Well, it certainly has been a year.
The story of 2020 will always be told through the lenses of the coronavirus pandemic and the quest for social justice, and the same is true of global soccer’s last 12 months (more specifically, the last nine). It’s impossible to separate one from the other when considering how much leagues, players and organizations around the world were forced to adapt, postpone, acknowledge and sacrifice.
For a time in the spring, the only active leagues in the world were found in Belarus, Tajikistan, Burundi and Nicaragua. Slowly, the beautiful game returned elsewhere, but not in a way we were accustomed to seeing and enjoying it. The bubbles, empty stadiums, fake crowd noise and COVID-19-related postponements and player absences provided the ultimate wrinkles and norm-shattering elements to a regular schedule that we all take for granted.
Through it all, champions were crowned, players progressed and broke through, the business sides labored and new heroes, stars and focal points emerged. Here’s a look back at the year in global soccer, the most impactful moments, individuals, story lines and events that occurred on and off the field, accompanied by some of Sports Illustrated’s top stories of the year that told it all:
How Europe brought its leagues back
The Bundesliga was the first major league in Europe to resume play, setting a model for those that would follow. Countries had to abide by local guidelines and governmental decisions, and not all chose to resume. France’s Ligue 1 and the Netherlands' Eredivisie, for instance, did not, and champions, relegation and European places were determined in ways that clearly left some unhappy parties.
The Champions League was postponed until all the remaining leagues could finish their domestic seasons, and even then, it was reduced to a single-elimination sprint in one country from the quarterfinals on. That UEFA and the individual associations reached the finish line at all deserved the plaudits they received and set the parameters for how to resume in the fall.
Player of the year
The cancellation of the Ballon d’Or robbed Robert Lewandowski of one player of the year award, but he took him FIFA’s best honor, and rightly so. With 55 goals in all competitions in the 2019–20 season, Lewandowski cemented his status as the world’s preeminent striker. He won the golden boots in the Bundesliga, Champions League and DFB Pokal, three competitions that his Bayern Munich side not-so-coincidentally won as well.
At 32, he’s in the form of his life, and with 17 goals in 13 Bundesliga games, he’s well on his way to a fourth straight Bundesliga golden boot and sixth in eight years. He just became the third player ever to score 250 goals in Germany’s top flight, and he finally has the individual accolades to recognize his greatness.
Team of the year
Dovetailing with Lewandowski’s success is that of Bayern, which was ruthless after the Bundesliga’s restart and resurgent after Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac on the bench. The club has lost a total of one (1) match in 48 across all competitions this calendar year (42-1-5), winning the treble, adding the German Super Cup and eyeing the FIFA Club World Cup this coming February.
Its dominance peaked in an 8–2 thrashing of Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals, which sent the Spanish power reeling and into full-blown crisis mode.
Its true that the repeated and expected domestic titles for clubs like Bayern, PSG and Juventus say plenty about the state of affairs across the European game and can be tiring, but there’s often a breathtaking element to the accomplishment—especially when it comes to Bayern and its relentless approach.
Top breakout players
Alphonso Davies, Erling Haaland and Ansu Fati are just three in a rising generation of talents in their teens and low 20s taking the world by storm.
Davies, the 20-year-old former Vancouver Whitecaps academy product, cracked the FIFPro World XI, making him the first North American to ever do so (and only the third who does not hail from Europe or South America). His ascent and transition to left back were surpassed in speed by only the pace he possesses on the field, an attribute that led Thomas Muller to dub him "The FC Bayern Road Runner."
Haaland’s power and precision have made the 20-year-old Norwegian the apple of every big-spending club’s eye. His rise under Jesse Marsch at Salzburg quickly materialized into a transfer to Dortmund, and he hit the ground running in January with his German club, where he’s formed a productive partnership with U.S. rising talent Gio Reyna.
Fati, meanwhile, has become the breakthrough talent that both Spain and Barcelona need. His current injury has impeded his progress, but there’s a reason he was getting preferred to Antoine Griezmann at Barcelona. Still just 18, he can be the star of Barcelona’s revival for the next decade, should the club elect to defy his many suitors.
Liverpool ends its 30-year drought
Liverpool’s Premier League dominance crested over the winter, and by the time it won its first domestic league title in three decades, it was all a bit anticlimactic. But that takes nothing away from the achievement.
After winning the Champions League the season before, Liverpool was sensational, losing its run at invincibility just before the pandemic’s onset, with a late-February defeat to Watford. Regardless, it ended Man City’s reign by winning the title with an 18-point gap over Pep Guardiola’s side, a true sign of how exceptional its season truly was. Only some late faltering after the restart prevented Liverpool from setting more single-season standards.
Jürgen Klopp and the technical staff have built a dynamic and balanced club, one that has the ability to press, recover, strike, counter, defend and dominate. Injuries have put that to the test this season, but it’s a testament to the culture at the club that Liverpool remains in the driver’s seat, looking to win a second straight title.
Barcelona’s Messi mess
There was perhaps no soccer-related bombshell bigger than the one Lionel Messi dropped in August, after Barcelona’s Champions League demise followed its capitulation in La Liga. Messi wanted out of the only club he’s ever known as a pro, claiming he had an agreement with now-ex-president Josep Bartomeu that he could leave for free at the end of last season, despite having a year to run on his deal. The wording of the contract evidently stated that clause expired in June, and with the end of the season pushed until August, it was no longer valid when Barcelona’s campaign actually ended.
That set off a few days of uncertainty and intensity at Camp Nou, where Messi ultimately stayed, saying that no matter his conviction, he could never take the club he loves to court. With Bartomeu out and a new president set to be elected Jan. 24, the next month will be pivotal in determining whether Messi will play out his career at Barcelona or head elsewhere. As it stands, he just became the world record holder for most goals at a single club, passing Pelé with his 644th tally in a Barça shirt.
The voice and power of the player
Both in the USA and abroad, player power became quite evident. It was evident in the NWSL’s bubble in Utah, where players, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota, kneeled for the national anthem and amplified their voices. It was evident in MLS’s bubble in Florida, where the league’s Black Players for Change started their initiatives with a moving demonstration prior to the opening match.
It was evident abroad as well, with U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie among the first to use his platform to call attention to injustice after the events in Minneapolis. Others like Jadon Sancho, Marcus Thuram and Achraf Hakimi followed, with clubs regularly kneeling in unison at the opening whistle to make a statement afterward.
The player platforms extend beyond racism. Marcus Rashford has become a hero to the children of the U.K., taking on the government and using his voice and stature to an immense degree to ensure impoverished children are fed.
The power of a club to take a stand was also on display in the USL, where Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal walked off the field in a match that had playoff implications for the club, following the antigay abused suffered by one of its players.
All of these individuals and groups deserve the highest commendation for their actions and for using their platforms for good.
U.S. Soccer’s transformation at the top
U.S. Soccer has been through some significant change this year. After a disgraceful defense against the U.S. women’s national team players from the federation’s legal team in the ongoing battle for equal pay and gender equality, Carlos Cordeiro resigned as president in mid-March, just as the pandemic was starting to hit the U.S. Ex-U.S. women’s player and USSF VP Cindy Parlow Cone stepped into the role, and she was joined at a remade top of the federation’s organizational chart by new CEO Will Wilson, who replaced longtime chief executive Dan Flynn.
The two struck a new tone in the case against the U.S. women and have moved to settle many of the federation’s other outstanding lawsuits as well. There’s still work to be done on all fronts—legal, competitive and elsewhere—and with the pandemic negatively impacting the federation’s finances, dynamic and steady leadership is required to keep things on an upward trajectory.
The Americans abroad golden age
The U.S. men’s national team has evolved ever since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and the evolution of its player pool is a big reason why. There are now young Americans at—and some featuring prominently for—Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, playing in some of the biggest matches in the world against some of the best talent in the world on a regular basis.
It seems like it was ages ago now, but Christian Pulisic was a star after the Premier League’s restart, one of the league’s most consistently dangerous attacking players until a hamstring injury in the FA Cup final (in which he'd already scored) derailed his progress.
But Pulisic is far from alone in drawing the spotlight. Tyler Adams scored a Champions League quarterfinal-winning goal for RB Leipzig, helping bring the club to its greatest heights on a European stage. McKennie moved to Juventus, Sergiño Dest signed with Barcelona and there’s a genuine feeling that this is a golden moment for U.S. youth, with more moves to clubs of global significance in the offing.
Women’s national team players have been testing themselves abroad at new levels as well, with NWSL’s atypical season and lengthy offseason coinciding with the run-up to a postponed Olympics. Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle have gone to Man City, while Tobin Heath and Christen Press are across town at Man United. Alex Morgan spent the first half of the FA WSL season at Tottenham, while Emily Sonnett won a Swedish title with her short stint at Goteborg.
There’s never been a more intriguing and essential time for Americans abroad.
As for on these shores...
MLS's 25th season was completely derailed, but completed nevertheless. What began with Chicharito's landmark signing, Miami and Nashville's introductions and plans for a grand celebration turned into months of labor negotiations, coronavirus protocols and uncertainty. But the league, to its credit, reached the finish line, becoming the first American league to complete a playoff season in home markets. The Columbus Crew wound up lifting the trophy at home to cement a massive turnaround in that market, months after the Portland Timbers emerged as the best in the bubble at MLS Is Back.
The first successful bubble experiment in U.S. team sports belonged to the NWSL, with the Houston Dash commanding respect and changing their narrative by winning the Challenge Cup. The league resumed play with a Fall Series won by the Portland Thorns, and excitement continues to build with the addition of Racing Louisville FC in 2021 and Angel City FC–with its loaded ownership group–in 2022.
Gone, but never forgotten
Sadness has been a constant throughout everything this year, and the soccer world knows that quite well. Three World Cup legends, Diego Maradona, Paolo Rossi and 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.
They were unfortunately far from alone. 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.
May their memories be a blessing, and may the holiday season and year ahead be filled with way more joy and significantly less pain.