The voting for our annual ESPN FC awards has closed and the ballots have been tallied. Adam Hurrey reacts to the winners and losers of 2016.
Who did 2016 belong to?
Your vote: Cristiano Ronaldo (67 percent)
Adam Hurrey: Just on silverware alone — the Champions League, the European championship, the Ballon d’Or and the Club World Cup all bagged within the space of six months — Ronaldo was already assured of this vote. The role of underdog isn’t too familiar to him (his clubs have never been far away from contention, after all) but Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph sealed his status as his country’s single-handed Golden Generation. This felt like the year that Ronaldo’s unique mentality to winning — so often parodied — finally won the grudging appreciation of his precious few remaining sceptics.
A premature, tearful exit from the final against France — knee ligaments torn — ended up becoming a scriptwriter’s dream: Ronaldo spent the next two hours covering every blade of artificial grass in the technical area to gesticulate his team to extra-time victory against the hosts. It was still all about him, but he was still rising to the challenge.
Who were the team of 2016?
Your vote: Leicester City (57 percent)
Hurrey: The category that most clearly lays bare the cruelty of the calendar year versus the August-May football season. For Leicester City, though, the fall has been every bit as important as the rise in emphasising the near-absurdity of their Premier League title win. A bit of critical distance, away from the can-they-will-they-oh-god-they-have thrills of the early summer, takes nothing away from what that tightly knit group of players achieved.
And, in the purest sense, they certainly were a team: built around a peak-performance spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, N’Golo Kante and Jamie Vardy, but with a small army of relentlessly motivated support acts. Plus, as an irresistible cherry on the top of the cake, Riyad Mahrez.
Who was the coach of 2016?
Your vote: Claudio Ranieri (60 percent)
Hurrey: No arguments here, either. Even allowing for the vague intangibles that apparently make a good coach or a bad one, Ranieri had struck upon the perfect blend for that one season. His cheery man-management kept the Leicester ship on its unlikely course, all while publicly engaging in the mandatory downplaying of their title hopes.
Even though his title challengers (if they were worthy of the name) failed to go the distance, Ranieri managed to take Leicester there with good humour — a title race almost entirely devoid of the mind games that usually pollute it in the final weeks. A more-than-willing guard of honour from the unseated champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge completed his personal narrative arc rather perfectly.
What was the moment of 2016?
Your vote: The football world uniting behind Chapecoense (46 percent)
Hurrey: For all its cynical, depressing tendencies, football has developed a good habit of rallying round in time of tragedy. You might not have heard of Chapecoense before almost their entire squad and staff were killed in a November plane crash in Colombia but, within a few days, their loss was being respectfully marked by players, fans and officials across the globe. The “football family” can find itself being used as a convenient marketing tool by FIFA but, for Chapecoense’s miraculous survivors, the support will be crucial.
What was the disappointment of 2016?
Your vote: Argentina losing their third major tournament final in three years (52 percent)
Hurrey: Tempting as it is to stake a claim for England’s dismal Euro 2016 effort, it’s hard to disappoint when there weren’t any lofty expectations in the first place.
For the most crushing failure to realise potential, Argentina are the standout candidates. To lose one major final with the players at their disposal is unfortunate. Two was careless. A third stumble at the final hurdle in consecutive years — another penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the Copa America — was intolerable. A squad blessed with other-worldly attacking talent but some startlingly average defenders was once again sent home for some painful self-reflection.
“It’s been four finals, I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.” Lionel Messi, unable to carry a malfunctioning Albiceleste in the same way that Ronaldo did with Portugal, immediately called it a day at international level — only to reverse his decision a month later. Argentina’s stuttering World Cup qualifying campaign suggests that 2018 will be a desperate last-chance saloon for him and his A-list teammates.
What was the surprise of 2016?
Your vote: Leicester City winning the Premier League (82 percent)
Hurrey: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said there was a “very high” chance that the universe we think we live in is merely a computer simulation. There was a moment — specifically, when tenor Andrea Bocelli joined Claudio Ranieri in the middle of the King Power Stadium to serenade Leicester City, the new Premier League champions — when it was tempting to subscribe to that theory.
No competition here. And it’ll never be repeated. OK, I’ll give you odds of 5,000 to 1.
Who was the breakout player of 2016?
Your vote: Marcus Rashford (37 percent)
Hurrey: Renato Sanches — the impossibly mature ball of energy for whom Bayern Munich may end up paying €80 million for — may, if he’s a regular reader of ESPN FC, perhaps rue the February evening that Anthony Martial pulled up in the warm-up ahead of a Europa League tie for Manchester United.
In stepped a shy 18-year-old, whose Wikipedia page then consisted only of the sentence “Rashford was born in Manchester in 1997,” to begin a quite stunning career trajectory. Two goals against Midtjylland that night were followed by two more against Arsenal in the Premier League, a velvet-smooth winner in the Manchester derby and, within three minutes, a goal on his fast-tracked England debut. Those are a lot of ducks to break in such a short amount of time, and yet Rashford seemed utterly unfazed by it all.
Jose Mourinho’s rebuilding project at Old Trafford has inevitably stalled Rashford’s momentum but not as abruptly as some may have feared, and with Wayne Rooney’s decline gathering pace, Manchester United sorely need a new long-term talisman. For it to be a local lad would restore even more pride.
Who was the comeback player of 2016?
Your vote: Riyad Mahrez (31 percent)
Hurrey: This was a compelling and competitive shortlist. Liverpool’s Adam Lallana had Jurgen Klopp bound enthusiastically into his life at just the right moment — that £25m fee now looks money well spent. The Brazilian anchor Casemiro emerged as a mainstay for Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid won the Champions League once again, displaying the sort of ball-winning, water-carrying silent heroism that once earned Claude Makelele the right to have a whole position named after him.
The vote went the way of Riyad Mahrez, though, one of the jewels in the unexpected Leicester crown. And the majority of his year rather summed up theirs: relentlessly, consistently electric on the break, and suddenly punching far above his featherweight stature. Meanwhile, though, there has been a significant reinvention in another blue shirt. Victor Moses’ convincing recasting as a flying wing-back has significance beyond the player himself: this is finally an indication that Chelsea, if necessary, are prepared to make do and mend with their massive roster of players.
Who scored the goal of 2016?
Your vote: Xherdan Shaqiri vs. Poland at Euro 2016 (26 percent)
Hurrey: Messi took the 2015 vote by a landslide after his cinematic slalom through the helpless Athletic Bilbao defence but — despite its gorgeous trajectory — it’s hard to fall head over heels for his Copa America free kick against the USA. There are honourable mentions for both Dele Alli’s balletic volley against Crystal Palace and the wonderful spectacle that was Hal Robson-Kanu annexing the Belgian defence all for himself in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal.
Edging your vote, though — and anyone who beats Messi in a vote should be taken seriously — was Xherdan Shaqiri’s Euro acrobatics for Switzerland against Poland. Like many eye-catching volleys, it relied on a fortunate bounce of the ball to set it up, but the rest was a sports photographer’s dream. With eight minutes to go in their round-of-16 clash, the Swiss needed something, anything; the sight of Shaqiri’s 5-foot-6-inch bundle of muscle springing into the air and firing the ball goalwards almost succeeded in overshadowing their subsequent penalty shootout defeat.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.