Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Top Ten Footballers 2021

It has not been an easy year to choose favourite footballers; there have been many great players, but also quite varying levels in what has been a long year, with many tournaments and that are hard on the physical and psychological aspects for players. This is my personal list of ten players that have caused an impression on me this year.

10) Lionel Messi: I was close to not putting Messi on the list. That said, he ended a dreadful 2020-21 season for Barcelona as the top-scorer in Spain, and a Copa del Rey. The soap opera of his change to PSG is hardly worth writing about, and the team has not yet been impressive. That said, Messi's great achievement is the Copa America title, where he was finally the experienced leader that Argentina has needed, in a team where he is well-integrated and the entire team is benefiting from his incredible skills.

9) Erling Haaland: One has to be careful about hailing new young stars, but Borussia Dortmund's Haaland was surely on fire, in particular in the first half of the year, when he was averaging two goals per match and reached his 20th Champions League in only 14 matches. He has stayed in Dortmund throughout the year, continuing scoring goals (he remains topscorer in the Bundesliga) at the end of the year, despite interest from all the big clubs. With Norway he missed World Cup qualification, but it will be interesting to follow him next year.

8) Mohammed Salah: Premier League is the best league in the world, and although Liverpool did not win titles in 2021, their performance has been impressive, and at the end of 2021 they remain contenders for the Premier League title with the great Egyptian as top-scorer with 15 goals, and well on his way to get the title of top-scorer that he lost to Harry Kane in the 2020-21 season. He only scored one goal for Egypt in 2021, but is heading to the Africa Cup of Nations and perhaps the World Cup in 2022.

7) Romelu Lukaku: The great Belgian won the Serie A with Inter Milan with himself as their leading goalscorer (but behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the Serie A). His change to Chelsea for the new season has been more mixed as he reintegrates into the Premier League. With Belgium he was also their main attacking threat, although Belgium disappointed in both the European Championships and the Nations League by not making it (yet again) to their full potential. But Lukaku remains a great players and a gentleman of the game.

6) Marquinhos: A bit of a strange year for Brazil's and PSG's Marquinhos because he did not win many of the titles that seemed at his grasp: with PSG they lost the French league to Lille and lost the Champions League semifinals to Manchester City. With Brazil, Marquinhos lost the Copa America final. That said, throughout the year Marquinhos has been a solid defender who is also a goal-threat with his potential headers.

5) Robert Lewandowski: The great Polish player of Bayern Munich is probably the best striker in the world, and according to Leo Messi himself, when receiving the Balon d'Or, was the rightful winner in 2020. Winning the 2020-21 Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, he scored an incredible 41 goals, the most ever in a season, and beating the record of legendary Gerd Muller. On the Polish national team he remains the leading goalscorer, and although Poland did not impress, he became the first Pole to score in three consecutive European Championships when he scored against Spain in June.

4) Edouard Mendy: There has been a lot of talk about goalkeepers this year; Gianluigi Donnarumma was named best player of the European Championship, and there have been impressive goalkeepers all-round (Emiliano Martinez, Kasper Schmeichel, Keylor Navas), but I think that Edouard Mendy has been the best of them all, being impressive in the European Champions League winners of Chelsea (and the first African goalkeeper in a CL final), and playing a crucial role in both Chelsea's and Senegal's strong defensive record.

3) Ngolo Kante: N'golo Kanté is one of the greatest players in the world, and alongside Jorginho make up an awesome midfield duo at Chelsea, that greatly contributed to the rise of the Londoners throughout the year, and their Champions League title. Kanté runs, tackles and intercepts throughout a match, and was also a key player for France's Nations League winners (despite the disappointment at losing out to Switzerland at the European Championships). Besides his outstanding qualities as a footballer, Kanté also displays one of the rare traits among footballers as being a humble man.

2) Alexia Putellas: I did not know Ms. Putella until this year, when I saw her shine in FC Barcelona's Champions League triumph against Chelsea. She crowned a fantastic season with Barcelona (where she also won the league) with almost-certain qualification for the 2023 World Cup, and is undoubtedly the best female footballer in the world right now, as well as certainly one of the best footballers overall in the world.

1) Jorginho: A fantastic year for a fantastic player who is perhaps the best in the world at the moment (just scoring goals is usually what gets all the credits, but versatile players like Jorginho do all the work on a pitch). He was the ever-working player in the Italian European champions midfield, and was the player who most ran in the tournament, recoveries, passes and interception. Surely having Jorginho on the team was like having an extra player, but also an intelligent player who is able to lead the team. And it was not only for Italy that Jorginho was impressive, but he was also key in Chelsea's Champions League triumph, and as Chelsea continues competing for the Premier and Champions League titles.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Top Ten Teams of 2021

In terms of football, 2021 has been a strange year with many leagues being won by unexpected teams, as well as harsh competition in the European top leagues, including national team tournaments (as well as Olympic games). So, while not easy, the following is my personal list of top 10 football teams that have made an impression of me in 2021:

10) Union Saint Gilloise: This side from the Brussels neighbourhood of Saint Gilles were promoted to the Belgian first Division after 48 years. And this season the underestimated side has taken everyone by storm, and as the year ends, the side is leading the Belgian first division ahead of Club Brugge, and are dreaming of a title that they have not taken since 1935. 

9) Brøndby: I am a Brøndby fan, so I won't hide my subjectivity here. That said, it was not only a personal delight that they took the title for the first time in 16 years, but more broadly it was positive to see another team being able to challenge the two dominant teams of Danish football, FC Copenhagen and FC Midtjylland.

8) Denmark: This was the year to again support Denmark. The Danes not only qualified for the 2022 World Cup in awesome style, but most memorably won hearts of many fans during the European Championships, where they played great football and with spirit after the near-tragedy of Christian Eriksen in the first match against Finland. Denmark made it to the semifinals, losing to England on a controversial penalty, but the Danish team proved yet again that in football, winning is not the most important thing.

7) Inter Milan: Many sides that had not won the league for a long time broke their spell. In Italy, Inter Milan had not won since 2009, and broke Juventus nine-year dominance to take their 19th Serie A title under the management of Antonio Conte (who in the new season changed to Tottenham). Under the new manager Simone Inzaghi, they are also ahead in the Serie A at the end of the year, and have also progressed to the Round of 16 of the Champions League, where they will face Liverpool.

6) Lille OSC: With the money and players that Paris St. Germain have available, it is difficult for any other team to challenge the giants for the title. Indeed the Parisians have won the title seven times in the past eight years. But the season 2020-2021 was won by Lille, managed by Christophe Galtier (who for the new season went to Nice), with a team that combined young talent and experienced players, but who most of all proved yet again that in football you don't (necessarily) win by just having a bunch of well-paid superstars.

5) Italy: Italy won a very entertaining and competitive European championship tournament (delayed one year due to COVID) in the final against England at Wembley, ruining the party that the English appeared to have planned for (and sadly many Englishmen proving sore losers). In my personal view this was the best Italy I have ever seen. It has been happening for some years now (I would say the 2012 Euros), but Italy has finally abandoned its infamous catennaccio, and have been great to watch. They have struggled in the World Cup qualifiers, but hopefully they will make it to Qatar.

4) Palmeiras: The Brazilian giants won the Copa Libertadores twice in 2021; due to the COVID delays the 2020 final was played in January, when Palmeiras defeated the fellow Paulistas of Santos 1-0. The 2021 final was played in November, and Palmeiras won again, this time 2-1 against Flamengo. Although they have not won a competitive Brazilian league since 2018, they are surely one of the best teams in South America at the moment.

3) FC Barcelona women: In a year where FC Barcelona's men have been poor, the women's side has been awesome, taking the first ever Womens' Champions League title for the Catalans in a final where they walked over Chelsea, winning 4-0. They are also totally dominant in the Spanish League, winning their third consecutive title, and while they excel as a team, they also have the best female player in the world in the form of Alexia Putellas. FC Barcelona could dominate women's football for many years to come.

2) Argentina: The organization of the Copa America was a mess. Originally it was to hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but at the last moment COVID prevented it from going ahead, and in the end it was hosted by Brazil, in a tournament that lacked the passion engendered by fans in its empty stadiums. Brazil were huge favourites to take the title, but in the final at the legendary Maracana an Argentinean side led by Lionel Messi won 1-0 and its first Copa America since 1993. It was also Lionel Messi's first title with an Argentine side that is also almost certain to qualify for Qatar with a team that could surely contend for the world title.

1) Chelsea: Chelsea did not start the 2020-2021 season well, but when they hired Thomas Tuchel to take over from Frank Lampard in January things soon changed and they went on to win the Champions League title in style, defeating Manchester City 1-0 in an all-English final. They also made it to the FA Cup final, nearly winning the double, but losing to Leicester only shows the high competitive level in English football. In the new season they continue playing well, but will have to fight hard for the title against Liverpool and Manchester City. They made it to the Round of 16 of the Champions League, only losing to Juventus to take second place in their group, and will be facing the French champions of Lille. Thomas Tuchel has done great work with the best midfielders in the world in the form of Ngolo Kante and Jorginho, but also impressive players in defense as Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, and the great Edouard Mendy in goal.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Sergio "Kun" Agüero

Nowadays 33 years is not too much of an age for a footballer. That is the age at which Sergio Aguero has announced an early retirement due to some kind of heart problems that gave him a scare a few months ago in an FC Barcelona match. Mr. Aguero´s Barcelona career was short (only four matches); but not so his 10-years at Manchester City where he became a legend. It also remains one of my own memories of Sergio Aguero when he brought the Premier League title to Manchester City with a memorable comeback against QPR. He ended up scoring 184 goals and winning five PL titles and one FA Cup during his time there. 

As an Argentina fan I think his performances were more disappointing despite his 41 goals in 101 matches. He was part of the 2014 and 2018 World Cup sides, as well as won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 and the 2021 Copa America winners. But I think he never reached the high levels that he reached in both Atletico Madrid and Manchester City.

That said, Sergio Aguero is a great player that will be missed on the football pitches, and with gratitude wishing him a great post-footballing career!

Sunday, December 05, 2021

The Qatari disgrace

 As more and more teams are confirming their qualification for next year's World Cup in Qatar, it is truly disturbing to hear that Qatar's small advances in protecting the rights of the workers are not advancing further, but in fact going back. Two weeks ago Amnesty International published a new report on how things are going, and they are indeed looking bleak. Barely a week after the report two Norwegian journalists were detained in Qatar after reporting on the fear and implicit corruption that is behind the organization of the World Cup.

I think it is clear that the Qatari regime appears to have no intention to improve the lot of its migrant workers, and also appears to be willing to go to great lengths to hide anything that could be problematic.

Obviously the World Cup will be held in Qatar. FIFA will not do that, and I am not going to bother reflecting on the despicable reasons for any of FIFA's actions. 

Neither will any government cancel its participation in the World Cup: there will simply not be a sufficient number of countries that will support it, and without this, there will be no meaning to do it. Indeed, the attention of the World Cup is only of great interest to most governments, as it only takes attention away from them at a time of crises all around the world.

The World Cup is the opium of the people.

So what can we do about it? How can we help our brothers and sisters, migrant workers, suffering and being oppressed in Qatar? (a country that also discriminates against women and LGBTI people). I think the recent European championship gave some small indications that I hope fans and teams participating in Qatar will take up: send a strong message; carry t-shirts calling for rights; carry pictures of the many workers who have died; send messages in support of LGBTI people and the family's of migrant workers who have lost their loved ones; wave the flags of Nepal and Bangladesh (where most migrant workers come from) during the matches; I hope players from all teams will take a knee as they have beautifully done against racism, but will do it for Human Rights in Qatar; I hope players will be vocal, as they have been doing a lot recently, and denounce the Qatari treatment of the weakest people who have built the stadiums where they can play, where only global millionaires will be able to get tickets to watch them.

Qatar doesn't deserve the World Cup. FIFA doesn't own the World Cup. The World Cup belongs to the people, to the fans and the players (who are fans too), and they will make the World Cup great, but hopefully denounce the greed of the people who claim to own the World Cup.