WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Money, tragedy and glory.
It was quite a year for soccer in Latin America, as traditional powers suffered through a lackluster 365 days while other, smaller nations made their names known on the global stage at the World Cup in South Africa.
But there were plenty of dramatic events off the field, too.
Here are the eight greatest stories that shaped the beautiful game throughout Latin America this year.
8. Dunga takes the blame for Brazil’s World Cup crash
When top-ranked Brazil suffered a stunning, 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the World Cup by yielding a pair of second-half goals, it didn’t take long for the entire nation to point their fingers at one person: Dunga.
Instead of having his team play the nation’s trademark “samba” style of up-tempo, attacking soccer, Dunga had his team play a more defensive-minded game.
This didn’t sit well with the Football Confederation – or most of the country’s 192 million residents.
And when the defensive-style failed, it didn’t take long to make a change. About a week after Brazil was eliminated, Dunga was dismissed, and by the end of July, the federation hired former Corinthians coach Mano Menezes to lead its national team.
Whether he succeeds or not, one thing is certain – if the team loses, it will be with its dynamic, attacking flair.
“Most of Brazil’s coaches would like to be in my place. I have been engaged in a certain trajectory, and I thought that one day I would end up with the Brazilian team,” Menezes said at his introductory media conference. “I guess it happened sooner than I expected. On principle I don’t turn down important invitations.”
7. Diego Maradona’s star dims
When Maradona took over as head coach of La Albiceleste, the position came with high expectations.
He was supposed to deliver as a coach what he did as a player in 1986: a World Cup title.
But Maradona and La Albiceleste didn’t quite live up to those lofty goals. After making several questionable roster and lineup decisions, the team ultimately fell short of its ultimate goal with a decisive 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
As a result, the greatest player in the country’s history – and possibly the world – was dismissed as head coach.
Maradona reportedly had a chance to save his job but refused to make changes to his staff, which was his ultimate undoing.
“Diego shut himself off to any change,” executive committee member Luis Segura said on Argentine television. “Diego has all the right to do what he wants. But so does [the Argentine Football Association].”
6. Paraguay reaches fourth straight World Cup
Only five teams in the Western Hemisphere have qualified for each of the past four World Cups: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the United States and … Paraguay. That’s quite an accomplishment for a country with a population of just 6.3 million, which equals about 3% of Brazil’s population.
Even more impressive, the team reached the World Cup quarterfinals despite playing without leading scorer Salvador Cabañas, who was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico City in January. And don’t think Paraguay is riding a streak of fluky luck – the country tied Chile with 10 wins in qualifying for the most in CONMEBOL.
“The secret to our qualification was the fact that the players and all the professionals involved with the national team went about their job responsibly and with a minimum of fuss,” Coach Gerald “Tata” Martino told FIFA.com. “If we had failed to do what previous coaches achieved and missed out on qualifying, then we would have become a negative footnote in Paraguay’s [soccer] history.”
5. Salvador Cabañas survives being shot in the head
The soccer world was rocked early this year when Cabañas, a Paraguayan star, was shot in the head at the Bar Bar nightclub in Mexico City on Jan. 25. Cabañas, one of his country’s top players and one of its most polished scorers, took months to recover from an attack that miraculously didn’t take his life.
Without him, Paraguay went from a dark horse to win the World Cup to a falling in the quarterfinals to eventual-champion Spain. But Paraguayans have rallied behind their native son during his recovery, including honoring him on Aug. 11 at Asunción’s Defensores del Chaco Stadium.
“If Paraguay was able to participate in the South Africa 2010 World Cup, it was in great measure because of his [Cabañas’] contribution,” Gabriel Cazenave, sports editor of the Paraguayan newspaper Diario ABC Color, said. “[Cabañas] scored goals in very important matches, he scored six goals in the playoffs and he assisted Nelson Haedo Valdez in the goal against Argentina, which allowed us to qualify.”
4. Brazil makes huge investments in the 2014 World Cup
The World Cup couldn’t have been a bigger success in South Africa.
So what does this mean for host Brazil in 2014?
It’s time to start spending money – a lot of money.
The country is anticipating spending R$29.6 billion (US$17.41 billion) to upgrade the facilities and infrastructure across the nation, including focusing on 12 main cities that will host the matches. Stadiums must have a seating capacity of 30,000 to host games in pool play.
But stadiums must have a seating capacity of 50,000 to hold games in the knockout stages of the Confederations Cup and 60,000 for the World Cup.
“The eyes of the whole world will be upon Brazil,” Lycio Vellozo Ribas, author of “O Mundo das Copas” (The Cups’ World) said. “It’s a unique opportunity. The [people’s] self-esteem rises, the love for the country grows, and the nation becomes united.”
3. South American dominance at the World Cup
It couldn’t have been a much better summer for South American teams in Africa. While no team advanced to the final or finished in the top three, it would be difficult to argue that the squads from the South Eastern hemisphere didn’t dominate the sport’s biggest stage.
Chile reached the round of 16; Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay all reached the quarterfinals; and Uruguay advanced to the semifinals before finishing fourth.
In 2014, with the World Cup in Brazil – marking the tournament’s first stop in South America since being held in Argentina in 1978 – expect the teams to dominate even more – if that’s possible.
2. Spain gets the crown jewel of its Golden Age
Spanish sports couldn’t be doing much better.
Rafael Nadal, a native of Mallorca, has dominated the tennis world. The reigning French Open and Wimbledon champion has won eight Grand Slams and the Olympic gold medal in Beijing 2008.
On the hardwood, the Spanish men’s basketball team won gold at the FIBA World Championships in 2006 and claimed silver at the Olympics in 2008. Native son Pau Gasol powered the Los Angeles Lakers to their second straight National Basketball Association title with a victory over the Boston Celtics.
On the racetrack, Fernando Alonso has emerged as one of the best on the Formula 1 circuit, winning the title in 2005 and 2006.
And now, thanks to a victory over the Netherlands, Spain owns the globe’s most prestigious trophy: a World Cup.
Andrés Iniesta’s goal in extra time lifted Spain to a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands and earned the European champions their first World Cup title. Spain won its final four games of the World Cup all by the scores of 1-0, symbolizing the team’s perseverance to find a way to win.
1. Diego Forlán and Uruguay dazzle the world
Uruguay entered the World Cup in South Africa with low odds to advance past the group stage, but thanks to numerous amazing performances from striker Diego Forlán, the team found itself in the quarterfinals against Ghana.
Tied at 1-1 against the Black Stars with just minutes left in the game, Luis Suárez batted a ball off the goal line with his hand to preserve the tie, earning Suárez a red card and subsequent one-game suspension.
But it kept La Celeste in the game. Uruguay capitalized on their new life as they survived the late penalty shot that ricocheted off the crossbar before advancing on penalty kicks, 4-2.
Uruguay lost to the Netherlands in the semifinals before falling to Germany in a thrilling, third-place game. Regardless, Uruguay had its finest finish in 40 years behind Forlán, who finished with a World Cup-high five goals and an assist to win the Golden Ball as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“It’s as great as it is unexpected,” Forlán told FIFA.com after winning the award. “I never even imagined something like this, nor did I have my sights set on it.”