The aftermath of a World Cup often brings an anticlimactic phase, characterized by fatigue impacting numerous top-tier players, reported Xinhua.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, uniquely scheduled at the year's end instead of the traditional summer period, intensified this effect in 2023. This scheduling anomaly led to a visible toll on players grappling with a relentless calendar.
This may partly explain why some of the year's most significant football developments unfolded off the pitch.
January 1, 2023, marked a pivotal moment as Cristiano Ronaldo finalized his transfer to the Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr. His contract, offering a base salary of 50 million euros annually, escalates to approximately 200 million euros when factoring in sponsorships and additional incentives.
Ronaldo's move was a catalyst for Saudi Arabia's surge in football prominence, attracting other high-profile and lucrative signings. Notables such as Neymar Jr (currently sidelined due to injury), Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Ruben Neves, Aymeric Laporte, and Jordan Henderson also joined the Saudi football ranks.
The Saudi league's strategy extends beyond recruiting veterans. The acquisitions of players like Laporte, Neves, and Gabri Veiga indicate a broader ambition to elevate the league's stature, potentially challenging the dominance of La Liga, Serie A, and even the Premier League.
While the Saudi league is still working to captivate a global television audience, its impact became increasingly evident. Saudi Arabia is now a frontrunner to host the 2034 World Cup finals, a testament to its growing influence in the sport.
Lionel Messi, fresh from leading Argentina to a coveted World Cup victory, also made headlines with his transfer. Eschewing Saudi offers, Messi joined David Beckham's Inter Milan, seemingly on a mission to enhance Major League Soccer's profile. The effects of Messi's move, especially following his 2023 Ballon d'Or triumph, have already energized American soccer, though its long-term impacts remain to be seen.
A notable consequence of Messi and Ronaldo's respective moves is the recent invitation for Inter Miami to participate in the Saudi Cup. This arrangement sets the stage for one more showdown between two icons who have reigned over football for two decades.
The Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, another highlight of 2023, proved immensely successful despite initial concerns. FIFA president Gianni Infantino's brief attendance did little to overshadow the event's triumph. Overcoming apprehensions about time zone differences impacting European TV markets, the tournament generated a remarkable 570 million U.S. dollars in revenue for FIFA, with matches played in packed stadiums and showcasing the ever-advancing level of women's football.
The Women's World Cup's most significant impact, however, came post-tournament. Spain, led by the exceptionally skilled Aitana Bonmati, clinched the title against England with a 1-0 victory. Controversy ensued when Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales, noted for prior misconduct in the VIP box, inappropriately kissed Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso during the medal ceremony. This incident sparked widespread backlash, culminating in Rubiales' resignation, a three-year FIFA ban, and criminal charges for sexual assault.
Hermoso's global support underscored the firm standing and influential voice women's football has established.
In club football, Manchester City's dominance was unmistakable, coming out the quintuple champions of 2023. They won the Premier League, the FA Cup, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. Their Champions League semifinal performance, a 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid, was a masterclass in football prowess.
Brazil entered 2023 in mourning following Pele's passing at the end of 2022. Compounding the nation's grief, Santos, Pele's former club, faced its first-ever relegation in its 111-year history.
In international club competitions, Brazil's Fluminense triumphed over Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores. Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds clinched the Asian Champions League title by defeating Al-Hilal, an achievement preceding the influx of star players to Saudi Arabia. The developments in Saudi football through 2024 will undoubtedly be intriguing to watch.
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