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Glory and Dishonor
Grant Wahl
June 06, 2011
Soccer sees its best of times, worst of times, all at once
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June 06, 2011

Glory And Dishonor

Soccer sees its best of times, worst of times, all at once

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In the course of a few days last week, from a London pitch to a Zurich boardroom, the world saw the best and the worst that global soccer has to offer. The men who play the game have seldom presented a talent like Lionel Messi, the 23-year-old Argentine dribbling dervish who led Barcelona past Manchester United 3--1 in a UEFA Champions League final for the ages at Wembley Stadium last Saturday. Meanwhile, the men who run the game sank FIFA's reputation to an alltime low, conducting a farce of a presidential campaign that saw both candidates face corruption investigations and delivered, in the end, the same result as ever: Incumbent Sepp Blatter emerged as the only man standing ahead of Wednesday's scheduled election.

Thank goodness for Messi's Barcelona, which has to be considered one of the greatest teams of all time after dominating the Spanish and Champions leagues with a breathtaking passing attack. The world's soccer fans had endured a stretch of disappointing big games—including last year's World Cup final—but Barça and Man U delivered a classic. The English champions came to play, not just to defend, and even took a 1--1 deadlock into halftime, but Messi's brilliance reigned in the second half. So scared were United's defenders of Messi's ability to beat them on the dribble that they gave him space to unleash a leftfooted thunderbolt that gave Barça a 2--1 lead. Then it was Messi who broke Nani's ankles on the play that led to David Villa's trophy-securing strike.

In a modern game dominated by brawn and athleticism, Messi is the most special of outliers, a player of ordinary size whose skill, vision and chutzpah are taking the sport to a new level. But Barcelona has other weapons too, including Xavi, the majestic Spanish string-puller whose inside-out pass created the first goal against Man U. By the end of the onslaught, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was convinced. "In my time as a manager, it's the best team we have ever faced," he said of Barcelona. "No one has ever given us a hiding like that."

FIFA, for its part, reached new depths last week. Blatter's lone presidential challenger, Mohammed bin Hammam, of Qatar, pulled out of the race and was suspended along with FIFA vice president Jack Warner for their roles in allegedly offering up to $1 million to Caribbean soccer officials in exchange for election votes. (Both men denied the charges.) FIFA's ethics committee also cleared Blatter of accusations that he knew of the alleged bribes but failed to report them. In the end, last week's executive expulsions appeared far more likely to have been the result of a preelection power play than an indication that FIFA is serious about policing corruption. The most sensible response at this point would be for the national associations that care about fighting corruption, including England and the U.S., to leave Blatter's FIFA altogether.