2023 was a riveting drama in the theatre for sports. From awe-inspiring comebacks to breathtaking upsets, the sports canvas for the year reflected a picture weaved in suspense, heroism, heartaches, and despair.
As the cheers of victory resonated through diverse arenas across the globe, the agony of defeat lingered in many hearts and left fans/enthusiasts at the edge of their seats.
But with another 365 days on the horizon, we reflect on the emotional highs and lows that shaped sports in Nigeria and worldwide in the outgone year.
Osimhen Jinx-Breaking Win
While there were many exciting sporting times this year, there won’t be a better way to begin this than to talk about Victor Osimhen’s heroics. The Nigerian striker was the cynosure of all eyes in the imperial Moroccan city of Marrakesh where he reigned supreme after being crowned Africa’s best player for 2023.
That feat sent millions of Nigerians into rapture because it marked the first time in 24 years that a player from the country won the coveted individual prize. Arsenal legend Kanu Nwankwo was the last Nigerian to scoop the award in 1999.
Fresh off winning the Serie A with Napoli – the first time the club did so in 33 years – Osimhen saw off competition from Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and Mohamed Salah of Egypt.
Osimhen’s triumph was the icing on the cake for Nigeria on the night. It was a rain of accolades for his country with Asisat Oshoala carting award her record-extending sixth Women’s Best Player award.
Super Falcons’ safe pair of hands Chiamaka Nnadozie was also honoured as the best female goalkeeper on the continent following an impressive World Cup outing and spectacular showing for her club Paris FC in the outgone year. Nigeria were also the Women’s Team of the Year having drawn plaudits for a great performance at the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Messi In Eighth Heaven
Before Nigeria’s historic reign at the 2023 CAF awards, the football world rewarded Argentine superstar Lionel Messi for weaving his indelible legacy into the game’s fabric. Just about one year after leading the South American nation to World Cup glory, the Inter Miami maestro stood on the pinnacle of footballing greatness, winning his record-extending eight Ballon d’Or.
Messi beat Norway’s Erling Haaland to the prize in what many have described as a fitting reward for the timeless enchantment the former Barcelona star has cast upon the world’s most beloved sports.
Tobi Amusan’s Travails
But the year was also not short of heartaches for certain sporting personalities. Nigerian sprint queen Tobi Amusan was in the eye of the storm after a doping ban which was later overturned. She was provisionally suspended for missing three whereabouts tests. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) later cleared her of the charges.
However, the move came just two days before the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She could not defend her title and came fifth in the 100m hurdles which was won by Jamaica’s Danielle Williams. But three weeks later, the Nigerian bounced back to clinch her third Diamond League title in a row, finishing in a time of 12.33secs.
Falcons Shake Off Wage Fiasco
Just like their compatriot Amusan, the Super Falcons faced issues off the pitch in the lead-up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Ahead of the competition, the team’s then-handler Randy Waldrum accused the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) of owing the girls, a claim the body denied.
Despite the ensuing tussle, the women shrugged off the challenges at home, headed to Australia and New Zealand, and stormed the football world. The Super Falcons flew gallantly into the round of 16 in the competition, losing on penalties to tournament favourites England. Nigeria had beaten co-hosts Australia in the group stage and did not lose a game on regular time. That capped one of the team’s best showings at the competition, a feat that as earlier noted, earned them Africa’s best women’s national team prize.
Rubiales’ ‘Kiss Of Death’
While Spain beat England to win that Women’s World Cup, the victory was overshadowed by a deluge of controversies just in the wake of the triumph.
The then Spanish Football Association president Luis Rubiales had kissed one of his country’s players Jenni Hermoso during the medal presentation, a move that triggered a global outrage. Following back and forth, the ex-FA boss bagged a three-year ban from football-related activities but he maintains the incident, which has been infamously dubbed the “Kiss of Death,” was consensual.
D’Tigress Roar To Success
Heading back to Nigeria, it was songs of victory for the nation’s women’s basketball ball team. For a fourth consecutive time, they ruled Africa, winning the 2023 FIBA Women’s AfroBasket title and etching their names in gold in the continent’s sporting folklore.
For a team that could not participate in the 2022 FIBA World Cup owing to internal squabbles, the D’Tigresses’ epochal outing in Rwanda bears the markings of a comeback.
Guided by Coach Rena Wakama who barked instructions from the sidelines, the Nigerian side defeated Senegal to lift the trophy on August 5.
It was even more iconic for Wakama as she tore the history books by becoming the only female coach to win the AfroBasket crown.
The 31-year-old, who mostly dressed in bright colours at the tournament with a long and graceful hairdo that came with a charming gaze, only managed to do this one month into her appointment.
Saudi Arabia, Football’s New Mecca
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continued to attract some of the best legs in football who have now followed in the footsteps of Portuguese maestro Cristiano Ronaldo to the Middle East.
Lured by the trappings of lucrative deals, stars like Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema, Ngolo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, and Roberto Firmino, to name a few, have in the last year flocked to the oil-rich country.
Although their moves have been criticised with many touting Saudi Arabia as a “retirement home” for superstars, the recent development lays credence to the unfolding nature of football.
Man City Stand on a Tripod
Manchester City’s hugely successful 2022/23 campaign also further underlined the impact of the Middle East’s investments in football. The English side equaled bitter rivals Manchester United’s record of winning a treble in a season.
Pep Guardiola’s boys were the most successful side in English football for the campaign after winning the Champions League, Premier League, and the FA Cup. Months later, they even added the FIFA Club World Cup to cap off a remarkably golden year.
Joshua Punches His Way Back To the Top
Talking about ending the year on a high, boxer Anthony Joshua is gradually punching his way back to the top.
After losing two fights in 2022, the British-Nigerian is bouncing back to reckoning. He knocked out Otto Wallins and had in April defeated Jermaine Franklin.
Super Eagles Falter, Flap
But back in Anthony Joshua’s country of heritage, Nigeria, their men’s senior national team continued to experience mixed fortunes through the year.
They qualified for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) but stuttered into the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. With two draws against lowly-rated Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Nigeria’s hopes of returning to the global competition hang on a thread.
The World Cup qualifiers’ misfortune further compounded Coach Jose Peseiro’s woes with increased calls for the dismissal of the Portuguese gaffer.
There have also been knocks on the coach for ignoring players in the local league. He only named one home-based star in the nation’s AFCON squad.
However, his supporters believe the decision was justified owing to the Nigerian club’s poor showing on the continent.
As 2023 offered a lot of surprises and heartbreaks, sports fans across the world are expectant of more exciting times.
Beginning next month, football fans can look forward to seeing the continent’s finest players when the AFCON starts. The World Cup qualifiers will also get back on track alongside other big sporting events. But until then, enthusiasts can look back at 2023 and relish the memories it brought.