European Football

The 2022 Football Year in Review

Your superlatives for the year we just witnessed…

So by the time you are reading this, 2022 has come and gone.

It was a year of ups and downs, of news and elections, of geopolitical headlines and economic downturns. And for our purposes, it was a year where a lot of balls were kicked by a lot of people on a lot of pitches all over the world.

2022 gave us a World Cup and a Women’s Euros. It gave us a stunning Champions League run, a Premier League title decided on the final day of the season, a new Ballon d’Or winner, two landmark sporting ownership takeovers and news that two more are on the horizon. The big names thrived, some underdogs stole the show, the world’s biggest stars stayed on their game while the next generation of superstars were born. In many ways, 2022 felt like an important, landmark year for the sport, and we will look back on all of this and more here.

I will try my best to not fall into recency bias, given that the World Cup has just recently concluded, but know that there is only so much I can do to block out something as notable as a World Cup.

Player of the Year: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid/France)

Yes, let us get the most difficult one out of the way first. This is where the recency bias can be most felt. Lionel Messi’s World Cup was otherworldly, one where the Argentine legend reminded the world how great he truly is as he helped guide his country to winning their first World Cup in 36 years. We need to base this on the totality of the year, however, and the first half of the year for Messi was frankly not nearly as good as the second half. While I resist the idea that Messi was “bad” for PSG last season, he was not outstanding, and while some of this is Messi being a victim of his own success, it is hard to say the Argentine was the world’s best player prior to the World Cup.

Karim Benzema, however, was the world’s best player prior to the World Cup. The Frenchman was the crucial performing player for Real Madrid last season, being at the heart of their triumph in LaLiga and their wild run to being European champions. His hat trick against PSG will live long in the memories for Madridistas, and that was not the only big moment where Benzema showed his talent. He was the deserved winner of the Ballon d’Or, and the manner with which he won the award and the incredible lack of controversy and universal agreement of his merit to win is very notable for an award that has been a topic of conversation and argument for decades now. While the beginning of this season has been weaker due to injuries, and he was not a part of the World Cup for France for…well…reasons, the sheer unbelievable year he has had prior to now carries him in this regard.

Honorable Mention: Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain/Argentina), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain/France)

Young Player of the Year: Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain/France)

There are not five players in the world right now better than Kylian Mbappé. Not a shot. You can cry about PSG, you can say he plays in a “farmers league”, you can complain about how he handled the Real Madrid rumors, you can do whatever you want. You will still be wrong.

Mbappé began the year capping off a historic individual season in Ligue 1. In the history of French domestic football, no player had ever ended the season leading the league in both goals and assists. Not Papin. Not Ginola. Not Ronaldinho. Not Henry. Not Trezeguet. Not Malouda, Benzema, Hazard, Ibrahimović, Cavani, or Neymar. Kylian Mbappé’s 28 goals and 17 assists made him the first player to ever do so. Mbappé in many ways helped carry a limping PSG over the finish line, being forced to lead a team where the whole was much less than the sum of its parts. At the beginning of this season, he continued that form and went into the World Cup break as Ligue 1’s leading scorer. At the World Cup, he was not consistently spectacular for France, but he showed a maturity and composure that allowed him to show up and create a game-breaking moment when it was needed. He did so multiple times during the tournament but none more famously than his equalizer in the Final. The petulant kid is growing up in front of our eyes, and this year will likely erase any remaining doubts felt about him. Mbappé has shown that he is the game’s next superstar.

Honorable Mention: Erling Håland (Manchester City/Norway), Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund/England)

Best Player From Outside of the “Top Five” Leagues: Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto/Iran)

Mehdi Taremi’s late bloom into Champions League-caliber center forward has been interesting to see with Porto, and he has certainly been fantastic over the last year. His 20 goals and 12 assists helped to carry Porto to a league title in the 2021/22 season, and his form continued by helping Iran book their place in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. While Iran did not make it out of their group, Taremi himself finished with two goals and very nearly had a big goal in their final game against the USA. The Portuguese league season this year has picked up as last year ended, with Taremi currently joint-top in goals with nine and top in assists with five. While Porto currently trail league leaders Benfica, Taremi gives them a very good chance to get back into the title race.

Honorable Mention: Pedro (Flamengo/Brazil), Dušan Tadić (Ajax/Serbia)

Best Young Player From Outside of the “Top Five” Leagues: Enzo Fernández (River Plate/SL Benfica/Argentina)

Enzo Fernández quite literally began the year playing in Argentina and ended the year as a world champion for his country. What a wild ride that kid has been on. The first half of this year was stellar for River Plate, as Fernández was probably the best player in Argentina during his time with River. A move to Benfica soon followed, where the Argentine wonderkid lit up the Portuguese league and Champions League, being a key player for a Benfica team that began the year not losing in their first 28 games, including two wins over Juventus and two draws against PSG. He was stellar at the World Cup, and his introduction to the starting line up for Argentina was one of the catalysts for their run to being champions. And while I disagree with him being awarded Young Player of the Tournament, it was not wholly undeserved for him. He now ends the year being subject of €120 million transfer bids from the Premier League. The sky is the limit for this kid, and we will see his true launch into superstardom next year.

Honorable Mention: Cody Gakpo (PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands), Alan Varela (Boca Juniors/Argentina)

Best Manager: Walid Regragui (Wydad AC/Morocco)

This seemed to be an obvious choice, but the obvious reason does not tell the whole story. Walid Regragui was appointed the manager of Moroccan giants Wydad AC at the beginning of the 2021/22 season. He led Wydad to a league title that season, but most importantly he led the team to a CAF Champions League title, their third ever time winning the competition. Regragui became only the second Moroccan manager to win the African Champions League with this accomplishment. Only three months later, he was appointed as the new manager of the Moroccan National Team, where he went on to lead the Atlas Lions to a historic World Cup semifinal appearance and ultimately finishing fourth place, beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way while giving eventual runners up France a desperate fight in the semifinal. The accomplishment itself is extraordinary, but the fact that Regragui was only at the helm of the Morocco team for mere months before the World Cup makes it that much more special. No manager in the world increased his personal stock more so than the Moroccan, who is surely one of the rising stars of the sport after what happened in Qatar.

Honorable Mention: Lionel Scaloni (Argentina), Sarina Wiegman (England Women’s National Team)

Best Team (Club): Real Madrid

Seriously, how in the world did Real Madrid win the Champions League? While Los Blancos‘ domestic dominance is understood and expected, their run to the European Cup in 2022 is baffling beyond belief. Sure, saying their domestic dominance is expected is also a bit unfair, as the ability for Carlo Ancelotti’s team to be near-impeccable throughout the whole season and seemingly finding another gear to turn to once people began questioning how much longer their dominance could go for is incredible. The ability for them to lose their greatest player of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago and recover this quickly is astounding. But the Champions League run…how? They should have been eliminated by PSG, they were second best for 135 of the 180 minutes of that Round of 16 tie, but a second half of a lifetime from Benzema changed that. They should have lost to Chelsea in the Quarterfinals, but resolute defending and an unbelievable game from Luka Modrić kept them alive. They absolutely should have lost to Manchester City in the Semifinals, but two goals after the 90th minute from Rodrygo miraculously flung Los Blancos back into it. They should have lost in the Final, but an otherworldly game from Thibaut Courtois kept them in it long enough for Vinícius to be the hero. Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable.

Honorable Mention: Manchester City, Flamengo

Best Team (Nation): Argentina

This was the year that Argentina’s jinx finally wore out. The year that they finally removed the ghosts of the 36 years of hurt since 1986. The year their greatest son, Lionel Messi, wrote his name into national history. And it almost was not to be. Argentina’s opening game loss to Saudi Arabia made everyone question whether La Albiceleste had what it took to be champions. They went into the final game of the Group Stage facing elimination. They struggled at times in a Round of 16 game against Australia and went to penalties in the Quarterfinals against the Dutch. At every stage, people questioned whether Argentina could win the World Cup. Messi’s heroics were one thing, but this was also a credit to a team that became more resolute defensively as the tournament wore on, and it is also a testament to manager Lionel Scaloni and his eye for necessary changes. His move to bring in and trust youngsters Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández in big moments for their country changed the Argentina team, bringing in necessary technical incision and youthful energy that made them much more difficult to take down.

It was a very difficult choice between them and the England team. This might be recency bias, as the Lionesses’ triumph at the Women’s Euros was also very noteworthy and historic in its own right. But I cannot put both here, unfortunately.

Honorable Mention: England Women’s National Team, Morocco

Best Underdog Story: Trabzonspor Champions of Turkey

This was a story that floated well under the radar at the end of last season, but thanks to the wonderful Eli Mengem and Copa90’s video on this topic, I was able to understand the magnitude and joy of Trabzonspor’s title win in Turkey. For context, only six clubs have ever won the Turkish Süper Lig, and four of those six clubs reside within the city of Istanbul. Turkey’s “big three”, the Istanbul-based Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Besiktas, have won 57 of the 66 titles of the Süper Lig era, with the rather controversial Istanbul Basaksehir adding an additional title to that tally for Istanbul-based clubs. Prior to this past season, the title has only been won seven times by clubs outside of Istanbul: six times by Trabzonspor from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s and once by Bursaspor in 2010. From that mid-1980s title on, Trabzonspor were competitive but suffered heartbreak, setback, and controversy, as it seemed like the football order in Turkey refused to allow this non-Istanbul team to upset their “natural order”. That was finally upended last season, as Trabzonspor finally won the league title they long sought.

Just watch the Copa90 video, you will get it.

Honorable Mention: Eintracht Frankfurt winning the Europa League, Morocco run to World Cup semifinal

Best Match: Argentina 3-3 France, 2022 FIFA World Cup Final

I mean, this speaks for itself, right? Sure, France did not get back into it truly until the second half, but the immediate jeopardy that was introduced into this game at a moment’s notice made it football at its nerve-wracking best. The stakes of the game, the storylines going into it and coming from it, and the fact that most of the game lived balanced on a knife’s edge made it something impossible to stop watching. Stars were made and reinforced, and while it is always a shame to decide a game in a penalty shootout, it was the best way dramatically to end a game as dramatic as that Final. It was the best World Cup Final I have seen in my lifetime, and it was easily the best and most dramatic single match of the year.

Honorable Mention: Netherlands 2-2 Argentina (2022 FIFA World Cup Quarterfinal), Manchester City 3-2 Aston Villa (Premier League Final Day)

Best Moment: Chloe Kelly’s Euros-winning Goal

It is very rare for us to witness a moment that will live eternally forever and for us to realize, in that exact moment, that what we are witnessing is as monumental as it will turn out to be. The Women’s European Championship this past summer was a colossal moment for women’s football outside of the United States, the moment needed for a sport that has been verifiably growing but needed that one “big bang” catalyst moment. This tournament stood as the shining example of something that people had dismissed for ages: that the highest levels of women’s football is a great, marketable product that people will pay money to watch at a rate near to or equal to men’s football. This point was reinforced by a sold-out Wembley Stadium belting out “Sweet Caroline” as England won their first major tournament as a footballing nation since 1966. But no moment will live as eternally in history from that tournament than Chloe Kelly’s goal to win the Final over Germany and her celebration as she realized what just happened. In America, the women’s game traces its true explosion to the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which the United States won as the host nation. While it was not the USA’s first Women’s World Cup title, it was the one that carried the most weight, and the lasting moment from that tournament was Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty in the Final and ensuing celebration.

Chloe Kelly’s goal is England’s Brandi Chastain moment: the single event which all proceeding achievements and advancements in women’s football can trace themselves back to. It was not just a heartwarming or ridiculous moment, or a moment that capped off a great story. It was history. Right before our eyes.

Honorable Mention: From Minute 90 to the end of Real Madrid-Man City, Gonzalo Montiel’s World Cup-deciding penalty

Best Big Transfer Window Signing: Erling Håland (Borussia Dortmund -> Manchester City, €60m)

I mean, duh.

Erling Håland’s incredibly cheap release clause, only €60 million!!!, meant that he was guaranteed to be here regardless of where he went. He just so happened to join arguably the best side in the world and add the one thing that they were missing. His 21 league goals through only 15 games this season is patently absurd, a total through 15 games that would have won the Golden Boot in five different Premier League seasons. If he stays healthy through the rest of the year, there is no doubt that he will be rewriting the history books come May and that he will undoubtedly win Player of the Year. It remains to be seen if this will translate into immediate silverware for City, though, who are certainly among the favorites to win the Champions League but currently find themselves five points adrift of league-leaders Arsenal. There is plenty of time left this season, though, and we know Håland will score plenty of goals in that time period.

Honorable Mention: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich -> Barcelona, €45m), Aurélien Tchouaméni (AS Monaco -> Real Madrid, €80m)

Best “Under the Radar” Transfer Signing: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Dinamo Batumi -> Napoli, €10m)

Only incredible football nerds and Football Manager players knew who Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was prior to his move to Naples this past summer. Now? He is rightfully recognized as one of the best young players in the world and the main catalyst for a Napoli side who were the last side in Europe’s top seven leagues this season to register a defeat. An incredibly dynamic and skillful winger with a lethal eye for goal, Kvaratskhelia is seemingly the complete package despite only being 21 years old. Napoli’s ability to lose club talisman Lorenzo Insigne and replace him like nothing ever happened is staggering and a testament to Kvaratskhelia’s incredible talent and potential. Locked down to a longer contract extension, Kvara will not leave Naples for anything less than a king’s ransom. In the meantime, though, the Partenopei are chasing their first league title since the days of Maradona, and the player affectionately dubbed “Kvaradona” will be key in making that happen.

Honorable Mention: Enzo Fernández (River Plate -> Benfica, €14m), Randal Kolo Muani (FC Nantes -> Eintracht Frankfurt, Free Transfer)

Best Goal: Dimitri Payet (Marseille vs PAOK, Europa Conference League)

Watch it HERE.

Have you watched it yet?

I mean come on.

This is the thing: Dimitri Payet is a man who knows how to strike a ball sweetly. He has no shortage of highlight reel goals in his career. And when you can say that this is the best he has ever hit a football, that is saying something. Simply incredible, I do not know what else needs to be said. It speaks for itself.

Honorable Mention: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool vs. Manchester City, Premier League), Jack Colback (Nottingham Forest vs. West Brom, Championship)

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