2020 in soccer: Liverpool, Lionel Messi, Christine Sinclair among those who punctuated a year like no other

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It has been, well, a year. Soccer was disrupted more significantly than at any time since World War II as a pandemic shook the sport’s shaky economic foundations. The European Championship was postponed. We lost Diego Maradona and a raft of other luminaries. And chances are fans won’t fill stadiums fully in most parts of the world until the summer, if not later.

But soccer happened nevertheless. And some had better years than others. Normally, we would declare winners and losers in a piece like this, but everybody is a winner for getting through this foul year, and there are no losers.

Besides, the biggest winner of all is Marcus Rashford anyway. The Manchester United striker not only blossomed into one of the world's best forwards but twice shamed the British government into extending free meal programs for school children, becoming the face of the fight to eradicate hunger in kids. But that had little to do with the game itself.

So here are Yahoo Soccer’s 10 gainers and also-rans of 2020 for things that actually involved soccer.

Gainer: Bayern Munich

At the start of the year, Bayern was in crisis. It looked old and sated and had sunk as low as seventh place in its campaign to win an eighth straight Bundesliga title. But by Aug. 23, Bayern hadn’t lost in 30 straight games under new manager Hansi Flick, claimed the second Champions League-Bundesliga-DFB Pokal treble in its history and rejuvenated its side. As a new year dawns, Bayern once again sits firmly atop its perch, looking ahead to future years of dominance.

Also-ran: The sport as a whole

It was no great secret that most soccer clubs lived close to the financial abyss. As it got ever more expensive to compete, teams began taking bigger risks, spending more and more of their revenue on transfer fees and salaries. When, suddenly, matchday income evaporated for months on end due to the pandemic, the financial shock was such that it put a host of clubs in existential danger. Even the richest teams like Barcelona had to ask players to forgo or defer salary while laying off or furloughing staff. The income lost this year will be counted not in millions but billions and the repercussions will reverberate.

Gainer: Liverpool

Liverpool waited 30 years (and a couple additional months thanks to COVID-19) to finally lift the English top flight trophy again. (Laurence Griffiths, Pool via AP)
Liverpool waited 30 years (and a couple additional months thanks to COVID-19) to finally lift the English top flight trophy again. (Laurence Griffiths, Pool via AP)

For a while, there was talk of abandoning the 2019-20 season altogether, even though the Reds had the Premier League title more or less sewn up for months already. They were champions all but mathematically. And now it looked like a once-in-a-century pandemic could rob them of their first title in three decades. But the season was restarted and although its record-setting pace slowed, Liverpool still posted one of the highest points totals of all time.

Also-ran: The fans

In dribs and drabs, fans have returned to stadiums around the world. A few thousand here. A few hundred there. In some countries, they had to be barred again as cases spiked in the fall. Even with some of them back, it isn’t the same. We’ve become accustomed to seeing empty stadiums, empty stands covered with tarps or filled with cutouts or awkward CGI fans. It’s going to be a long time. And that’s to the detriment of the people who love the game and want, above all else, to see it in person. Soccer is diminished as both an experience and a TV product without them.

Gainer: Jose Mourinho

When the once-special Mourinho took over Tottenham Hotspur in November of 2019, he was seen as a manager past his prime joining a team in slow decline. But by the summer, he had lifted Spurs from 12th place to sixth in spite of a series of a catastrophic injuries to its star forwards. An Amazon docuseries renewed Mourinho stardom and the ongoing season has even seen Tottenham flirt with competing for the title, including a thumping 6-1 victory over the last club to fire Mourinho in 2018, Manchester United.

Also-ran: Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi is still amazing. His 2020 was not. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Lionel Messi is still amazing. His 2020 was not. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

After two decades at the club that nurtured him, the world’s greatest-ever player was ready for a new challenge. He had certainly done plenty for Barcelona. And he believed that he was free to go, even with a year left on his contract. After all, he had an out clause after the season. So, following Barca’s humiliating 8-2 elimination at the hands of Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinals, he exercised it. Ah, but the clause expired at the end of May and it was now August, Barca said, forcing Messi to stay even if it might have violated the spirit of his contract. He opted against a costly and lengthy legal tussle. But the entire thing left a bad taste in his mouth as he has caught on to the club’s ongoing chaos in the last years of his career.

Gainer: USMNT

Yes, OK, sure, the U.S. men only played four times all year. But they went undefeated? And that’s not the point anyway. The point is that a raft of national teamers continued to climb the ladder in the European club game. Sergiño Dest earned a transfer from Ajax to Barcelona. Weston McKennie escaped Schalke for Juventus. Gio Reyna broke into the first team at Borussia Dortmund. Christian Pulisic firmed up his place with Chelsea and earned the No. 10 jersey. Tyler Adams made the Champions League semifinals with RB Leipzig. All of this accrues nicely to the national team.

Also-ran: Barcelona

The 2019-20 season was the club’s first campaign since 2007-08 that it won no trophies at all, punctuated by that aforementioned 8-2 loss to Bayern. Things only got worse from there. Messi wanted out. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu was ousted. The club turned out to be broke. And the squad is broken beyond repair. It’s little wonder that under new manager Ronald Koeman, who pushed out pricey veterans but wasn’t given the money to replace them, Barca already appears to be out of the title race.

Gainer: Christine Sinclair

It was at the start of the year, on Jan. 29, but in an Olympic qualifier against Saint Kitts and Nevis that day, Sinclair scored her 184th and 185th international goals. That tied and then surpassed the USA’s Abby Wambach and her world record for international goals — among women and men. It took Sinclair 35 more games than Wambach got, but then the Canadian striker never had anything close to the same supporting cast and team dominance.

Canadian star Christine Sinclair, seen here with the Portland Thorns during the NWSL Challenge Cup last summer, broke the record for most international goals scored by a man or woman. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Canadian star Christine Sinclair, seen here with the Portland Thorns during the NWSL Challenge Cup last summer, broke the record for most international goals scored by a man or woman. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Also-ran: Arsenal

Briefly, there was a revival under new manager Mikel Arteta. But the eighth-place finish in 2019-20 was still the club’s worst since 1994-95. The Gunners did win the FA Cup, but then they were also ignominiously bounced from the Europa League in the round of 32. And eighth place would feel pretty good right about now, as Arsenal slums it in 15th with a team that can’t defend, attack or really do anything else you would expect from a Premier League juggernaut.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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