Urban Dwellers, Top-tier Messi, Dominant Spain, Lavish Saudi Investments

Another hugely eventful 12 months in football comes to an end with several eye-catching stories and historic moments that will live on in the memories for fans for years to come.

The names of the winners on the pitch are forever etched in history but equally, the events beyond what goes on within the confines of those white lines also go on to make permanent headlines.

A number of footballing firsts occurred in 2023 as well as several other noteworthy incidents – for better or for worse – and we look back on what has been another undoubtedly unforgettable year in the sport.

City’s Treble dream

Winning a fifth Premier League title in six seasons might have been otherwise unremarkable for Pep Guardiola’s side as they managed to hunt down a spirited but not entirely robust Arsenal who had led the way for much of the campaign.

Club icon Ilkay Gundogan bid farewell to City with two brilliant goals to also land the FA Cup courtesy of a pleasing and symbolic win over arch-rivals United at Wembley, but the club’s crowning glory came a week later in Istanbul.

Rodri’s second-half strike was enough to beat Inter Milan at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium to secure a first UEFA Champions League crown and footballing immortality as only the second English side to win ‘the Treble’.

In sealing the trophy for the third time personally, Guardiola and his side were of course grateful to Erling Haaland, with the big Norwegian’s astonishing haul of 52 goals in all competitions in his debut season at the club powering them to glory.

Haaland’s gluttonous goal-scoring saw him clam the Premier League, European and Champions League golden boot awards as well as Premier League player of the season AND young player of the season, making a mockery of any suggestion the 23-year-old would need any time to settle into his new surroundings.

Napoli end long title drought

City weren’t the only team in sky blue celebrating a historic achievement in 2023. In Italy, Napoli were crowned Serie A champions for the first time since 1990.

Spearheaded by the near-unstoppable attack led by Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Luciano Spalletti’s team virtually led the league for the entirety of the season as the likes of Inter, Milan and Juve ultimately fell short.

With Napoli’s last Scudetto coming in the days of Diego Maradona, and the interim period consisting of relegations, near-financial ruin, and several narrow title misses, the feeling of exhilaration to finally get over the line once more could be felt beyond the stadium and throughout the entire region, as evidenced by the lengthy city-wide celebrations.

Hammers conquer Europe… sort of

Long-awaited success was obviously an ongoing theme as just the second-ever UEFA Europa Conference League title found itself an unlikely winner in the form of West Ham United.

A long and gruelling campaign came down to a showdown against Fiorentina in Prague and with the two sides deadlocked going into the dying minutes, up stepped Jarrod Bowen to snatch a dramatic late winner and write his name in history as Declan Rice became the first Hammers captain to hoist silverware in the air for 43 years.

For all their tongue-in-cheek claims of ‘winning the World Cup’ in 1966, the Londoners do not have the most glittering history when it comes to trophies. While rival fans may have attempted to scoff and downplay this particular success, make no mistake this was a big deal for the Hammers.

Seven up for Sevilla

Sevilla were in no mood for the sentiment displayed in the other two European competitions as they claimed a record-extending almost ludicrous seventh UEFA Europa League crown after beating Roma on penalties.

The Spanish club’s now habitual hoarding of this particular trophy came on this occasion against Jose Mourinho, who had himself never lost a European final.

Something had to give but Sevilla’s juju was clearly the stronger.

Spain rule the World

The summer’s major international tournament action came in the form of the expanded 32-team Women’s World Cup which was certainly not short of drama both on and off the pitch.

There were shocks galore with the likes of Brazil, former champions Germany, and Olympic champions Canada all packing their bags at the end of the group stage.

A huge tournament for Africa saw Nigeria, South Africa, and debutants Morocco all advance to the round of 16, while the likes of Jamaica and Colombia also put in their best tournament performances reaching the second round and quarter-finals respectively.

Defending champions USA crashed out early in another major shock as Spain and England powered through to the final.

Despite a penalty save from the Lionessess’ Mary Earps, the Spaniards proved too good on the day and their triumph was all the more impressive given some public pre-tournament infighting and high-profile absentees from their squad.

Brilliant Barca secure more European glory

In more positive news for Spanish women’s football, Barcelona claimed a second Champions League title in three seasons after a thrilling comeback to beat Wolfsburg in the final in Eindhoven.

Despite going 2-0 down to the German powerhouse, a brace from Patricia Guijarro and Fridolina Rolfo’s late winner gave the Catalan club the win.

Bonmati’s perfect year

Starring for both Barcelona AND Spain in those respective successes was Aitana Bonmati who played an instrumental role not only in Spain’s 1-0 win over England in Sydney, but also scored five goals during Barca’s Champions League run and registered eight assists – the most of any player in the competition.

One of those assists would, of course, come against Wolfsburg, crossing for Guijarro’s decisive equaliser ahead of Barca’s eventual triumph.

Aside from Player of the Tournament awards in both competitions, the 25-year-old’s performances and achievements also saw her claim the 2023 Ballon d’Or award, crowning off her year as the top female player in the game right now and truly cementing her legacy as a role model by using her speech to advocate for fairness and justice in the world.

“We have a responsibility on and off the pitch,” she said. “We should be more than athletes. Keep leading by example and keep fighting for a better, peaceful and more equal world.”

‘This past year has been incredible’ – Ballon d’Or Feminin winner Bonmati

Messi’s Major League Milestone

In the male Balon d’Or category, it was a far more familiar name picking up the award with Lionel Messi taking home an eighth Golden Ball trophy in 2023.

The award was questioned in several quarters not least due to the achievements of the likes of Haaland mentioned above, but needless to say, the voting would have been heavily influenced by the Argentine legend’s star turn at the 2022 World Cup as he led his side to glory in Qatar.

His club achievements looked somewhat less impressive in comparison with Paris Saint-Germain once again flattering to deceive in the Champions League, although he did help the club lift the Ligue 1 title once again.

This would be his final act in the French capital as Messi would shock the world by joining the David Beckham-run Inter Miami Major League Soccer side in the summer.

While many of his peers would head to Saudi Arabia (more on this shortly), Messi opted to go stateside to join a struggling side and help shine a huge light on the league.

His impact would be instant too as 10 goals in just seven appearances in the Leagues Cup saw the franchise win a first-ever honour of their short five-year existence.

Pretty Sorry Going

The club he left behind had, relatively speaking, less to cheer in comparison. As expected, they would wrap up a record 11th Ligue 1 title. However, in the Champions League, a feeble last-16 exit to Bayern Munich meant the long wait continues in the competition they still remain desperate to get their hands on for the first time.

When Messi joined PSG in 2020, what was supposed to be a virtually unstoppable front three of him, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe was expected to finally bring Old Big Ears to Paris but the dream was never fulfilled.

Messi’s departure from the Parc des Princes in 2023 following the club’s latest underwhelming campaign was also followed by his Brazilian team-mate and the latest manager to attempt and fail, Christophe Gaultier as the confused club sought a fresh avenue to success.

The news was no better regarding Mbappe, who was subject to a huge bid from Saudi Arabia but instead opted to stay and run down his current contract which expires in the summer.

Having initially been frozen out of all first-team activities, the striker was welcomed back into the fold under new manager Luis Enrique but his inevitable departure feels like the worst-kept secret in the sport right now.

Saudis splash the cash

Mbappe, nor Messi, were not the only major stars sought out by Saudi teams and their vast wealth with several high-profile names moving to the league for astronomical high wages.

Al-Nassr stunned the footballing world when Cristiano Ronaldo was unveiled as a new signing on January 1 following the Portuguese star’s controversial falling out and departure from Manchester United.

Still arguably one of the best players in the world despite his advancing years, the 38-year-old’s arrival was a major coup and seemingly changed the very landscape of football, opening the floodgates for the likes of Neymar, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, NGolo Kante, Jordan Henderson and many others to descend on the Gulf state in the months to follow.

With unavoidable questions over the country’s human rights and environmental concerns, Saudi Arabia’s huge spending to become a major player in football has raised eyebrows, with the endgame seemingly the nation hosting the World Cup in the future, something that now seems inevitable.

England stars shine in new surroundings

Two major signings that took place this summer that didn’t involve moves to Saudi Arabia were those of England duo Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane from Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively.

Both players have wasted little time justifying the risks taken by themselves and the buying clubs. Midfield star Bellingham has endeared himself to the usually impatient and judgemental Bernabeu crowd by hitting the ground running with match-winning performances and goals – including in his first El Clasico against Barcelona – to leave his mark early on.

Meanwhile, much was made of Kane’s decision to remain in north London for so much of his career as he tried in vain to propel Spurs up the football food chain, and after seamlessly exporting his goalscoring form to Germany without too much trouble, it’s become clear playing for an elite club has always been his calling.

With both players excelling domestically and in Europe, a potential showdown between the two Three Lions stars in the Champions League latter stages is not out of the question.

And for England fans, there is also reason to be excited about the two players linking up at the European Championships next summer.

Shocks in store for 2024?

For all the enjoyment the sport brings, fans often lament the sterile nature of the top leagues which are virtually monopolised by certain teams. Manchester City won a fifth Premier League in six seasons, PSG, despite their problems, continued to dominate in France and Bayern Munich made it 10 Bundesliga titles in a row in Germany.

However despite the seemingly predictable end result in each of these cases, all three of those teams will admit they faced a testing challenge to their supremacy with Arsenal, Lens and perhaps most painfully, Borussia Dortmund, all coming close to title glory in these respective leagues in 2023.

The theme of prospective ‘underdog’ teams looking to upset the established order could well continue. As we end the year, Arsenal are challenging again in the Premier League while strong first halves of the campaign from Tottenham and Aston Villa could make for a surprising end to the season in England.

In Germany, Bayern and Harry Kane currently find themselves chasing a hugely impressive Xabi Alonso-led Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, while over in Spain, little Girona sit joint top of the La Liga table going into the new year.

With a long way to go, it would be crazy to suggest we’re likely to see any or all of these teams last the pace and pull off a potential title shock but the longer they challenge, the better the sport will be as a spectacle and perhaps, maybe just maybe, even one side can follow Napoli’s lead and finally get over the line to give us another fantastic footballing story in 2024.

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