The Year In Soccer: 2021 From A to Z

By Andrew Dixon, Staff Reporter

 It’s been some some year. International footy was no different. As Hammer said, “Let’s Get it Started.”

Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 to win Copa America, 1st major title in 28 yrs |  Reuters
Reuters

Argentina-The Albiceleste claimed their first international title in 28 years with their Copa America triumph, allowing Lionel Messi to finally raise a trophy for his country. The Albiceleste breezed through the group stage dropping only two points, outclassed Ecuador in the quarterfinals, survived an entertaining penalty kick shootout against Colombia in the semi-final, and rode a brilliant Angel DiMaria goal to beat host Brazil in the final.  Messi was not at his best in the tournament but Argentina’s effort was all about him getting a title. With Argentina having already qualified for the 2022 World Cup and looking to make a deep run with an able supporting cast, we could be looking at one last great ride for arguably the greatest player to ever lace a pair of cleats. See also, Al-Ahly. The Egyptian side captured their record-extending 10th African Champions League title with a 3-0 win of the Kaiser Chiefs of S. Africa and won the CAF Super Cup for good measure.

USA Today

Brooks, John-It’s now or never for one of the heroes of 2014. Once a presumed automatic starter for The Squad at center back, Brooks’ inconsistent performances and lapses in concentration in the first few matches of the Octagonal saw him fail to be called into camp for the last international window and his place in Qatar is in serious jeopardy. He took responsibility for his less than stellar play acknowledging “The decision to leave me out of this camp isn’t surprising given some of my recent performances…My job now is to work hard to be the very best I can be…until I reach my goal of helping the USMNT reach the next World Cup”. Time to step up, JB.  

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Covid– The world of sports was certainly not immune to the ravages of this pandemic and football was no exception. From the increase of in-game substitutions to 5 from 3 upon the resumption of play to players being yanked off the field by the police before World Cup qualifying matches, players missing Euro21 matches due to positive tests,  the Copa America being moved from Argentina to Brazil, and played without fans,  Euro2021 being blamed for a 10% increase in COVID cases across Europe, the Philadelphia Union playing a conference final without half of its team due to COVID protocols, to my co-ed league having to fill-out health questionnaires before every match, COVID was always a secondary headline wherever The Beautiful Game was played.  As we enter a World Cup year with a new variant raging, it remains to be seen if significant travel restrictions are placed upon fans attending matches again…if the tournament gets played at all.

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Doha, Qatar- One of the Arab region’s fastest-growing cities and the country’s economic hub, its nine districts will be the primary host for World Cup fans in the next “winter”. Qatar’s capital city will be the site for the draw for the 2022 World Cup on April 1, 2022, and will host games through the quarterfinals in its two stadiums, Stadium 974 (which will be dismantled after the tournament with its recyclable components being sent to aid development in Africa) and Al-Thumama (which will similarly remove and donate half of its seats). Are you going? 

 

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UEFA

Euro20/21-Whatever controversy surrounding the staging of the event in multiple countries slowly coming out of a pandemic, the delayed European championship delivered fans in the seats and some absolute drama. From Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse due to a cardiac arrest in Denmark’s opener against Finland, Patrick Schick’s stunning 50-yard strike against Scotland, a startling amount of own goals, a couple of thrilling Round of 16 matches between France and Switzerland and Spain and Croatia, England fans bum-rushing Wembley to get into the final, enterprising and entertaining play by eventual champions Italy and some predictable racism Euro 20/21 brought the goods from start to finish. 

FIFA World Cup-You have to wonder whether this organization really gets it. As excitement builds for next year’s Big Dance, one wonders if this will be the last of its kind.  FIFA President Gianni Infantino (Grand Puba 2.0) has expressed his desire to not only expand the field to 48 teams from the current 32 but also have a World Cup every other year. He argues that the potential $1.6 to 3.5 billion increase in revenue from ticket sales and television advertising would benefit less-developed nations and give more nations a chance to appear in the Big Dance. Most see it as an unwelcome and obstructive money grab for an organization operating under a large shadow of corruption (See Sepp Blatter aka Grand Puba Prime, Michael Platini, Jack Warner, et al.)  French star and 2018 World Cup winner Kylian M’bappe recently stated that the tournament being staged every 4 years is what makes it special.  This writer agrees.  

Yo Gotti DC United
Xavier Dussaq/D.C. United

Gotti, Yo- I’m more of an old-school hip-hop head (‘97 and backward) so I’ll be honest. I had no idea who this cat was when it was announced that he had become a minority owner of four-time MLS Champions DC United.  “I was introduced to the game by my son and watched how quickly it has grown in our country, so I’m honored to join D.C. United ownership group,” he said in a September statement.  Gotti is part of an expanded four-man group that includes current Swansea City co-owner Jake Silverstein, Chief Executive Officer of Granite Associates Inc. Adam Gerry, and business owner Joe Mamo. 

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Harassment-It’s wrong. No, seriously.  It’s never acceptable. One would think this basic tenet of decency should not have to be repeated but apparently, it does.  The NWSL was rocked by multiple allegations of harassment by coaches towards their players and no accountability from its executives. The main allegation was against NC Courage coach Paul Riley who was (amongst other things) accused of bringing two of his players back to his apartment and encouraging them to engage in…activities during his time coaching the Portland Thorns and other instances of coercing players into sex.  There were other allegations about his hyperfocus about his players’ relationships. Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was said to be abusive towards his players including the use of homophobic slurs. Dell Loy Hansen was forced to sell Utah Royals FC due to a sexist and racist culture in the front office. Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired after an investigation. Eventually, Commissioner Lisa Baird fell on her sword and resigned just after announcing the league would suspend play for a week in light of the reports.  Sustaining a women’s professional league in the US is hard enough without this type of disgusting behavior. While the aforementioned individuals are no longer in their positions the league made the news for all the wrong reasons and that’s lamentable.

Imani Dorsey

Imani Dorsey-On a more positive note, major congratulations are due to the 2018 NWSL Rookie Of the Year and current USMNT/NJ-NY Gotham FC forward Imani Dorsey who was named winner of the inaugural One Nation Social Impact Award by US Soccer for her work with the Black Women’s Player Collective. She is a founding member of the organization which seeks to advance opportunities for Black girls in sport and “Through education, mentorship and community development…aim to provide black girls with direct access to soccer at every level.”  Imani is about that commitment and we salute her efforts to grow this Beautiful Game. 

Jerseys-One area of the sport that seemingly was not affected by COVID was the sales of soccer jerseys. With both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi changing teams, sales for their new jerseys with Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain garnered $252 million and $139 million respectively before either one of them actually played a game.  While the top clubs generally receive anywhere between 7 to 15% of profits from jersey sales, it was enough, in Manchester United’s case, to cover for the transfer fee they paid to Juventus. In the US, through September the highest-selling jersey was that of…El Enemigo, followed by Euro20/21 winners Italy (home), Liverpool, FC Barcelona (home), and Germany. The US did not even make the top 10, though I’m thinking that might have changed by the end of the year. In the market for some great-looking jerseys? Check out this compilation from the folks at Soccer Bible.  I really like that away jersey of South African side Mamelodi Sundowns…

 

Kylian Mbappe celebrates a goal
IAN LANGSDON / EFE

Kylian Mbappe-The fleet-footed French forward will be facing a huge 2022.  With the shocking arrival of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain, the expectations that he, Messi, and Neymar will win the Champions League will increase as the knockout stages begin. If they don’t (or even if they do) will that (and the expiration of his current contract) trigger the long-rumored move to Real Madrid to find similar success as his idol Cristiano Ronaldo? Then there is the matter of leading Les Bleus in their defense of the World Cup. After having a subpar Euro20/21 and missing the decisive penalty in the shootout against Switzerland the pressure upon him to make amends and lead his country on another deep run will be tremendous. Hard to believe this young man is only 23 (despite his resemblance to Doc Rivers) but the pressure of the world will surely be upon him next year. Is he ready? One thing is for sure, he’s not going to Tottenham…

Lewandowski, Robert- Not sure what else this guy has to do to win the Balon D’or recognizing the best player in Europe.  The award was not given in 2020 due to Covid but surely scoring 69 goals in 2021 across all competitions, doing so in 76% of the matches in which he played (despite missing a month due to injury), 11 goals in the Champions League despite missing the quarterfinal, five hat-tricks and 13 assists for good measure would be enough to win in 2021? Right? Wrong, they gave it to Messi, presumably for winning the Copa America.  Even Messi admitted, “I think that France Football should give you the Ballon d’Or that you deserve.” 

 

US Soccer

McKennie, Weston- (AKA Maxwell) Quite an interesting year for the former Dallas area academy player now with Juventus.  He played a pivotal role in the US’ success this year including scoring a goal in two of the Squad’s three wins against El Enemigo but also got sent home by US Coach Gregg Berhalter for a violation of team COVID protocols during an international window.  He established himself as an everyday player for Juventus in 2020-21 and Andrea Pirlo was said to be full of praise, but injuries and some inconsistent performances have led some to believe that the Turin side is listening to offers for a potential transfer. With a great work rate in the middle of the field and the knack for showing up in the big matches, McKennie, at his best, is an indispensable member of the US midfield. A transfer now most likely won’t do him any good in a World Cup year (see Sargent, Josh). The next six months for his club are going to be crucial for him and possibly the US’ chances in Qatar. 

 

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NYCFC-New York is blue.  NYC’s second team is the first to raise an MLS Cup, surviving a 94th-minute equalizer from Portland’s Felipe Mora to win 4-2 on penalties after extra-time thanks to two saves from Sean Johnson.  NYCFC were unlikely winners, having finished 22 points behind New England in the Eastern Conference regular-season standings but they earned this title the hard way in the playoffs. They outlasted the Supporters’ Shield winners from the 508 on penalties, survived a tense encounter with a COVID depleted Philadelphia, and advanced to the Cup Final all on the road.  Valentín Castellanos led the way with 19 goals throughout the season including one in the final and has already drawn interest from Brazilian side Palmeiras (see below). Johnson started all 33 games. South Bronx…South South Bronx!

 O, Canada– After announcing their arrival to the upper echelons of CONCACAF after dominating the US in a Nations League match a couple of years ago, the Red and White are currently leading the CONCACAF Octagonal standings. The North beat El Enemigo at home after tying them on the road and drew with the US to open the final round of qualifying. Just after the halfway mark, they are on course to qualify for the Big Dance for the first time since the Reagan Administration. Tajon Buchanan, who has recently joined Club Brugge in Belgium, has been a breakout star having enjoyed a brilliant Gold Cup. He has combined with Jonathan David and former Orlando SC player Clyde Larin to form an excellent front line.  Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich is the best player in CONCACAF right now and the influential Stephen Eustaquio, as well as long-time defender Atiba Hutchinson, have been catalysts in Canada’s success. Even Drake is supporting them. Meanwhile, the women captured its first Olympic Gold medal, ending years of frustration by beating the US in the semifinals 1-0 and outlasting Sweden on penalties 4-3 after a 1-1 draw.  We the North indeed. 

 

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Palmeiras- Make it two straight Copa Libertadores titles and three overall for the Sao Paulo giants as they beat Flamengo 2-1 in a pulsating final between the last two winners of the competition.  Raphael Veiga, the team’s leading scorer, slotted home from close-range after five minutes to give the defending champions a lead they would hold until a 74th-minute equalizer by Flamengo’s Gabriel Barbosa, star of the 2019 final and the competition’s leading scorer. 90 minutes could not reveal the winner but five minutes into extra time, Deyverson took advantage of a defender’s slip to rifle home the winner. Palmeiras will represent South America at the Club World Cup in February in the UAE where they will meet the winner of the Al-Ahly and FC Monterrey  (Mexico). 

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 Qatar-Say what you will about how the country landed next year’s World Cup, the hosts have put together an entertaining squad that could make some noise next winter.  Playing as invited guests they gained two semi-finals:  the 2021 Gold Cup before falling to the US and the 2021 Arab Cup to a 97th-minute pk awarded to Algeria.  They have shown themselves as a slick attacking side and while consistent finishing seemed to be their weakness, they should acquit themselves well while hosting the Big Dance. 

 

Roy Keane slammed England's senior stars for letting Bukayo Saka take a penalty
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Racism-Continues to plague European football most notably illustrated by the racist abuse hurled at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka (pictured) who all missed their penalties in the shootout that decided the Euro 20/21 final.  What was most telling, to me? A Black expatriate friend from London now living in Toronto with whom I was texting during extra time predicted all this would happen as soon as the match was over.  “That’s why I don’t support England,” she said. 

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 Salah, Mohammad- As Biggie once asked, “What’s beef?” Mo Salah has it as well. As influential and in-form as any player in the world for both club and country right now, it is inconceivable that the Liverpool forward finished SEVENTH in the Balon D’Or voting.  He leads the Premier League in both goals (15) and assists (9) as of this writing and assisted twice in the come from behind draw against Algeria to clinch qualification to the 2022 World Cup for The Pharaohs.  With the African Cup of Nations coming in the next month and the World Cup at the end of the year look for this brilliant footballer to make his mark in a big way. 

ESPN.com

Tyler Adams-Another young but seemingly indispensable member of the US midfield, the former RBNY player, now with RB Leipzig, captained The Squad several times during the summer and fall and was essential in beginning the offense from his deep-lying position. A regular with Leipzig in Germany’s Bundesliga he’s finally shaken off the injury bug and looks ready to take on even more responsibilities as the business end of World Cup qualifying approaches and the challenge of The Big Dance dawns.  

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USA-Quite an astonishing year for the Men’s side. There were some rather inconsistent performances in World Cup qualifying, including a loss away to Panama and an uninspiring draws against El Salvador and Canada (though the latter doesn’t look so bad right now). But the highs? Oh my!  The Squad dropped four goals on Honduras away and captured two titles while beating El Enemigo three times on its way to capturing its most wins ever in a calendar year.  The US won the CONCACAF Nations League title with an absolutely thrilling 3-2 win over That Team Down South which included an 80th-minute equalizer by Weston McKennie & a pair of VAR awarded goals in extra time that Christian Pulisic converted but Andres Guardado could not. They won the Gold Cup with a very inexperienced side, beating El Enemigo’s Aside in the final thanks to a MOTM performance from Kellen Acosta who served up a brilliant ball to Miles Robinson for a 117th-minute header. They then finally restored normal Dos a Cero service by beating El Enemigo in a World Cup qualifier in Cincinnati that they largely dominated.  Along the way, the US has gotten great performances from several Black players such as the aforementioned Acosta, McKennie and Adams, and the Brothers Robinson (Miles and Antonee) in defense.  Sitting in second place in the Octagonal standings, they still face some daunting matches away to Canada and Mexico City but I don’t see a repeat of 2017.  I still think this team is too young and inexperienced to make a deep run in Qatar but 2026?  At home?  As Amel Larrieux once said, “Endless possibilities, I can see them now….” The women’s side were not at their best during the 2021 Olympic Tournament but still managed to gain the semi-finals before conceding a 75th-minute penalty and losing to The North, 1-0. With the World Cup still two years away, expect to see a changing of the guard as some of the well-known names such as Megan Rapinoe and the now-retired Carli Lloyd make way for the likes of Margaret Purce, Mallory Pugh, and Catalina Marcario.   

VAR-Like it (I do) or not (most of England and Croatia apparently) Video Assistant Refereeing is here to stay and 2022 will be the second time the system will be in use for a World Cup.  It remains controversial not so much for the technology but by the interpretation of fouls, penalties, and most often, offside calls which can turn the momentum of a game (see US v. El Enemigo, Nations League Final) but most times they get it right and that’s what’s most important.  However, the technology is still being implemented worldwide due to the financial complications involved. In CONCACAF for example, only the stadiums in the US, Mexico, and Canada are equipped with the necessary technology and therefore VAR has not been used in the Octagonal at all.  Many countries in Southern Africa also have not adopted it, either citing the royalty cost and yearly service fees that many African federations simply cannot afford. Grand Puba 2.0, are you listening? 

ENGAGE - Aaron West

West, Aaron-Several years ago, I wrote a column in this space lamenting the lack of Black Soccer journalists in this country.  It was something I did part-time and now only sporadically but I longed for the day to see some brothers and sisters really dedicated to covering the sport. To that end, I’ve been glad to see the continued rise of Aaron West (pictured, left). The former Davidson player has written for outlets like Goal.com and Soccer Without Limits, provided soccer coverage for Fox Sports, and can now be seen on-air with CBS through its coverage on Paramount+.  Beyond that, he has landed interviews with some of the biggest names in the game on both the men’s and women’s side as well as interest pieces both in the US and Europe. The popularity of the game is growing amongst Black folk and the likes of West, the brothers at  The Banter Pub FC, the sisters of Diaspora United, commentators such as Maurice Edu and Danielle Slaton, as well as the folks at the Black Star Initiative will continue to be the catalysts. 

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Yunus Musah-Another potential mainstay in the US’ midfield, the NYC born Musah spurned the opportunity to represent Ghana (where his parents are from) as well as England and Italy (where he was raised) to represent The Squad and has returned the faith with positive displays both out wide and driving through the midfield with determined runs with the ball.  He made his La Liga debut with Valencia as a 17-year-old in 2020 and has made 39 appearances. He played quite well in The Squad’s Dos a Cero win over El Enemigo and is most certainly in contention for a ticket to the Big Dance next year. One to watch down the road for real stardom. 

 

Zlatan-How is this guy still playing? Thankfully he is…I don’t have any other Zs.  

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That’s it! A huge 2022 is on tap with the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup.  Love This Game! Live This Game! Embrace This Game! 

Based in Tallahassee, Andrew L. Dixon, III has contributed soccer articles to BASN since 2004. He previously authored a column for the US Soccer Players.com website. He can be reached at Golnoir@aol.com

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