We have come to the end. Not just to the end of a transformative soccer year, 2019, but to the end of a decade. And man … what a freakin’ decade it was.
The 2010s brought indescribable joy and unspeakable heartache, probably more of both than any footballing decade that came before. Their six World Cup finals brought two 113th-minute-or-later winners, two American titles, a hat trick for the ages, and a reprieve from tsunami-inflicted devastation. Their Champions Leagues brought historic comebacks, plural, and unforgettable bicycle kicks, plural, and four finals decided after stadium clocks had struck 88:00.
They brought stars and villains and captivating feats and farewells. But most of all – as is this wonderful sport’s tendency – they brought moments. Euphoric moments and tragic ones, but most of all memorable moments. Iconic moments. So many that we couldn’t resist trying to rank ‘em.
And just how great were the 2010s? So great that the decade’s most influential team, the modern era’s best overall World Cup, and the greatest underdog story in the history of sports don’t even make our rankings.
Those entities are all represented in an honorable mention list below. And it’s a lengthy one. But without any further ado … to the top 10 iconic soccer moments of the 2010s, in descending order.
(Actually, first, some ground rules: We only considered on-field moments – so FBI raids and presidential resignations aren’t eligible. And we considered them from the perspective of what we see as the average present-day U.S.-based soccer fan, projecting that hypothetical person’s interests back across the decade. A bit vague, we know. But don’t let that stop you from bashing our choices.)
10. La Remontada
The death of 2010s Barcelona was first reported on February 14, 2017. Time: 22:38 CET. Location: Paris. The decade’s most prolific club was ripped to shreds, exposed, beaten 4-0 on what felt like a momentous Champions League knockout night at Parc des Princes. Turns out it was merely a prologue. And those reports? Turns out they were greatly exaggerated.
Although still, with three minutes plus added time remaining in the return leg back in Catalonia, Barca trailed PSG 5-3 on aggregate and by an away goal. They were as dead, if not deader, than they’d been in February. Then Neymar dazzled. Luis Suarez dove. And Sergi Roberto, a Catalan boy who’d joined the club at 14, glided through Camp Nou to complete a 6-1 victory, the biggest, most astounding, most dramatic European comeback ever.
So why is it only No. 10 on our list? Because it was only the Round of 16, and Barcelona limped out of the competition in the quarters, shut out over 180 minutes by Juventus.
9. Gareth Bale on his bike
Gareth Bale’s decade, a majority of which was spent at Real Madrid, ended with boos and whistles. And with controversy. And with that mischievous flag: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.”
All of which becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that Bale won two Champions League finals for global soccer’s preeminent superpower. He beat crosstown rival Atletico with a 110th-minute header in 2014. Then, in 2018, to punctuate the Threepeat – and four European crowns in five years for Real – Bale scored a goal that, when you multiply stage size by degree of difficulty, might just be the decade’s best.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 26, 2018
So why isn’t Bale higher? Because this goal wasn’t as dramatic as many of the other moments on our list. Because Real fans never quite treasured it properly. And because in a weird way, Cristiano Ronaldo’s bike vs. Juventus a couple months earlier actually feels more iconic.
8. Alex Morgan at the Theatre of Dreams
The game of the decade on the women’s side was, almost undoubtedly, United States 4, Canada 3 at the 2012 Olympics. The scoreline comes nowhere close to doing it justice. The Americans trailed 1-0 and 2-1 and 3-2. Each time they responded, twice via Megan Rapinoe, then thanks to some doubly dubious refereeing. The insanity appeared to have petered out into penalties when Heather O’Reilly dug out a teasing cross and 23-year-old Alex Morgan rose to meet it.
— The American Outlaws (@AmericanOutlaws) October 17, 2018
The header itself was immaculate. The celebrations – less jubilation, more joyous relief and disbelief – tell the full story rather well. Three days later, the U.S. beat Japan for gold.
Seven years later, perhaps Morgan’s winner doesn’t quite feel iconic. But ask yourself: Why? Does the answer have anything to do with the moment itself? Or is it recency bias? Is it the relatively limited fanfare and interest surrounding women’s soccer in 2012? If a replica occurred in Tokyo next summer, it’d surely make next decade’s list.
7. Iniesta’s World Cup winner
Andres Iniesta’s strike to put Spain 1-0 up on the Netherlands in the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup final seems like an appropriate excuse for a quick discussion of criteria. Because from a global perspective, an extra-time World Cup-winning goal – one of considerable quality, too – belongs in the top five. But for an American-born USMNT fan with no emotional connection to Spain, Iniesta’s golden moment might not even register.
The idea of considering this hypothetical average fan is to split the difference. As far as World Cup goals go, John Brooks’ header against Ghana might conjure more vivid memories for American fans who watched it live. But 15 years from now, Iniesta’s is the moment that will persist. It’s the one that kids will recreate in backyards. Its impact – clinching Spain a first world title – is forever etched into the annals of the sport.
The night of July 8, 2014, was less a moment, more a feeling. It was an image that developed over two hours, of a nation of 200 million descending into something beyond despair. It was utter shock. And it was two numbers. “7-1.” Even Google knows their significance. Go ahead, type them into the search bar. The first result?
“Brazil v Germany (2014 FIFA World Cup)”
The first of two World Cup semifinals that summer was humiliating and devastating and so much else. It was world-class footballers paralyzed by the moment, by expectations, by the weight of a country on their shoulders. As they unravelled, on live TV with the world watching, they pondered the unshakable grief they’d be responsible for. And as their minds escaped, their failure grew more and more colossal.
All around them, countrymen trembled with tears. And it was a rare occasion where emotion translated through TV screens, inescapable even in living rooms across the globe. You may not remember any of the seven goals. But you’ll remember where you were. You’ll remember those faces you saw. And you’ll remember what they told you.
5. Messi at the Bernabeu
No end-of-decade list would be complete without the GOAT. Lionel Messi broke records and boggled minds. He scored 91 goddamn goals in a calendar year. He won 23 club trophies and five Ballon d’Ors.
But enough numbers and materialistic thinking. The moment that best encapsulated Messi’s brilliance transpired April 23, 2017. Ninety-plus minutes of a breakneck, bloody, all-around wonderful Clasico had left Barcelona and Real Madrid deadlocked at 2-2. Barca had to win to stay in the title race. Sergi Roberto skipped past Marcelo in midfield and sprayed the ball left. Everybody’s eyes went with it. And as they did, Messi disappeared. The greatest footballer on the planet made himself invisible as only he can. He ghosted toward the top of the box, undetected, and, as the venerable Ray Hudson squealed, “sunk his flaming spear into the hearts of Real Madrid.”
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) April 23, 2017
But almost as iconic was what he did next. After manic celebrations, he held the “MESSI 10” side of his jersey up to a stunned Santiago Bernabeu crowd, and really to the whole world, a silent message from an often silent man: Words can’t do me justice. My football is who I am. Respect me. Fear me. Cherish me.
4. Carli Lloyd from midfield
There was nothing dramatic about the USWNT’s return to the top of the women’s soccer world in 2015. They scored inside three minutes, and again inside five. By the time Carli Lloyd took a slightly loose touch in midfield, they were 3-0 up and cruising.
But what Lloyd did next was, and forever will be, legendary. To cap a 15-minute hat trick, from smack-dab in the middle of the center circle, on the grandest stage of all …
It had no impact on the final outcome, which is why it doesn’t rise into the top three here. But the badassery was off the charts.
3. Donovan vs. Algeria
There is no single moment responsible for the rise of men’s soccer’s in the United States. Nothing like the ‘99ers or Rapinoe-to-Wambach. Nothing that singularly explains why the entire World Cup experience in 2014, for the first time, felt like a big f---ing deal. But the first true venture into the mainstream? The first, and really only moment that could possibly serve as that singular explanation?
Pretoria, South Africa. June 23, 2010. For anybody with an inkling of interest in the USMNT, “Donovan vs. Algeria” needs no further context.
Almost 10 years later, one homemade compilation of reaction videos has 5.3 million views on YouTube. What goes unsaid is that across this vast country, millions of others went similarly bats--t in the privacy of their homes. In the end, Donovan’s winner was a survival mechanism rather than a launchpad for that specific USMNT. But for the program, and for the sport, it was so much more.
2. Rapinoe to Wambach
Thirteen months after Donovan, the U.S. women found themselves in a similar spot: Down a goal, in stoppage time, with yet another World Cup flop staring them in the face. As time ticked away – 120:51, 120:52 – hope went with it. Brazil’s Christiane galloped toward the opposing corner flag. “Chants of U-S-A ringing around the arena here in Dresden, but it does look as if it’s going to be to no avail,” ESPN’s Ian Darke said in a resigned tone. “And it will go down as the USA’s worst performance ever in a Women’s World Cup.”
But then Ali Krieger cut out a pass. Carli Lloyd fought through fatigue and cycled the ball left to Megan Rapinoe. U.S. players running on empty bombed forward. The seemingly impossible became improbable. And … then it happened.
Eight-plus years later, the entire play still seems so preposterous. Watch it again. Pause it when Rapinoe’s cross is mid-flight. It’s a nothing ball, a hopeful one, pinged with a non-dominant foot as much toward the soccer gods as toward the penalty box.
And a second later, it’s perfection.
The Americans then won on penalties. The following weekend, they fell to Japan. But this moment re-launched women’s soccer. It enabled explosions of interest around 2015 and 2019. Almost every ounce of the USWNT’s popularity, from social media followings to record-breaking crowds, can be traced back to July 10, 2011.
The moment of the 2010s comes from a club that has since been discolored. But put yourself back in 2012, back when Manchester City hadn’t won an English top-flight title in 44 years, back when they were the Noisy Neighbors, the starving stepchild to the English king. On May 1, the Citizens were 90 minutes from finally snatching the Premier League away from their biggest rival, Manchester United. All they had to do was beat lowly QPR at home.
This was the context for the wildest day and wildest finish in Premier League history. The necessary context, because “AgueroooooOOOOO” isn’t only about the man who brought famous words out of Martin Tyler’s mouth. It was about the history and hierarchical dynamics. And about the entire topsy-turvy day. This was Red Sox-Yankees, Game 7, 2004. Except that just when a triumphant story seemed primed for a smooth ending, the lunacy of football ran its course.
City was cruising at halftime on the final day of the season, up 1-0 on a scruffy Pablo Zabaleta goal. United, playing simultaneously, led 1-0 at Sunderland. But a City win would render all other results meaningless. And a City win felt assured. Until things got weird.
Until, capitalizing on an inexplicable Joleon Lescott error, QPR equalized.
Until, despite a Joey Barton red card that reduced the visitors to 10 men, QPR went ahead.
City, time and time again, were stymied. The Etihad was stunned. Fans cried; bashed their seats in frustration. Roberto Mancini threw on an extra striker, then another. Still, the clock ticked past 90 minutes. Still, City needed two more goals.
Edin Dzeko gave them one, but that wouldn’t be enough. At the very moment Sergio Aguero slithered into the penalty area, some 120 miles away, Manchester United fans and players had tentatively begun to celebrate. Even when Aguero swiveled his hips to shoot, their watches and phones and peers told them they were seconds away from the club’s 20th league title.
And then … “Manchester City are still alive here. Balotelliiii. Aguero …
“I swear, you’ll never see anything like this ever again!”
There were so many moments. Far too many for a top 10 to be sufficient. But we felt a few exclusions in particular needed explaining:
Leicester’s entire 2015-16 season was, as Yahoo Sports’ Ryan Bailey put it to me in an email, “the most spectacular achievement in any sport this decade.” And Ryan’s right. But what, exactly, is the moment? When I say Leicester, what image pops into your head? The Foxes clinched their title while crowded into Jamie Vardy’s home. There was no signature win that sealed it, no signature goal. They are the best soccer story of the 2010s, but they are not a moment.
Mario Gotze’s 2014 World Cup winner probably deserves inclusion, but it was three minutes earlier than Iniesta’s; it won Germany a fourth World Cup rather than a first; and Gotze is far less iconic as a player than Iniesta is.
Ronaldo’s bike against Juve, as mentioned, was jaw-dropping. But let’s see if we’re still talking about it five years from now. It was in the first leg of a quarterfinal tie that Madrid almost blew a couple weeks later.
I mentioned Brooks’ goal against Ghana. For a certain type of USMNT fan that took to the sport between 2010 and 2014, it is the memory. But Donovan 2010 is what most Americans will remember another decade from now, and many of these other, more meaningful goals are what the world will remember. Brooks’s header was incredible, but not quite iconic. Each of the U.S. goals at the 2014 World Cup have their place in program lore, but none rises far above the rest.
Megan Rapinoe’s pose is iconic. And the sights, sounds, feel of that U.S.-France quarterfinal will stick with us for a long time. But any argument that a single 2019 USWNT moment belongs in this top 10 is heavily influenced by recency bias.
Lucas Moura’s 96th-minute winner and Liverpool’s fourth against Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League semifinals were both unbelievable. But again, recency bias. Moura’s was the more dramatic, but it won’t have the necessary worldwide shelf-life because Spurs laid an egg in the final.
Japan scored in the final 10 minutes of regulation and of extra time to send the 2011 Women’s World Cup final to penalties – where it won, four months after large portions of the country were decimated by a deadly earthquake and tsunami. Frankly, this is probably top-10 worthy. Its omission is largely based on Americans’ lack of emotional investment in that particular story at the time. (And, to be fair, on the lack of one standout, capital-M Moment.)
Luis Suarez’s bite at the 2014 World Cup was … something superlative or extreme. But iconic? Nah.
Other honorable mentions
Those are the omissions we felt we had to explain. Here are some others we felt we should mention:
Arjen Robben’s 89th-minute winner in the 2013 Champions League final would probably resonate more with our hypothetical fan if it had been two English clubs in 2019 rather than two German clubs six years earlier.
Fernando Torres’ 2012 clincher at Camp Nou – yep, the one that elicited Gary Neville’s original goalgasm – was less about Torres himself, more about the improbability of Chelsea winning despite injury decimation and a talent deficit and a red card and 28-percent possession and having to play Torres as an auxiliary left back.
Didier Drogba’s header that sent the 2012 final to penalties, where Chelsea won it, was memorable as well.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick vs. Spain at the 2018 World Cup completed a hat trick, but came in the first group game.
Belgium’s comeback-completing counterattack in the 2018 World Cup Round of 16 was epic.
Another infamous Suarez moment: The handball, followed by Asamoah Gyan’s wayward penalty, that saved Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup quarters.
Messi annihilating Jerome Boateng was emblematic of his superpowers.
Everything Iceland did at Euro 2016.
Eder’s extra-time winner in the Euro 2016 final.
Unfortunately for South America, the two epic Argentina-Chile Copa America finals ended 0-0. And Messi’s penalty miss in 2016 wasn’t decisive. So no one moment stands out.
Sergio Ramos’ header to send the 2014 Champions League final to extra time, and Real’s subsequent second-half-of-extra-time barrage.
Zlatan. Just Zlatan.
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