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Winners & Losers

From Messi and Mbappe to Ronaldo and Lukaku: Winners and losers of 2022

11:00 GMT+3 31/12/2022
Messi Ronaldo Mbappe Salt Bae 2022 GFX
GOAL looks back on a crazy year of football that produced no end of delight, disappointment and debate...

World Cup years are always special and 2022 was no different. The biggest tournament in football brought with it controversy and quality in equal measure.

However, the club scene was not exactly devoid of drama itself. Real Madrid alone pulled off one miracle after another on their way to winning the Champions League in May.

So, as we prepare to bid farewell to 2022, GOAL looks back a truly remarkable year for football...

  • messi5

    WINNER: Lionel Messi

    Well, he finally did it. Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the World Cup, the one trophy he was missing, the one glaring omission from his stunning CV.

    What's most remarkable about the pivotal role Messi played in Argentina's triumph at Qatar 2022 (seven goals, three assists) is that he was being written off during the first half of the year. Jerome Rothen even called him a "fraud" after Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League capitulation at Santiago Bernabeu in March.

    Messi wasn't quite that bad, but even he admitted that he had underperformed in his first season in France, for a variety of reasons, including a bout of Covid-19 from which he found it difficult to recover.

    Consequently, he returned to pre-season with a whole new mindset and the real Messi returned. At 35 years of age, which is just ridiculous.

    With his sensational performances at the World Cup (he became the first man to score in the group stage, the last 16, the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final), he put the ridiculous Ronaldo-Messi debate to bed once and for all.

    Now, the only question is whether you rank him above Pele and Diego Maradona. Messi won't care about that, though. He has completed football.

  • 20221218 Cristiano Ronaldo

    LOSER: Cristiano Ronaldo

    Rarely has a superstar suffered such a dramatic and rapid fall from grace.

    Father Time catches up with us all, of course, there is no shame in that. However, the way in which Cristiano Ronaldo handled his Manchester United exit, and reacted to his relegation to the Portugal bench, was embarrassing, particularly coming from a 37-year-old man who is an idol to millions of children across the world.

    The Piers Morgan interview was particularly pathetic. It was one thing lashing out at the Glazers, who are despised by most United fans. But the way in which he publicly questioned the character of his young team-mates was particularly undignified.

    It was a sad and wholly unnecessary way to bring an end to his Old Trafford love affair. The supporters were devastated but understanding when Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in 2009. This time around, they were just glad to see the back of a former idol who revealed himself to be the biggest prima donna in football.

  • Rafael Leao Stefano Pioli Milan

    WINNER: AC Milan

    AC Milan are officially back among Europe's top 16 clubs, which is an incredible achievement for a club that was facing an uncertain future just four years ago.

    Nobody quite knew what was going to happen when Li Yonghong's investment group defaulted on its loan repayments and was, thus, forced to hand over control to the Elliott Management Corporation.

    Luckily, the American firm steadied what looked like a sinking ship and, after a couple of mis-steps - most notably the appointment of Marco Giampaolo as coach - Paolo Maldini proved himself as adept and intelligent in the directors' box as he was once on the field, making one excellent signing after another.

    The appointment of Stefano Pioli was key, though. The journeyman coach was initially only brought in as a caretaker manager, but he got the job on a permanent basis after overseeing a remarkable turnaround, thus prompting Ivan Gazidis to abandon his plans to hand control of the club to Ralf Rangnick. Talk about sliding doors moments...

    Milan just haven't looked back, showing impressive mettle to beat Inter to the 2021-22 title to end an 11-year Scudetto drought. Then, to top it all off, Pioli led the resurgent Rossoneri into the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

    A sleeping giant has been well and truly awoken.

  • Mohamed Salah Thibaut Courtois Liverpool Real Madrid Champions League 2021

    LOSER: Mohamed Salah

    Reports of Mohamed Salah's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Egyptian hasn't had a poor year by most metrics. However, he has suffered a number of devastating defeats.

    At international level, Salah twice suffered penalty shootout heartbreak, with Egypt beaten on spot-kicks by Senegal in both the Africa Cup of Nations final and their Qatar 2022 play-off, meaning the winger may never get another chance to play in a World Cup.

    At club level, meanwhile, Salah failed to settle his score with Real Madrid, and even suffered the ignominy of being mocked by Luka Modric after Liverpool's unlucky 1-0 loss to Los Blancos in the final of last season's Champions League.

    This time last year, Salah was in contention for the Ballon d'Or. Now, he probably can't wait for 2022 to end.

  • Ancelotti Real Madrid title celebrations 2022

    WINNER: Carlo Ancelotti

    It is easily one of the best images of 2022: Carlo Ancelotti wearing shades and smoking a cigar while surrounded by his adoring players during Real Madrid's double-winning celebrations.

    Don Carlo had done it again. Less than a year after returning for a second stint at Santiago Bernabeu (from Everton, which still seems unbelievable), the Italian won the Champions League for the fourth time as a coach.

    However, winning La Liga was arguably an even bigger achievement for Ancelotti, who has long been mistakenly considered as a cup specialist. He's even made fun of his reputation by entitling his autobiography 'I prefer the cups'.

    However, Madrid's 2021-22 title triumph saw Ancelotti become the first man in football history to win all of Europe's 'Big Five' leagues.

    At 63 years of age, Ancelotti is finally getting all of the credit he deserves as one of the finest managers the game has ever seen.

  • John Elkann Andrea Agnelli Juventus

    LOSER: Andrea Agnelli

    Just over a year ago, Andrea Agnelli was one of the most powerful men in football. The Italian was president of Juventus and head of the European Club Association (ECA).

    However, Agnelli's reputation as one of the shrewdest and most astute administrators in the game was left in tatters after his ill-advised decision to back the creation of a European Super League (ESL). He ruined his relationship with UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who labelled Agnelli a "snake", and burned bridges with a number of his Serie A counterparts.

    Still, at least he still had the top job in Turin. Not anymore, though.

    Agnelli's sporting decisions were already being called into question, primarily because of his re-hiring of Massimiliano Allegri, when he and every single member of the Juve board resigned because of an ongoing investigation into false accounting and market manipulation.

    It is not yet known what action Agnelli and others could face, but what we can say is that this is one of the most spectacular falls from grace the game has ever seen.

    Agnelli helped rebuild the Bianconeri after Calciopoli, laying the foundations for an era of unprecedented Serie A success, and yet he departed in disgrace. Staggering.

  • Julian Alvarez Erling Haaland Manchester City 2022-23

    WINNER: Man City's striking department

    No club in the world has a better pair of young strikers than Manchester City.

    We knew, of course, that Erling Haaland was a phenomenon. The Norwegian had been tearing up the Bundesliga for a couple of years at Borussia Dortmund before arriving in England, so it wasn't wholly surprising to see him run riot in the Premier League. Not that his numbers aren't mind-blowing, of course.

    We're only halfway through his first season at City and he's already scored three hat-tricks in England's top flight. The all-time record is 12! The Premier League is arguably the world's toughest domestic competition. Just not if you're Haaland.

    The real surprise, then, has been Julian Alvarez, who left for Qatar as a reserve for both club and country but returned to the Etihad with a World Cup winner's medal after playing a key role in Argentina's victory.

    Indeed, the 22-year-old proved one of the tournament's breakout stars after initially starting on the bench, as Lautaro Martinez's understudy.

    Pep Guardiola's only issue now is keeping Alvarez happy, given he's shown that he fully deserves to be playing regular football at club level. However, given the River Plate product's pace, mobility and versatility, there's no reason why he can't regularly play alongside Haaland during the second half of the season, which is a terrifying prospect for all of City's rivals.

  • Thomas Tuchel

    LOSER: Thomas Tuchel

    The startling thing about Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea tenure is just how quickly it all unravelled.

    As recently as February, the German was being congratulated by Roman Abramovich for landing the one trophy the Russian's reign at Stamford Bridge had been missing: the Club World Cup. However, the Blues' enforced change of ownership proved pivotal.

    Tuchel was rightly commended for the masterful and dignified way in which he led Chelsea through the most tumultuous periods in the club's history. He could have even added more silverware were it not for Liverpool, who beat Chelsea on penalties in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals, while they were only dethroned as European champions after a sensational fightback by Real Madrid at the Bernabeu

    It was evident very early on, though, that Tuchel did not see eye to eye with Abramovich's successor, Todd Boehly, with the pair clashing over transfers and the decision to dismiss technical advisor Petr Cech and director Marina Granovskaia.

    Tuchel did not want anything to do with a proposed move for Cristiano Ronaldo. Nor did he really want to be so heavily involved in player recruitment. There were also issues with certain members of the squad, so when Chelsea made an inconsistent start to the new season, Tuchel was sent packing after just seven games.

    In his parting address, he thanked the club's fans and admitted that he had expected to remain as manager "for many years to come". He's hardly the first man to suffer a surprise sacking at Stamford Bridge, though. Ultimately, the more things change at Chelsea, the more they stay the same.

  • mbappe

    WINNER: Kylian Mbappe

    If it weren't for Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe would have had a second World Cup winners' medal at the age of 23, as well as the tournament's Golden Ball.

    Mbappe did at least beat Messi to the Golden Boot with his hat-trick in the final, but Argentina's shootout victory over France means that the forward is also likely to be pipped to the top spot on the Ballon d'Or podium by his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate.

    However, Mbappe should look back on his year's work with immense pride. In 2022, he scored 12 times in 13 appearances for France, and racked up a staggering 43 goals in 42 outings at club level – more than any other player across Europe's 'Big Five' leagues.

    Messi may still be No.1 for now, but Mbappe will soon take over. He's a GOAT in the making.

  • Neymar PSG Strasbourg Ligue 1 2022-23

    LOSER: Neymar

    In the final two months of 2022, Neymar sustained an injury, made history with a sensational goal, suffered a heart-breaking defeat and was sent off after picking up a second yellow card for simulation.

    It was pretty much the forward's career in a nutshell, a mesmeric mix of pain, pleasure and play-acting.

    Neymar remains box-office entertainment and he is still only 30 years of age. He has time to redeem himself, to belatedly make the most of his many attributes. But one really does wonder if he has the requisite mental and physical strength to do so.

    The Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil attacker has been blessed with a great gift but he's also been cursed with a brittle body. What's more, he's also prone to dreadful decision-making, on and off the field.

    One of the game's greatest talents is often his own worst enemy.

  • 20221214 Walid Regragui

    WINNER: Walid Regragui

    Ancelotti and Lionel Scaloni both made history in 2022 but when it comes to the coach of the year, you just can't look past Walid Regragui. In May, he became just the second Moroccan coach to win the African Champions League, after leading Wydad AC to victory over defending champions Al Ahly in the final. Then, in December, he reached the semi-finals of the World Cup with Morocco, despite only taking over as coach at the end of August. Regragui claimed that the Atlas Lions were like 'Rocky' but his 2022 was also like something out of a Hollywood movie. Truly inspirational and hopefully a reminder to European football fans that there are not just great players in Africa – there are great managers too.

  • Joan Laporta Robert Lewandowski Barcelona

    LOSER: Laporta & his levers

    Barcelona have some of the best young players in the world. They've also got a club legend for a coach. Their more reasonable supporters would have afforded this group time to grow, to develop, to eventually re-establish Barca as a major power in the European game. Joan Laporta, though, elected for a different approach.

    The president essentially placed a €160 million bet on Barca reclaiming their place at the top table this season by embarking upon a summer spending spree funded by the pulling of a number of economic levers (i.e. the sale of club assets and future income).

    The gamble has already backfired, with the Blaugrana failing to make it out of their Champions League group.

    Laporta insists that the club can cope without knockout-stage prize money that they had even included in their annual budget, while at the same time admitting that "he didn't expect to be in this position because the technical secretary and coaching staff had put together a very competitive team".

    The pressure, then, has been ramped up on Xavi and his players. The good news is that they're presently top of La Liga, but nothing less than a title triumph - and a deep run in the Europa League - will alleviate the club's financial concerns.

    That's because Laporta doesn't have many more levers left to pull.

  • Olivier Giroud France 2022 World Cup

    WINNER: Olivier Giroud

    Olivier Giroud's World Cup final certainly didn't go according to plan, with the striker replaced before the break. He clearly didn't want to go off, but Didier Deschamps, along with everyone else, could see that Giroud was struggling with the injury that had made him a doubt for the game.

    It was a shame for the 36-year-old, given 2022 was the year he proved beyond all shadow of a doubt that he is one of the best No.9s of his generation.

    As well as helping AC Milan win a first Serie A title since 2011, Giroud also became France's all-time leading goalscorer during an excellent campaign in Qatar that also saw him net the winner in the quarter-final win over England.

    Giroud says he's "ageing like a fine wine" and nobody would dare disagree.

  • Romelu Lukaku Belgium

    LOSER: Romelu Lukaku

    The new year can't come soon enough for Romelu Lukaku, as 2022 was his year from hell.

    He was once again branded one of the biggest flops in football history after being allowed to rejoin Inter on loan from Chelsea – less than a year after the Blues had paid the Italian side £97.5m ($117m) for his services.

    Injury was then added to insult, as a couple of muscular issues meant he featured in just five games before arriving in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.

    Lukaku clearly wasn't right, but Belgium's willingness to take a risk on the fitness of their star striker was perhaps understandable. However, it all ended in tears, literally, with the striker left crying his eyes out on Thierry Henry's shoulder after missing a succession of chances, one worse than the other, in his country's must-win meeting with Croatia.

    Indeed, the abiding image of Lukaku's year was him punching the dugout out of pure frustration after Belgium's first-round exit in Qatar.

  • Wiegman Mead England Euro 2022

    WINNER: Women's football

    Women's football has been growing in stature on an annual basis for some time now. In 2022, though, it went to a whole other level.

    On March 30, a record-breaking 91,553 people turned up at Camp Nou for a Champions League Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Blaugrane bettered that attendance less tha a month later, for the home lege of their semi-final with Wolfsburg.

    Then, on July 31, England's meeting with Germany at Wembley drew a crowd of 87,192 - a record for any European Championship finals fixture. The 2022 edition also attracted a projected global cumulative live viewership of 365 million, more than double the tally for the 2017 tournament.

    The critics, then, can say whatever they want about women's football. It matters not. Because the numbers speak for themselves. The women's game is going from strength to strength.

  • simeone

    LOSER: Diego Simeone

    Diego Simeone has done an extraordinary job at Atletico Madrid. The club's 2013-14 campaign, which saw the Rojiblancos win La Liga and reach the final of the Champions League, should rank as one of the great achievements in coaching, given the quality of the opposition, and the difference in resources.

    However, it feels like Simeone's time at the Wanda Metropolitano is drawing to a close.

    Atleti are already out of this season's Champions League, failing to even secure a Europa League spot after finishing bottom of one of the competition's weaker groups, and have no chance of winning La Liga. Indeed, just finishing in the top four could be a struggle for Atleti, who are fifth and are struggling to play with any kind of consistency.

    The hope is that the World Cup break will have allowed Simeone to hit the reset button, while the likely sale of Joao Felix and confirmed departure of Matheus Cunha should raise some funds to strengthen the squad.

    They clearly need a lift because, as 2022 comes to a close, El Cholo's position is under serious threat for the first time in a decade.

  • Musiala Bellingham Gavi GFX

    WINNER: The next generation

    Messi's clearly not done yet. Somewhat surprisingly, he announced after Argentina's World Cup win that he has no intention of walking away from international football just yet, while he's also poised to extend his stay at Paris Saint-Germain, despite previous reports that he was bound for Inter Miami.

    However, it's clear that the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry that took the game to new heights in terms of popularity (and tribalism, unfortunately) is drawing to a close, and there had long been a fear that what came next would be a massive let-down.

    However, we need not worry, because the kids really are alright.

    As we already knew, Mbappe and Haaland could actually break several of Messi and Ronaldo's records, but what's even more encouraging is the emergence of so many other potential superstars.

    As the World Cup so thrillingly illustrated, the game is packed with terrific talents. Jamal Musiala is an exhilarating dribbler, Jude Bellingham is a complete footballer, Gavi and Pedri look like a young Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Vinicius Junior is dancing his way right to the top and Enzo Fernandez is proving as spectacular as Messi said he would be.

    The next generation is already taking over.

  • 20221220 Infantino Lionel Messi

    LOSER: FIFA

    The 2022 World Cup in Qatar proved predictably divisive. There were all sorts of claims and counter-claims as the tournament became enveloped in hypocrisy and whataboutery.

    However, there was one thing that everyone ended up agreeing on: Salt Bae is a clown and he had no business even being on the pitch for Argentina's post-final celebrations, let alone getting to hold the World Cup trophy.

    FIFA has opened an investigation but, once again, it's a case of too little, too late when it comes to the game's governing body.

    The way in which Gianni Infantino & Co. handled the whole tournament was shambolic. There was his jaw-dropping speech on the eve of the opening game, the pathetic threat of sporting sanctions made against several European football associations over the 'One Love' campaign, and the sudden realisation that deciding to introduce three-team groups at the next World Cup was a disastrous idea.

    It was just a mess from start to finish and reaffirmed what we already knew: that the people running our game care more about fame and fortune than fans or football.

  • Morocco fans.

    WINNER: The global game

    The 2022 remains an incredibly polarising topic but one thing we can all agree on is that it provided compelling proof of the growing strength of the international game. Morocco quite rightly received most of the plaudits for doing something that no African or Arab nation had done before, by reaching the semi-finals, having been roared on by a sensational set of supporters. However, it should not be forgotten that every continent was represented in the last 16 of a World Cup for the first time. South Korea reached the knockout stage by eliminating Uruguay with a late goal against Portugal, Japan thrillingly topped a group containing Spain and Germany, while Australia progressed at the expense of a much-fancied Denmark side. As well as Morocco, Senegal also qualified for the last 16 after finishing second to Netherlands in Group A.