Ten predictions for 2011 in soccer
Sepp Blatter could be re-elected for his fourth term as FIFA president
Lionel Messi will be as unstoppable in 2011 as he was in 2010
AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic could win his eighth straight league title
1. Lionel Messi will break more records and persuade Pep to stay. Messi may not win the FIFA Ballon D'Or for the world's best player -- if only because FIFA's new involvement in the award will ensure it goes to a World Cup winner -- but with 60 goals in 57 Barcelona appearances in 2010, he surely deserves it. He also sets up goals as readily as he scores them. While Barcelona is favored to retain its La Liga title and win the Champions League, Messi's form might have more far-reaching consequences. Coach Pep Guardiola's contract expires at the end of this season, and there have been reports of interest from Inter Milan and Chelsea. Talks with new president Sandro Rosell are scheduled for early 2011, and a five-year deal will be put on the table. Rosell need only say one thing to get his man: "There is only one Lionel Messi in football today. He needs you and you need him."
2. Sepp Blatter will win re-election as FIFA president. The FIFA president is nearing the end of his third term, for which he was re-elected after standing unopposed in May 2007, though he may face a rival in the next elections set for May 2011. Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam has hinted that there will be an Asian candidate, though, unsurprisingly given that he also heads the Qatari FA, it won't be him. South Korean FA chief Chung Mong Joon backtracked on reports that he would run, but that was before Korea's failed bid to win the 2022 World Cup hosting rights. Chung was one of five FIFA vice presidents to demand Blatter's resignation before the 2002 presidential election and did concede that the 2022 World Cup result could "affect the atmosphere" of the electorate. He may yet mount a challenge but will find it tough to get past Blatter, whose European influence now extends to Russia as well.
3. Famous Belgians will fly the coop. It might be too much to expect Belgium's national team to qualify for Euro 2012, given that its only hope would be to win a playoff after finishing behind leader Germany in qualifying Group A. Even then it would have to overtake current runners-up Austria and Turkey, against whom it has already thrown away leads (Belgium was ahead three times in a 4-4 draw with Austria, and once in a 3-2 loss to Turkey). Instead, it's more realistic to see 2011 as the year that Belgium's golden generation of players finds new homes. There are sure to be offers in the January window for winger Eden Hazard (French club Lille) and 17-year-old forward phenomenon Romelu Lukaku (Belgian club Anderlecht), who opened his international scoring account with two goals against Russia last month. Both are likely to stay until next summer -- Hazard could remain at Lille next season, too, if it qualifies for the Champions League -- but others, including Steven Defour and Alex Witsel, both former Belgian title winners at Standard Liege, winger Jonathan Legear (Anderlecht) and midfielder Jan Vertonghen (Dutch side Ajax), look more certain to be on the move.
4. Money will buy success -- but not for long. This is the year that Manchester City, the richest club in football, must qualify for the Champions League, after just missing out last season. The reason is that UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations will start to take effect in 2012, requiring all clubs to (eventually) live within their means and capping the amount benefactors can put in to underwrite losses to £38 million ($60 million) over three years. By 2015, clubs will have to break even to play in the Champions League. The regulations, say UEFA, "are designed to protect European football's long-term health and viability, as well as the integrity and smooth running of the competitions." More likely, they will protect the big clubs and make European football even more of a closed shop.
City's losses were £121 million ($191 million) in 2009-2010 and could be as much as £130 million ($205 million) in 2010-11. No wonder, then, that chief executive Gary Cook has had to assure fans that City is thinking ahead. "The plan is to grow the financial revenues further, control costs and have young players come through eventually to replace some senior players," he told BBC Radio. "We want to be sustainable, and intend to comply with Financial Fair Play." As revenue from matchday income and TV deals is fairly predictable, only slashing the wage bill and boosting commercial revenue will bring City in line.
5. German coaches will become the new must-have. Four of the top six clubs in the Bundesliga have coaches age 45 or younger, and there is a growing sense in Germany that this generation of bosses is capable of something spectacular. Leading the way is leader Borussia Dortmund's Jurgen Klopp, who recently extended his €2 million ($2.6 million) annual contract until 2014. "I'm not someone who thinks the grass is always greener on the other side, and I'm happy with the work I'm doing here," he told Sport Bild. Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel, 37, Freiburg's Robin Dutt, 45, and Hannover's Mirko Slomka, 43, make up the others, but perhaps the man most likely to move abroad is Ralf Rangnick, 52, who guided Hoffenheim (currently in eighth place) from the third division to the top flight and turned it into a European contender. Like the others, Rangnick has little playing experience and has had to endure an unwanted image of a "Football Professor." If one bigger club from abroad were to take a chance on Rangnick, it could kick-start a German exodus.
6. Ronaldinho will join David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The story first emerged last summer, when the Galaxy targeted the two-time former World Player of the Year to provide the missing spark that has left the team just short of winning the MLS Cup (L.A. lost the final on penalties in 2009 and, after its flirtation with Ronaldinho, fell in the semifinals this year). Now 30, Ronaldinho has been getting some time for Serie A leader AC Milan (more recently as a substitute coming on late in games), and his recent Champions League goal against Auxerre showed he still has class. Just as he did at Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, Ronaldinho still frustrates his coach -- at Milan it's Massimiliano Allegri -- with his habits away from football, but there's no doubt that linking up with Beckham in L.A. would be big box office, if a little short on pace. AC Milan's acquisition of playmaker Antonio Cassano is likely to hasten Ronaldiho's exit, but reports out of Brazil suggest that former club Gremio are also keen on taking Ronaldinho back to his original stamping grounds.
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's AC Milan will finish the season on top. Not much of a prediction, this one, given that in each of the last seven seasons, Ibra has played for the side that ended in first place in its domestic league: first at Ajax, then Juventus (although those two Scudetti were later scrubbed from the records following the Calciopoli scandal), then three in a row at Inter Milan before last season's success at Barcelona. There was some surprise when he, along with Robinho, joined Milan at the end of the August transfer window, but Ibrahimovic has integrated well under new coach Massimiliano Allegri and, thanks in part to Inter's struggles, Milan is on track to enter the winter break in first place of Serie A. "I'm like Cassius Clay, when he used to announce he would beat his opponent with four punches. He used to announce it, and I actually do it," the Swedish striker once said. He tipped Milan for the title after joining the side -- "We are stronger than Inter because I am now here" -- and is on course for title No. 8. By the way, if PSV hadn't defeated Ajax in 2003, Ibra would be pursuing No. 10.
8. Guus Hiddink will return to club management. The Dutch coach is one of the most successful in the game, and failure to qualify Russia for the 2010 World Cup in his last job (it lost a playoff to Slovakia) has had little impact on his status. After all, he coached PSV Eindhoven to the European Cup in 1988 -- and the semifinals in 2005 -- and then specialized as an international coach, guiding Holland (1998) and South Korea (2002) to the World Cup semifinals, then qualifying Australia and reaching the last 16 (2006). Hiddink has insisted that leading Turkey will probably be his last job in football, but clubs in the Premier League will test that claim. Last month he admitted that Manchester City and Liverpool had contacted him, while his relationship with Chelsea, where a four-month spell ended in the 2009 FA Cup final success, remains positive.
9. Men like Jacques Crevoisier will provide the edge. With many clubs employing specialist coaches for defense, midfield and attack, as well as data-focused performance analysts, the next sphere to gain a competitive advantage will be the mental one. Crevoisier, who has an advanced Ph.D. in psychology, worked for the French football federation in the early 1990s (as it developed a World Cup-winning side) and toiled alongside Gerard Houllier at Liverpool later in that decade. He now works for Arsenal, Saint-Etienne and Sochaux, among others. He tests young players to assess motivation, intelligence and self-esteem, and sets specific training programs based on the answers. "If you are not strong in your head, you are dead," he told SI.com. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger told the Leaders in Performance conference at Chelsea earlier this year, "When a player is 23, you know how he will react among top-level competition, but it's difficult to predict that when he is 14." Sitting alongside him was Billy Beane, general manager of baseball's Oakland A's, who expressed concern that young players could use psychology as an excuse for failure. "But I do believe there will be improvements in sports psychology," he said.
10. The refereeing debate will continue. Calls for goal-line video technology in the wake of Frank Lampard's non-goal against Germany at the World Cujp will persist as long as Blatter keeps blocking it. "If this World Cup has made one thing clear, then it is that we can no longer do without video arbitration at this level," Hiddink wrote in his column in De Telegraaf. UWFA, the European governing body, believes it has found a solution by placing two extra officials behind each goal -- making six in all -- but the recent Champions League match between Marseille and Chelsea showed there were still flaws. The referee awarded one penalty but was overruled by his assistant, and he later turned down appeals for another. TV replays showed both decisions to be wrong. A poll conducted by FIFPro, the world players' union, showed 70 percent of captains whose teams used the system in last season's Europa League saw no improvement in the decisions. The system will remain in place for Euro 2012. We just have to hope no mistakes are made in the most important games.
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.
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