The Best of 2018

Here it is. Exactly like in 2016 & 2017, this year too, we are providing you with the 20 best, worst, biggest, most important moments of the year in the BabaGol universe.
Like in the previous editions, this is not a ranking or a table, but simply a way to conclude the extraordinary year of football we had in 2018. What made us, at BabaGol, tick.

Unlike past years, we will also expose you the players, teams, moments & stories that almost made our list, but eventually, fell on the editorial desk’s floor. It i very hard to keep some of these brilliant moments of football out of the final list.

2018 was an intense, hard and satisfying year. In 2019 there are will be no rules. It would be a year for the history books. Embrace it, and keep football real.

We wish you a happy new year from all of us at Team BabaGol.

Mother Russia Opens Up with the World Cup
Many words were written and said around the World Cup in Russia before it started. Western media has described it as a corrupted, evil, and superfluous event over almost any respectable stage. Eventually, the 2018 World Cup will probably be remembered as one of the best ever organized sports events. Of course, not everything was perfect or positive in Russia, but the World Cup was a great tournament, that helped opening up parts of a very isolated country to the rest of the world. Baba saw it first hand.

Salah. Again & Again & Again.
What else can we write about Mohamed Salah? With a total of 44 goals only in 2018, multiple individual titles, an explosive dominance that kept growing for both club & country throughout the year, as well as a social stand in the fights for animal rights worldwide, Salah was all over the place in 2018. Even with the broken shoulder, the suspicious story with Ramzan Kadyrov and the chaotic World Cup, Salah was the story. The fact that nowadays tourists come to Liverpool for the port, the Beatles and one Egyptian guy from Nagrig, still makes it for all of us in BabaGol.

Superclasico Libertadores
The biggest, the most extravagant, most dangerous, most beautiful but also ugliest, the best but the worst, the happiest but the saddest, and for sure the most electrifying football match(es) of the year. It was clear right from the start that the last Libertadores final to be played in two legs, concentrated in Buenos Aires, for over three weeks, will be a disastrous scenario - and it was. A storm, a delay, violence, players injured, a delay, another one, playing in Europe, Quintero scoring a beauty. It had it all. The fact that the final of a competition called the Libertadores (the liberators) was moved to Madrid, where the whole colonization of South America was managed from for centuries, is a true shame for the CONMEBOL, and for Argentina and its president, Mauricio Macri. It took a month, but it ended eventually. What a storm it was. Biggest game of the year, even if not for its football level.

Croatia Time
For a small country as Croatia, going this far in the World Cup means everything. Despite the political problems, despite the situation between the players and the local legal system, the fact that Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Dejan Lovren, Mario Mandzukic and Zlatko Dalic (!) have reached the World Cup final, is a lifetime inspiration. The photos, videos, voices and messages we got from Croatia during the knockout will never be forgotten.

Private Son Plays for Freedom
Which Premier League stars can say that for a few matches in-a-row, their entire careers were on the line? Only one. Heung Min Son, Tottenham Hotspur’s South Korean starlet, has joined his country’s Asian Games 2018 journey in order to win a gold medal, but also to get his final release from the mandatory army service that is conducted in South Korea. Every match in the knockout stage of the tournament has created emotional moments and photos of the Korean players, Son specifically.
The loss to Malaysia, the 4-3 comeback against Uzbekistan in extra time, the victory over Vietnam and the final against Japan, were all a battle of “life and death” for many from the Korean team. One memorable moment was when Son, the first ever Premier League footballer to participate in the tournament, couldn’t look at Hwang Hee-Chan’s penalty in the 117th minute against the Uzbeks. It went, South Korea won the tournament and Son is now free to focus on his success at club level, without the fear serving for 2 years and returning to his country in the middle of his career.

Saudi Football Revolution
Saudi Arabia has gone through some major changes in the past year, and it didn’t skip football. Increasing the number of foreign players in the league, historically allowing women in stadiums, ten players who went to play in Spain in one outrageous deal, and record-breaking transfer fees for worldwide names. The Premier League of Asia, no less. More than China, more than any other scene across the continent.
All of these and more, thanks to one man - Turki Al-Sheikh, who became the most powerful figure in Middle Eastern football, and surprisingly has been replaced as the Saudi Sports minister, in the final week of December in favour of Abd al-Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal. Future is big and might even get bigger for Saudi moves in football. It is just the beginning.

Turki and the Pyramids
Turki Al-Shiekh wasn’t active only in Saudi Arabia. In 2018 we witnessed one of the most bizarre stories in world football history - the aspiring project of Pyramids FC. A brand new club founded on the back of another club, moved to Cairo, changed their name, and spent more than Porto, Watford, Guangzhou Evergrande and others. Besides posting the expenditure record for an African club, the 33 million Euros Pyramids club had invested in building a squad from scratch - signing 23 (!) new players & staff - rocked the Egyptian football reality.  As usual in Egypt, it has much more than football in it. Respect, money, regional politics and more, between Egypt & Saudi Arabia.

Taraji Dawla Takes Over
2018 was the year of Esperance Taraji Tunis. The North African giants have taken over almost every competition they participated. The Tunisian League, the African Champions League, the Arab Champions Cup (at the end of 2017, but still) - only the Club World Cup and the Tunisian Cup were missing. These achievements positioned Taraji as the best Arab club of the year, without competition. Add this to the help they provided to Palestinian club Taraji Wad Al-Nes, and you get a mega club that helps those need. Taraji Dawla!

Argentina Fails at the World Cup and Beyond
The past year wasn’t good for Argentinian football. The Superclasico scandal & violence is one thing, but the disappointing World Cup campaign was a disaster, especially when it was probably Lionel Messi’s last attempt to win the World Cup, is a whole other phase. The loss to Croatia, the draw with Iceland and the collapse against France exposed the problems of Argentina - no defence and no certain future.
Now, with Messi stepping aside, Argentina might have a new a dawn but the stain of 2018 won't be forgotten for a long time. The way things went with Sampaoli, their lack of competitiveness against France and the final chance they wasted with the best player in the history of the game, are way too much for such obsessive compulsive football nation. Don’t cry for me Argentina.

Franco Armani – the Best Footballer in South America?
Until 2016, no one outside Colombia knew who Franco Armani is, not even in his native Argentina. He won the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional, has been chosen as the best goalkeeper in South America, and in 2018 he signed with River Plate. Since then everything changed. Armani shined for the club he supported as a child and got the call for Argentina’s final squad for the World Cup in Russia, his first ever invitation to the national team.
In Russia, he didn’t play in the first two matches but replaced Caballero in the last two matches vs. Nigeria and France in the round of 16. Despite the elimination, he established himself as the best Argentine goalkeeper and his Cinderella story kept on going.

Armani was one of River Plate’s main figures in their Copa Libertadores run, committing mega saves in the semifinal & the final. He ended up winning the cup, being chosen as the best South American goalkeeper for the second time and became the second ever goalie to win the Libertadores twice with two different clubs. Crack.

No More Drog
Every year football legends are retiring while leaving a hole in fans’ hearts. Not every year a football personality this big is hanging the boots. After a few years of playing USL football in Phoenix, Didier Drogba has decided to retire from the game he loved the most. Drogba was the soul & feel of the game, an African symbol and a great character and an example for millions across the globe. A sensitive late bloomer, a true fighter, leader by heart, a lethal goalscorer, a clutch figure with an elephant heart. Merci pour tout, Didier!

Iraqi Airforce Took Off & Kept Rising
If there’s one magical team on this list, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya would be it. For the third consecutive time, the Iraqi giants have made it into our list and this time, it’s even more deserved than the first two. The Airforce club has won the AFC Cup, again, and gained the nickname - the Iraqi Sevilla - for becoming an expert on their continent second most important title, as Sevilla did with the Europa League. The Eagles won it for the third time in-a-row, this time on Iraqi soil in front of 25,000 fans in Basra. If that’s not enough, they added the Iraqi championship and got their spot in the Asian Champions League spot for 2019. Coming from a country devastated by war, with five titles in four years, the first Iraqi mega-club has made a huge step forward in 2018, in what was beneficiary for Iraqi football as a whole. Mabrouk!

The Redemption of Felipão and Football in São Paulo
After an unsteady start season with coach Roger Machado, Palmeiras have brought in an old persona of Brazilian football for the coach role: Luiz Felipe Scolari.
As an ex-world champion, that spent excellent eras with Grêmio and Guangzhou Evergrande, he came back to the club he already worked at in the past, with a lot of mistrust by the Palestra fans. However, it ended up as one Scolari’s best seasons as a coach. After his arrival, the team went on 23 games unbeaten and won their tenth Brazilian title, while producing full dominance against its rivals. Felipão answered the critics who doomed him after the 7-1 loss with Brazil against Germany in the 2014 World Cup and showed that there are still things he can teach Brazilian footballers. His resurrection took place in the Paulista golden era - where the gap between the Tabu São Paulo clubs (São Paulo, Corinthians, Palmeiras) to the rest of Brazil are getting bigger with every season. Felipão has a big part in it.

A Chinese Summer Camp
A state-funded close camp for footballers. We’ve seen many things in 2018, but this was definitely a unique story this year, which made headlines all over the world and was highly discussed in China. The Chinese FA decided to call 55 players for a close training camp in the decisive moments of the season, without providing any explanations or return date to the clubs, or to the players themselves. The first photos from the camp were outstanding: Games, cognitive workshops and teamwork exercises that looked far away from the beautiful game. No doubt that the Chinese approach to football is one of the most fascinating things around.

Al-Ain in the Club World Cup final
Al-Ain probably shouldn't be here on the list, but their performance in the Club World Cup was simply out of this world. Their heroic comeback against Team Wellington from New Zealand and the decisive victory against Taraji were good, but what made worldwide headlines was their unbelievable draw & penalty shootout victory against South American champions River Plate. The Ainawys have made the impossible and gained the chance to play the European champions, the eternal obsession of almost every Arab sports fan and reigning club world champions - Real Madrid. The hype was up in the sky. Although they lost as they couldn’t really produce any competition for Real, Al-Ain has made a great name for the club and for football in the Gulf. After this tournament, there are millions of kids worldwide who know there’s a city called Al-Ain.

Shaq Attack
What a year it was for Xherdan Shaqiri, Liverpool’s Swiss-Kosovar. He was relegated with Stoke City to the Championship, opened up the Balkan conflict in the middle of the World Cup after scoring a late winner against Serbia, got banned, moved to Liverpool for an arguably small sum ($13.5m) and now became Jurgen Klopp’s ace at Merseyside. Despite not joining his team’s trip to Belgrade in the Champions League, he came on as a substitution at Anfield vs Manchester United and beaten the Red Devils by himself with a brace that sent Jose Mourinho home. Indeed, what a year for Xherdan Shaqiri.

Women of Mexico
The past year saw also a few positive phenomena in North America as well. One of them was the women’s finals in Mexico of the Clausura & Apertura Feminil, in May and December. These matches attracted around 100,000 spectators to the stadium altogether, and proved the women’s game in Mexico has a huge potential. Refreshing, important and exciting. Bring it on! We want more of it in 2019.

Les Banlieues wins the World Cup
One of the biggest outcomes of France’s triumph at the World Cup wasn’t only the celebrations at Champs Elysees or the praises that players as Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe have received. It was the recognition that in 2018, ‘Football’s Mecca’ is no longer in Brazil or Buenos Aires, but in Paris. And especially its surroundings - Les Banlieues. With a diverse mix of cultures, ethnic backgrounds and people, the suburbs of the French capital offers an unlimited ocean of talent. With the impact of local academies, such as Clairefontaine and others, on football education & intellect of the young generation, it looks like this World Cup was just the beginning for French football. As some have said: “France won its second World Cup, while Paris won its first”.  

Atlanta Represent
For years the MLS was criticized for taking out the soul and emotions out of football. Well, it is still the case in our opinion, but at least there is a vast improvement in the attitude of the USA towards football. Atlanta United is a great example. After years where Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders were the only teams to create an original football vibe in the league, Atlanta has brought something powerful and knit to the American Soccer culture. With Argentine Tata Martino as the coach, a Venezuelan flamboyant striker as Josef Martinez and an ecstatic newly built stadium as the Mercedes Benz Arena that was filled with 70,000 fans few times throughout the season - we can confidently say - we want more of it.

The World’s Top Scorer
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and from very recently, Baghdad Bounedjah. Not every year a Middle Eastern or a North African player is grabbing a top spot in the worldwide top scorers' chart, but 2018 belonged all to Baghdad Bounedjah. Al-Sadd’s Algerian striker has scored no less than 58 goals in the calendar year, 7 more than the Argentinean magician and 9 more than the Portuguese goal-machine. Bounedjah has scored 39 goals in 19 Qatari Super League matches, 13 goals in 12 Asian Champions League matches, 6 goals in 8 games with the Algerian national team. In total: 42 matches, 58 goals and a ratio of 1.38 goals per game.
These are almost surrealistic numbers for the striker, who grew up in Oran, as he consistently paves his way up in Middle Eastern football. Rumours already connect him to Olympique Marseille from the French Ligue 1 and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. To be fair, we, at BabaGol HQ, simply can’t wait to see this guy ripping the nets off in Europe. Yallah Baghdad!

Almost made the list:
Female fans at the Azadi Stadium in Asian Champions League final;

Diego Maradona fading & losing it in the World Cup but succeeding with Dorados de Sinaloa;

Alireza Jahanbakhsh in Holland and his move to Brighton;
The Moroccan football renaissance;
Keisuke Honda’s move to the A-League;
Marcelo Bielsa’s revolution at Leeds United;
Altyn Asyr reaching the AFC Cup final;
Yemen makes it to the Asian Cup;
Marcelo Gallardo’s epic reign at River Plate;
Tractor Sazi spending spree in the Iranian League;

Alireza Beiranvand stopping a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the peak of an impressive Iranian World Cup campaign.
Chucky Lozano’s Mexican affair with PSV;
Kashima Antlers winning the Asian Champions League;
Lucas Torreira’s rise;
Amoory Abdulrahman moves to Saudi Arabia and gets injured;
Fortaleza coach Rogério Ceni returns to the Brasileirao;
Özil & the German FA racism saga;
Atletico Paranaense wins the Copa Sudamericana.