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Cristiano Ronaldo became the first man to win the Champions League, European Championship, Ballon d’Or and Club World Cup in the same season. Jamie Vardy‘s excellence delivered Leicester City an improbable Premier League trophy. Sergio Ramos‘ timely goals have been a feature of the year for Real Madrid. Neymar finally brought Olympic gold to Brazil. And Gianni Infantino took the reins from Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.
To varying degrees of surprise, Real Madrid, Leicester City and Portugal all secured silverware in 2016. Yet few would have predicted the rousing performances of Iceland at Euro 2016 or newly promoted RB Leipzig this Bundesliga season.
Claudio Ranieri oversaw perhaps the most unlikely title in sports history, leading Leicester to Premier League glory. Zinedine Zidane picked up Champions League and Club World Cup trophies with Real Madrid. Few expected much from Fernando Santos‘ Portugal at Euro 2016, but the former Greece boss surprised everyone. Antonio Conte took underdogs Italy to the quarterfinals before turning Chelsea from disappointments into Premier League leaders. And Tite has restored respectability to a long-underperforming Brazilian national team.
Ronaldo’s touchline cheerleading, as his Portugal teammates won Euro 2016, stands out as one of the moments to define football in 2016. Brazil finally winning Olympic gold was another, especially as they did so on home soil. The power of football was demonstrated as the sport united after the tragic Chapecoense plane crash. And Manchester United dominated close-season headlines, naming Jose Mourinho as manager and breaking the world transfer record with the £89 million signing of Paul Pogba.
It seems a major tournament rarely passes without England letting their supporters down and it was no different at the Euros. The U.S. fared no better under Jurgen Klinsmann, kicking off the final round of World Cup qualifying with a pair of defeats before the German was fired. After a brief return to the Champions League in 2015, Manchester United missed out on Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Argentina fell to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final, making it three major tournament final defeats in three years for the Albiceleste. And the end to an enthralling MLS playoffs was a dreary, scoreless 120 minutes in the MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.
With preseason odds of winning the Premier League title at 5,000-1, sport perhaps has had no greater surprise than Leicester City’s championship. Though few would have predicted Iceland’s run to the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 or Portugal winning the tournament, amid the hype that France would lift the trophy on home soil. Perhaps there would be more buzz about RB Leipzig sitting level on points with Bayern Munich atop the Bundesliga had Leicester not desensitised the football world to underdog stories. And when Chelsea searched high and low for a new centre-back, who’d have guessed it’d be former Blue David Luiz who would patch up a once-leaky defence?
Making his Manchester United first-team debut in February, Marcus Rashford took the Premier League by storm and broke into the England squad. Gabriel Jesus led Palmeiras to a first league title in 22 years, secured a big-money move to Manchester City and was a breakout star in Brazil’s Olympic triumph. Christian Pulisic made the Borussia Dortmund first team in January and went on to establish himself for club and country. Renato Sanches sealed a €35 million transfer from Benfica to Bayern Munich, before starring in Portugal’s run to Euro 2016 glory. And after the biggest clubs in Europe tracked Ousmane Dembele, the Frenchman joined Dortmund and quickly became one of their prized possessions.
After two years of middling displays for Liverpool, Adam Lallana has found form in 2016-17 and has been instrumental to Jurgen Klopp’s side’s title challenge. After Zidane’s arrival last January, Casemiro emerged as the steel in a sometimes-soft Real Madrid midfield, serving as the backbone for the club’s Champions League win. Victor Moses spent the past three seasons on loan before becoming a staple of Conte’s much-heralded 3-4-3 at right wing-back. Now playing as Liverpool’s central striker, Roberto Firmino has looked more potent than he ever did on the flanks. And Riyad Mahrez went from the French second division with Le Havre in 2014 to being the creative force behind Leicester’s title triumph.
Hal Robson-Kanu made headlines with his sumptuous turn and finish vs. Belgium at the Euros, and Xherdan Shaqiri‘s bicycle kick vs. Poland in the same tournament also earned praise. Dele Alli scored perhaps the goal of 2015-16 in the Premier League with a sensational juggle and volley vs. Crystal Palace. Lionel Messi lit up the Copa America Centenario semifinal with a sensational free-kick strike against the hosts. And Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez ran around several Bayern players to score a fine solo goal in Champions League semifinals.