Lionel Messi was the centre of attention in football for nearly two decades, but in early 2022, things were changing. Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland were tipped to take the baton from Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to form the next biggest duopoly in the world.
Messi, 34, had moved away from Barcelona to newer pastures, and was struggling to exert the desired influence with Paris Saint-Germain. Was he mortal after all? By the end of the year, all such debates had been put to bed. In Qatar, he led Argentina to a FIFA World Cup crown, recreating his best hits from his youthful days in the legs and body of a 35-year-old.
The anticipation at the FIFA World Cup revolved around Messi. On his fifth and final appearance in the World Cup, he finally had the right formula and circumstances to lay his hands on the coveted title. In the process, he transformed an otherwise unremarkable World Cup career into a legendary one. After his success on the international stage, Messi will have his eyes set on continental and individual glory once again with PSG, with Mbappe and Neymar for company.
King of Europe
Real Madrid, which dramatically dumped the French giant in the UEFA Champions League, had a campaign like no other, becoming the king of Europe for a record 14th time. It was its fifth title in nine years and the first without Ronaldo. Karim Benzema finally had his time in the sun after his move to Madrid in 2009, powering the team to a domestic and continental double. His exploits earned him a maiden Ballon d’Or prize. Messi has staked his claim to win back the title of the world’s best player for a record-extending eighth time.
Haaland’s move to Manchester City is viewed as the club’s key investment in its bid to extend its domestic supremacy into Europe. He has so far delivered on the promise with a blistering start for his club (in terms of scoring goals). Arsenal’s patient decision to ‘Trust the Process’ with Mikel Arteta has yielded dividends: the club has laid the marker to City in the Premier League title race.
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The landscape of the English game might look different this year as the fallout from the failed Super League project continues. The American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United — the two biggest clubs in the country — put their clubs up for sale last year. Saudi Arabia-backed Newcastle United has shown signs that it could be the next biggest force in the league — the club seems primed to break into the top four for the first time since 2003.
Ronaldo’s attempts to play the UEFA Champions League again failed with the 37-year-old bringing down curtains on the European chapter of his decorated career. Ronaldo’s magic on the field seemed to have gone missing last year. Now, the Portuguese great has secured a move to the less-heralded Saudi Pro League with Al Nassr on a three year deal; at Al Nassr, he will reportedly earn a mind-boggling USD 200 million annually.
The Arab and Asian teams used the World Cup in Qatar to showcase their quality on the big stage once again. Morocco’s semifinal run, Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina, Japan’s wins over Germany and Spain, and South Korea’s defeat of Portugal were all upset results that the tournament desperately needed to make it an event to remember.
Elsewhere, the English women brought ‘home’ the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 after 56 years, winning a thrilling final against Germany. After her EURO success, England’s Kiera Walsh became the most expensive player in the women’s game when she completed a move to Barcelona for a fee of over GBP 350,000. The star-studded England, with Sarina Wiegman as manager, has the right ingredients to try and snatch the FIFA Women’s World Cup away from USA later this year.
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The year 2022 saw tangible proof of the evolution of the women’s game. Attendance records were broken at the EURO final (87,192), Africa Cup of Nations final (45, 562), Women’s Super League (47,367), and the National Women’s Super League (32,000). The Champions League game between Barcelona and Wolfsburg broke the world record for attendance in any women’s game — 91,648 people packed Camp Nou to watch the game.
Returning from the dead
At home, Indian football came back from the dead. A temporary suspension was imposed by the FIFA on the All India Football Federation (AIFF) before it was reversed in time for India to host the U-17 Women’s World Cup. A new president — Kalyan Chaubey — was elected. His administration has started 2023 on a positive note, setting out a reasonable long-term roadmap for both men’s and women’s football through the document ‘Vision 2047’.
By doing this, it has separated itself from the previous administration’s short-lived legacy and its approach of trying to achieve qualification to major tournaments not by merit but by winning hosting rights. The team’s poor showing on and off the field in the Women’s Asian Cup and the U-17 Women’s World Cup last year highlighted the problems with this approach.
The national men’s team qualified for the Asian Cup to be held later this year. It could be Sunil Chhetri’s last bow at a major tournament in India colours.
Chhetri, who has had his struggles in the last 12 months with Bengaluru FC, will want to make 2023 a year to remember for different reasons.
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