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Recapping some of the year’s best — and worst — moments

Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed, what to keep an eye on in the coming days and of course, certain things that probably deserved extra love and criticism.

This week -- and to use a little poetic license -- it's the first edition of our End of Year Wrapped awards as LME gives you some of the most and least memorable moments of 2023 using stats and numbers compiled throughout the year.

ONSIDE

Messi's magical Miami summer

Lionel Messi and his family landed in South Florida on July 11 and from that moment, soccer and sports in America would never be the same again. Yes, it's fair to say that the avalanche of news actually started when Inter Miami and Messi made it official in early June, but when the 36-year-old World Cup champion stepped foot onto Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, that's when we knew it was real.

What followed was a summer like no other. From a casual trip to a Publix supermarket to running through a red light, every movement by La Pulga was reported. But it was the magic on the pitch and the club's Leagues Cup victory that made it such a memorable summer in the 305.

Lionel Messi's arrival in the U.S., Jude Bellingham's spectacular start at Real Madrid and Colombia women's performance at the women's World Cup were a few of the most notable storylines in 2023. Illustration by ESPN

It started with his debut and a 94th minute free-kick winner against Cruz Azul. Then, like a Moscow mule on South Beach, the goals and wins kept on coming and we couldn't get enough of the magic. Here was a team that was the worst in the league, devoid of creativity or tenacity. Messi's arrival not only transformed Inter Miami, but 41 days after his arrival, they were champions and collected their first trophy after beating Nashville SC in the Leagues Cup final Aug. 20.

Things calmed down ever so slightly after that as Messi needed to heal, rest and give some of his time to the Argentina national team. In the end, the odds of reaching the MLS playoffs were too steep, but it didn't matter. Inter Miami had a trophy and a place in the Champions Cup. Most importantly, they had Messi and a summer they will never forget.

Colombia made some noise at the Women's World Cup

After narrowly losing to eventual finalists England in the quarterfinal stages of this year's Women's World Cup, Colombia left Australia and New Zealand as heroes. To make it that far was a testament to their fight, on and off the pitch.

Playing England was an obstacle for Las Cafeteras, but it was nothing compared to everything they had to do to get there in the first place. Their battle has been about securing equal rights, equal pay, and adequate training and travel support from their own federation. The fact that Colombia became the first South American nation in 12 years to reach the final eight of the women's tournament while being the lowest-ranked team remaining was an incredible achievement.

They did it in style, too. How about 18-year-old Linda Caicedo? She became the first player in history to compete at three Women's World Cups (U-17, U-20, and senior) inside a year. Her opening goal against South Korea was a curling piece of beauty. From that moment, she never looked back.

Caicedo represents everything about this Colombian team and the message it always leaves behind: We will compete, no matter what you throw at us.

At this year's World Cup, everyone took notice.

The meteoric rise of 20-year-old Jude Bellingham

In case you've not been keeping track: 17 goals and five assists in 21 total matches. The fourth Real Madrid player to score on both his debuts in LaLiga and the Champions League in the 21st century. Winner of the Kopa Trophy as the world's best U-21 player. An outstanding brace (which included a stoppage-time winner) in his first Clásico.

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Bottom line, there is no single word to describe Jude Bellingham.

Special? It's not emphatic enough.

Magnificent? Too pretentious. To use one word is a disservice to the young star and what he has done in this first half of the season and the early part of his tenure at Real Madrid. And that's the thing. He's not just doing this for any club. It's Real Madrid, where there is constant pressure. Where all eyes are on you. Especially if you're English.

Bellingham didn't blink. He came in like a lion. The fact that he's doing it a few months past his teenage years is even more incredible. It would be impressive for any veteran or even someone in their late 20s, but Bellingham has only been on Earth for two decades. And just like manager Carlo Ancelotti said, he's wise beyond his years. It's incredible to see someone so young be so elegant in his football and equally so sure of himself.

On the pitch, it's difficult to describe his position. You could say he's an attacking midfielder, but he's not really. When you watch him play, all he cares about is exploiting his opponents' weaknesses, whether it's a drive towards goal, or combination work with his Brazilian teammates Vinícius Júnior or Rodrygo. He also acts as a striker, looking to penetrate the penalty area at any given opportunity. He is a remarkable player and a future Ballon d'Or winner -- I have no doubt.

This is why he deserves a mention. And why we -- not just England or Real Madrid -- are lucky to witness the inevitability of Bellingham.

OFFSIDE

Luis Rubiales' actions after Spain's glorious World Cup victory

There are many tragic consequences to the former Spanish FA head's forced kiss on Jenni Hermoso after winning the Women's World Cup. From the actual act to his shameful reluctance to admit wrongdoing -- turning it all into a blame game -- the event became a dark cloud that overshadowed a historic achievement.

But if you look deeper, this was not a surprising story. Misogyny is a product of a society that nurtures it. Even when there is a slight sign of progress or rightful punishment, further changes are needed.

"I've had to assume the consequences of an act that I did not provoke, that I had not chosen or premeditated," said Hermoso to GQ Spain last month. "I have received threats, and that is something you never get used to."

What are we doing in society when the innocent are treated as guilty? It's a question for another day. But for now, the hope is that this type of story becomes extinct.

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Marcotti: Rubiales ban significant move from FIFA

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the news that former Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales has been banned for three years by FIFA.

Influx of money, Saudi influence and FIFA's sprawling arms

Last week's Club World Cup held in Saudi Arabia was the first time the Middle Eastern country was asked to host a tournament by FIFA. It was also the beginning of a journey for both sides since Saudi Arabia -- as long as everything goes according to plan -- will also host the 2034 World Cup after Australia declined to enter the bidding.

Yes, it's important to diversify the landscape of football's hosting regions, but I think it's naive to believe FIFA president Gianni Infantino desires only to expand the beauty of the game across the world. I'm sure it's a reason, but it's not the reason. This has always been about money and a desire to maximize all the revenue it can generate.

Now let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with making money, but the issue here is that Saudi Arabia's continued strategy of disrupting the soccer world's order -- one that is Europe-centric -- is a path toward rewriting its international identity. But these sports investments come amid questions about the country's economic, social and gender equality and a poor human rights record.

These conversations are often countered with "whataboutisms," and the truth is Pandora's box was opened when Qatar became hosts in 2022.

The alarming rate of injuries

Let's not beat around the bush. A congested schedule, an addition to new rules that create a larger amount of stoppage time minutes and an over-dependence on young players have now created a situation where we're seeing more and more injuries.

The Qatar World Cup in 2022 essentially kicked it all off as shortly after the final, players were asked to return to the domestic calendar and resume the mental and physical toll of the club game. Per insurance group Howden, which studied the effects of fixture congestion and players' welfare in 2022-2023, players who were injured after the World Cup spent an average of eight days longer on the sideline than before the tournament.

And this year, the trajectory has continued.

Let's use the Premier League as an example. The list of injuries has not been below 100 (136 as I write) and the issue is that it's not going away anytime soon because the football calendar is getting more and more congested. Aside from the Champions League or other UEFA competitions, what's coming is an avalanche of tournaments.

We have the 2024 Euros and Copa America, then international windows and a newly formatted Club World Cup in 2025 (which is aiming to be a month long), followed by the 2026 World Cup. In the women's game, a recent report from FIFPro focusing on players in Europe revealed how "elite female footballers who injured their ACL were exposed to a higher number of matches, a lower number of rest time and a higher number of rest periods of less than five days between matches than non-injured players" in the 28-day period before the injury took place.

Then there's young players. Vinicius Jr, for example, at 22 years old has already played 18,876 minutes for club and country. That's twice as many as Ronaldinho at the same age. At 24, Kylian Mbappé has played 48% more than Thierry Henry, also at the same age.

All these numbers are once again thanks to the good people from FIFPro and we have to keep voicing these issues because quite frankly, there is simply too much football for the players to handle, at least to the best of their ability. Fans may love nonstop action, but it's coming at a cost.

    

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