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.