Presenting 10 Latino players who made an impact in 2012:
1. The best player in the world
Lionel Messi was nothing but sensational with Barcelona and Argentina the past 12 months, breaking a 40-year-old record set by German great Gerd Mueller, who tallied 85 goals in a calendar year. Messi ended the year with 91, and some of them were sensational. In case you are counting, the Argentinean scored 79 times for Barca and 12 goals for Argentina. If Messi doesn't come away with his fourth Ballon d'Or (FIFA will name the winner on Jan. 7), it will be a stunning upset.
2. The second best player in the world
Somewhere lost in the adulation and spotlight of Messi's amazing year has been the goal-scoring feats of Colombian international striker Radamel Falcao, who has assumed the unofficial title as the best clinical finisher in the world. For Atletico Madrid (Spain), he was a major reason why the team captured the Europa League crown -- he had a first-half brace in a 3-0 triumph over Athletic Bilboa in the final -- and was one of the main reasons for Colombian resurgence during World Cup qualifying. Falcao, who turns 27 Feb. 10, had a remarkable five-goal performance in a 6-0 rout of Deportivo Coruna Dec. 9, the first time a player scored five goals in a La Liga match in more than a decade. This achievement got lost in the headlines on the same day Messi broke Mueller's mark. He has 17 goals in La Liga. Only Messi had more.
3. The man who stirs the drink of two teams
He might not get the headlines as his teammate Messi at Barcelona and score many goals but Andres Iniesta is the man who stirs the straw for two teams. For Barca and the Euro 2012 champion Spain, the 28-year-old Iniesta pressures defenses with his technical skills and unparalleled vision that make him one of the one lethal midfielder and Ballon d“or finalist. And Iniesta performs his magic not only in the center of the field, but on the wing, making him one versatile performer.
4. Getting better with age
At an age (31) when strikers lose a half a step or that hunger to fill the net, Chilean international Humberto Suazo only gets better. For the second year in a row, Suazo sparked Monterrey to the CONCACAF Champions League crown with a tournament-high seven goals. Suazo did not get an opportunity to play for Los Rayados at the FIFA Club World Cup this month due to a torn thigh muscle.
5. Solid-goal performer
With leading goal-scorer Giovani dos Santos sidelined with a muscle tear, Oribe Peralta put on a virtuoso performance in the medal round of the Olympic men's soccer tournament. Peralta scored in a 3-1 semifinal victory over Japan before adding both Mexican goals in a 2-1 triumph over favored Brazil in the gold-medal match Aug. 11. The striker gave the Brazilians a wake-up goal, scoring only 29 seconds into the match, the fastest goal in any FIFA final. Peralta, who turns 28 Jan. 12, enjoyed a memorable year, helping Santos Laguna to the CCL final and being named the best striker and player in the Mexican Clausura.
6. Finding his stride
When you mention high-scoring Spanish strikers, the names of Fernando Torres and David Silva come to mind. But another high-scoring Spaniard also playing in the English Premier League has surfaced -- Michu at Swansea City. Never known for filling the net in bunches, the 26-year-old Michu has discovered his scoring touch and then some. Through Wednesday he was tied for the league-league in goals with Dutch international Robin van Persie with 13 apiece. Last year Michu found the net a career-high 15 times in 37 matches for Rayo Vallecano (Spain) before joining Swansea on a $3.2 million transfer. What a steal.
7. He's a real keeper
It seems all the glory goes to the goal-scorers and the blame goes to the goalkeepers and defense. Not always, especially when Spain and Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas is concerned. Casillas, 31, has backstopped the 2010 World Cup champions and the UEFA Euro 2012 champs. No goalkeeper has recorded more international shutouts. Casillas became the first Spaniard to reach 100 international victories and set a record by not surrendering a goal for 509 minutes in Euro. He was in the middle of a Real goalkeeping controversy as coach Jose Mourinho benched him before a 3-2 loss to Malaga Saturday. Casillas shook it off by saying that he would need to work harder in training to restore Mourinho’s confidence in him.
8. Luis Suárez
Love him or hate him, Suárez seemingly always winds up in the middle of the things. He probably is best known for his controversial handball that saved a goal for Uruguay in the World Cup quarterfinals against Ghana and for when he was in the middle of a racial abuse incident with Manchester United's Patrice Eva. More recently, Suárez has been known for his goal-scoring exploits for underachieving Liverpool. Through Wednesday, he had 11 goals, good for third in the league. Suárez, who turns 26 Jan. 24, and his teammates need to step it up in South American World Cup qualifying. Uruguay (3-3-3) is in a three-way tie for fourth place with Venezuela and Chile. The top four teams will book a spot for Brazil 2014.
9. Sergio Ramos
Playing for two teams with plenty of offensive weapons, it's easy for a defender to get lost in the shuffle. But Ramos made an impact as a center back for the Spanish national side and for Real Madrid. With Carles Puyol out with an injury during Euro, Ramos, 26, stepped in as a center back -- though he was a world class right back at Euro 2009 and the 2010 World Cup -- stabilizing the backline. Ramos wound up on both sides of shootout wins and losses. He sent his attempt over the crossbar during the UEFA Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich, which Real lost in penalty kicks, 3-1. In the Euro 2012 semis against Portugal, he converted his try en route to a 4-2 shootout victory after a scoreless draw.
10. A game to cherish
Roger Espinoza will be the first to tell you there are better players in the world and in Major League Soccer. But the performance he displayed for Honduras during the London Olympics was a reminder that a player can make a difference at both ends of the field. He was a major reasons why Los Catrachos reached the quarterfinals against Brazil. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder scored one goal and set up another in a 3-2 loss in Newcastle, England. When Espinoza was awarded his second yellow card in the 90th minute, he was given a standing ovation at St. James' Park for his inspired performance. Espinoza got noticed as Wigan Athletic arranged for him to join the EPL team when the January transfer window opens.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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