By Peter Staunton
The World Cup and the Ballon d'Or are looming large over the football horizon heading into the new year. 2014, of course, is the year of Fifa's showpiece event - and from this point until the summer a lot of the talk will be about which team comes out on top in Brazil.
Spain will attempt to retain the trophy and win an unprecedented fourth major tournament in a row. The Spaniards, however, are not going to the finals as favourites; that tag belongs to the hosts who overcame la Roja in the Confederations Cup final in convincing fashion. The speculation, now, is that Vicente del Bosque's side have gone as far as they can. It promises to be a fantastic spectacle - with Germany and Argentina, as well as new forces, Belgium and Colombia vying for supremacy.
|BALLON D'OR 2013
|THE LOWDOWN ON THIS YEAR'S AWARD|
The feud for the world's best player has rarely been covered as intensely as it is now that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are top of the pile and that does not show any signs of abating. November's play-off victory for Portugal was less about the Seleccao qualifying for the World Cup than it was about Ronaldo emerging as the front-running contender for the Fifa Ballon d'Or. That his country, albeit thanks to his goals, defeated a modest Sweden after a poor qualification campaign was as good as irrelevant.
Next week the Ballon d'Or winner for 2013 will be decided. Predictably it's Ronaldo and Messi who lead the charge with Franck Ribery still in the running after a virtuoso year with Bayern Munich. 2014, though, could herald a new era with talents like Neymar and Luis Suarez now ready to cement legacies of their own.
No team is better placed to retain the European Cup for the first time since 1990 than Pep Guardiola's relentless Bayern Munich. The last-16 draw of the Champions League has conjured intriguing ties but no other team seems as well equipped as Bayern to go the distance. On the home front, too, the Bavarians have had it all their own way and that will continue with another title in 2014 with Borussia Dortmund running out of gas.
Elsewhere in Europe things are tighter than they are in Germany. In Spain, Barcelona are now jostling with the two Madrid clubs for the Liga title. In England, any one of about six sides could claim to be in the running for the title, while Lille continue to delay the inevitable Paris Saint-Germain-Monaco Ligue 1 showdown. In Italy, meanwhile, Juventus look set for yet another Scudetto with the implosion of Milan the other major talking point.
The spectre of match-fixing continues to haunt Europe; not a single league is immune from its clutches and this year will no doubt bring more scandal and convictions. Don't be one of these people waiting for the Champions League final to be fixed before you take notice. It's happening all around us. It is an issue which now needs to be fought hard and head on by Fifa, pertinent governing bodies and police forces all over the world.
Fifa will have a lot on its plate in 2014, the World Cup aside, with crucial 2015 presidential elections coming into view. Sepp Blatter, who will probably contest against Michel Platini, has little in the way of popular approval but maintains sway with crucial federations. With no term limits and no age limits, Blatter is still relatively in control of his own future at the age of 77, but public exasperation with Fifa has reached all-time lows. Recent uproar over worker conditions in 2022 World Cup venue Qatar has brought more disapproving focus on Fifa and its practices, yet again, with more revelations due in 2014.
|AND THE WINNER IS...
|GREG STOBART'S 2014 PREDICTIONS
The beleaguered Platini has fights of his own on his hands - chief among them now the issue of how his body deals with racism in the stands. 2013 showcased some upsetting episodes and the general perception is that Uefa is not tough enough, yet, on teams and supporters who break the rules. More offences in 2014 in this vein will bring more scrutiny.
The issue of third-party ownership was brought into sharp focus thanks to the Goal Transfer List. Platini has been accused of being naive to the plight of clubs who have come to rely on the practice in order to sign players. However, it has distorted the competitive balance among teams around the world and it remains one of the big unsolved issues in transfer relations.
Financial Fair Play continues to weed out offenders though and clubs that cannot use third party investors run a greater risk of getting into debt they cannot handle. The latest batch of bans and sanctions send a message out to clubs who cannot put their houses in order but it will take the catching of a big gun before people sit up widely and take notice.
Uefa has moved to improve its qualification procedure for the European Championship and 2014 will herald a new dawn for many non-elite national teams as winners, runners-up and third-placed teams will fight for a place among the 24 qualified teams in France 2016.
Before that, the battle for the title of best player in the world - and the best team.
Happy New Year.