What started off like any other run-of-the-mill year, ended with a bag-load of narratives — intertwined with the themes of the coronavirus pandemic and the quest for social justice — in the world of football.
The tale of 2020 began with the same old title races in each of Europe’s top-five leagues and evolved into so much more where players, coaches, and organisations were forced to adapt and sacrifice. After coming to a halt in early March, the beautiful game returned to the pitches around the world in a fashion never witnessed before. Ranging from fanless stadiums to virtually-generated crowd noises to exhaustive COVID-19 testing, the year pioneered in shattering the norms.
HOW EUROPE RETURNED TO NORMALCY
Belarus, Tajikistan, and the Faroe Islands were the first of the blocks, but the majority of Europe was reawakened with the resumption of the Bundesliga on May 16. Battling a surfeit of government decisions and conference calls, the German Football League (DFL) set up a model for those that would follow. Although France’s Ligue 1 and the Netherlands’ Eredivisie did not resume their domestic seasons, the Goliaths — Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A — did soon after.
The UEFA too finished its continental competitions — Champions League and Europa League — by resorting to single-elimination sprints in one country from the quarterfinals on. Even though the very thought of football sans fans is rather uncomfortable, the conclusion of the domestic seasons behind closed doors was deemed necessary by the authorities because of the potentially crippling financial impact from the broadcasting deals.
LIVERPOOL, BAYERN, BARCELONA STEAL THE HEADLINES
After enduring three decades of hurt, Liverpool finally achieved the impossible last season in a manner befitting the Premier League champions. Although Jurgen Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ lost its run at invincibility just before the pandemic’s onset, their feat of ending Manchester City’s reign with an 18-point gap over them is nothing short of remarkable. Even this season, they are top of the table now.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, struggled initially in Bundesliga but proved to be ruthless after Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac in the dugout. Aided by Robert Lewandowski’s 55 goals across all competitions, they won 42 out of 48 matches this calendar year, losing just once. Apart from last season’s treble, they have won the DFL Super Cup and are eyeing the FIFA Club World Cup next February.
The Bavarians’ dominance peaked in August when they handed Barcelona a humiliating 8-2 loss in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals — a defeat so indomitable that it sent the La Liga club into crisis mode. Following his club’s capitulation in both the domestic and continental arena, Lionel Messi handed in an official transfer request at Barcelona. After a few days of uncertainty regarding his €700 million release clause, the forward ultimately stayed claiming he could never take the club he loves to court. With Josep Maria Bartomeu out and a new president set to be elected in January, Messi’s future still hangs in balance.
Meanwhile, on home shores, ATK lifted the Indian Super League (ISL) trophy for a record third-time and FC Goa sealed a historic berth in the AFC Champions League group stages. Mohun Bagan, before its merger with RPSG-owned ATK, pocketed their second I-League title in March itself with four matches to spare.
BLACK LIVES MATTER AND ITS RIPPLE EFFECT
Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, protests sparked in the United States that ignited a global movement uniting athletes around the world. Black Lives Matter gestures on the NBA courts and NFL fields spilled over in the world of top-level football too.
During the restart that followed the suspension of football owing to the pandemic, Premier League players wore badges endorsing Black Lives Matter for the rest of the season. Elsewhere, players like Jadon Sancho, Weston McKennie, and Mario Balotelli called attention to injustice, with clubs regularly kneeling in unison at the opening whistle. Using his platform beyond racism, Marcus Rashford became a hero to the children of the United Kingdom this year for helping raise $25 million for charity and leading a campaign for free school meals.
INDIA’S GOA EXPERIMENT FOR THE NEW SEASON
In a coming-of-age season unlike any other, the Indian Super League kicked off its 2020/21 season in mid-November with a whole new avatar. After a long eight-month layoff, the competition resumed action with the inclusion of two of the oldest clubs of the country — ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal.
Confined in just three stadiums in Goa — Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, GMC Athletic Stadium in Bambolim, and Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco — the ISL season will play itself out entirely in a bio-secure environment in the wake of the pandemic. Although the rusty players struggled with their match fitness initially, the league has finally found its groove after five weeks of continuous action.
GONE, BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN
To say that 2020 has been rather sorrowful would be criminally underselling it.
Right after the lockdown, PK Banerjee breathed his last at the age of 83 on March 20 after succumbing to major respiratory problems. After that tragic incident, Chuni Goswami passed away aged 82 on April 30 due to a fatal cardiac arrest.
On the other side of the world, the passing of Diego Maradona on November 24 sent shockwaves around the world. Two other FIFA World Cup legends — Paolo Rossi and Papa Bouba Diop — also died within two weeks of each other. Among the many other former players and managers to lose their lives this year were four players from England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup-winning team [Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Peter Bonetti, and Norman Hunter], Argentina’s 2014 FIFA World Cup manager Alejandro Sabella, and treble-winning former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier.
RECAPPING 2020 FROM A SPORTING PERSPECTIVE