I write this on the eve of Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY), the event which promises to showcase the very best of sport within this vintage year of 2012. It is sure to be an event of great celebration, where the achievements of our Olympians, Paralympians, tennis players, cyclists, rowers and golfers amongst others are all to be highlighted, remembered and celebrated.
But what about our soccerers? Where will they come into it?
On an individual basis, the answer is simply, they won’t. Since the inception of SPOTY, there have been five winners of the personality trophy from the field of soccer – Bobby Moore (1966), Paul Gascoigne (1990), Michael Owen (1998), David Beckham (2001) and Ryan Giggs (2009). With the exception of Giggs – whose nomination was partly on the basis of his sustained longevity at the top of the game – the other four were awarded for their exploits with England, either in a World Cup year or World Cup qualification campaign. In those years, the lack of success in other spheres of sport made them a shoo-in for the award, although it is hard to argue that they weren’t deserving of it.
This year, there are no such individual nominees from the world of soccer. This is of course due to the sterling success of Britain’s Olympians and Paralympians – and then some. In any other year, Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray or Rory McIlroy would have romped to victory in a phone vote, but it so happens that they are going against each other in the same year. Perhaps the only two soccerers who would have come close to being considered in the initial preliminaries would have been Steven Gerrard and Gareth Bale. Gerrard, in captaining England through an encouraging Euro 2012 campaign, finally became the focal point of the team, and later on in the year earned his 100th cap in a game that was ultimately remembered for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s incredible four-goal haul. Bale, on the other hand, has had a year where his talent has been recognised both at home and internationally, attracting suitors from Spain and Italy. He has also cemented his place as captain of the Welsh national side, scoring two crucial goals in their recent victory over Scotland.
But the question is, what did they really achieve? Despite winning the Champions League in 2005, Gerrard’s club and international career are a case of what might have been (as Ibrahimovic pointedly remarked, his career and legacy would be better off if he decided to leave Liverpool for bigger challenges). Off the pitch, his year in 2012 was remembered more for his snide and unjustified comment regarding Everton’s playing style than his warming personality. As for Bale, his year has been marked out for a burgeoning reputation as a diver. And despite his talismanship, Tottenham failed to finish in the Champions League qualifying spots, hastening the exit of Harry Redknapp and substantiating their reputation as the nearly men.
No, soccer has no nominees, and deservingly so. So where will it be represented? The international sportsman award will no doubt go to Usain Bolt, despite the goalscoring exploits of Lionel Messi and Ibrahimovic. But what about the team of the year?
soccer in 2012 was notable for the achievements of Chelsea and Manchester City, through their successes in the Champions League and Premiership respectively. These successes cannot and should not be ignored for the circumstances of their wins will live long in the memory.
Chelsea’s Champions League win was part-fate, part tale of the underdog. Their success, under the stewardship of caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo, came at the hands of the most unlikely success at the Nou Camp, where at a goal down and a man down they managed to come through against arguably the best team in the world, Barcelona. It was a success as unlikely in its achievement as was their efforts in the final, when they managed to beat Bayern Munich on penalties – in Munich. To credit this victory at the safe hands of Petr Cech would be unfair, as the backs-to-the-wall defensive effort showed that to win a soccer match, teamwork and tactics still reign supreme.
Manchester City’s long-awaited Premiership triumph came in slightly different circumstances. Following a late season revival, they went into the game at home with relegation-battling QPR needing only a win to gain the Championship title for the first time in 44 years. After 90 minutes they were a goal down, seemingly handing the Premier League trophy to arch-rivals Manchester United, who as always were in possession of the victory they needed to achieve at Sunderland. Cue the craziest five minutes in the history of national game – City scored two goals within injury time to win the game and with it the title, beating their city rivals to the title on goal difference. It was a moment where the neutrals amongst us could do nothing but gasp, cheer and join in with the exultancy.
So what of these teams now, in the latter part of 2012? Despite continued success in the Premiership, City have failed in their attempts to get past the first stages of the Champions League for the second year running. Not only that, they failed to finish third in their group – meaning that they didn’t qualify for the Europa League – and were unceremoniously dumped out of the League Cup at home to Aston Villa. Off the pitch, Roberto Mancini has continued to oversee a fractious dressing room of millionaires, culminating in an unsubstantiated attack on referee Mark Clattenberg following their recent last-minute derby loss to their city neighbours.
Speaking of Clattenberg, he was also the target of a Chelsea witch-hunt relating to claims of racist remarks being made to John Obi Mikel – the irony of which being that Chelsea have been at the centre of brewing racism storms over the past few months thanks to the ‘never-me’ attitude of captain John Terry. On the soccering side, their season has been categorised by their unsuccessful defence of the European Cup, and the unceremonious dumping of manager Roberto Di Matteo – despite his trophy haul of two trophies in less than a year.
In conclusion, it is fair to surmise that the achievements of both clubs are worthy of little recognition and celebration. As with Gerrard and Bale, their successes can only be measured by the longevity of their achievements, and sadly there is a severe lack on both fronts. And therein lies the problem with modern-day soccer – its prizes and prestige being undermined by its own image problems, infighting and general lack of sportsmanship.
In direct contrast, we have the successes of Team GB, Paralympic GB and Europe’s Ryder Cup team – the majority of whose members were made up by Britons. What is their legacy? On one hand, we have the collective achievement of the Olympians and Paralympians, showing humility in victory, sportsmanship in defeat, and inspiring tens and hundreds of thousands throughout the world to take up sports. On the other, we have the ultimate underdog story, where the collective effort of a group of individuals inspired the greatest comeback of all time, raising the spirit of citizens from across a continent towards the wonders of teamwork and skill.
The result? Simple. soccer needs to take a long hard look in the mirror if it wants to be worthy of celebration.