As we welcome in the New Year, let's take a look back at the top 10 Latino soccer stories of 2012:
1. Messi, the magnificent
Is there anything that Lionel Messi can't do on a soccer field? Well, given his height and physical stature, defender and goalkeeper are probably out of the question. But man, can this Argentine striker play the game with both beauty and effortless magnificence. He finished with an incredible 91 goals in the calendar year, shattering the record of 85, set by German legend Gerd Mueller four decades ago. Messi, the fulcrum of the Barcelona attack, has been a major reason why the team is running away with the La Liga race. Next week he is expected to win the FIFA Ballon d'Or as the world's top player for the fourth time.
2. Spain reigns -- again
It's a good thing Messi doesn't play for Spain because the Spaniards would be invincible, although the rest of Europe would claim they already are. Spain became the first country to win back-to-back Euro crowns, following up its success at the 2008 competition, with a 4-0-2 record. Italy, which managed a 1-1 tie in the group stage, was spanked by La Roja in the final, 4-0, as David Silva, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata scored. Whether Spain can follow up its Euro 2012 title with another World Cup win, it remains to be seen. No European team has won a World Cup in the Americas; Brazil will host in 2014.
3. México discovers the road to El Dorado
The world again was given notice that the Mexicans are poised to become an international power at the London Summer Olympics. El Tri made history by becoming the first CONCACAF country to capture a medal — a gold one at that. México surprised Brazil, 2-1, in more ways than one despite playing without its best player, the injured Giovani dos Santos before a packed house at Wembley. Only 29 seconds into the match, Oribe Peralta struck for the first of his two goals, the fastest goal scored in a FIFA final.
4. The other Madrid team shows it's the real thing
For years Atlético Madrid has been forced to play second fiddle to world-renowned Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. While RM has floundered this season, Atlético has flourished. Coached by former Argentine great Diego Simeone and boosted by Colombian international Radamel Falcao, Atlético captured the UEFA Europa League crown with a smashing 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilboa behind Falcao's first-half brace and Diego's second-half goal. Behind a quick start by Falcao, considered the best clinical finisher on the planet, AM (13-3-1, 40) sits in second place in La Liga, seven points ahead of Real.
5. Barcelona's incredible start
If there is a team in Spain or Europe that can best Barca, no side has stepped forward. The closest Barcelona came to walking out of a stadium without any points was a 2-2 home with Real Madrid on Oct. 7. This is one finely tuned team. It doesn't hurt to have Messi. But he is far from a one-man show, not with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano. With a new coach -- Tito Vilanova replaced Pep Guardiola -- Barca did not miss a step. With Vilanova sidelined for cancer treatments, the team did not miss a step with assistant coach Jordi Roura calling the shots in a 3-0 victory over Valladolid last week.
6. A double for Monterrey
It's not easy defending any championship, especially at the confederation level. Los Rayados captured the CONCACAF Champions League for the second consecutive time, outlasting Mexican rival Santos Laguna in the aggregate final series. Chilean striker Humberto Suazo was the main scorer for Monterrey, which earned a second shot at the FIFA Club World Cup. After finishing a disappointing fifth in 2011, Los Rayados took third place, besting Al-Ahly (Egypt), 2-0, without the injured Suazo. Monterrey will try for a third consecutive confederation crown in 2013 as it is top-seeded in the CCL knockout rounds.
7. Colombia re-born
Not since the days of Carlos Valderrama, Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla has Colombia participated in a World Cup (1998). The Colombians, who have missed three consecutive World Cups, are primed to reach to the world stage again. Buoyed by Falcao and a host of players performing in Europe, and coached by Argentinean Jose Pekerman, the Colombians (5-1-2, 17 are in third place trailing only Argentina (6-1-2, 20) and Ecuador (5-2-2, 17), with a game in hand on the nine-country group. The top four teams will qualify for Brazil, with the fifth-place team taking on Asia's fifth-place side for a berth.
8. México’s World Cup dominance
If you're tired of reading about Mexican successes here, get used to it. The Mexicans rolled through the CONCACAF semifinals with a 6-0 mark while outscoring their foes (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana), 15-2. México not only is expected to qualify for Brazil 2014, it is expected to win the CONCACAF hexagonal in 2013. With the likes of defender Carlos Salcido, Andres Guardado, Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez, among others, El Tri is primed to rule the confederation for at least the next five years.
9. Failure was an option for Real
The wheels are beginning to fall off the Real Madrid wagon. After capturing La Liga crown in the spring, Real has struggled to keep pace with its archrivals. Real finds itself with a 10-4-3 record and 33 points, 16 points behind Barca. Ever-controversial coach Jose Mourinho has all but conceded that Real cannot catch his team's archrivals, admitting it faced "an insurmountable gap." Mourinho might be getting desperate. He benched Iker Casillas, considered the best goalkeeper in the world, and it backfired in a 3-2 loss at fourth-place Malaga last week.
10. The Argentine invasion
You can't shake a stick in a major European league without hitting an Argentine player, it seems. It's not just their presence, but their impact. In Spain, Messi leads the way with 26 goals, followed by Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain (seven) and Malaga's Javier Saviola (five). The South American country's impact could not be greater than in Italy, where five players are among the top 18 scorers -- AS Roma's Erik Lamela (10) and Pablo Osvaldo (nine), Inter Milan's Diego Milito (seven), Atalanta's German Denis (seven) and Catania's Gonzalo Bergessio (six). In England, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez have seven goals apiece. In France, Lyon's Lisandro Lopez has six goals. And that doesn't count other Argentine players who find ways to fill the net, and others that are defenders. Little wonder why many soccer observers are touting Argentina as one of the World Cup favorites.
Michael Lewis, who has covered eight World Cups and has been reporting about soccer for four decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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