Messi's Tearful Barca Exit, Ronaldo's Coca-Cola Snub & Other Major Football Headlines of 2021

© AFP 2022 / PAU BARRENABarcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi cries during a press conference at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 8, 2021.
Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi cries during a press conference at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 8, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 01.01.2022
For the second year running, sport remained under the spell of COVID-19. However, the deadly virus failed to dent the spirit of sports stars. Football in particular witnessed another rocking 12 months of world-record performances, controversies and confrontations between the game's governing bodies and Europe's top clubs.
The year 2021 was another eventful one in football during which Lionel Messi's tearful exit from his boyhood club Barcelona after a 21-year-long stint sent ripples across the world and Cristiano Ronaldo's snub to Coca-Cola, promoting water instead, during the European Championships made global headlines.
In addition to these events, UEFA's war with top European clubs over the Super League and racial abuse of English players during the Euro 2020 competition also jostled for front page slots in newspapers. Here, Sputnik looks back at football's biggest moments of 2021.

Tearful Messi Bids Goodbye to Barcelona

Argentina captain Lionel Messi was in tears as he bid farewell to Barcelona at a press conference in August.
For months, Barca's top management, including club president Joan Laporta had remained confident that they would be able to renew Messi's contract, particularly since the 34-year-old star had agreed to take a 50 percent salary cut to extend his stay at Camp Nou.
But the Catalan giants' soaring debt, which stood in excess of $1.5 billion, eventually sealed his fate at the club.
Messi was the heart and soul of an all-conquering Barca side as the numbers would suggest. After all, the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner not only scored a record 672 goals in 778 games for the Spanish behemoth, but also won a staggering 10 La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues with them.
Remarkably, Messi was Barca's top scorer in 2021 with 28 goals despite leaving the club for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in August: no one else could match his tally even after his five months' absence from the side.

Ronaldo and the 'Coca-Cola Snub'

Portuguese skipper Cristiano Ronaldo caught everyone's immediate attention when he removed two Coca-Cola bottles from his table during a press conference at the Euro 2020 tournament in June. But no one could have imagined just how significant the move would be.
By the time the ex-Juventus forward had finished talking to reporters, shares in the drinks giant had plummeted and eventually, about $4 billion had been lost from its market capitalisation.
Ronaldo's gesture at the prestigious European competition had a ripple effect and several other footballers took a stand: Italian Manuel Locatelli followed suit in removing Coca-Cola bottles, but Frenchman Paul Pogba moved a beer can out of sight during his press conference.

The European Super League (ESL) Fiasco

The now-defunct European Super League was planned to be a rival competition to UEFA's Champions League, the continent's premier club tournament.
It was envisaged by 12 of the biggest football clubs in Europe, including the iconic six from the English Premier League – Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Tottenham.
Despite their long-standing rivalry in Spain, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were completely in favour and joined as "founding members". And as with the Spanish, so with the Italians - AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan also hopped on board.
However, the proposed tournament's announcement was met with a severe backlash from fans, particularly in the United Kingdom. The public anger even forced British premier Boris Johnson to intervene and he promised to come out with legislation to stop the Super League from coming into existence.
The very foundations of the ESL fell apart after all six clubs from England pulled out of the tournament, leaving the $6 billion league almost dead.

Black English Players Face Online Racial Abuse After Euro 2020 Final

Three English Black players - Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, received a barrage of online racial abuse after missing their respective spot-kicks in the home team's heartbreaking defeat to Italy in the Euro final.
The Three Lions' supporters went out of control as they began trolling the young stars with hate-filled messages, including crass remarks about their race.
As the abusers blamed Saka, Sancho and Rashford for England's failure to end their 55-year-old wait for a major international trophy, the English Football Association came out in support of the players before PM Johnson's government launched its own investigation into the episode.

Champions League Round of 16 Draw Controversy

In December, in a stunning sequence of events, UEFA suffered a major embarrassment after the Champions League draw was involved in a huge goof-up.
The error forced the organisation to reorganise the entire ceremony after a massive controversy erupted over the validity of the previous draw.
According to the tournament's rules, two teams from the same group can't meet each other in the knockouts. But the software pitted Manchester United against their group rival Villarreal, forcing UEFA chief Giorgio Marchetti to roll up his sleeves and get serious.
However, even the second draw didn't protect UEFA against criticism from several quarters, with Real Madrid labelling the disputed process an "inadmissible scandal".

Lionel Messi 'Robs' Robert Lewandowski of Ballon d'Or

Lionel Messi collected a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or in Paris last month but even the Argentine acknowledged that he wasn't the best man to receive the sport's biggest individual honour.
In his speech, Messi revealed that it was Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski who deserved the prize more than anyone in the world.
"I would like to mention Robert Lewandowski, it’s been a real honour to compete with you. Everyone knows and we agree that you were the winner last year. I think France Football should award you your 2020 Ballon d'Or – you deserve it and you should have it at home," Messi said.
Lewandowski's defeat to Messi by just 33-votes came as a complete shock to the game's admirers, considering the Pole netted a super impressive 41 goals in 29 matches for the Bundesliga side. His loss in the Ballon d'Or race was all the more surprising as he had also gone past German great Gerd Mueller's 40-year record for most goals in a season in 2021.
France Football, the parent body of the Ballon d'Or, was slammed right, left and centre by many, with some fans and pundits declaring the entire process a "farce".
Others claimed that Lewandowski had been "robbed" of the award.
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