How Saudi football clubs are posing a challenge to European supremacy

Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr in the middle of the 2022-23 season has proven to be a game-changer, with many European stars, still in their prime — including Karim Benzema who was accorded an extravagant welcome at Al Ittihad — making their way to the Saudi pro league.
| Photo Credit: AFP

With Saudi Arabian clubs offering ludicrous deals and managing to attract star players, global attention is diverting from European leagues.

Saudi pro league club Al-Hilal made French club Paris Saint Germain an offer of a mind-blowing €300 million for its talismanic forward Kylian Mbappe last week. Though the move is highly unlikely, with reports suggesting that Mbappe has refused to negotiate, it could have been the most expensive in the game’s history, surpassing the €222 million PSG paid to FC Barcelona for Neymar Jr. While Mbappe’s future remains uncertain, the offer is a strong statement from the Saudi club and the Saudi league: they intend to challenge European supremacy over club football.

Europe is seen as the undisputed ruler of club football, be it popularity, telecast figures or economics. The UEFA Champions League was, and is, considered to be the most prestigious trophy a football club could win. While European national teams don’t hold a clear superiority, it remains an unwritten rule that players from other continents have to prove themselves in Europe to gain stardom.

Chinese clubs tried to challenge this system when Shanghai SIPG signed the Brazilian Oscar from Chelsea at a ripe age of 25 with an annual salary around €30m. But the Chinese revolution ended as quickly as it began as the government came in the way, bringing in regulations, like salary caps.

But the case of Saudi clubs is different. They have the state’s backing. Saudi League made the first ripple when Al Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United in December 2022 on a two-and-a-half-year deal estimated to be worth around €200 million, bringing with him a huge fan following and global broadcast deals. But the move was not too surprising as it was common for European stars to spend the twilight of their careers outside Europe where leagues are less challenging, and wages are high.

David Beckham popularised this trend with his move to LA Galaxy in the U.S. Major League Soccer, where the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — though he came back to Europe and helped AC Milan reclaim the scudetto — and Wayne Rooney followed. Spanish midfield maestro Andreas Iniesta moved to Japan after his European career while his partner in crime Xavi chose to hang up his boots in Qatar.

What we see now with Saudi is different. It is not players wishing to ride out their careers who are making the move. Following Ronaldo, 35-year-old Karim Benzema made the move to Al Ittihad this summer, with a three-year deal that could earn him €200 million annually and received an extravagant reception during his presentation. He easily had the form and physique to continue at the top of Real Madrid’s attacking trident for at least a year.

Al Ittihad followed this up by bringing in 32-year-old defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante, adored by fans for his innocent smile and deadly defending, from Chelsea. Al Hilal convinced 32-year-old Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly, 26-year-old Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves and 28-year-old Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic Savic to join their ranks.

Al Ahli signed Chelsea goalkeeper 31-year-old Eduard Mendy, Manchester City’s 32-year-old Riyad Mahrez and Liverpool’s 31-year-old Roberto Firmino. Firmino’s former teammate Sadio Mane’s has also moved to Al Nassr, while their former captain Jordan Henderson has signed for Al Ettifaq, which will be managed by Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard from this season.

Two-time treble-winning manager Pep Guardiola has said that Saudi spending has changed the transfer market. “Saudi Arabia has changed the market. A few months ago, when Cristiano [Ronaldo] was the only one to go, no one thought this many top, top players would play in the Saudi league,” he said. “There will be more and that’s why clubs need to be aware of what is happening,” he warned.

Splashing out extravagant money season after season is not new in Europe. But this trend is also linked to West Asia as it is clubs with Arab links that are leading this. Manchester City owned by City Football Group under Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice President and deputy Prime Minister of UAE, and PSG owned by the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, through Qatar Sports Investments, do not hold back from breaking the bank in pursuit of exciting talents.

They have been accused of violating Financial Fair Play regulations but have so far avoided any major punishment. But there is some sort of financial restriction for European clubs, which the Saudi league doesn’t have. The league is controlled by the government, which also owns 75% of four major clubs — Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad — with all four making waves in the transfer market, through the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Vision 2030

The Saudi government considers these clubs as part of its vision 2030, ‘a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world,’ which gives sports an integral role. The PIF also acquired a majority share in English club Newcastle United in October 2021. The club went from 11th in the 2021-22 season to a Champions League spot-securing fourth in 2022-23.

Managing to gather top names together will make the league interesting, but it is yet to be seen how a single league can challenge the European heritage enriched by the Champions League. But it might be easier as UEFA is planning to enforce major changes in the tournament structure. Add to it the hectic schedule forcing players to play without adequate rest, risking injuries and increasing racist issues with no stern response or action, money might not be the only factor tempting players to move outside Europe.

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Explained | What is the latest scandal involving F.C. Barcelona?

Spanish football was rocked last month when it became public that Barcelona has paid millions of euros to possibly benefit from refereeing decisions for more than a decade.

Barcelona was paying a company that belonged to the vice president of the country’s refereeing committee.

The club has denied wrongdoing but is being widely criticised across Spain, and prosecutors on Friday formally accused the club of corruption.

Here’s a look at the latest scandal involving Barcelona, which surfaced as the club is still trying to recover from one of its worse financial crises and the departure of Lionel Messi.

What happened?

Prosecutors say Barcelona paid as much as €7.3 million ($7.7 million) from 2001-18 to the company of committee vice president José María Enríquez Negreira in amounts “not justified because they were not foreseen in the statutes of the club nor approved by its general assembly (of club members).”

The payments were allegedly made in exchange for technical reports on referees and youth players, though apparently in amounts above market prices.

Getting reports on referees is common practice and clubs can pay other companies or have them prepared internally, as Barcelona now does. But giving large amounts of money to the company of a person involved in the running of Spain’s referees for the reports is not a normal practice.

The payments were probed as part of a tax investigation into the company of Enríquez Negreira, a former referee who was on the Spanish Football Federation refereeing committee from 1994-2018, when the payments stopped. The committee is in charge, among other things, of choosing referees for each match.

There is so far no evidence that referees or game results were actually influenced during the period in which Barcelona made the payments.

Formal accusation

Prosecutors accused Barcelona of alleged corruption in sports, fraudulent management, and falsification of mercantile documentation.

The accusations are against Barcelona itself, Enríquez Negreira, former Barcelona presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, and former Barcelona executives Óscar Grau and Albert Soler.

Prosecutors said there was enough evidence to believe that Rosell and Bartomeu, who ran Barcelona in consecutive terms from 2010-20, “reached a confidential, verbal agreement” with Enríquez Negreira, who, “in exchange for money, was to carry out acts tending to favor Barcelona Football Club in the decision-making process of referees in the games played by Barcelona, and in the results of the competitions.”

Barcelona paid Enríquez Negreira’s company during different club presidents, including from 2003-10 under the first term of current president Joan Laporta, who again took charge in 2021. Laporta, however, is not being accused by the prosecutors and has denied any wrongdoing.

What Barcelona says

The club has denied wrongdoing or conflict of interest. It has acknowledged the regular payments to Enríquez Negreira’s company but said they were for only technical reports, not to try to influence refereeing decisions.

Barcelona has yet to fully explain its relationship with Enríquez Negreira. The club said it hired an independent firm to carry out its own investigation and is expected to give a more detailed account of what happened when that is concluded.

President Laporta said, “Barça is innocent of the accusations made against it and is the victim of a campaign, that now involves everyone, to harm its honorability.”

Enríquez Negreira told Cadena SER radio he never favored Barcelona while assigning referees to matches, and his job was to only aid the club verbally about how players should conduct themselves before each referee.

Bartomeu also denied wrongdoing and told ABC newspaper Enríquez Negreira had “zero power over referees.”

Barcelona coach Xavi said the matter was not affecting his players. The team was eliminated from the Europa League but remained in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and in the lead of the Spanish league.

The accusers

The Spanish league, the country’s football federation and most clubs expressed their concern and intent to take action against Barcelona. They said the matter was damaging the reputation of Spanish football and sports in general.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas said Laporta should resign if he can’t properly explain the payments.

“I think this is the worst moment in Spanish football,” Tebas told Movistar on Monday. “It’s embarrassing that we still don’t have a convincing explanation by Barcelona.”

Madrid called for an urgent board meeting on Sunday and expressed its “utmost concern regarding the gravity of the facts” involving Barcelona. It said it would side against the rival in the legal proceeding to defend its “legitimate rights” as an “affected party” in the matter.

The Spanish government’s top sports authority also said it planned to take action. José Manuel Franco, president of Spain’s sports council, said on Monday on channel Telecinco, the government will join the other accusing parties in the legal proceedings. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez weighed in on the case, saying the government was waiting for the matter to be clarified.

The Spanish federation noted that Enríquez Negreira left the committee after the new administration took over in 2018.

Spain’s referees came out to publicly distance themselves from the relationship between Barcelona and Enríquez Negreira. Many former referees who were active at the time Enríquez Negreira was their vice president said they never received any pressure from him or other officials.

What next for the club?

An investigating judge will decide whether the accusations filed by the prosecutors should lead to charges.

Sporting sanctions against Barcelona were not considered initially because the statute of limitations on the possible irregularities had expired, but if the club is eventually convicted, it could possibly lead to a ban from competitions.

There was no immediate timetable on the next steps by the courts.

Watch | Data Point | World Cup 2022 score: Qatar and FIFA 1, human rights 0

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Europa League 2022/23 | United beats Betis; Di Maria inspires Juventus to win

Manchester United’s Antony, left, celebrates with Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford after scoring his side’s second goal during the Europa League round of 16 first-leg soccer match between Manchester United and Real Betis at the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, Thursday, March 9, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AP

Chants of “Bruno! Bruno!” reverberated around Old Trafford as the healing process began for Manchester United.

The wounds from Sunday’s humiliating 7-0 rout by Liverpool remain fresh. But a 4-1 win against Real Betis in the Europa League was an encouraging response from Erik ten Hag’s players.

None more so than Bruno Fernandes, who scored one and had a role in two more in the round-of-16 first leg on Thursday.

“I think he was the best player on the pitch, it showed his personality,” United manager Ten Hag said.

The Dutchman had given his team the chance to begin making amends for Anfield by naming an unchanged lineup. It had the desired effect.

Marcus Rashford scored his 26th goal of the season.

Antony swept a shot into the top corner from distance. And Wout Weghorst, who had faced a backlash on social media for touching the famous “This is Anfield” sign, let his emotion show when firing in United’s fourth.

But perhaps no one needed redemption more than Fernandes, who received the brunt of the criticism after the collapse against Liverpool. On this occasion his efforts were greeted with approval by United fans as well as Ten Hag.

“Bruno was fantastic. He led the team with his control of the game and passing and then he scored a goal,” Ten Hag said.

The Portugal international raced toward the Stretford End after heading United into a 3-1 lead in the 58th minute and placed his hands over his ears as if to shut out the noise that has followed Sunday’s loss.

There was a moment when he let his enthusiasm overflow with a late challenge on Betis goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, but this was night when he channeled his passion in the right way by putting United within reach of the quarterfinals.

Former United captain and now TV analyst Gary Neville had labeled Fernandes’ performance against Liverpool a “disgrace.”

Against Betis he was United’s driving force.

The Old Trafford crowd sang his name loud as he walked out onto the field to confirm he still had their support.

It was his cross that led to the opening goal after six minutes when Luiz Felipe diverted the ball into Rashford’s path. The England striker drove into the box and lashed a shot into the top corner.

The game was level at halftime after on-loan Leicester forward Ayoze Perez fired a low shot past David de Gea in the 32nd. Perez was only denied a second when Fernandes’ challenge diverted his shot against the post before the break.

Antony put United back in front seven minutes into the second half with a curling effort from outside of the box after being played in by Fernandes. United’s No. 8 went from provider to goal-scorer when he headed in Luke Shaw’s corner to put his team in complete control.

But perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Weghorst lashed the ball home in the 82nd after missing a host of earlier chances. The raw emotion was evident as he celebrated only his second goal since joining on loan from Burnley in January and his first at Old Trafford.

Arsenal held

Premier League leader Arsenal was held 2-2 at Sporting Lisbon in their Europa League round-of-16 first-leg match.

Hidemasa Morita’s own goal in the 62nd minute salvaged the draw for Arsenal ahead of the return leg at Emirates Stadium next Thursday for a spot in the quarterfinals.

“There are things to improve, but we showed a lot of resilience,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said.

Morita deflected Granit Xhaka’s long-distance drive into his own net.

Arsenal dominated early possession and went ahead through William Saliba. The defender headed in the opener for Arsenal from a corner from Fábio Vieira to capitalize on early pressure in the 22nd.

Sporting equalized with almost an identical reply, as Arsenal’s defense looked vulnerable.

Gonçalo Inácio headed home off a Marcus Edwards corner past goalkeeper Matt Turner 12 minutes after Saliba’s goal.

It was Sporting’s first goal against Arsenal in their fifth encounter in European competitions.

Pogba dropped due to ‘disciplinary reasons’

Juventus’ Argentinian forward Angel Di Maria celebrates after opening the scoring during the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first-leg football match between Juventus and SC Freiburg on March 9, 2023, at the Juventus stadium in Turin.

Juventus’ Argentinian forward Angel Di Maria celebrates after opening the scoring during the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first-leg football match between Juventus and SC Freiburg on March 9, 2023, at the Juventus stadium in Turin.
| Photo Credit:

Ángel Di María headed in the winner in the second half to give Juventus a 1-0 first-leg win over Freiburg.

The 35-year-old veteran has scored four goals in his last two Europa League games.

Juventus was without midfielder Paul Pogba who was dropped due to “disciplinary reasons.”

Other results

Elsewhere, Joan Jordán and Erik Lamela scored in a 2-0 win for six-time champion Sevilla over Fenerbahçe.

Ezequiel Bullaude equalized late to secure a 1-1 draw for Feyenoord at Shakhtar Donetsk, the last Ukrainian team left in this season’s European competitions. Yaroslav Rakitskyy scored for the hosts in Warsaw because of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.

Substitute Sven Michel salvaged a 3-3 draw for Union Berlin against Union Saint-Gilloise with a goal a minute from the end in the German capital.

At Stadio Olimpico in Rome, José Mourinho’s Roma made a step toward advancing with a 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad.

Tammy Abraham set up the opening goal for Stephan El Shaarawy to finish a fast counter in the first half before substitute defender Marash Kumbulla doubled the advantage with a close-range header.

Bayer Leverkusen had the same advantage over Ferencváros after Kerem Demirbay opened the scoring in the 10th, and Edmond Tapsoba added the second for the hosts.

Europa Conference League results

Michail Antonio struck twice in the first half to guide West Ham past AEK Larnaca 2-0 in Cyprus.

Despite a troubled season in the Premier League, the Hammers have been cruising in the third-tier European competition with a perfect record.

Fiorentina won 1-0 over Turkey’s Sivasspor, and Nice beat Sheriff in Moldova 1-0, while Poland’s Lech Poznan defeated Swedish club Djurgarden 2-0. There were also draws: Basel and Slovan Bratislava 2-2, Gent and Istanbul Basaksehir 1-1.

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Tom Brady retires at 45, insisting this time it’s ‘for good’

This time, American football player Tom Brady says he’s done for good. The seven-time Super Bowl winner with New England and Tampa Bay announced his retirement from the American NFL on Wednesday, exactly one year after first saying his playing days were over, by posting a brief video lasting just under one minute on social media.

Unlike last winter, though, the most successful quarterback in league history, as well as one of the greatest athletes in American sports, said his decision was final.

“Good morning guys. I’ll get to the point right away,” Brady says as the message begins. “I’m retiring. For good.”

He briefly retired after the 2021 season but wound up coming back for one more year with the Buccaneers. He retires at age 45, the owner of virtually every meaningful NFL passing record in an unprecedented 23-year career.

A year ago when he retired, it was in the form of a long Instagram post. But about six weeks later, he decided to return for one more run, citing “unfinished business” after an early playoff exit.

The Buccaneers — with whom he won a Super Bowl two seasons ago — made the playoffs again this season, losing in their playoff opener. And at the time, it begged the question about whether Brady would play again.

Only a couple of weeks later, he has given the answer.

“I know the process was a pretty big deal last time, so when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first,” Brady says in the video. “I won’t be long-winded. You only get one super emotional retirement essay and I used mine up last year.

“I really thank you guys so much, to every single one of you for supporting me. My family, my friends, teammates, my competitors. I could go on forever. There’s too many. Thank you guys for allowing me to live my absolute dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. Love you all.”

Brady is the NFL’s career leader in yards passing (89,214) and touchdowns (649). He is the only player to win more than five Super Bowls and has been MVP of the game five times. He also holds marks for regular-season wins (251), Super Bowl appearances (10), playoff games and wins (48, 35), as well as playoff yards (13,400) and TDs (88).

“Tom’s legacy is unmatched in the history of this game. All the Super Bowl titles and statistical records speak for themselves, but the impact he had on so many people through the years is what I appreciate the most,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said.

“His imprint on this organization helped take us to the mountaintop. We will certainly miss him as our quarterback, but I will also miss him as a leader and friend,” Licht added. “Our entire organization is indebted to him for what he provided us over the past three years. We won’t ever forget the wins or the accolades, and his influence will be felt for years to come.”

Brady announced his retirement one day after attending the premiere of “80 for Brady” — which comes out Friday — in Los Angeles. The movie tells the story of four lifelong friends, played by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno and Sally Field, who went to a Super Bowl to see Brady play.

He was asked Tuesday night whether he felt a connection working with women — the four stars range in age from 76 to 91 — who don’t want to retire.

“They’re working hard and they love it. So good for them,” Brady told The Associated Press. “You know, it’s just that’s what life is about. You got to, you know, wake up every day with a purpose. And when you find something you love to do, you know, it’s hard to stop. You really enjoy it. And there’s a lot of aspects that you do enjoy. So they still bring it at this age. It’s really unbelievable to watch them on set and how much energy they have. And I certainly was inspired by them and learned a lot of lessons on this whole experience.”

Famously underrated coming into the NFL — he was picked 199th in the 2000 draft by the Patriots, behind six other quarterbacks, three kickers and a punter — Brady certainly wasn’t expected to become synonymous with greatness. He played in one game as a rookie, completing one of three passes for six yards.

The next year, it all changed.

Brady took over as the Patriots’ starter, the team beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl that capped the 2001 season and he and New England coach Bill Belichick were well on their way to becoming the most successful coach-QB duo in football history.

More Super Bowl wins came after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The Patriots returned to football’s mountaintop for a fourth time in Brady’s era a decade later to cap the 2014 season, the start of three more titles in a span of five years.

He signed with Tampa Bay in free agency in 2020 and added a seventh Super Bowl ring to his collection in his first season with his new team. The Bucs and won 37 games (including postseason) with Brady at quarterback — third most in the league over the past three seasons behind Kansas City (46) and Buffalo (41).

“I think I’ve been on the record dozens of times saying there’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady, and I still feel that way,” Belichick said in 2021 — shortly before Tampa Bay, with Brady, came to New England and beat the Patriots in a game dubbed “The Return.” “I was very lucky to have Tom as the quarterback, to coach him, and he was as good as any coach could ever ask for.”

Brady set league single-season records for completions (490) and pass attempts (733) while throwing for 4,643 yards, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his final season. The Bucs, however ranked dead last in rushing offense and, forced to rely almost solely of Brady’s arm, struggled to get the ball into the end zone.

After scoring 61 touchdowns in 2021, Tampa Bay slipped to 31 last season and averaged just 18.4 points per game — down from over 30 in Brady’s first two seasons with the Bucs.

At 8-9, Brady’s only losing season in over two decades as a NFL starter, the Bucs became just the fourth team in league history to earn a postseason berth with a losing mark in a non-strike year. The offensive struggles continued during a lopsided loss to Dallas in the NFC wild-card round.

Brady won three NFL MVP awards, was a first-team All-Pro three times and was selected to the Pro Bowl 15 times.

Brady and model Gisele Bündchen finalized their divorce this past fall, during the Bucs’ season. It ended a 13-year marriage between two superstars who respectively reached the pinnacles of football and fashion.

It was announced last year that when Brady retires from playing, he would join Fox Sports as a television analyst in a 10-year, $375 million deal.

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Can Cody Gakpo spark a Liverpool turnaround?

Weakened by injuries and plagued by inconsistent form, Liverpool has endured an incredibly challenging Premier League season. With eight wins, four draws and five losses, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have looked well off the pace for Champions League qualification and are currently outside the top four; they will need a stunning turnaround to have any chance of contending for the title.

To remedy matters, Liverpool acted swiftly in the January transfer window, securing the signature of Cody Gakpo, the highly sought-after Dutch forward. The 23-year-old, who scored three goals for the Netherlands at the World Cup, joined the Merseyside club from PSV Eindhoven for a reported initial fee of 42 million euros. Gakpo bagged 55 goals and supplied 50 assists in 159 appearances for PSV, which included a red-hot streak of nine goals and 12 assists in 14 Eredivisie games before the World Cup break.

Multipronged strategy

Liverpool’s move, in theory, did three things: it addressed an immediate need, providing attacking reinforcement for a side that has lost Luis Diaz to a knee injury and Diogo Jota to a calf problem; it prevented a direct rival from strengthening, for British media reports said Manchester United was also chasing Gakpo; it also future-proofed the forward line, ensuring a replacement has the time to be ready before Mohamed Salah (30) and Roberto Firmino (31) need replacing.

“There is a lot to like about Cody,” Klopp told the club’s official website, explaining the thought process behind the signing. “He is still only 23 but he already has a lot of experience. He was the captain of PSV, he was the player of the year in Holland last season and, as a lot of people have just seen, he also had a great World Cup.

“It is clear that he is already a really, really good player, but his age also means he has the potential to become even better. Offensively, he is very versatile and, on top of this, we know he is a smart footballer and a smart person, so we are really excited to be able to work with him.”

Slippery operator: Gakpo’s combination of power, speed and technique make him a difficult man to contain.

While the Gakpo move makes eminent sense on paper, it isn’t without risk. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether he can replicate the success he has had in the Netherlands in a significantly stronger, more physically intense league. There is also the knock-on effect his purchase could have on Liverpool’s transfer activity. Klopp will likely have less to spend in January, not ideal given that the midfield still needs strengthening.

“I would say in principle it’s like this for all people in the world: the money you spend has an impact on the money you can spend [in the future],” Klopp said. “We know what we want to do and we will see if we can do it. [But] I don’t want to disappoint anybody, we signed an outstanding player and the next thing you read is, ‘Who next?’ We cannot play like Monopoly.”

However Liverpool has a history of smart market moves and it is possible for the recruitment department to find value in a midfield buy. But even accounting for this, the Gakpo transfer has to work if the club has to have its best shot at climbing up a crowded league table.

And given the stakes involved — the financial benefit of qualifying for the Champions League is central to Liverpool’s business model and its ability to participate in the summer transfer window — the club will hope Gakpo can hit the ground running.

Can he succeed?

So, what are the chances of the 23-year-old succeeding in England? He is one of the rarer profiles in football: a ‘big-body’ wide forward, standing well over six feet tall. That, in itself, offers his team a point of difference.

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

Young giant: Cody Gakpo first caught the eye in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top flight, before producing a star-making performance in the World Cup.

He has a powerful burst, with enough pace to make a back-line anxious. Cutting in from the left to curl his finish to the keeper’s far post is his signature move, something he picked up from Thierry Henry, one of his idols. “I watched clips of him and tried to learn something from him: the way he comes in from the left and shoots with his right,” Gakpo said. “I tried to copy him a bit.” But he can go past his rival full-back on the outside as well, which makes him even more potent.

He has good feet for a big man: his dribbling isn’t as spectacular as, say, Antony’s, but it’s efficient. He frequently creates separation, finding the space to shoot, cross or combine with his teammates. Gakpo can function as an outlet and a transitional threat, but can also unlock low-blocks in settled play with one-touch passes and penetrating runs.

What Gakpo is truly elite at is ball-striking, off both feet. This makes him an excellent crosser and long-passer; more to the point, it makes him a dangerous goal threat even from less than optimal positions. It will be interesting to watch whether his physicality translates from Dutch to English — he bullied defenders in the Eredivisie — but it’s almost certain that his ball-striking will.

Driven to improve

The defensive side of his game has drawn criticism in the past, especially his pressing intensity. But Klopp is unlikely to have made a long-term decision without being sure that Gakpo will give him what he wants without the ball. The Dutch international is also driven to improve: in addition to training, he works with Tactalyse, a company which offers individual tactical coaching, with an emphasis on the small details. “Cody wanted to raise the bar and be more efficient,” Loran Vrielink, founder of Tactalyse, told BBC Sport. “He invests in himself.”

Gakpo’s versatility makes him the ideal multifunctional Klopp player, one who can essay several roles in a team which plays with fluidity within a compact structure. “The position he played most often is on the left but he can play different positions,” said Klopp. “He can play all four positions up front. Whatever you play, if you play a 4-2-3-1 he can play all four positions, in a 4-3-3 he can be the winger, if you play 4-4-2 he can play the wing and the striker positions.”

Gakpo is yet to kick a ball for Liverpool, but what he does over the rest of the season will have a significant impact on the club’s fortunes. Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands coach, said the young man has “everything it takes to become a star” and the potential to make a difference at the highest level. Liverpool fans will hope that those words come true over the next few months.

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FIFA World Cup 2022 | Messi magic guides relieved Argentina past Mexico

Argentina’s midfielder Enzo Fernandez celebrates with Lionel Messi after scoring his team’s second goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match in Lusail, north of Doha on November 26.
| Photo Credit: AFP

Sublime strikes by Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez earned Argentina a 2-0 win over feisty Mexico in a pulsating atmosphere at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday and got the South American favourites’ World Cup campaign up and running.

Stunned 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C match, Argentina knew defeat would send them out of the tournament but they started poorly, struggling to cope with Mexico’s high press as Messi was denied time and space to operate.

Argentina’s captain was anonymous in the first half, his sole contribution of note a header that ballooned over the bar, as his team failed to carve out a single decent chance.

But picked out by Angel Di Maria just outside the Mexico box in the 64th minute, Messi made no mistake, arrowing a low shot through a crowd of defenders into the corner. Fernandez doubled the lead in the 87th with a wonderful curling effort.

The win took Argentina up to second place on three points, one behind leaders Poland, who they play in their last group match. Saudi Arabia are third, level on points with Argentina but with an inferior goal difference.

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European Golden Shoe 2021/22 standings

The 2021/22 European Golden Shoe race is over after a season in which the continent’s most prolific goalscorers were all vying to win one of football’s most prestigious individual awards.

Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski saw off the challenge of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to finish at the top of the European Golden Shoe rankings last season.

READ MORE: European Golden Shoe 2022/23: Current standings and past winners

Lewandowski scored an astonishing 41 league goals from 29 appearances, giving him 82 Golden Shoe points and the highest winning score since Ronaldo in 2014/15.

Manchester United star Ronaldo and Messi – who has moved from Barcelona to PSG – both entered the new campaign expecting to challenge again in the standings for the most goals in Europe.

READ MORE: Who will be the European Assists King for 2021/22?

Messi’s PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe and a fellow young star in Erling Haaland were also expected to be in the mix to top the Golden Shoe rankings and take the crown from Lewandowski.

Along with Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah started the season as the top Premier League candidates, though surprise winners have also emerged in the past.

This page was updated throughout the 2021/22 season with regular updates on the European Golden Shoe standings, and the final result can now be viewed below.


Robert Lewandowski has clinched back-to-back European Golden Shoe titles after another spectacular season.

The Bayern striker scored in his side’s last game of the Bundesliga campaign against Wolfsburg on May 14, with his future at the club looking uncertain amid transfer speculation.

Lewandowski therefore finished the league season with 35 goals to his name from 34 appearances, a total which saw him score the most goals in Europe for 2021/22.

Given the Bundesliga season is shorter than the other major divisions in Europe, Lewandowski finished before many of his rivals had completed their top-flight campaigns, but a huge lead meant his victory never looked in doubt.

Lewandowski secured European golden boot glory once more even though he fell slightly short of his historic 41-goal total last season.

He led the Golden Shoe race for most of the season, but while he was stable at the top, the chasing pack behind him was rotating regularly, right up until our final standings.

PSG sensation Kylian Mbappe, the Ligue 1 top scorer, ultimately claimed second place with 28 goals and 56 Golden Shoe points.

It was a remarkable year for the World Cup winner, who also had 18 assists in the top flight to tie Thomas Muller for the best creative total in Europe’s top-five leagues.

A hat-trick as PSG thrashed Metz 5-0 on the last day of the Ligue 1 season saw Mbappe leapfrog Karim Benzema and Ciro Immobile to finish as best of the rest behind Lewandowski.

It was the second-best goal total of his career, behind only the 33 he scored in 2018/19, and the attacker looks a likely winner of the Golden Shoe in the future.

Benzema (27 goals) recorded the best league goalscoring campaign that he has had in 13 seasons with Real Madrid, impressively beating the 24 goals he netted in 2015/16.

The France forward posted highest Primera Division total and was one of the most prominent challengers to Lewandowski in these standings for much of what was a sublime campaign.

Benzema may have taken second over Mbappe had he not had his schedule carefully managed by Carlo Ancelotti in the final weeks of the season after the domestic title was secured, with a Champions League final against Liverpool in mind.

Lazio forward Immobile, a former winner of this award, superbly scored 27 times in the league this season to top the charts in Serie A.

He has topped 20 goals in Serie A in five of his six seasons for Lazio and remains a prolific striker who consistently features in the Golden Shoe race.

Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder challenged Mbappe in Ligue 1 for much of the season and he finished with 25 goals to claim an impressive fifth-place finish in the Golden Shoe, boosted by a hat-trick against Brest in the penultimate game of the season.

Ohi Omoijuanfo, who played for Molde and Red Star Belgrade over the course of the campaign, came sixth and was the highest-placed finisher outside Europe’s fop-five leagues.

Leverkusen forward Patrik Schick and Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic finished level on 24 goals. Both of those players were fast starters this season which made them a permanent fixture on the leaderboard.

Completing the top 10 were the two payers who ultimately finished level in the Premier League golden boot race with 23 goals. They were Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, who was the leader for most of the campaign in England, and his Tottenham rival Son Heung-min.

Strikes on the last day of the EPL season for that duo meant outgoing Dortmund star Erling Haaland, who will be joining them in England with Man City next season, finished 11th after racking up 22 strikes despite an injury-hit season.

So Lewandowski once again finished top of the prestigious Golden Shoe standings and the major league seasons across Europe have now come to a close.

Lewandowski becomes the 10th player to win the Golden Shoe twice – a total only bettered by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who were unable to challenge this season.

After not producing a winner since 1972, the Bundesliga has now come out on top for two straight campaigns, and the stage is set for another intriguing battle in 2022/23.

2021/22 European Golden Shoe

Who are the previous European Golden Shoe winners?

Lionel Messi has won the most European Golden Shoe titles.

The PSG forward has triumphed on six occasions, most recently in 2018/19 for Barcelona.

Cristiano Ronaldo is his closest challenger with four career wins, though the Man Utd attacker has not come out on top since 2014/15 when he was at Real Madrid.

Nine players have two awards apiece, including Luis Suarez and Thierry Henry.

Messi holds the record for most goals and points in a season as well. He remarkably scored 50 goals in 2011/12, earning himself 100 points.

Ronaldo has come closest to breaking that, scoring 48 goals for 96 points when he last won the crown more than six years ago.

Argentina forward Messi is the only player in European Golden Shoe history to win the title three years in a row, doing so from 2016/17 until 2018/19.

Ronaldo, though, is one of only four players to have won the title with different clubs. The others are Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan and Mario Jardel.

Robert Lewandowski became the first Bundesliga winner since 1972 last season, with his 41 goals being the best tally for six seasons.

That came after Ciro Immobile won the 2019/20 European Golden Shoe, scoring 36 goals for Lazio in a tremendous Serie A season.

It was his first title, with the striker becoming the first Serie A player to have the most goals in Europe since Francesco Totti triumphed for Lazio‘s rivals Roma in 2006/07.

Ligue 1 has not produced a winner since Josip Skoblar in 1971, a statistic the likes of Messi and Mbappe are hoping to change soon.

What are the European Golden Shoe rules and weightings?

Only league goals are eligible for the European Golden Shoe, with each strike earning points in a weighted system depending on the quality of league.

The five elite leagues – Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 – all carry a weighting of 2, meaning that a player will be awarded two points for every goal they score in these competitions.

For the leagues ranked sixth to 21 in Uefa’s coefficients rankings – which includes the top-flights in Portugal, Netherlands and Russia – goals scored are given a weighting of 1.5, and goals scored in a league outwith the top 21 are given a weighting of 1.

That was not always the case in the European Golden Shoe. From 1968 until 1991, the award simply went to the highest goalscorer on the continent, regardless of the strength of league.

Awards were not initially handed out between 1991 until 1996, when the new system came into force. Since then, only two players playing outside what were the five highest-ranked leagues at the time have ever won the Golden Shoe – Henrik Larsson (2000/01) and Mario Jardel (2001/02).

The Golden Shoe has been tied in the past, most recently when Suarez and Ronaldo shared the honour in 2013/14. Going forward, though, the award will be given to the player who has played the fewest minutes if two of them end up on the same number of points.

This page covers the 2021/22 European Golden Shoe race.

Last season’s standings can be found here and if you want to see the final results for the 2019/20 European Golden Shoe, follow this link.

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