clasico 3-1, it is a real threat to Barcelona's hopes of retaining its La Liga and European champions crown. But Madrid should be wary. A look at the tribulations of Chelsea (five coaches in four years) and Inter (four coaches in 18 months) shows that life after Mourinho is far from simple.
4. Mario Balotelli will make headlines for his play. If you believe the English newspapers, the list of dramas involving Balotelli is never-ending: damaging his house on the eve of the Manchester derby by setting off fireworks in his bathroom (he claimed it was his brother); throwing darts from a window at a youth-team player; suffering an allergic reaction to the grass during a Europa League game at Dynamo Kiev; and being subbed off "for disrespect" after attempting a pirouette-and-backheel goal in a preseason friendly against the Los Angeles Galaxy, to name a few. On the pitch, he has become a key player for Roberto Mancini, a regular pick in all the big games (unlike Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri, who are benched). He scored the crucial opener in the 6-1 Old Trafford demolition of Manchester United (unveiling a T-shirt with the slogan, "Why Always Me?"), scored the ultimately futile equalizer in the Champions League tie at Napoli, and the first goal in the defeat at Chelsea.
Balotelli is also becoming an important player for Italy, in good time, too, given its injury concerns over Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano. "He is beginning to understand that he cannot waste his talent," Mancini said. And we are beginning to see just how talented he is.
5. Mental health problems need to lose their stigma. There was something poignant about the timing of Ronald Reng's book A Life Too Short, the moving biography of Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in November 2009, winning the 2011 Sports Book of the Year award. One day earlier, Wales coach Gary Speed had been found hanged in his garage, leaving his family and friends distraught and wondering if he had been hiding a depressive illness. Stan Collymore, the former Liverpool and England forward now a broadcaster, had also just eloquently described his feelings during the worst bout of depression he had gone through for eight years. He is now putting together a soccer auction to raise money for the Depression Alliance charity.
It's not just in the UK. German referee Babak Rafati tried to commit suicide because he was afraid of making mistakes, his solicitor told Bild newspaper, while Chris Schelstraete, a Belgian linesman, slashed his wrists one hour before he was due to officiate a second-division match.
"In professional soccer, there are many people suffering from psychologically- related conditions," Dr Mark Nesti, author of Psychology of Football, told the Leaders in Football conference. "Anywhere where there is a desire for quick answers all of the time, an inhuman rate of change, little trust and utilitarian values, will place people under great mental strain."
Reng wants his book to help depressives find more sympathy and understanding, while Collymore's honesty and hard work is achieving the same thing -- and about time too.
6. England will appoint an English coach who is nothing like Fabio Capello. There has been a pattern to England coaches appointed by its FA since Glenn Hoddle left his job as coach in 1999. After Hoddle, who was seen as cold toward his players, came the friendly Kevin Keegan, who made up in man-management what he lacked in tactical nous; then Sven-Goran Eriksson, its first foreign coach, and seen as a tactical genius (how wrong that was); then Steve McClaren, English and young; and finally Capello, foreign, proven and a disciplinarian.
Capello will leave after Euro 2012 and the FA has already said that his successor will be English. Harry Redknapp is the huge favorite, certainly among the press if not the FA, while other candidates include Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and maybe even Hoddle again. One thing is sure: He will be English. At least that way, the national team's failures can be blamed on soccer, and not translation problems or cultural differences.
7. MLS will have to compete with new markets for top players. Nicolas Anelka turned down offers from three MLS teams -- reported to be the Philadelphia Union, the New York Red Bulls and the Montreal Impact -- before joining Shanghai Shenhua on a lucrative two-year deal. The Chinese side also wants to sign Didier Drogba from Chelsea, while David Trezeguet, available after a short stint in the UAE, was another target before he signed with River Plate. These players have all been touted for MLS Designated Player slots, but the Chinese market is now competing with teams in Russia, the Gulf States and the MLS to sign them.
Samuel Eto'o currently earns £330,000 per week ($511,000) at Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, while Asamoah Gyan is on £125,000 per week ($193,000)at UAE club Al-Ain.Diego Maradona is a coach in the same league, at Al-Wasl, while Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour also bankrolls Al Jazira.
Next summer, Alessandro Del Piero and Michael Ballack will be on the market. Both players have been linked with MLS sides, but given the new options available to them now, their arrivals may not be as certain as previously thought.
8. Ghana will get what it deserves -- at last. Ghana was African Nations Cup semifinalist in 2008, losing finalist in 2010, and World Cup quarterfinalist the same year. It's about time it won a trophy, and January's African Nations Cup could be the one. Eight players on its current squad won the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, beating Brazil in the final. Graduates from that side include Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese) and Andre Ayew (Marseille), now key players for their clubs. Even without AC Milan's in-form midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who retired from international soccer last month (and Emmanuel Frimpong, unavailable due to eligibility problems), Ghana should still have enough to get past group opponents Botswana, Mali and Guinea. Its biggest challenge could come from Morocco, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, for whom this tournament represents the last chance of its Golden Generation, which includes Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora, to win a title. Ghana's last African triumph was 30 years ago, back in 1982; only one of its current players, John Pantsil, had been born then.
9. So much for the international coaches' merry-go-round. Most of the top coaches going into Euro 2012 are tied down to long-term deals that run beyond next summer's tournament. Joachim Loew (Germany) has a deal until 2014, Bert van Marwijk (Holland) until 2016 and Vicente del Bosque (Spain) a verbal agreement to extend his contract. Morten Olsen (Denmark), Dick Advocaat (Russia) and Giovanni Trapatonni (Ireland) are also signed until 2014. The futures of Paulo Bento (Portugal) and Laurent Blanc (France) will depend on how their teams do, while Fabio Capello (England), Frantisek Smuda (Poland), Oleh Blokhin (Ukraine) and Slaven Bilic (Croatia) are definitely moving on.
International soccer may typically work in two-year cycles from a tournament perspective, but the men on the bench, particularly Loew, Van Marwijk and Del Bosque, each of whom is trying to make his own history, are now looking longer-term.
But wouldn't it be interesting to see how Loew or Van Marwijk would cope at a big European club?
10. If you must talk Moneyball, talk Udinese, not Liverpool. Liverpool sports director Damien Comolli once said that you could acquire 10 world-class players but if one signing doesn't work out, that's the one that you are remembered for. It's almost a year since Liverpool sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50M/$80M (great business) and bought Luis Suarez for £23M/$35M) (also great business) and Andy Carroll for £35M/$54M (not so good, so far at least). Comolli might be the most public face of the Moneyball ethos (after Michael Lewis' book, recently made into a film starring Brad Pitt), known in soccer as Soccernomics after the book and consultancy established by Simon Kuper, but its most successful proponent sits only two points behind first place in Serie A: Udinese.
Udinese sold the spine of its team, and its three best players in the summer -- Cristian Zapata to Villarreal, Gokhan Inler to Napoli and Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona -- and yet is still a serious contender for the Scudetto. Coach Francesco Guidolin, who changed last season's 4-3-3 formation into a 3-5-1-1, deserves great credit, as do the scouts who found the current generation of stars: Samir Handanovic, the goalkeeper signed from Slovenian side NK Domzale for £40,000 ($619,000) now worth €20M ($26.5M) and among the best in the world; defender Mehdi Benatia, signed as a free agent from Clermont and now tracked by Manchester United and Chelsea; and Pablo Armero, who cost $1.5M from Palmeiras, and wanted by Real Madrid.
As SI.com's Gabriele Marcotti put it: "Udinese buy low and sell high ... what it does year on year is arguably just as impressive as what Barcelona or Inter Milan do, if not more." With Financial Fair Play regulations kicking in soon, Udinese is the model that UEFA wants all clubs to follow.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.