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Messi start to year and Messi finish

But the beautiful game had its share of ugly moments in 2012

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I always think it a valuable exercise to take a good, honest look at the past 12 months during the week between Christmas and New Year's. I believe an understanding of context is required to truly appreciate both the present and the future and that taking a section of the past, spreading it out on a plain and examining it is a helpful practice in life as well as in sports.

Soccer, which is always being played somewhere in the world at any given time, provides a better opportunity for this than other seasonal sports, which take up only a portion of the calendar. There is always something happening in soccer. Rest your eyes for a second and you'll be certain to miss something -- another reason why end-of-the-year reflection is important.

The 2012 calendar year began as it would eventually end, with Lionel Messi putting the ball into the back of the net. On Jan. 4, in a Copa del Rey match against Osasuna, the then-24-year-old came off the bench in the 59th minute and scored twice as Barcelona romped to a 4-0 win. He'd tally another 89 times before Christmas in one of the most memorable individual seasons in soccer history.

Messi, with his exceptional skill and boyish demeanour, was a feel-good story that seemed ever-present in 2012. And it's a good thing, because all too often the game would serve up a narrative that left its fans scratching their heads in disbelief, if not downright disheartened.

On Feb. 3 John Terry was sacked as England captain over allegations he had racially abused an opponent. Although the incident had occurred late in 2011 a lack of decisive action led to a nasty courtroom battle followed by a suspension, although full closure to the matter wasn't provided until nearly a year later.

At the same time Liverpool Football Club were badly mishandling a race row of their own. Striker Luis Suarez, suspended for a racial attack on Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra, was astonishingly supported by his club, and his refusal to shake Evra's hand on Feb. 11 provoked outrage among good folks who had assumed this sort of thing had been purged from English soccer a generation ago.

But even amidst the disillusionment, a moment of pure, big-hearted joy.

Barely 24 hours after Suarez had done his best to defile the sport, Zambia won the Africa Cup of Nations in Libreville, Gabon, just a stone's throw away from a shore where, 19 years before, the waves had turned red following a plane crash that killed nearly the entire national team. They beat heavily-favoured Ivory Coast on penalties to win it, and their players sang traditional songs in three-part harmony as they prepared to take their spot kicks.

There were other team accomplishments, too: Manchester City winning the Premier League title in stoppage time during the final match of the season; Chelsea ousting Barcelona in improbable fashion to reach the Champions League final, where they just as improbably beat Bayern Munich to win their first European Cup; Corinthians defeating Boca Juniors to claim a first Copa Libertadores, and then edging Chelsea 1-0 to win the Club World Cup in Japan.

Spain's victory at Euro 2012 was hardly as surprising. After a 1-1 draw with Italy to open the tournament the reigning world and European champions beat their next five opponents by a combined score of 11-0, all the while playing the sort of high-pressing, quick-passing, unemotional soccer that left the outcome in little doubt.

We in Canada also experienced the thrills and devastations of international soccer. Our women's team, led by captain Christine Sinclair, knocked hosts Great Britain out of the London Olympics in August before losing to the United States in heartbreaking fashion. The cocky Americans, given a hand by the referee, prevailed in a match they didn't deserve to win -- Sinclair's hat trick proving insufficient to take her side to the gold-medal game.

Our men's side wasn't quite as successful. Needing only a draw against Honduras to progress to the next round of World Cup qualifying, Canada was shellacked 8-1 in one of the most embarrassing performances in the long and mostly depressing history of the national team. Manager Stephen Hart resigned his position a few days later, and a generation of players who were supposed to do so much better will never represent their country at the highest level of the sport.

A level best embodied in the person of Messi. On Dec. 22, in his final match of 2012, the Argentine virtuoso ran onto a Xavi back-heel and drilled a low, hard shot off the post and into the net against Valladolid for his 91st goal of the year. It came in the 59th minute -- the exact juncture at which he began his record-setting run nearly 12 months prior.

Soccer is funny like that sometimes.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @jerradpeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 C6

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