Hey, remember when I said I wouldn’t do any end of year lists because they’re arbitrary? I LIED. There are probably loads of cool games from Turkey and Chile I didn’t include on this list, but that’s for some Guardian scribe. You come to this blog for populist schlock, so here we are. I also probably could have stretched this to 8 or something too, but I tried to limit this to games that sort of changed the mainstream football narrative. So, without further ado…
5) USA 4-3 Canada (aet), August 6th
Heyo! This is where the reader discovers this list is entirely subjective. But while this was a semifinal match-up in an Olympic football tournament, this was the most important game in recent memory for Canadian soccer.
First, it cemented Christine Sinclair’s status as a bona fide Canadian sports celebrity with her hat-trick and her post match complaints about the bizarre decisions of referee Christine Pedersen, when she had only previously been the purview of those of us who deeply care about football in this country.
Second, it led to a wave of interest in Canada’s role as a footballing nation, some of which arguably spilled over into the mens side. In the month before the Olympics, I enjoyed the privilege of watching the Canadian mens national team alongside members of the Womens national team. They mingled about largely unrecognized. They would return to Canada in several weeks times as decorated heroes, and a vital part of Canada’s Olympic efforts.
It also sparked a hitherto dormant cross-border footballing rivalry between Canada and the US, and fueled soon-to-be-dashed hopes the Canadian men could rise to the challenge by making it to the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
4) Zambia 0-0 Côte d’Ivoire (aet), Zambia win 8-7 on penalties, February 12th
This was the final that capped off a historic African Cup of Nations tournament. Previous iterations had too often involved a cakewalk for Egypt to an almost certain win in the final. This edition provided memorable games, incredible upsets, and lots of videos of players singing together.
But the final, far more compelling than its nil-nil scoreline suggested, was an emotional wallop without match this calendar year. Zambia fought to the final and held off a strong challenge from heavy favourites in the Ivory Coast to win one of the most exciting penalty shootouts in tournament history. Any tournament. And they did it, incredibly, in Libreville, Gabon, mere miles away from where a plane full of the Zambian national team crashed into the ocean in 1993, killing all on board.
As Jonathan Wilson wrote at the time:
For Zambia, though, there was a bittersweet joy, a sense of having done something that transcended sport. Efford Chabala, John Soko, Whiteson Changwe, Robert Watiyakeni, Eston Mulenga, Derby Makinka, Moses Chikwalakwala, Wisdom Mumba Chansa, Kelvin “Malaza” Mutale, Timothy Mwitwa, Numba Mwila, Richard Mwanza, Samuel Chomba, Moses Masuwa, Kenan Simambe, Godfrey Kangwa, Winter Mumba, Patrick “Bomber” Banda, Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu and Alex Chola were not there last night but the modern-day side built for them the greatest possible memorial.
3) Barcelona 2-2 Chelsea, Chelsea win Champions League semifinal 3-2 on aggregate, April 24th
When John Terry was sent off in the 37th minute for an idiotic knee in the back of Alexis Sanchez, only the most optimistic Chelsea fan would have given the club a chance against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. First, Busquets had wiped out Chelsea’s 1-0 first leg advantage only two minutes before. How many CFC supporters turned the TV off altogether with Iniesta scoring in the 43rd, effectively putting Barcelona through?
Then, things happened. Ramires unlikely chip in the second half. And, incredibly, a solo run for Fernando Torres, which gave us on the greatest moments in football announcing history, courtesy of Gary Neville.
Chelsea would of course famously go on to win the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich (no less), and Roberto Di Matteo’s legendary status as the ultimate caretaker manager would be sealed. But the semifinal was the moment the solidified the notion of “doing a Chelsea”: conceding possession (72/28), shots (12/4) and shots on target (5/3), and—why not?—an English national team central defender, yet still pulling out a result.
2) Spain 4-0 Italy, July 1st
Italy had completed under Cesare Prandelli an astonishing run to the final, one that included a 2-1 victory over heavy-favourites Germany in the semis. Alternating a three and four man defense, many hoped Prandelli would be able to dethrone a Spain that some felt had succumbed to their own kind of anti-football, passing sides to death before casually killing them off with a decisive goal.
And then, this final. A wonderful, imperious destruction from a Spanish side that finally seemed to provide the kind of football we’d seen so many times before under Barcelona. A first half among the very best Spain had produced in a major tournament, and a final among the best in international football since 1992, one that called to mind Brazil’s 4-1 defeat of Italy in Mexico, 1970.
Most importantly however, this was Spain’s contribution to football history, as the first ever international team to win three consecutive tournaments.
1) Manchester City 3-2 QPR, May 13th
This was one of those “Where Were You When” games. City needing to win in order to secure their first league title since 1968. Down a goal to QPR, with United beating Sunderland, poised to win their 20th Premier League trophy. After having been behind eight points in the table only a month previous. Two extra time goals, including a stunning last ditch strike from Sergio Aguero. That call from Martin Tyler, who intoned definitively, absolutely, without a hint of irony (why would he?) that “we would never see anything like this ever again!”