FourFourTwo's Heroes and Villains of 2022

FourFourTwo's Heroes and Villains of 2022
(Image credit: Future)

Football may be uncertain at times but it's a game of heroes and villains. There are winners and losers, brilliance and barminess – those to look up to and those you never should.

And 2022 has been no different. In a jam-packed 12 months that has tested us all – not least the endurance of these athletes – there have been new heroes crowned, heroes that have reconfirmed their brilliance, and those we never saw as heroes that have turned the narrative on its head. A World Cup, a Women's Euros, a bonkers Premier League season and much more, will do that.

And then there are those who have taken the side of the baddie. Here's our roundup of the biggest, the best… and the worst over the last calendar year in the beautiful game. 

The Heroes of the Year

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi of Argentina kisses The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Winner's Trophy after the team's victory during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.

(Image credit: David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

It was Jay from The Inbetweeners who first proposed the possibility of completing football. It was Lionel Messi who managed it. 

Despite winning seven Ballons d'Or, scoring 90+ goals in a single calendar year, dragging teams to titles and sparkling on a regular basis in Europe, there were those who insisted that until the Argentina captain had his hands on that magnificent golden trophy, he would forever pale in significance to those who had… or something like that. 

He was a hero before December 18 2022 and he would would have remained one regardless of the result – but this year, more than ever, he is a hero. This is the full set. He has the one medal that evaded him – no end-of-year list will be complete without him. Ours certainly has not. 

Jake Daniels

Jake Daniels, Blackpool

(Image credit: Alamy)

The bravery that Jake Daniels showed in coming out as gay is something that most of us will never have to know. For over three decades, the shadow of what happened to Justin Fashanu has loomed over professional football in this country and it took someone strong to step out into the light.

That kind of courage is enough to make anyone a hero. Now, he's an icon for hopefully treading a path that many others will follow. So good on Daniels – and good on Australian player Josh Cavallo, who came out last year, too. There's still a long, long way to go for the LGBTQ+ community in football but it's positive to have role models like Daniels leading the way for the sport.

Beth Mead

Sarina Wiegman Beth Mead

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Left out of the Olympic squad in 2021, Beth Mead spent 2022 as the pride of Lionesses. The Golden Boot and a Euro 2022 title at Wembley isn't a bad way to overcome that disappointment of 12 months prior.

Mead is a national hero and it's gutting that her 2023 will largely be spent on a treatment table after a recently sustained ACL injury. But of course, she's just one of many England stars we've celebrated this year: we could have included just about any Lioness on this list.

Our other heroes include Ella Toone for the outrageously composed lob in the final and Chloe Kelly for the slightly less calm stab home and jubilant celebration. Leah Williamson for leading England from the back, Alessia Russo for that goal of the tournament against Sweden and Georgia Stanway for the screamer against Spain. Then there's Jill Scott, of course. No, she didn't play as big a role – but she put up with no nonsense from the Germans in the final and she's the only Lioness to have shared accommodation with Matt Hancock. Some would prefer the ACL injury. 

Achraf Hakimi

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2022's undisputed superstar of two spheres. This was the first time that either Africa or the Arab world ventured to the World Cup semi-finals: our teams of the tournament may differ but most of them have the PSG speedster. 

Hakimi is a hero for plenty of reasons. It's not just his effortlessly nonchalant penalty against Spain in the heat of a shootout. Not just the fact that he was the one constant of an ever-shifting back four that managed to keep out almost everyone throughout the tournament – or that he was superb in getting up the pitch to be a driver in attack. 

Moroccan mums won hearts in Qatar and Hakimi's tribute to his on Instagram was lovely. Let's see Kane's and Saka's mums dancing with the Three Lions in 2024, eh?

Ehsan Hajsafi

Ehsan Hajisafi of IR Iran speaks to media during IR Iran MD-1 Press Conference at the Main Media Center on November 20, 2022 in Doha, Qatar

(Image credit: Sarah Stier - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

While some nations were deterred from wearing an armband by the threat of a yellow card, Ehsan Hajsafi risked so much more. The Iran captain led a side that refused to sing the national anthem, while he spoke directly about mass anti-government protests in Iran, which have been met with fierce force. 

"We cannot deny the conditions – the conditions in my country are not good and the players know it also," he said. "We are here but it does not mean that we should not be their voice, or we must not respect them. And I hope that the conditions change to the expectations of the people."

Iranian citizens have faced the death penalty for protesting against the government. Hajsafi, however, risked his own safety and security to lend his voice to the oppressed and shed a global spotlight on the protests. There are plenty who wish others had followed his lead. 

The Villains of the Year

Diego Costa

Referee Robert Madley speaks with Diego Costa of Wolverhampton Wanderers, before Diego Costa receives a red card following a VAR Review, during the Premier League match between Brentford FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Brentford Community Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Brentford, England.

(Image credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The Captain Hook of the Premier League's return to English football came from under the curtain at the last minute, as an emergency signing for Wolves. 

Diego Costa is one of the biggest pantomime villains that the division has ever seen: so it came as a massive surprise to FFT to realise that the Spaniard (or is it Brazilian?) was never sent off in his stint at Chelsea. No matter: nothing is too big for this master of the dark arts.

Just as Messi completed his own wheel in Lusail, Diego Costa's moment of triumph came at Brentford this year, seven minutes into injury time… when he received his first Premier League sending off, just six games into his Wolves career. It's good to have you back, Diego: we'd have sent you a card but we knew you'd get one in time.

Leandro Parades

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Zinedine Zidane's slip into the realm of insanity cost him a world title. The Netherlands chose violence in 2010 and lost. It's not often that the bruisers prevail – but no one has embraced s**thousery quite as freely and successfully as the Argentine champions of 2022. 

And no one embodies that special kind of spite quite like Leandro Parades. Wout Weghorst turned the Argentina vs Netherlands game for the Dutch with two goals: Parades changed it for everyone, by booting the ball into the dugout, getting flattened by Virgil van Dijk (VVD was booked in the process) while pumping his team-mates up with the same fiery fervour.

We can't fully credit the icy-eyed Parades with Argentina's unsportsmanlike reaction after winning the shootout – but football is a game of moments. Messi's had plenty – and we bet Parades loved being the villain at that moment. Nastiness can prosper; he's got a medal to prove it.

Wilton Sampaio

Wilton Sampaio is the referee for England vs France

(Image credit: Getty Images)

England loves a scapegoat all right, almost as much as breakfast tea and Ally McCoist. David Beckham's kick out at Diego Simeone. David Seaman's lack of six-yard spatial awareness. Ronaldo's wink. A linesman being unable to judge where Manuel Neuer's goal line started and ended.

So while the Three Lions may have crashed out of the World Cup to the world champions and put up a jolly good show of it, it wasn't our fault. It was Wilton Sampaio's – the referee who failed to give a stonewall penalty in the first half, Bukayo Saka a foul in the lead-up to the first goal and generally the rub of any kind of green across the 90 minutes, looking bewildered in the bright lights of Doha.

Sure, we got two penalties from the Brazilian official. But that's just small print in the latest inquest of why it didn't come home. We have to blame someone, you see: sorry, Wilton. 

Unnamed Ghana coach

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There's a time and a place to ask for a selfie. Most of us would know not to interrupt a Premier League star during a romantic meal, for example, but the frozen aisle of the supermarket is probably fairer game. 

180 minutes into Son Heung-min's World Cup – plus outrageously long stoppage time – the Tottenham star hadn't had a happy time. An uninspiring Uruguay stalemate preceded a loss to Ghana, with Son ruing what could have been. Enter the member of the Black Stars coaching team who saw an opportunity to get a snap of him and the South Korean superstar. 

While we commend the unnamed coach who was starstruck enough to shoot his shot, getting a picture with Son when he was quite so down on his luck has likely meant that he can never visit Seoul without receiving some stick. Maybe he should've waited until Son made it through to the next round and was in a much better mood. 

Gianni Infantino

FIFA president Gianni Infantino during the opening match at Qatar 2022 between the host nation and Ecuador.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

FIFA presidents past have been smug. They've made questionable decisions. They've looked capable of the ridiculous and they've made us question the very sport we adore. But luckily, they've always been supporting actors at best – that is, until Gianni Infantino inserted himself into every narrative and photo opportunity of 2022, not dissimilarly to Salt Bae.

And few FIFA presidents have made an opening address quite like the Swiss Lex Luthor, whose now-infamous gambit singled out just about every minority he could think of. It might just be the cringest moment football has ever seen and easily the most appalling start to a World Cup since Diana Ross.

Qatari stadiums stopped flashing up images of him in his seat, due to the boos from the stalls. Infantino got what he wanted, though: he is the face of the most controversial World Cup of all time. There were heroes on the pitch – there was a supervillain off of it. 

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Mark White
Staff Writer

Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.