Football on Feb. 29: Who can claim to be soccer’s Mr. Leap Year?

Much like World Cups (for now at least), Feb. 29 only comes around once every four years and some choice football events have occurred on the rarest of all dates.

As you probably know, a Leap Year contains an additional day on top of the usual 365, which is added in at the end of February in order to maintain a level of synchronisation between the Gregorian calendar year and the Earth’s actual annual rotation around the Sun.

With 2024 being another Leap Year, and Leap Day itself upon us once again, here’s a timely look back at some of the most notable intercalary incidents that have taken place in football on Feb. 29, going back to the year that the Premier League and Champions League both began.

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Eric Cantona scored his first goal in English football on Feb. 29, 1992, over a month after signing for Leeds United from French side Nimes. After coming off the bench against Luton Town, Cantona managed to open his account and lay on an assist in a 2-0 victory for his new side, who the surly France forward helped propel to the final English First Division title before the top tier rebranded and relaunched as the Premier League for the 1992-93 season.

Ferran Torres was born on Feb. 29, 2000 which, assuming the Barcelona forward has only been able to celebrate his birthday every four years since, technically makes him seven years old today — surely the secret to his youthful appearance.

Ferran isn’t the only professional footballer to have been born on a Leap Day; in fact he shares his birthday with a select group that includes former United States international Taylor Twellman (born in 1980) and World Cup-winning Germany midfielder Benedikt Höwedes (1988). Crystal Palace hero Darren Ambrose was also born on Feb. 29 in 1984, which means he has the esteemed honour of sharing his birthday with none other than hip-hop star and Fyre Festival founder Ja Rule.

On the same day that Ferran was born, Bayern Munich galloped to a 4-2 hammering of Real Madrid in the second group stage of the Champions League. Bayern topped the group but it was the Spaniards who had the last laugh. Madrid powered through to the knockout stage, beating Bayern home and away in the semifinals, before lifting the trophy by defeating Valencia 3-0 in the final.

Harry Kewell put in a fine performance by scoring for Liverpool in a 2-2 draw against former club Leeds United at Elland Road on Feb. 29, 2004. Kewell then staked his claim to be forever known as football’s “Mr. Leap Year” by scoring for Australia on Feb. 29, 2012. The Socceroos swept to a dramatic 4-2 win over Saudi Arabia in a World Cup qualifier with a late three-goal flurry that ended the latter’s hopes of reaching the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

Leap Day in 2008 brought with it a merciful end to a controversial and drawn-out transfer saga that had begun the previous November. Javier Mascherano finally completed his permanent move to Liverpool from West Ham, having previously been on loan at Anfield for over a year.

The deal had been held up for months due to legal complications with Mascherano and the third-party ownership of his economic rights, under which he had joined West Ham United two years previous from Brazilian side Corinthians alongside compatriot Carlos Tevez. However, things were eventually resolved and the Argentina international’s £18 million switch was ratified. Shortly afterwards, FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League took steps to ban third-party ownership entirely.

The U.S. men’s national team enjoyed a little Leap Day magic in 2012 when they pulled off a famous 1-0 win over Italy in an international friendly, beating the Azzurri for the first time ever. Clint Dempsey scored the decisive goal just after half-time but it was the U.S.’s resilient defensive display thereafter, marshalled by captain Carlos Bocanegra, that truly sealed the deal in Genoa.

Earlier that day, Stuart Pearce suffered the indignity of losing his first and only game as England manager, after stepping in as caretaker following the sacking of Fabio Capello, in a 3-2 defeat against Netherlands. Arjen Robben scored the late goal that consigned “Psycho” and his players to their underwhelming fate at Wembley. If you’re wondering whether Robben cut in from the right and finished deftly with his left foot, then wonder no more …

After being sworn in as successor to the deposed Sepp Blatter, Gianni Infantino marked his first day in office as president of FIFA with a star-studded kickaround that took place on Leap Day outside his new workplace in Zurich. A raft of former players turned out for the game with Luis Figo, Robert Pires, Michel Salgado, Clarence Seedorf and Deco helping to form a stacked roster for the occasion.

There were Premier League fixtures played on Feb. 29 for the first time since 2004 as five top-flight games took place on Leap Day in 2020.

The most memorable was Watford’s shock 3-0 win over Liverpool at Vicarage Road, mainly because the former were bobbing around in the relegation zone at the time and the latter were just five results shy of equalling the Arsenal Invincibles’ Premier League record 49-game unbeaten streak. The Reds were also on a run of 18 straight league wins, though all that came crashing to a halt as the Hornets hauled themselves out of the drop zone with a truly momentous performance.

Ismaïla Sarr also made his own little bit of Premier League history by becoming the first player to score two goals on Leap Day, though the Senegal winger’s achievement was matched later the same day as Chelsea full-back Marcos Alonso scored a brace of his own in a 2-2 draw against AFC Bournemouth.

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