As soon as the final kick of the 2008-09 season gave European soccer two months to put its feet up, the sport's movers and shakers exploded into life to manufacture the busiest summer in recent memory.
With hundreds of millions of dollars exchanging hands in the transfer market and some of the game's biggest names relocating to a new zip code, the soccer landscape will be decidedly different once official hostilities recommence this month. But if wheelings, dealings and unveilings aren't your thing, the United States' dramatic run at the Confederations Cup helped keep the soccer junkie entertained.
Here we take the first tentative steps into a new campaign by looking at the offseason's biggest stories, plus the backstories that may turn out to have an even greater significance.
Big story No. 1: Cristiano Ronaldo leaves Manchester United for Real Madrid. When the World Footballer of the Year switches teams, light bulbs pop, expectations rise and accountants rub their hands. Ronaldo's $131 million move from United to Real was the highest profile transfer of recent years, shattering the world-record fee and ending 18 months of speculation.
The real story: This was the summer when Real Madrid said "enough is enough." Humiliated by the La Liga and Champions League success of its hated rival Barcelona, the club that spawned the Galacticos reverted to its policy of buying the very best on the market. But it wasn't just Ronaldo. Brazilian icon Kaka arrived from AC Milan in a move that could add fresh life to his career. Then there was Karim Benzema, who was snatched from Lyon and right under United's nose. The French striker is a potential global star in the making.
Landon Donovan drew attention to himself at the Confederations Cup and in a revealing book about a certain Galaxy teammate.
(Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Big story No. 2: USA rises from the dead to reach the Confederations Cup final. From the brink of elimination, the United States mounted an incredible escape, trouncing Egypt (and getting help from Brazil against Italy) to qualify for the knockout stage and then eliminating world No. 1 and European champion Spain in the semifinals. The Americans led Brazil 2-0 in the final before losing 3-2. Suddenly, the U.S. is seen as a team that's capable of making serious headway at next summer's World Cup.
The real story: For all the valid talk about the performances of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and Landon Donovan, this competition was really the coming-out party of head coach Bob Bradley. Bradley went to South Africa facing the very real possibility of being fired, which would have put USA at square one and needing to rebuild less than a year out from the World Cup. Now, Bradley's position is secure and it is clear he has the complete trust and backing of his squad.
Big story No. 3: David Beckham comes back to America. Beckham returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy to boos, skepticism and a meeting with Landon Donovan that you would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for. "The Beckham Experiment," a book chronicling the England midfielder's first two seasons in MLS, appeared to set the scene for nothing more than more failure and angst. Sure enough, it didn't take long for Beckham to blow his fuse, twice confronting fans who had the temerity to insult him from the sanctity of the stands.
The real story: The book, the unrest, the altercations with fans – it just seemed like Beckham's return to the Galaxy would bring even more turmoil than usual. But something funny seems to be happening in Tinseltown. The much-derided Galaxy are actually winning some games and look good to make the playoffs. And Beckham looks focused, hungry and keen to prove a point.
Big story No. 4: Michael Owen signs with Manchester United. The former England striker hit the lowest of lows after getting relegated from the English Premier League with Newcastle. His career was on the rocks, and his EPL options seemed limited to unfashionable Hull City before United swooped in with the most shocking transfer of the summer.
The real story: United's "other" acquisition – Gabriel Obertan – has yet to have superstar billing, but he will. The 20-year-old winger comes from Bordeaux in the French league with high expectations. Figure on him, not Owen, having the bigger impact for United.
Big story No. 5: Countdown to 2010 South Africa begins. The one-year countdown to the World Cup came and went with great fanfare as the South African public turned out in droves to mark the occasion. The passion of the African people promises to make the 2010 tournament one of soccer history's most memorable.
The real story: Genuine concern remains about whether the stadiums for the tournament will be ready in time. Construction came to a complete halt in July when workers unions dug in their heels about rates of pay, and further strikes are predicted as pressure mounts on the organizers.
Weekend Best XI
1. Get him an Advil
Barcelona president Joan Laporta is determined to press for a salary cap to be introduced into European soccer in order to place a ceiling on spiraling wages. But with other top clubs, pro free-trade politicians and the players (of course) against the plan, Laporta faces a long and painful struggle.
2. Get him a beer
Oguchi Onyewu's outstanding efforts at the Confederations Cup helped land him a dream move to AC Milan. But the hard part starts now for Onyewu, who will have to adapt and improve his game significantly if he is to make the grade in the super-tough world of Serie A.
3. Get him some earplugs
David Beckham has been forced to listen to unimaginable insults about his wife, his children and other topics that should have been out of bounds during his career with Manchester United, Real Madrid and England. Beckham's policy has always been to treat the abuse with the contempt it deserves and ignore it. So why, toward the end of his career, was he so moved by a baseball-capped L.A. Galaxy heckler and a middle-aged Kansas man in a tank top that he invited them to "say it to my face?"
Edin Dzeko is one striker to watch.
(John Thys/AFP Photo)
4. Keep an eye on …
Bosnia-Herzegovina. The former war-torn Balkan nation has a serious chance of reaching the World Cup after some scintillating form in Europe's Group Five. Haven't heard of Edin Dzeko? You will soon.
5. Catch a flight to …
Seattle. The best thing about MLS this season has been the success story of the Seattle Sounders FC, with its 30,000-plus attendances and inspired play. Catch a game at Qwest Field. You won't be disappointed.
6. Useless and completely made-up statistic of the week
Eight – The number of small countries that could have been purchased with Manchester City's transfer budget.
7. A fond farewell
Soccer lost a legend last week when Sir Bobby Robson died of cancer at age 76. Robson managed several top European clubs as well as the England national team and was loved throughout the game for his enthusiasm, humor and personality.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
The vuvuzela. Sure, the World Cup is still months away, but now would be a good time to start stocking up on earplugs. This traditional African horn produces a mind-numbing drone and will be allowed into World Cup stadiums, meaning this is a tournament that should be watched with a finger firmly on the mute button.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Marta. The crowning jewel of Women's Professional Soccer is joining Brazilian club Santos on loan at the end of the season, but she will be back in action for the Los Angeles Sol's next campaign.
10. Get excited about …
USA's World Cup qualifier in Mexico City on Aug. 12. This fascinating rivalry writes another chapter as El Tri desperately tries to get its qualification bid back on track.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Melanie Slade, girlfriend of Arsenal and England youngster Theo Walcott.