Soccer-In year of drama, World Cup shines spotlight on growth in the sport
Dec 20 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi's World Cup fairytale lit up the year in soccer as heroics and heartbreak at the finals captivated fans and highlighted the growth of the world's most popular sport despite the criticism of host country Qatar's human rights record.
European leagues have long dictated the global football calendar but world governing body FIFA's decision to hold the tournament in the Middle East for the first time resulted in a mid-season pause and shook up the domestic club game.
With matches played in air-conditioned stadiums to cope with the heat of the desert state and no beer on tap in stadiums, spectators experienced a World Cup like never before.
But that did not kill the party mood as the finals repeatedly delivered exciting moments and concluded with Messi kissing the golden trophy, the missing piece in his vast collection, as Argentina defeated France on penalties.
Playing in a fifth World Cup for Argentina, the incomparable Messi once again left everyone in awe of his magical powers on the field as he smashed records and delivered on the hopes of a nation, bringing the World Cup home after 36 years.
The illustrious achievement, which will dominate discussions over the coming weeks, finally brought the diminutive forward out of the shadow of the late great Diego Maradona and reignited the debate about the greatest of all time (GOAT).
Though Argentina triumphed in the final, they were also one of the many heavyweights who suffered an upset in Qatar.
The South American giants were handed a shock defeat by Saudi Arabia in their first group game, which statisticians Gracenote credited as the biggest upset in World Cup history.
Shock results were a theme as Japan finished on top of a group that included former winners Spain and Germany, while South Korea also went through at the expense of Uruguay.
With every continent represented in the World Cup last 16, the most diverse knockout stage in the tournament's history was evidence of the sport's expanding reach.
Underdogs Morocco injected new energy into African football as Walid Regragui's team conquered hearts with their never-say-die attitude, becoming the first African and Arab country to reach the semi-finals.
While the French screamed in agony after coming so close to winning, coach Didier Deschamps said "an important reservoir of talents" promises a bright future for the twice world champions.
France striker Kylian Mbappe returned from Qatar with the top scorer's Golden Boot, after netting a hat-trick in the final, reminding the world of his calibre before he celebrates his 24th birthday on Tuesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo also made headlines, albeit for different reasons, the Portugal international walking off in tears after they were knocked out in the quarter-finals, just weeks after he left Manchester United in a bitter farewell.
On the domestic scene, a few months before the World Cup club football in Europe saw Manchester City and Bayern Munich retain their titles, while Paris St Germain, Real Madrid and AC Milan prevailed after losing their grip the previous season.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special military operation", led to changes in the hierarchy at Chelsea, with an investment group led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital taking over from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
While men's football enjoyed an entertaining year, on and off the field, the women's game also had its fair share of memorable moments as England won the European Championship.
Doing what their men's team would not be able to achieve at the World Cup, England's women, covered in confetti, lifted the trophy before a record crowd at Wembley after beating Germany in the final.
The victory marked a monumental day for English football, comng 56 years after England's men beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, the only previous major trophy won by a men's or women's England senior team.
But above all it highlighted the huge strides made in women's football in England, where the Football Association banned the women's game for nearly 50 years from 1921.
The 2022 Euros were the most watched edition of the tournament and the Lionesses were frequently seen on TV screens and in the newspapers after the victory, earning the recognition and visibility that female players have long fought for.
The event also proved to be a success for hosts England as crowds in the Women's Super League shot up 200% on last season, with a new generation of fans eager to see Leah Williamson, Chloe Kelly, Beth Mead and England's other Euro heroes.
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