Best of Soccer in 2023: Top moments and stories from a wild, unpredictable year

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Soccer, the beautiful game, is also a global game, lending itself to no shortage of stories and narratives over the course of a year -- and 2023 was no exception. The world's greatest player decided to join Major League Soccer and made an instant impact, while the German title race went down to the wire, a legendary forward decided to end a 25-year career, and a new contender for the Spanish league title has emerged -- right in FC Barcelona's backyard.

It's time now to look back at the best moments and the stories that made headlines from the wide world of soccer in 2023.

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Lionel Messi spotted casually buying bread in a bakery in Miami

The 5 most memorable soccer storylines from 2023

Bayern hold on to win an 11th straight league title

Twenty-year-old phenom Musiala (left) scored the goal that brought Bayern its record 33rd Bundesliga crown.

Twenty-year-old phenom Musiala (left) scored the goal that brought Bayern its record 33rd Bundesliga crown.

Sure, Bayern Munich win the Bundesliga every year, so the Rekordmeister adding another trophy to its cabinet isn't a surprising development in and of itself. But the way Bayern secured its 11th league title on the trot instantly became a story to remember.

Entering the season's final day on May 27, Bayern were second in the table and Borussia Dortmund were in first place, on the verge of winning its first league since 2012. All Dortmund needed to do was defeat Mainz at home, and the trophy was theirs. But a feisty Mainz turned up and drew 2-2 -- while Jamal Musiala's 89th-minute winning goal at Koln handed Bayern a 2-1 victory and another Bundesliga crown.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic hangs up his boots

One of the legendary strikers of the 21st century signed off for the final time in June. Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his retirement from soccer following AC Milan's final game of the 2022/23 season, bringing to a close an iconic career with nine clubs.

Ibrahimovic burst onto the scene with Dutch giants Ajax before becoming a global star at Inter Milan, scoring 57 goals in 88 games before earning a move to Barcelona. After an unhappy year at Camp Nou, Ibrahimovic found relative stability at Paris Saint-Germain (113 goals in 122 games) and went on to average nearly a goal per game at LA Galaxy (52 goals in 56 games) before ending his career with a second stint at Milan -- helping the Rossoneri win Serie A in 2022.

Botafogo collapse as Palmeiras win 12th Brazilian title

Endrick (left) is Real Madrid-bound and one of the most exciting prospects in world soccer.

Endrick (left) is Real Madrid-bound and one of the most exciting prospects in world soccer.

The Brazilian Serie A race went down to the wire -- and it ended with Rio-based side Botafogo blowing a 14-point lead atop the table and losing the title to Palmeiras, led by teenage starlet Endrick.

Botafogo were hoping to claim its first league title since 1995, but a complete collapse -- including a failure to win any of its final five games -- saw the team finish fifth in the table, six points adrift of Palmeiras. The sprint for the title ended with Palmeiras claiming its record 12th league championship, finishing two points ahead of Luis Suarez's Gremio and four points ahead of Atletico Mineiro. It was a fitting swan song for striker Endrick, who will join Real Madrid in summer 2024.

Messi arrives in the United States with an unforgettable goal

Messi's free kick instantly became an iconic moment in American soccer.

Messi's free kick instantly became an iconic moment in American soccer.

The script couldn't have been written any better. Six days after officially signing a two-and-a-half year contract with Inter Miami -- thus turning the soccer world on its head -- Lionel Messi kicked off the team's Leagues Cup campaign in style with a game-winning free kick against Mexican side Cruz Azul.

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Messi scored an incredible 10 goals in seven games during the Leagues Cup, guiding Inter Miami to the trophy and the first piece of sliverware in the club's young history. Although Messi was beset by injury in the season's final weeks and was unable to lead the Herons into the MLS Cup playoffs, optimism is high that 2024 could be a special year for Messi in Miami -- where he will be joined by former Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets...and maybe even Luis Suarez.

Girona leading the way in Spain

Girona won a staggering 14 of its first 17 league games during the 2023/24 season.

Girona won a staggering 14 of its first 17 league games during the 2023/24 season.

LaLiga has long been dominated by its Big Two of Barcelona and Real Madrid. In the past decade, Atletico Madrid have won two league titles and expanded that Big Two into a Big Three. But now, a team from a small city in Catalonia is demanding to be included at the table.

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In only its second season back in the top flight of Spanish soccer, Girona FC are leading the league with 44 points from 17 games. A side with a fraction of the Big Three's respective budgets has scored more goals than anyone in the division (41) and rampaged to a 4-2 win over Barcelona on Dec. 10 -- confirming its status as a title contender. If head coach Michel is able to keep this group healthy and locked-in for 2024, Girona could complete a conquest of LaLiga for the ages -- but it's already an amazing underdog story as 2023 winds to a close.

Luis Suarez back with Barça buddies at Inter Miami

Inter Miami announced Suarez's arrival on Dec. 22 with this viral picture featuring its academy players.

Inter Miami announced Suarez's arrival on Dec. 22 with this viral picture featuring its academy players.Inter Miami

Right before the year's end, Inter Miami announced it had signed one of soccer's all-time most prolific scorers: "Welcome Luis Suarez, to the dream of Miami."

Along with the announcement, the club uploaded a picture of four young players in their academy wearing the jerseys of Suarez, Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. The quartet has been brought back together for the first time since they played for the Catalonian LaLiga giants, which shows the tremendous rise of MLS' reputation in the eyes of world-class footballers.

The striker, who also starred for Liverpool before joining Barcelona and later Atletico Madrid in an illustrious career, says he is excited about the prospect of a new career in North America after stints down south .

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