The year of 2008 brought plenty of drama to the world of soccer, both on and off the field.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi pushed the boundaries of personal performance to levels not seen since Zinedine Zidane's peak, with Manchester United and Barcelona respectively reaping the benefits. A dramatic conclusion to the UEFA Champions League and a magnificently played European Championships lit up the middle of the year.
In a few days, the January transfer window will re-open and the real effects of the global credit crunch may be felt. A few big spenders like Real Madrid and Manchester City might be needed to splash out some cash and kick the transfer market to life.
Here, we look back at 2008 and reflect on the entertaining year that was.
Top 10 stories of 2008
10. Altidore heads to Spain: European clubs are increasingly looking to North America as a fertile breeding ground for bargains. Villarreal, the enterprising Spanish club that regularly matches bigger rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona both at home and in the Champions League, spent $10 million in June to land Jozy Altidore from the New York Red Bulls. Altidore has become a valuable member of the Villarreal squad and hopes for an increased role as the La Liga season wears on.
9. Rule change threatens Olympic soccer: On the eve of the Beijing Games tournament, Barcelona, Schalke and Werder Bremen won a landmark decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport that allowed them to withdraw their players from the Olympics. The upshot is that future tournaments are likely to have even less relevance, with the best under-23 players in the world set to be kept at home by their clubs. FIFA is to blame. Olympic men's soccer does has its place and it would be sad if it is reduced to a meaningless sideshow.
Manchester City's Brazilian forward Robinho celebrates scoring the equalizing goal against Blackburn Rovers during their English Premier League football match at Ewood Park, Blackburn, north west England on December 28, 2008.
( Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
8. Arabs buy Manchester City: Just when we thought money madness couldn't tighten its grip on soccer any further, along came the multi-billionaire Abu Dhabi United group to buy Manchester City and turn the transfer market on its head. With wealth that far outstrips any other club owner in the world, the Arab oligarchs can and will pay the biggest transfer fees and top wages in a bid to build a squad capable of competing for major honors. Performances so far this season have been bad enough to sink the team into the English Premier League's relegation zone, but that situation won't last long once some of Europe's biggest names arrive in January and next summer.
7. Mourinho returns with Inter: Soccer missed Jose Mourinho after he left Chelsea, yet it took only a few months before the Special One stepped back into the spotlight. Before long, he was back in his old rhythm, playing mind games and picking arguments with rival head coaches. The great entertainer looks on course to take Inter to a fourth straight Serie A title in Italy, but he will be judged on what he achieves in the Champions League.
6. U.S. women win gold: With a new professional women's league set to begin play in March, the pressure was on for the United States to deliver gold in Beijing. A dismal 2-0 defeat to Norway in the opening game spelled trouble before Pia Sundhage's team gradually built up momentum to clinch a spot in the final. Carli Lloyd's injury-time drive sealed victory against Brazil on an emotional night at the Workers Stadium.
5. Maradona returns as Argentina coach: Diego Maradona's post-career life had been blighted by drug, alcohol and weight problems – and he appeared more interested in hanging out with Fidel Castro than pursuing soccer in recent years. However, once Alfio Basile was axed as Argentina head coach, Maradona instantly emerged as a shock choice. On the back of a wave of national support, he swept into the job and promised to revitalize the team's fortunes. Early signs show that the position is giving this all-time great the focus needed to beat the problems that threatened to destroy him.
4. Falling stars in Los Angeles: Surely, things could only get better for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2008, right? After a woeful 2007 in which David Beckham was injured for most of the campaign, a high-profile boss in Ruud Gullit and a handful of new players had been drafted in. Things started OK before a dreadful three-month winless streak took the club out of playoff contention, brought the demise of Gullit and team president Alexi Lalas, and made the Galaxy a laughingstock once more. Beckham had seen enough, engineering a loan deal to AC Milan that was effectively finalized before the MLS season had even finished.
Manchester United's Portugese midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against Chelsea during the final of the UEFA Champions League football match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on May 21, 2008.
(Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)
3. Spain crowned kings of Europe: Decades of underachievement in major tournaments came to an end for Spain after a spectacular surge through Euro 2008. Talismanic goalkeeper Iker Casillas, midfield linchpin Xavi and superstar attackers Fernando Torres and David Villa were all outstanding, but in reality this was a team full of stars. After surviving a nail-biting penalty shootout against Italy, the Spaniards swept away Russia and Germany, sending a nation into raptures.
2. John Terry's penalty miss: Roman Abramovich was rubbing his hands together in his VIP seat in Moscow and Chelsea was just one penalty kick away from being crowned kings of Europe. Up stepped Mr. Chelsea, Terry, to seal his place in immortality. At the crucial moment, though, the sodden Luzhniki Stadium turf gave way. Terry slipped, his shot beating goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, but the ball crashed against the post. Three successful kicks and a Nicolas Anelka miss later, and Manchester United were Champions League champs.
1. The Cristiano Ronaldo saga: Ronaldo capped off a spectacular 42-goal season by helping Manchester United to the Premier League and Champions League double. Then the fun really started. A summer wrangle between United and Real Madrid rumbled on after Ronaldo revealed publicly that he wanted to leave. United held firm and refused to sell, yet that was far from the end. Real continues to stir things up, prompting a furious response from Sir Alex Ferguson last week when he said he wouldn't sell "that mob a virus, let alone Cristiano." A fierce feud involving two of the world's iconic clubs and its best player? Doesn't get much better, does it?