Dubai: Every year, ahead of the New Year bells, we take time to look back over the preceding 12 months in the world of football, but I am confident we will never see 365 days like the ones just past in 2020.
Even if we put coronavirus to one side for a moment, 2020 was rocked by the passing of Diego Maradona and Paolo Rossi, two icons that helped reinvent the World Cup. We saw Lionel Messi demand a move away from Barcelona. We also saw a massive shifting in the guard at the helm of European football, with Real Madrid and Barcelona being usurped by German giants Bayern Munich.
Still, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool achieved something never done before as the Reds claimed their first ever Premier League title in England.
Sadly, the black cloud of COVID-19 altered the face of the beautiful game, but true to its name, the resilience of the most popular sport in the world held firm and allowed us to take away some famous memories.
OK, let’s get the bad bit out of the way first. The year will always be scarred by coronavirus. We saw the cancellation of Euro 2020 and the elite leagues across Europe had to scrap and scrape to salvage a season that almost never was.
France and Scotland called an early halt to their season in a proactive move to help stem the spread of the deadly virus. Amazingly, Spain, England, Italy and Germany all rescued their campaigns and we were able to celebrate Real Madrid re-establishing dominance over Barcelona. Juventus once again claiming the crown with Cristiano Ronaldo, and Bayern Munich mastering all in Germany.
It is a testament to all at Uefa that the Champions League and Europa League titles were decided in Portugal and Germany respectively. Bayern made a wee bit of history that Barca will want to forget in the semi-finals — on their way to the title. They thumped the Spanish giants in a seismic 8-2 embarrassment in Lisbon, an event that triggered Messi’s thwarted transfer demand away from Barcelona.
LEAGUES OF GENTLEMEN
The Bundesliga got us back on track in empty stadiums, setting in motion a model that would finally get us across the finish line in the major European leagues. The Netherlands’ Eredivisie followed France and Scotland in choosing not to continue with their major competition. However, Spain, England, Italy and — of course — Germany persisted. Teams needed closure, fans needed therapy and the world needed a sign that football would show the way. With Bayern doing the double in September, Real realigning and Juventus smashing records, we got back on track.
Over in England, Liverpool’s romp to a first league title in 30 years with a record seven games of the season remaining may herald a golden new era for the Reds with Jurgen Klopp at the helm.
Klopp has delivered the holy grail of a long-awaited league title to Anfield, a year after winning the club’s sixth European Cup.
“How is it possible anybody is 20 points ahead of this team?” Klopp himself said after watching City’s 5-0 demolition of Burnley on their march to the title. Manchester City’s brilliance in recent years has triggered a new era at Liverpool. And who knows where they will stop? In the end, Liverpool sauntered to a long-awaited crown, with the three-pronged attack of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane instrumental in their success.
Even during the trophy-laden 1970s and 80s at Anfield, Liverpool never amassed as many points as they did in their first Premier League title march — more like a stroll.
BYE-BYE FROM BAYERN
Now to Lisbon. The Champions League was worth the wait. One game in particular — and it wasn’t the final.
It was the game all Catalan loyal fans feared, but deep down they knew it was coming, and it was agonisingly painful in two-fold.
Lionel Messi was no longer the world-beater, dazzling the globe with his silky skills as the opposition reeled in awe. No more were Barcelona feared on the global stage.
One night — no, 90 minutes — in Lisbon shattered those long-held ideals as Barcelona were thoroughly destroyed by a formidable Bayern Munich side who were a class apart in every department. Lose 3-2, OK. 4-2, oops. But 8-2 — over one leg, not the normal two — is utterly unacceptable.
This was no oopsy loss, a dodgy decision here and there. This was an annihilation of Drago v Creed levels. Only the referee refusing to use VAR kept the score out of double figures in a historic match that saw Barcelona’s worst nightmares come true.
Barca went into the match as the underdogs — something they were not used to as the Catalan giants almost always swaggered into these ties with an air of history and finesse that gave them an advantage. No such chance in Lisbon, where the competition’s business-end matches would be held over one leg in a bio-secure bubble to contain the threat of coronavirus. Had the game been over two legs, who knows how ugly it could have got for the sorry Catalans?
This was beyond a humiliation. It was beyond a rout. It was a sheer destruction that will be felt for years. Not only did this single game signal the demise of Lionel Messi’s time at the top, it officially heralded a seismic change in European football. No longer are Barcelona and Real Madrid the mainstays of the elite competition, they are the footnotes. Now is Bayern’s time ...
LEWANDOWSKI THE LEADER
There was one true hero of the year and it wasn’t an Argentine, nor a Portuguese. It was a giant Pole in the shape of Robert Lewandowski as his 55 goals — a record in one season — propelled Bayern to their historic treble-winning season. Bundesliga title — done. German Pokal Cup — no bother. European champs — easy. Following their thumping of Barca, the German masters swatted aside Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and the cash-rich Paris St-Germain in a one-sided final to truly illustrate the top-table change. No longer will we see Barca and Real bossing things.
Over in Dubai, Lewandowski was rewarded for his exploits alongside Thomas Mueller in the red shirts. Following his Fifa ‘Best Player’ award, he picked up the same accolade at the Globe Soccer Awards inside the Burj Khalifa this past week, to end a 13-year duopoly of Ronald and Messi.
The 32-year-old also led Poland to Euro 2020 qualification and was named the 2019-20 Uefa Men’s Player of the Year in October.
“To win such an award and share this title with (previous winners) Messi and Ronaldo, is unbelievable and means so much to me,” Lewandowski said. “I am very proud and happy. This is a great day for me, and also for my club and colleagues. This award also belongs to my colleagues, the coach and Bayern in general. It is an incredible feeling, a lot of emotions.”
LEO IS LEAVING?
There was perhaps no soccer-related bombshell bigger than the one Lionel Messi dropped in August, after Barcelona’s Champions League demise to Bayern was followed by a limp end to the season in La Liga. Messi demanded a transfer away from Camp Now, but legal issues meant he had to hang around.
FAREWELL TO THE GREATS
Diego Maradona passed away in November and the world was bereft of one of the greatest legends of the game. The Argentine lit up the world at Mexico 86 with his ‘god-guy-bad-guy’ reputation. The good, bad and ugly of the diminutive maestro’s flawed genius can be captured in five short famous — or infamous, depending on your persuasion — minutes at the Mexico 86 World Cup. The Hand of God and the best goal ever were moments apart in a famous match against England. We were fortunate that Diego called Dubai his home in his later years — he coached Al Wasl and Fujairah in the UAE and will forever be held close to our hearts.
Maradona, Paolo Rossi and the Senagalese World Cup star Papa Bouba Diop all died within two weeks of each other, with the passing of such a titanic figure like Maradona, especially, grabbing the world’s attention.
Among the many other former players, managers and administrators to lose their lives this year — for COVID-19 reasons or otherwise — were four players from England’s 1966 World Cup title team (Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Peter Bonetti and Norman Hunter); Argentine left back great Silvio Marzolini; Argentina’s 2014 World Cup manager Alejandro Sabella; and treble-winning former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier.