Sports review of the year 2014, part two

Joy as Shaun Maloney scores for Scotland against the Republic of Ireland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Joy as Shaun Maloney scores for Scotland against the Republic of Ireland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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ALAN Pattullo and Stephen Halliday look back on the year in football, including the 2014 World Cup and the re-emergence of the Scottish national team.

WORLD CUP

Brazilians feared near neighbours being crowned world champions

Six months on from the World Cup final their team lost to Germany, I sometimes wonder if there are still Argentina fans milling around Copacabana beach, taunting the locals, to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, about how Maradona is better than Pele.

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The hosts were in peril of seeing their greatest rivals winning the World Cup on their own turf. They were eventually saved from this fate and this must have felt like a benediction at the end of a tournament that turned out to be a trying one for the welcoming hosts.

One irritation for the locals was the aforementioned song that, it seemed, was being belted out from every street corner in Rio de Janeiro towards the end of the World Cup. How does it feel, the lyrics asked, to be bossed around in your home? By this time, it was becoming clear that Brazil were toiling. Just to add to the Brazilian woe, Argentina were progressing, if not serenely, then fairly efficiently through the tournament.

Five successive victories, all by the margin of one goal, took Argentina into the semi-finals, where they were scheduled to play Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands in the endless concrete cityscape that is Sao Paulo. Brazil, meanwhile, faced Germany, 600 kms to the north in Belo Horizonte.

By then most Brazilians were facing up to a very awkward and deflating truth. Their team were simply not equipped to make up for the World Cup final defeat to Uruguay in 1950, the only other time Brazil had hosted the tournament.

Somehow they survived a torrid, nerve-shredding last-16 clash against Chile, when Brazil came the width of a bar away from going out. Former Hearts player Mauricio Pinilla nearly wrote his name in history when hitting a shot that thumped the crossbar in the final minute of extra-time, with the score 1-1.

Next up were Colombia, and the star of the tournament, James Rodriguez. Again Brazil put in a far from convincing performance to win 2-1. But this time there were no photographs of delirious players celebrating on the front pages of the Brazilian newspapers. Instead, they led with pictures of a prone Neymar, victim of a poor challenge from Juan Carlos Zuniga. The superstar didn’t kick another ball in the World Cup, much to a nation’s despair.

Even the President was moved to release a statement lamenting the news. As what felt like paroxysms of grief threatened to overwhelm a nation, the Brazil team partook in one of the most misguided acts in sporting history when walking out for the semi-final versus Germany carrying Neymar’s shirt. Even manager Luiz Felipe Scolari wore a cap with ‘Forza Neymar’ on it. The Germans arched their eyebrows at this ridiculous carnival of pity and promptly thumped Brazil 7-1. They were five goals up after half an hour.

Even now, months on, it’s hard to process: did that really happen? Even now I kick myself for placing my X in the box for the Sao Paulo-hosted semi-final rather than the Belo Horizonte one when the time came to fill out the form for which of the two games to cover. I’d already reported at a Brazil game and so reasoned it was time to see Lionel Messi in action. And the Netherlands v Argentina hardly sounded like the poor relations next to Germany v Brazil. Indeed, it sounded, if anything, even more appetising.

What did I know? What did any of us know? I can barely recall anything about the game, save that Argentina went through on penalties. But I can still remember the gasps the previous evening in the press centre at the Corinthians Arena, where hundreds of journalists were preparing for an Argentina pre-match press conference, as the goals rained in at Belo Horizonte. And then the following day, walking around the streets of Sao Paulo to gauge the reaction, and finding something akin to the deserted streets on the morning after a Scottish Hogmanay.

Brazil’s hangover took a while to clear but was soothed slightly by the outcome in the final, when Germany secured victory over Argentina with a winning goal in extra-time from Mario Götze. Messi failed to shine on the night itself, even if he did win, somewhat surprisingly, the player of the tournament award.

This caused some consternation. But one thing’s for sure, the title did not deserve to go to someone from reigning champions Spain, who failed to survive the group stage. It was the same story for an England team who were knocked out within five days of their first match versus Italy, which proved to be an enthralling spectacle 1000 kms up the Amazon river in Manaus. The state of the Arena Amazonia pitch became a major topic for discussion in the days leading up to the game. However, a few licks of green paint applied by the local groundsmen managed to make the grass look acceptable for the cameras and the millions – billions? – of viewers, intrigued by the prospect of two European aristocrats of football locking horns in such an unusual, and sweltering, spot on the map.

They did not seem like the ideal conditions for a long-haired 35 year-old to weave his charms but Andrea Pirlo was the orchestrator as Italy won 2-1. Another 2-1 defeat, to Uruguay this time, sealed England’s fate. While Luis Suarez earned the headlines for the right reasons that night, his curious desire to bite opponents overcame him again and saw him banned for the rest of the tournament.

England bowed out in appropriately low-key fashion, drawing 0-0 with Costa Rica, who were one of several unlikely Latin American countries to prosper. Colombia were another success story. Brazil, though, were forced to recognise that they are as fallible as anyone else. Their fans looked with new eyes upon their football team, who, shorn of Neymar, were exceedingly average.

On a personal front, the regular update emails from Airbnb are reminders of days spent a couple of blocks back from the beach at Copacabana, near to a restaurant where Jairzinho dined nightly and just along from another establishment where it was not unusual to see the likes of Dunga and Mario Kempes holding court. Interviewing the great Claudio Caniggia on the same stretch of beach, which became football’s version of Stella Street for five weeks or so, was another highlight.

But just as memorable were the many non-celebrities who proved so welcoming.

A Whatsapp message from Karol, one of the army of volunteers in the press centre in Manaus, landed on Christmas Day, sending festive good wishes from the heart of the Amazon rainforest. “Now you have found us, don’t forget us,” she had pleaded, when reporters were packing up after the first of the four games hosted by the intoxicating ‘jungle city’. As if that was ever likely.

Alan Pattullo

SCOTTISH FOOTBALL

Highlight of the year is the renewal of optimism in national ranks

It will be close to the end of 2015 before we can know for sure, but Scottish football may come to regard 2014 as the year the national team was reborn.

While it may have ended with a defeat for Gordon Strachan’s squad, even that sobering 3-1 reversal to England in November could not puncture the renewed sense of belief and optimism the manager has engendered among both his players and the Tartan Army.

The international year began with the Euro 2016 qualifying draw taking place in Nice, determining that Scotland’s road to the finals in France would be mapped out via Germany,

Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

A friendly against the Poles had been arranged before the draw, allowing Strachan’s men to record a morale-boosting 1-0 win in Warsaw in March and that feelgood factor was maintained with a progressive, attack-minded display in a 2-2 draw against African champions

Nigeria in London in May.

Fate dictated that Group D top seeds Germany would be world champions by the time the Scots opened their campaign against them in Dortmund in September. Despite a 2-1 defeat, there was considerable encouragement from a strong second half display in which Ikechi Anya’s memorable goal briefly raised hopes of taking a point.

Scotland then showed a valuable capacity to collect all three points from a “must-win” fixture at home to Georgia in October which was followed up by another enterprising performance in a 2-2 draw away to Poland.

The most significant result of the year for Strachan was the 1-0 win over Martin O’Neill’s obdurate Irish side at Celtic Park in November. Shaun Maloney’s brilliantly worked and sublimely executed goal was a moment to cherish for Scotland supporters and one which provided genuine hope of ultimate success when a fiercely competitive group reaches its conclusion towards the end of next year.

Although the loss to a clearly superior England was a reminder of the gulf which still exists between Scotland and the leading European nations, Strachan has laid the foundations of a team which looks equipped to end the country’s painfully long absence from major tournament finals.

On the domestic scene, 2014 saw one of Strachan’s protégés take his leave of Scottish football on a winning note. Neil Lennon called time on his tumultuous but successful tenure as Celtic manager by leading them to a third successive title triumph. It was won in emphatic fashion, a 5-1 win at Partick Thistle in March wrapping it up with seven games to spare – the quickest in Scottish football since 1929.

Kris Commons, with 27 league goals from 34 appearances, was Celtic’s most influential performer as they simultaneously became the inaugural winners of the re-branded, but still sponsorless, Premiership under the auspices of the Scottish Professional Football League. Unsurprisingly, Commons claimed the major Player of the Year honours from both the Scottish Football Writers’ Association and PFA Scotland.

Lennon’s departure in search of a fresh challenge, which he subsequently found at Bolton Wanderers, was announced in May. A month later, the surprise choice as his replacement was previously unheralded Norwegian coach Ronny Deila.

The former Stromsgodset manager’s first six months in charge of Celtic have not always been convincing and included the unwanted distinction of being knocked out of the Champions League twice, having been handed an initial reprieve when a crushing defeat to Legia Warsaw was overturned when it emerged the Polish side had fielded an ineligible player as a late substitute in the second leg at Murrayfield.

Nonetheless, Deila goes into 2015 with his Celtic side at the top of the Premiership and still involved in the Europa League, Scottish Cup and League Cup.

While Celtic have an appetising last 32 tie against Inter Milan to look forward to in the Europa League in February, sadly there were early exits once again for Scotland’s other representatives. Aberdeen performed creditably enough, beating Dutch side Groningen before losing to Real Sociedad of Spain, while St Johnstone were eliminated by Slovakian outfit Spartak Trnava. Motherwell suffering the most embarrassing exit, contriving to lose to Icelandic minnows Stjarnan.

The two domestic cup tournaments both produced compelling narratives in 2014. Under Derek McInnes, who was named Manager of the Year by both the SFWA and PFA Scotland, Aberdeen claimed their first major trophy for 19 years when they defeated Inverness Caledonian Thistle on penalty kicks in the League Cup final.

The Scottish Cup saw an even longer barren spell come to an end as St Johnstone won the maiden major silverware of their 130-year existence with

a fully merited 2-0 defeat of Dundee United.

The reintroduction of a relegation-promotion play-off between the Premiership and Championship produced perhaps the most dramatic action of the year. With a ten-point deduction for going into administration all but condemning Hearts to automatic relegation, their city rivals Hibs endured a calamitous slump in the second half of the season to finish second bottom.

A 2-0 win at New Douglas Park in the first leg of the play-off final looked to have spared Hibs from the drop but Hamilton Accies dominated the return fixture at Easter Road, levelled the aggregate score and then triumphed 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out. It spelled the end of Terry Butcher’s brief and unfulfilling tenure as Hibs manager.

Among the other notable managerial casualties through the year were Gary Locke, ousted in the radical shake-up of Hearts by new owner Ann Budge, Derek Adams at Ross County and Stuart McCall at Motherwell.

The highest profile of all, however, was saved until almost the end of 2014 when Ally McCoist’s often tortuous reign as Rangers manager ended with his resignation and being placed on “gardening leave”. Amid ongoing turmoil off the field, with the Ibrox club still in financial crisis, McCoist lost the faith of Rangers supporters as his team delivered a series of lame displays and often humiliating results.

It was also a poignant year for Rangers with the loss of former Scotland full-back Sandy Jardine, a figurehead for their supporters throughout their descent into administration, to cancer.

His was one of many sad departures for Scottish football in 2014 which included his tragic former Ibrox team-mate Ian Redford, ex-Celtic and Leeds icon Bobby Collins, former SFA chief executive David Taylor and much-loved broadcaster Arthur Montford.

Stephen Halliday#

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