By Simon Fudge/whitecapsfc.com
As we enter the year 2009, it's hard to begin compiling the events of 2008, even in our beloved world of soccer. To give some perspective, the past 12 months were eventful and interesting on various levels. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed a second full season with the Whitecaps and the triumphant ending that the campaign brought for all of us at the club. My father and his partner moved to a new house on Vancouver Island and I attended a very memorable summer wedding (thanks, Ryan and Elyssa). I also had the unique distinction of voting in three separate elections (federal, provincial, and municipal) in the space of a month this autumn. We had change at Vancouver City Hall, but more of the same in Ottawa, including an end-of-year twist that really added fittingly to our country's ongoing political soap opera. Of course, it's hard to ignore most people's story of the year in the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States – the first African-American to be elected to the Oval Office. I sincerely wish him the best of luck when he takes over later this month, with the so-called 'global economic crisis' likely to be his main issue during the course of his four-year term.
But enough about the happenings of my world or the world in general. This is a soccer blog, and there was much to experience and learn for us lovers of 'The Beautiful Game' in the past year. I will try and do this in chronological order, as I'm sure it will make it easier to remember the following events that I list.
Things began early in 2008, as Ghana hosted the 26th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. Though I observed the tournament from the lens of a television screen, I was captivated by the colorful pageantry of the fans and the exciting, attack-minded soccer played by the participating teams. In the end, 'The Pharaohs' of Egypt made history by claiming a record sixth African title with an all-around professional performance. It was a remarkable feat, considering the North Africans have only made two World Cup finals appearances in their history.
Springtime - for the most part - belonged to Manchester United, who followed yet another English Premier League title with a third European Cup crown after a dramatic penalty shootout win over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final on rainy Moscow night. By December, United claimed the world crown at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. The catalyst for the success of The Red Devils was Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, who deservedly won the Ballon d'Or as European Player of the Year recently. That was capped by an equally refreshing performance from Spain's national team at EURO 2008 in June. Their free-flowing style of soccer not only brought results, but an end to a 44-year drought of not winning a major tournament. No longer could critics use the word "underachievement" to describe La Furia Roja (The Red Fury), as Luis Aragones' side claimed their second European Championship title.
The early part of the summer also saw the Whitecaps start the season well in May – including a notable friendly win over David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy in Edmonton. It was also in May that the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship began when Montreal Impact hosted Toronto FC. In what proved to be a fine example (and there were several) of how Major League Soccer and USL First Division clubs differed only slightly in levels of play, the Whitecaps garnered plenty of attention with their winning performance at Toronto FC's BMO Field on Canada Day. Only once did I lose it with joy during the season, and it came through seeing Martin Nash's decisive penalty hit the back of the TFC net on July 1. That win was then vindicated a week later at Swangard when the 'Caps drew 2-2 with TFC. Montreal eventually won the competition (well done to them!) and a tip of the hat must be made to our Quebec rivals for their efforts in making the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. I have a feeling that the second edition of the Nutrilite Championship will be even more intense...
Summer is also transfer window time, and while the speculation of where 'so-and-so' might go carried on and on and on…it was the events of the window's final day in England that were most dramatic. Having covered the transfer windows in the UK in previous years, I never saw a day like I witnessed on September 1. In a matter of hours, Manchester City transformed into the world's richest club when Abu Dhabi United Group bought the club from Thaksin Shinawatra before quickly turning around and signing Brazilian star Robinho from Real Madrid for a British record transfer fee of just under $60 million…I can still remember the Sky Sports News reporter taking a big kiss on the cheek from a large-looking City fan when he broke the news…August also gave us the Beijing Olympics, and despite a certain level of optimism for a medal, Even Pellerud's long reign with the Canadian women's national team ended predictably (for me, at least) with an early exit in China. The rationale is a simple one – if you fail to play any kind of decent possession soccer, you cannot expect to succeed at the international level. Full stop.
Joy and despair best describes the autumn. Joy of a second USL-1 title in three seasons for the 'Caps, but despair at the sad and pathetic nature of Canada's exit from World Cup qualifying. For me, the road to South Africa 2010 was lost by our two defeats to Honduras and Mexico in September. All involved with the squad are responsible for the ill-fated campaign, though it was disappointing for me not to see Dale Mitchell or his players publicly hold up their hands and say that they got it wrong. Changes are needed (that goes without saying), but not having seen any action from the CSA to date, I fear the worst is still to come through numerous international retirements from the team. It could even leave the squad decimated to being a mere youth side for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, not to mention how it would significantly lessen our chances of making 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Canada's younger women went to World Cups later in the year. I was encouraged by our U-17 women's performances in New Zealand, but left with questions for head coach Ian Bridge after he left out Lexi Marton and Monica Lam-Feist (two Whitecaps players, might I add) from his starting XI when Canada lost its opening group game to Japan at the U-20 Women's World Cup in Chile. The defeat sealed Canada's fate of an early exit, and although the Japanese played our girls off the park for the most part that day, the pair's omissions were not justified in my eyes.
The end of the year brought farewell to several Whitecaps players, with the likes of Jeff Clarke, Steve Kindel, and Alfredo Valente all moving on to pastures new (best wishes, guys, and thanks again!). It also gives us a peak of what to expect in 2009. No major tournaments are scheduled, but there will plenty on offer for the avid soccer fan to sink their teeth into. Youth and athleticism will best describe the '09 Whitecaps men, while a new face (still to be named) will be in charge of our women's side. Can the Residency squad win the PDL after coming two wins short last year? And oh, there's also that small thing of an MLS expansion bid…
With that, I want to wish all soccer lovers, and the public at large, a happy and prosperous New Year!
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