Unheralded: Joy Amidst European Drama in 2012
Most football fans could say that Manchester City's dramatic league title in 2012 was one of the biggest stories in Europe that year. However, it was not the only major story that year. In 2012, football fans witnessed a flurry of emotions across Europe as stories from seven nations unfolded.
That also included a title drought ending not just in England, but in another island nation. A marathon season unlike any other began in 2011 and ended with a familiar champion. The familiarity became a theme in a Balkan country where a dynasty was coming of age.
Finally, three countries saw maiden league winners crowned, all who came on the final day. Each had overcome stumbles to win the league title and fend off giants in their league.
In 2012, seven of those nations joined England as those that had the most memorable seasons that year: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, and Russia.
Eight-goal Thriller in Dortmund
No Fluke in Germany
Perhaps no club was more skeptical of defending a league title than that of Borussia Dortmund, who began its defense of the Bundesliga title by losing three of its first six games. That included a match on Sept. 18, 2011, at Hannover in which Dortmund gave up two late goals. The 2-1 loss saw Dortmund drop to 11th place in the standings.
However, when the season ended the end of the season, Dortmund finished with only those three losses. Dortmund went on a 28-match unbeaten streak, beginning on Sept. 24, 2011, when Lukas Piszczek broke a 1-1 tie in the 90th minute against Mainz. Dortmund came from behind to win 2-1 at the Coface Arena. Winning crucial matches also saw Dortmund climb the standings. Mario Götze scored the only goal in Nov. 19 game at Bayern München. Sebastian Kehl and Lucas Barrios each scored goals in a 2-0 victory at Nürnberg on Feb. 3.
Dortmund went atop the Bundesliga after that game and stayed there for the rest of the season.
Dortmund impressed fans with its prolific scoring in which the club scored 80 goals in the season, of which 22 Robert Lewandowski scored. Lewandowski scored a hat-trick early in the season against Augsburg while also recording the lone goal in a late-season meeting against Bayern München. Dortmund scored at least three goals on the road five times in the Bundesliga, including six at Köln. The following week after winning in Kölm, Dortmund played to a 4-4 draw at home against Stuttgart, the highest-scoring draw for that season.
Dortmund won the last six games of the season after that draw and for the second straight season clinched the Bundesliga with two games to spare. Dortmund won 2-0 against Mönchengladbach to win the club's eighth league title. To prove their title was no fluke, Dortmund backed up that title by winning the German Cup 5-2 against Bayern München. Dortmund won its first double in its history.
Russia underwent a significant overhaul as it transitioned to an autumn-spring schedule. That meant the regular season began on Mar. 12, 2011, as the country transitioned to play an autumn-spring season. The 16 clubs played in two phases during the season. The first phase featured a 30-game scheduled, where the top eight teams after 30 games advanced to a championship stage. This second part featured a 14-game schedule to determine the winner of the Russian Premier League.
Zenit St. Petersburg overcame obstacles and controversies early in the season. Those setbacks began days after Vyacheslav Malafeev recorded a clean sheet at Terek Grozny in which he received some tragic news. His wife, Marina, died in a car crash on the day Zenit was to host Dutch club Twente in the Europa League.
Three days later, a severe incident unfolded in Zenit's match against Anzhi Makhachkala when a fan offered Anzhi's Roberto Carlos a banana, an action considered racially-based. The Russian Football Union fined Zenit €7,400. A month earlier, Zenit drew 1-1 against rivals CSKA Moscow on Apr. 10 in which its youngest player on the roster was born in 1989.
Zenit had done this before in 2010 and paid a monetary fine because of a regulation violation. However, an updated league rule enacted in December 2010 required Russian clubs to include one player of Russian citizenship born 1990 or later on the roster. As a consequence, Zenit received a "forfeit loss as well as a (monetary) fine." To make matters worse, Zenit hit a nadir as the club suffered a stunning 2-1 loss at Tom Tomsk. After a scoreless draw at home to Terek Grozny and with 16 matches played, Zenit St. Petersburg trailed CSKA Moscow by seven points.
After 30 rounds, Zenit overcame that deficit and led CSKA Moscow by two points. After the 44th game, Zenit got a significant boost from its most valuable player.
He returned for another second stint at the club, even though he suffered an ankle injury during the season. Alexander Kerzhakov finished second in scoring with 23 goals as he was one of nine Zenit players voted as one of the league's top 33 players. Kerzhakov scored the second goal in Zenit's 2-1 victory over Dynamo Moscow on Apr. 28, 2012 to give Zenit the league title with three games to spare. Zenit finished 13 points clear of Spartak Moscow as it lost four times during the 44-game season.
2012: A Cut Above the Rest
Supremacy at Zagreb
One club that won a European league in style did so in Zagreb, Croatia. It may have featured a team who had one of the worst group stages in the UEFA Champions League. It may have seen a managerial change take place after that campaign. However, it ended with Dinamo Zagreb winning Croatia's Prva Liga title 21 points, a year after winning the league title by 17 points. Dinamo Zagreb's managerial change that happened because the club struggled during the Champions League. Dinamo Zagreb lost all six matches as the club allowed 22 goals,
Before shifting the job at Dinamo Zagreb, Ante Čačić became the manager for city rivals Lokomotiv Zagreb two months earlier. Čačić managed Dinamo Zagreb to its best season in Croatia's league history. What made Dinamo Zagreb's 2011-12 season even more impressive was that the club lost only one game in 30 matches. With five games to spare, Dinamo Zagreb won 3-0 at Sibenik to clinch the club's seventh consecutive league title and 14th overall since 1993.
Dinamo Zagreb made its home venue Maksimir Stadium difficult for clubs during the season. Dinamo Zagreb outscored all opponents 38-4 at home, including victories of 5-0, 6-0 and 7-0. RNK Split and NK Zadar (the lone team that defeated Dinamo Zagreb that season) managed to draw there. Dinamo Zagreb also impressed away, as the club recorded three 4-0 victories on the road. Goalkeeper Ivan Kelava proved difficult for opposing offenses as Dinamo Zagreb conceded only 11 goals in 30 games.
The club also boasted both the current and previous seasons' leading scorers. Montenegrin-born Fatos Beciraj developed slowly but made history during the season. His 15 goals made him the first foreign-born player to dominate Croatia's top-flight league in scoring. A season before, Ivan Krstanovic scored 19 goals for NK Zagreb; in 2012, he finished second in scoring for Dinamo Zagreb with ten goals. Two of those goals came in a 2-1 victory over Hajduk Split in which he came in the match for Beciraj.
Early Season Upset
Miracle at Farum
FC København won three straight Danish Superliga titles coming into the 2011-12 season to go along with its knockout stage berth at the Champions League in the previous season. It also looked to win the league title despite firing its manager even with the club atop the league standings, just as Dinamo Zagreb did in Croatia.
Instead, a first-time manager and a 36-year-old captain led unheralded FC Nordsjælland to a victorious triumph. Based in the city of Farum, FC Nordsjælland survived a 33-game season, and impressive considering Farum has a population 65 times less than København. In the previous two seasons, FC Nordsjælland won the Danish Cup, the first trophies for a club that never finished higher than fifth after rebranding before its triumph.
Led by captain Nicolai Stokholm and manager Kasper Hjulmand, Nordsjælland enjoyed successes at Farum Park while overcoming early-season losses. While it struggled early on the road, FC Nordsjælland did secure an early-season road victory at Parken Stadium. Søren Christensen opened the scoring as the club won 3-1 at Parken Stadium. In the next match, a huge letdown happened as Nordsjælland suffered a shocking 1-0 home loss against Lyngby.
Still, Nordsjælland improved from its struggles and chased down København. When these two teams met again on May 2, 2012, Nordsjælland emerged victorious as Mikkel Beckmann notched the only goal of the game at Farum Park. On May 20, Nordsjælland stood on the precipice of a first league title after the club recorded a 1-0 victory at Brøndby; coupled with København's 1-0 loss at Midtjylland, Nordsjælland headed into the final day of the season atop the league, but in a somewhat precarious position. Nordsjælland had to win because a draw against Horsens plus a København win over Silkeborg meant København would win the title on goal difference.
At one point on May 23, 2012, København's was ahead in the league standings with an early strike in its game against Silkeborg. However, Nordsjælland tied the game right before halftime as Beckmann scored his eighth goal for the club. With ten minutes remaining in its match, Nordsjælland was still in a precarious position despite its 1-0 lead as København lead 2-1 in its match. However, Nordsjælland broke the game open late. He comes from a footballing family and is the son of Danish international Michael Laudrup. Andreas Laudrup had scored in the 82nd minute before Andreas Bjelland scored his only goal of the season five minutes later.
A record crowd of 10,300 at Farum Park witnessed Nordsjælland become champions of Denmark. Days later, Nordsjælland would qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage due to Chelsea's victory in the UEFA Champions League final.
44-Year Wait Finally Over
No question that one country that made headlines in European football was Cyprus. Based in Nicosia, APOEL FC defied all odd to finish as a quarterfinalist in the UEFA Champions League. In Cyprus's domestic league, another club defeated APOEL and Anorthosis and, like Manchester City did in England, ended a 44-year drought with winning a league title.
AEL Limassol was a shock considering in 2011 the club finished in eighth place. AEL staved off having to go through a relegation round to stave off relegation. In Cyprus, there are three teams usually dominating the league. However, AEL finished top of the table by winning 18 out of 26 matches. AEL impressed exceptionally on the road as it allowed only two goals as well as securing 1-0 victories at Anorthosis and APOEL.
AEL's important road games were in large part to its goalkeeper Matia Omar Degra. He impressed not only in defensive craft but also his panache for saving penalty kicks.
After 22 games, AEL in the championship phase of the league, but had to fend off APOEL, Anorthosis, and Omonia Nicosia, whom AEL lost to twice, to win the league title. AEL made use of its home venue Tsirion Stadium as AEL won all three games there in the championship stage. With one game to spare, AEL clinched its sixth league title thanks to a Luciano Bebe goal with 16 minutes remaining against Anorthosis on May 5, 2012.
68 Goals En Route
The Party Beginning
Unfancied from France
Before France's 2011-12 Ligue One season, most people picked Paris Saint-Germain to win the league title. The club acquired many players, including Blaise Matuidi, Mohamed Sissoko, and Javier Pastore before the season. The club also signed Thiago Motta during the winter transfer window.
Instead, Ligue One saw a different champion for the fifth consecutive season and perhaps the most unexpected. In the 2010-11 season, Montpellier accumulated the worst disciplinary record among the 20 Ligue 1 teams as the club was looking to revive its heyday a nearly 25 years earlier. In the 1980s and 1990s, Montpellier boasted notable names in soccer: Roger Milla, Eric Cantona, Carlos Valderrama, Laurent Blanc and Aime Jacquet, manager of France's 1998 World Cup squad. Blanc and Cantona were on Montpellier's 1990 Coupe de France Final, which was the club's last major tournament.
However, despite modest ambitions, Montpellier went about their business throughout the season and did at home. A 3-0 home loss to PSG on Sept. 24, 2011, proved to be the only loss for Montpellier at home that season. It previously hosted matches at the 1998 World Cup and Stade de las Mosson saw Montpellier achieve 1-0 victories over Lille, Lyon, and Marseille during the season. The club also won a 5-3 match against Dijon FCO in which Oliver Giroud, who scored one of his two hat-tricks that season (the other came a month later at Sochaux).
Montpellier amassed 50 points at home, the most by a Ligue One club in 19 years. Giroud finished as co-leader in scoring with 21 goals. Younes Belhanda, Player of the Month recipient in November 2011, finished with 12 goals for the club and would win France's Young Player of the Year. Belhanda's signature moment came on Apr. 27, 2012, when his third-minute goal was the only goal of the game in Toulouse. Two days later, PSG lost 2-1 at Lille and Montpellier had control of its destiny. That power was almost lost, however, after a 2-2 draw at home against Evian, which saw an ugly fight as Belhanda one of four players shown a red card late in the match.
However, Montpellier finished the season with three straight wins, the last coming at Stade de l'Abbe-Deschamps. John Utaka scored both goals against Auxerre to give Montpellier won 2-1 and its maiden Ligue One title.
Quick Ascent from the East
European football fans might remember Kaiserslautern's historic Bundesliga title in 1998, a year after winning the second division title. If Kaiserslautern's title stunned footballing neutrals, then Bulgaria's top-flight winner in 2012 saw many neutral in shock. The club originated in 2001, but Ludogorets Razgrad finished its first season in 2011 with the club winning the East portion of Bulgaria's B Group and automatic promotion to the A Group.
Located in northeastern Bulgaria, Ludogorets faced some of Bulgaria's most storied clubs the following season. These organizations included Sofia-based clubs Levski and CSKA (both with a combined 57 league titles), as well as two-time reigning champions Litex Lovech.
Despite their debutante status, Ludogorets continued its success at the beginning of the season. Ludogorets followed up its season-opening home scoreless draw against Lokomotiv Plovdiv by winning eight straight games. The most notable result came in a 2-1 victory over Levski Sofia. Emil Gargorov scored the winning goal in the match, one of his 13 goals during the season.
The club lost three straight after that 25-point start, but Ludogorets remained focused on their goal. , Ludogorets only allowed 16 goals during the season, six of which came at home. Along with Gargorov, Ilyo Stoyanov finished as co-leader in scoring with 16 goals. These two players led their team in scoring, but Miroslav Ivanov scored the most crucial goal of the season for Ludogorets.
His fourth goal came at home against CSKA Sofia.
This 30th game for Ludogorets determined the league winner as the club had to win to clinch the league title. Ivanov's goal came in the 19th minute, and the club had an opportunity to score more when CSKA Sofia finished the match with reduced to 10 men. In the second half, Ludogorets would end the game with ten men as well. CSKA missed two chances that hit the crossbar while goalkeeper Uros Golubovic made a crucial save late in the match.Ivanov's goal proved decisive as Ludogorets defied logic to win its first league title in its first season in the top flight.
In 2012, seven nations watched history unfolded as new chapters became written in the annals of footballing history. Each winner endured adversity and even skepticism at a time to overcome obstacles and win their respective league titles and prove that 2012 was more of football than Manchester City winning the Premier League. No doubt it was a remarkable story, but so was what unfolded elsewhere.
© 2015 Antonio Martinez