To really feel the top soccer moment of 2023, you had to be there — not necessarily inside Stadium Australia on Aug. 16, but definitely Down Under.
You had to roam the streets of Melbourne, or cruise in a cab through Sydney. You had to see the yellow jerseys, and the No. 20 on so many backs, and the face that smiled or scowled down from so many billboards. It was Sam Kerr’s, the face of a movement that swept up and stopped an entire nation this summer (er, winter). And 62 minutes into a Women’s World Cup semifinal against England, a game watched by half the country, Kerr became the beloved protagonist in an unscriptable fairytale.
Before we relive the moment, though, you also have to understand the history. For an entire century in Australia, women’s soccer existed in anonymity. It persisted in dual shadows, surviving on the dedication of volunteers, but obscured by men’s soccer and by more popular sports such as rugby and Australian rules football. The women who played anyway were considered “circus freaks.” They were forced to train on gravel. They wore hand-me-down jerseys or makeshift uniforms with taped-on numbers. They didn’t get compensated for international matches. And by the mid-2000s, they hadn’t won a World Cup game nor an iota of mainstream attention.
So when Kerr and her 2023 teammates joined the national team, they played in mostly empty stadiums. Some worked part-time jobs to sustain their careers. Their replica jerseys weren’t for sale. Their names weren’t known — until they pushed, relentlessly, for respect and recognition.
They got those two things and much, much more when the World Cup made its maiden visit to Australia this year. They felt it all at airports and en route to team buses, when cameras and unprecedented coverage flocked to them, when ticket requests flooded their phones. They saw it on social media and on every newspaper’s front page. They felt it even when Kerr, their captain, picked up a calf injury on the eve of the tournament. It was a wonderfully organic buzz that spread from train stations to coffee shops, from teenage boys to grandmothers, to everyone and everywhere.
I felt it briefly in Melbourne while covering the tournament. So I couldn’t help but tear up during a Round of 16 win over Denmark. I cried again after a dramatic quarterfinal shootout against France. I have absolutely no connection to Australia; but the scenes throughout the country, and the looks on young girls’ faces, and the broader stories they told were awe-inspiring.
And they all set the stage for 9:19 p.m. on a mid-winter Wednesday in Sydney, when Kerr — who’d been hampered by the gut-wrenching calf injury all tournament — exploded forward and produced the year’s most magical moment:
1. Sam Kerr’s semifinal goal vs. England
Australia ultimately lost to England — but won its home World Cup going away.
2. Lionel Messi arrives in style
While the Women’s World Cup was captivating Australia and others around the globe, the greatest soccer player ever was captivating America.
Lionel Messi came to Miami in mid-July. Within a month, and without a preseason, coming off a multi-week vacation, he conquered MLS and lifted the Leagues Cup. He played all of his greatest hits — alien passes, demonic dribbles, goal after goal — but the moment that will live on in lore, and that felt so unbelievably perfect, was his debut winner against Cruz Azul:
3. The Bundesliga’s frantic final day
European men’s club soccer has occasionally gone stale in recent years, with state-owned clubs and commercialized giants dominating. In 2023, down-to-the-wire title races were scarce. But Germany delivered a classic final day of tension, dramatic swings and disbelief.
Borussia Dortmund could have ended Bayern Munich’s decade of dominance by simply beating Mainz at home. A celebratory parade was all planned. But Dortmund choked, leaving the Bundesliga’s door ajar. And Bayern stormed through, thanks to Jamal Musiala’s 89th-minute winner:
(Honorable mention: The final day of the Belgian Pro League was even crazier.)
4. New Zealand’s against-all-odds upset
Hours before the 2023 Women’s World Cup began, there were real fears that the first of two openers would be a dud. New Zealand was the overlooked co-host. It had never filled Eden Park for a soccer match. It was shook by a deadly shooting that morning. And its team, the Football Ferns, had never won a World Cup match.
But that night, despite looming rain and 20-mile-per-hour biting winds, the largest soccer crowd in New Zealand’s history gathered. And, against all odds:
(Honorable mention: A few days later, the Philippines beat New Zealand — arguably an even bigger upset.)
5. Arsenal’s dramatic title push
The Premier League story of the year was Manchester City, a treble-winning juggernaut. But City isn’t exactly a likable juggernaut. So the moment(s) of the year was Arsenal.
The Gunners pushed City, and aroused neutrals, with a series of comebacks. They faded down the stretch, but the height of the drama — Reiss Nelson’s improbable 98th-minute winner against Bournemouth, and the unhinged celebrations that followed — was still memorable.
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