LONDON (Reuters) - A superb World Cup featuring one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history, Germany’s fourth title and the duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to be the world’s best were among the soccer highlights of 2014.
Real Madrid’s long-awaited tenth European crown -- ‘la decima’ -- secured after they equalised late in normal time before winning the Champions League final 4-1 after extra time against Atletico Madrid in Lisbon was another dramatic moment.
But far too often in a turbulent 12 months, the headlines made for unsettling reading.
Allegations surrounding corruption within FIFA never end with world’s soccer’s tarnished governing body lurching from one drama to another over the decision it took in 2010 to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 finals to Qatar.
A report into alleged corruption has only created more problems for the game’s rulers with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, 78, unwilling to make the findings public.
Racism and match-fixing also blighted the game but, unless sweeping changes are made next year and Blatter is voted out of office when he seeks a fifth term as president in May’s elections, it is hard to see where real reform will come from.
Luckily for the millions of fans, though, the problems affecting the men who run the game were not apparent on the field when the World Cup kicked off in June.
Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 in a thrilling opener that set the tone for a fantastic tournament in which invisible spray, the innovation to mark distances at free-kicks and goalline technology, made their debuts.
The civil unrest that marred the Confederations Cup, the 2013 dress rehearsal tournament, was not repeated and Brazil’s progress to the semi-finals played its part in keeping rioters off the streets.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had pledged Brazil would win the World Cup as hosts to eradicate the painful memory of losing out at home in 1950 to Uruguay, but a traumatic defeat ended that dream as Germany, already 1-0 up, scored four goals in six minutes to lead Brazil 5-0 after 29 minutes before winning 7-1.
Five days after one of the greatest upsets in the game’s history, Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in the final at the Maracana with substitute Mario Goetze scoring a brilliant extra-time winner.
The losers in Brazil included Uruguayan Luis Suarez, banned for four months for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, Argentina skipper Messi and Portugal captin Ronaldo, whose rivalry in Spain for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively continues unabated.
Ronaldo picked up winners medals with Real winning the European Cup and King’s Cup, while Messi set scoring records in Spain and in the Champions League.
Two men who dominated the European Cup in a previous era passed into history, with all-time greats Alfredo Di Stefano, who played in Real’s five winning finals from 1956-60, dying at 88 a few months after his old rival, Eusebio of Benfica, 71, the top scorer in the 1966 World Cup, who died in January.
Tom Finney, one of England’s greatest players, passed away aged 91 in February, while South Africa captain and keeper Senzo Meyiwa, 27, was murdered in October. Peter Biaksangzuala, 23, also died after falling on his head attempting an acrobatic somersault goal celebration in India in the same month.
Among the losers in 2014 were David Moyes, who was sacked as Manchester United manager less than a season into a six-year contract at Old Trafford where Ryan Giggs, 41, ended his 24-year playing career after 963 appearances for the club.
San Marino, while not finishing the year as winners also did not end it as losers like they had for the prvious two decades. In November, they ended a run of 61 straight defeats when they held Estonia to a goalless draw in a Euro 2016 qualifier.
Editing by Ken Ferris