Controversy, Qualifying and Catalans Headline Football in 2009

World Cup qualifying closed in 2009, with some berths ending in controversy

David Byrd

World Cup qualifying closed in 2009, with some berths ending in controversy.  France's Thierry Henry made headlines with a handball in a playoff against Ireland while violence marred Algeria's playoff with Egypt.  The United States surprised the world with its finish in the Confederations Cup, and qualified for the World Cup for the ninth time.  And Barcelona of Spain won six trophies. 

World Cup qualifying aroused passion in 2009, with 1998 champions France involved in one of the most controversial endings in recent memory.  Not since Diego Maradona's "hand of God" goal at the 1986 World Cup has a single score aroused passion like French forward Thierry Henry's crucial play against Ireland in a playoff in November.

France and Ireland were tied 1-1 on aggregate after the two legs, forcing extra time.  Ireland was minutes away from forcing the second leg in France to penalties when Henry used his hand to stop a pass in front of the Irish goal.  Henry flicked the ball to teammate William Gallas, who scored in extra time to give the French a 2-1 aggregate score and a berth in the World Cup.

The incident sparked a huge debate, with even the respective heads of state entering the controversy.  Ireland appealed to the International Football Federation (FIFA), which denied its request to be the 33rd team at the 2010 World Cup. 

FIFA said that the referee's decision on the field was final.  The referee had not called Henry's handball, a fact that led to a call for more referees for the World Cup.  FIFA head Sepp Blatter dismissed that notion at December's World Cup draw ceremony. "On the field of play we will have only one referee and two assistants.  This is for 2010. Definite; it will not be discussed.  Later on we will see how it works," he said.

France and Ireland were not the only nations embroiled in controversy on the way to South Africa.  Egypt and Algeria's playoff campaign ended in a wave of violence, diplomatic disputes and nationalistic fervor. 

In November, Egypt needed to beat Algeria by three goals in African Group C to secure a berth in the World Cup.  Before a crucial match in Cairo, Egyptian fans threw stones at the Algerian bus on the way to the team hotel.  Security was tight for the match, which Egypt won, 2-0.

The result forced a one-match playoff at a neutral site, which was played in Omdurman, Sudan.  Under heavy security, Algeria beat Egypt, 1-0, to earn its first World Cup appearance since 1986.

Egypt later recalled its ambassador to Algeria to protest attacks on Egyptian fans and businesses in Khartoum.  In Cairo, police clashed with distraught fans who tried to attack the Algerian embassy.  Relations between Egypt and Sudan became tense as well amid accusations that security was insufficient for the playoff.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak even said in a speech to parliament that attacks on Egyptians would not be tolerated.  However, the so-called "Pharaohs" team still missed Africa's first World Cup.

Fan focus now turns to South Africa, which hosts the 32-nation tournament beginning June 11.  Former South African President Nelson Mandela told the world at December's draw ceremony that his nation looks forward to hosting the world's largest sporting event. "We feel privileged and humbled that South Africa has been given the singular honor of being the (first) African host country," he said.

With questions about whether stadiums and infrastructure would be ready in time easing in 2009, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said the world can look forward to a fantastic tournament. "The World Cup will bring, not only the best players of the world, the World Cup will bring to South Africa a recognition of Africa.  Because Africa has waited so long to have the World Cup and now you have the World Cup and this is something very, very special.  Definitely," he said.

The United States qualified for the World Cup by finishing atop the North, Central American and Caribbean region standings, one point ahead of Mexico.  The U.S. Soccer Team will appear in its sixth consecutive World Cup and opens the tournament against former champion England. 

U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said that taking on the English ramped up his team's expectations for the World Cup. "Opening the World Cup with that type of game, a game that I think will just bring tremendous interest in the United States, it'll be special for our fans.  The little that I've heard from our players, text messages (on his cell phone) and that kind of thing, you can really tell already that this is a match that has them very, very excited," he said.

The U.S. men had another reason to be excited in 2009 - they made the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa in June, a key test of the venues for 2010.  The U.S. team handed European champions Spain a rare loss in the semifinals of the tournament, and played Brazil in the final. 

The U.S. took a 2-0 lead into halftime of the championship match, but could not hold off the Brazilian counterattacks.  Lucio scored the game winning goal in the 84th minute to dash the USA's hopes.

American forward Landon Donovan also had reason to celebrate - he won the Honda U.S. player of the year award for the third year in a row. 

Argentina's Lionel Messi gathered worldwide awards - including the FIFA Player of the Year award, European football's Golden Ball award, and helped lead F.C. Barcelona to six titles in 2009.

Messi had helped Barcelona beat Manchester United, 2-0, in the Champions League final and scored the winning goal in the World Club Cup, as the Spanish club beat Estudiantes of Argentina, 2-1 in extra time. 

Another South American star - and former Barcelona playmaker - Ronaldinho of Brazil beat Messi for the Player of the Decade award by Soccer World Magazine.  Ronaldinho had previously won the World Player of the Year award twice and the Golden Ball in 2005. He finished ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in the final vote.

But Messi and Barcelona collected plenty of hardware in 2009. The club won the World Club Cup, the Spanish league title, the Spanish Cup, the European Champions League title and the Spanish and European Super Cups. 

In Europe's second-tiered UEFA Cup, Shaktar Donetsk of Ukraine beat Werder Bremen of Germany, 2-1 in May to win the last UEFA Cup title.  The tournament was reorganized and re-launched as the Europa League.

Spain ended 2009 as the top-ranked team in world football.  The Spaniards played 16 international matches, winning 15 times and losing only once - to the United States at the Confederations Cup.  Spain scored 47 goals and allowed only 12 and captured the Team of the Year award for the second time.

In women's soccer, the United States ended 2009 ranked No. 1. The U.S. women won seven international matches in 2009, and lost once - against Sweden in a penalty shoot-out in March. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was voted the U.S. female player of the year.  Solo started six matches, and finished with a 5-0-1 record and two shutouts.

The past year saw some controversial moments on the football field.  Thierry Henry's handball, Egypt's loss and Barcelona's dominance are now part of history. The coming year promises to be crammed with anticipation as the world looks to South Africa for the World Cup.

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