As is the case in every World Cup year, soccer gave fans a wide variety of intriguing story lines and interesting moments throughout 2014. None were, of course, more newsworthy than the biggest party of the summer, a World Cup that met and even exceeded expectations as it pertains to on-the-field action. What was believed to be the best country on the planet proved that it was just that by the end of the tournament, while the World Cup hosts shrunk and collapsed when under the pressure of winning the sport's biggest prize on its home soil.
Two individuals made worldwide headlines with their actions at the World Cup. One had a breakout performance that landed him a massive contract at a dream club, while the other lived up to his reputation for being one of the more vile and unlikable athletes in all of professional sports. In another proof that life is often unfair, that person also received a deal that provided him with a bump in pay and a transfer to one of the giants of world football. Karma is apparently uninterested in that person.
While the soccer year will be remembered largely for what occurred at the international level, club soccer was just as entertaining as was the World Cup. La Liga stopped being a two two affair, if only for a season. Manchester was once again turned blue, and what has been one of the most-successful clubs of the Premier League era devolved into that other team in its city. The man who was the most-expensive sale in world history earned his pay when he delivered a clutch goal during club soccer's biggest yearly match.
Worth every penny, right Real Madrid?
There were times when it felt as if every good soccer story was matched with a bad one. Highlight reel goals were coupled with far too many instances of concussions and other head injuries being taken as seriously as your run-of-the-mill head cold during matches. Everybody involved in the sport – coaches, players, medical staff and the like – must do better to protect footballers during games, because the unthinkable occurring during a live televised Premier League match all because an injured player was allowed to keep on playing isn't just a fear. It is in inevitability unless changes are made.
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18 Flying Dutch
No team in the World Cup brought more entertainment to the World Cup than the Netherlands. Robin van Persie hit a diving header that was the best goal of the tournament and one of the top tallies you'll ever see. There was that controversial penalty decision that helped propel Holland to a victory over Mexico. The Dutch enjoyed penalty shootout heaven before being sunk by penalty shootout hell. Holland were a fun watch, and they were also but a few positive bounces away from qualifying through to the Final.
17 Gareth Bale Wins Copa del Rey
Remember when Gareth Bale was injured in the early stages of his Real Madrid stint and viewed as a massive flop? How quickly things can change. Bale sparkled and found his form when healthy, and he hit Real rivals Barcelona with a goal of the year candidate that won his new club its first title of the year. The Welsh wonder went end-to-end, flashing Olympic-sprinter speed in the process, before depositing a goal five minutes from time. That wouldn't, as we would learn, be the only time that Bale would play a role in Real hoisting a trophy.
16 America Loves/Doesn't Care About Soccer
That the United States Men's National Team qualified past the Group Stages of the 2014 World Cup before they were eliminated wasn't nearly as big a story as was the fact that, for about three weeks, soccer was the country's top sport. Bars and restaurants aired matches involving countries that some viewers couldn't locate on a map. Sports talk radio shows that normally ignore the sport, began programs with USMNT player interviews and World Cup discussions. The growth of the popularity of soccer in the United States is real, and Major League Soccer getting what is financially an improved television deal will only add further exposure of the world's game to American sports fans.
That said, it turns out that the 2014 World Cup didn't change the way that Americans view the sport. Major League Soccer side DC United still play in broken-down RFK Stadium. David Beckham can't get an actual MLS team or stadium in Miami at the moment. MLS expansion side New York City Football Club is no closer to getting a home than it was when the team was introduced in May 2013. The World Cup drew record television ratings in the United States, and yet North American club soccer continues to go ignored by the majority of that audience.
15 Basel Stun The World
Basel versus Liverpool was advertised to be a David-versus-Goliath Champions League showdown, a match in which the Premier League side would show its quality and dispatch what is considered to be a minnow in world football. That analogy proved to be accurate, as the underdog did well to earn a draw against The Reds on December 9th, when a point was enough to send Basel through into the knockout stages of the competition. Basel knocked Tottenham Hotspur out of the Europa League tournament back in April of 2013, and the Swiss club shouldn't be counted out heading into 2015.
14 FIFA Corrupt, Edition 1.2 Million (Not Sure That's Sarcasm)
FIFA being a corrupt and inept organization is so commonplace that it lands this low in such a list. Go ahead and choose the story of your liking for bashing actions of FIFA over the past 12 months. Perhaps you'd like to go with, for example, workers building World Cup stadiums in Qatar dying at an alarming rate, or the fact that the 2022 World Cup isn't being moved from Qatar for reasons that we can only gue$$. Only when FIFA decides to clean house, which isn't happening anytime soon, will the organization lose the reputation that it has.
13 The Collapse of United
Keep working on that Fountain of Youth for Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United fans. You're bound to hit on something eventually. United folded to mid-table mediocrity under new manager David Moyes, and Moyes was not even allowed to finish the season before he was shown the door. New boss Louis van Gaal has seemingly recovered from what was another rough start of a campaign for the club, and United seem to have the goods to challenge for a top-four finish. Do not expect them, however, to challenge for a league title this time around.
12 Bayern Munich Dominance
The Bundesliga is easy to ignore for those who don't call Bayern their own. With no real competition to hold them from the top of the league table, Bayern clinched the 2013-14 league title with seven – count 'em – seven games in hand. They won the league with six matches left to play in the spring of 2013. Odds are that Bayern will again run away with the league... because of course they will. Bundesliga seasons have become missable affairs for those who aren't diehard fans of German soccer, which is a shame considering all of the talent that is in that league.
11 The Ballad of Balotelli
Enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli continued to be one of the more fascinating footballers to follow in 2014. He played himself out of favor with a third consecutive club, this one being AC Milan. Balotelli is not endearing himself to the Liverpool faithful, as he has been underwhelming during the first several months of his stint at the club. There are whispers and reports that Balotelli could be sold in January. Step in and send him a blank check, Major League Soccer. He'd be a star in the New York City market.
10 Farewell, Landon
The final season in the career of US Soccer legend Landon Donovan was quite the roller coaster ride. Donovan was left off of the final US World Cup squad by national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann. The greatest American footballer of all-time would then go on to announce that he would retire when his LA Galaxy duties ended. Donovan stepped away from active duty with head held high and the MLS Cup in his hand, one final achievement for a player who was equally talented as he was polarizing among US supporters.
9 Arsenal End Trophy Drought
The “Since Arsenal Last Won a Trophy” website isn't nearly as fun as it was at the start of 2014. Arsenal's trophy drought of nine years ended in May when The Gunners rallied from behind to defeat Hull City and win the FA Cup. Their run continued up through the unofficial start of the 2014-15 season when Arsenal defeated Manchester City 3-0 en route to hoisting the Community Shield. Manager Arsène Wenger has been an unpopular figure among Arsenal fans at times, but he delivered two trophies to those individuals in 2014.
It took some time for him to build his desired squad, but Jose Mourinho has turned Chelsea into the best team in England. “The Special One” has Chelsea playing scintillating football in the fall of 2014, and there are Premier League experts predicting that The Blues will run away with the league title. Mourinho has been an entertaining figure throughout his career, and the play of his squads is silencing his critics. He will deserve all of the credit he will get if Chelsea go on to win the league.
9. Liverpool Are...or Maybe Were...Back?
Liverpool fans went back in time in the winter and spring of 2014. The Reds were in the title race up until an unfortunate slip from Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard ended those dreams, but Liverpool did make a return to the Champions League. It hasn't been good times for the club this fall, however, as Liverpool have been playing more like a mid-table side than a Premier League title contender this fall. There are even some who are suggesting that the club should part ways with manager Brendan Rodgers.
8. Roma Return
Juventus remained the kings of Serie A and of Italian football for another season as was expected, but Roma made news of their own by climbing all the way up to second in the league table and eventually earning a Champions League berth. That European tour did not last long, however, as Roma did not survive the group stages of that tournament. They will have an opportunity to play for Europa League glory, and they are giving Juve a scare early into the 2014-15 campaign. Roma and Juventus are neck-in-neck in the Serie A table this holiday season.
7 Real Rule
Real fans likely would have freaked out had they been told in the fall of 2013 that their beloved club was going to finish the season third in the La Liga table. Having the knowledge that Los Blancos would go on to win Copa del Rey and defeat Barcelona in that Final before achieving Champions League glory against Atletico Madrid would have softened the blow for those supporters. Regardless of anything that happens up through the conclusion of the holiday season, Real will close 2014 out as the kings of club soccer.
6 Welcome Change
Barcelona and Real Madrid. Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish giants dominating La Liga has been the trend over the years, one that went on hiatus earlier this spring. Atletico Madrid rose up the league table all the way to the top, and the supposed little brothers of Real clinched the La Liga title on the final day of the campaign. Atletico likely won't be there to win it all on the last day of the 2014-15 season, but watching them triumph over Barca and Real in league play offered a glimpse of hope for the other teams in Spain.
5 Brazil Disappoint
From their first match of the World Cup, en encounter versus Croatia, Brazil just didn't look right. The hosts lacked confidence on the ball, and there were noticeable holes in the team's back line. Those weaknesses were exposed in a shocking 7-1 loss to Germany that sent Brazil out of the tournament and that left an entire nation both heartbroken and stunned to silence. Brazil, simply put, were not physically or emotionally prepared for what it meant to play a World Cup on home soil, and they were the biggest letdown of the tournament.
4 World Meets James
James Rodriguez of Colombia entered the World Cup as a talented player. He exited Brazil as a household name among casual sports fans, a man worthy of featuring for any club in the world. Rodriguez won the Golden Boot for the tournament, scoring six goals in five matches. His play in June changed his life and his career, as it resulted in Rodriguez putting pen to paper on an impressive deal with Real Madrid. The best is likely yet to come for the 23-year old who made himself famous in front of a worldwide audience.
3 Luis Suarez is an Idiot
When he isn't allegedly hurling racial slurs towards opposing players, Luis Suarez is biting them. The Uruguayan striker who may be the top front man in the world bit Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup, not the first time that Suarez has chomped down on an athlete during a match. That disgusting act landed Suarez on newspaper headlines all over the planet, and it got him banned from competitive soccer up through the fall months. It did not, however, prevent Suarez from making his desired switch from Liverpool to Barcelona.
2 Gareth Bale Wins Champions League
Highlights will showcase Cristiano Ronaldo flexing with his shirt off after hitting a late penalty in the 2014 Champions League Final, but it was Bale who delivered the match winner on that evening. He rose and hit a header in the 110th minute, putting Real up over Atletico Madrid for good. Bale finished his debut season in Spain with 22 goals and 16 assists across all competitions.
1 German Dominance
Germany entered the World Cup as the best team in the world, and they returned home from Brazil with the trophy, gold medals and the right to be recognized as the No. 1 squad on the planet. They rolled through group play in impressive fashion. Germany trounced Brazil 7-1 in a beat-down that nobody saw coming. Extra time was required for the Germans to take care of Argentina in the Final, but that doesn't erase what was a brilliant World Cup run. The 2014 Germany team is one that will be talked about by fans and analysts for years to come.
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