Top 10 stories of 2016 around Planet Fútbol
As 2016 comes to an end, we're left looking back at another memorable year in the world of soccer.
Between Copa America Centenario, Euro 2016, the Olympics and all of the leagues around the world, we were treated to a memorable year of performances, results, breakout stars, plot lines, trends and pure theater, and within that we've drummed up our top 10 stories of the year.
Of course, on a limited list, not everything will make the cut, but that shouldn't reduce the significance of the so-called "snubs." We saw a number of familiar champions reign around Europe, with Barcelona (La Liga), Juventus (Serie A), PSG (Ligue 1) and Bayern Munich (Bundesliga) adding more silverware to their loaded cabinets. There were new champions, as well. Brazil finally won Olympic gold on the men's side, thanks in large part to Neymar's heroics on home soil, while Germany's women emerged victorious in Rio for their first gold. In MLS, the Seattle Sounders outlasted Toronto FC in penalties for their first MLS Cup, while the Western New York Flash shocked the Washington Spirit for a first NWSL title with a dramatic equalizer before also winning in PKs.
All of that said, here are the 10 stories (counting down over the course of the week) that resonated the most with Planet Fútbol in 2016:
10. China takes its big-spending transfer ways to the next level
Amid all the gaudy transfer fees paid by clubs around the world, a curious trend emerged this year: Big-name stars, not particularly old or decreasing in skill, took their talents to China.
The list of players who have bolted Europe or elsewhere for a massive payday in China is impressive, and it's only growing, with the recent addition of Oscar and the reported signing of Carlos Tevez, which will evidently make him the world's highest-paid player. Before them, highly reputable players such as Jackson Martinez, Hulk, Fredy Guarin, Ramires, Graziano Pelle, Gervinho, Alex Teixeira, Fredy Montero, Burak Yilmaz and others–all 31 or under–opted to forego the more traditional dream of a touted European club for the relative anonymity of the Chinese Super League. In all, the CSL spent more than the Premier League on transfers last winter and continues to throw out transfer fees in the tens of millions like Oprah doles out cars.
It was impossible not to take note, though the signings haven't magically made the CSL a premier beacon of competition. What remains to be seen is A) whether this outrageous spending is sustainable and B) what impact the CSL can actually make on the global stage. There appears to be little to no interest in the league in this hemisphere, and while the Asian market is a source of high interest for European clubs, it's the TV money and fan engagement they want, not a deep tie to the domestic league.
In the U.S., MLS commissioner Don Garber has claimed China is not "a competitor at all" and that MLS need not worry about losing talent or potential signings to the CSL, but that public spin takes a backseat to an emerging reality. MLS watched Obafemi Martins ditch Seattle weeks before the 2016 season for the CSL, while Atlanta United was reportedly outbid by Shanghai Shenhua for rising Paraguayan star Oscar Romero. Garber is right in that MLS isn't gunning for a lot of the players who have gone to China, but as its top flight clubs pay more and more for players who do interest the league, it's either going to sting or force MLS to overpay.
Will China become the world's next superpower in both club and international play? We figure to be a long way away from there, but its presence as a player on the transfer market certainly seems like it's only begun to take hold.
9. Gianni Infantino wins FIFA presidency, promises change
If 2015 was the year that FIFA (or, more specifically, former president Sepp Blatter) imploded under the weight of its own scandals, then 2016 was to be the year that soccer’s governing body got back on its feet and started reforming itself. It remains to be seen how much of that will actually happen, but we found out in February who will be in charge of making sure it does: former UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino.
At the 2016 FIFA Extraordinary Congress in February, the Swiss-Italian was a surprise winner in what was the most closely-watched FIFA presidential election of all time. Infantino narrowly won a first round of voting over pre-election favorite Sheik Salman of Qatar, but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to win the presidency. Instead, the voting went to a second round for the first time since 1974, which gave the game’s power brokers (notably U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati) a chance to work the room with the eyes of the soccer world watching. Needing a simple majority to win in the second round, Infantino won decisively.
In less than a year on the job, Infantino’s impact has already been felt, even if he (and by extension FIFA) continue to be the subject of scandals. Infantino was implicated in the April release of the Panama Papers, and faced an inquiry from the FIFA Ethics Committee into his actions while general secretary of UEFA.
Infantino has also been a primary driving force behind the discussed expansion of the World Cup, though what form that will take is yet to be determined (we have our own thoughts on this, of course). The new president has also proposed measures to make the club transfer system more transparent, including making payment to agents public and punishing clubs that horde players only to send many them out on loan.
How many of these measures will pass, and how many of these scandals will stick? We’ll find out in 2017, on another season of As The FIFA World Turns.
8. Bob Bradley hired, then fired, at EPL's Swansea City
Bob Bradley broke one of the most significant barriers in American soccer history when he was hired as coach of EPL club Swansea City on October 3rd of this year. In doing so, Bradley became the first American to manage a club in one of the top European leagues – a significant milestone in a world where American players still struggle to get equal respect to their counterparts from countries with longer soccer histories.
He took charge of a team in free fall. Following the sale of Swansea’s captain and leading scorer, among others, over the summer, coach Francesco Guidolin said his 2016-17 target was 40 points. Last season, that would’ve been good (or bad) for 16th place, three points above the relegation zone. It was always going to be a struggle, and the Italian was dismissed after starting the campaign 1-5-1. Enter Bradley, who probably was hoping simply to stop the bleeding and then reassess and fortify during the January transfer window. But he never got there.
On December 27th, after a mere 85 days in charge, Bradley was fired. Results hadn't gone his way during his brief spell in charge, and Bradley paid the price.
7. Tragedy strikes Brazilian club Chapecoense
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
Bill Shankly, legendary manager of Liverpool from 1959–74, said that. It’s a quote often repeated by soccer fans to this day, with the purpose of inflating the worth of what is essentially a simple game played by people in shorts. It’s mostly used in jest, of course. But in 2016 the soccer world dealt with a tragedy that made that quote look downright ridiculous.
Chapecoense, once a Cinderella story of Brazilian soccer, is now a club decimated after 19 players, the entire coaching staff, and all but one traveling journalist were killed as the plane carrying them to the Copa Sudamericana final ran out of fuel, suffered electrical failure, and crashed on a hillside on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia. Just six people (three players, two members of the flight crew, and the journalist) survived. Tragedies in soccer aren’t necessarily rare, but tragedies that engulf an entire team in one fell swoop are. In an instant, Chapecoense joined the ranks of 1949’s Torino FC, 1958’s Manchester United, 1969’s The Strongest, and the 1993 Zambia national team; all squads that suffered devastating losses due to plane crashes.
And it’s a shame, because Chapecoense could and should have been known for more than that. Eight years ago the team was toiling in The Brazilian Serie D, before starting a remarkable rise that saw them promoted the to the top-flight Serie A in 2014 for the first time since 1979. Not only did they qualify for the Copa Sudamericana, they made it all the way to the final. They were on their way to Medellin for the first leg of that final, undoubtedly the biggest game in club history, when the crash occurred.
The tributes poured in from all over the globe. Moments of silence were observed. And The Copa Sudamericana itself was awarded to Chapecoense, at the request of their opponents Atlético Nacional. Soccer, it turns out, has nothing on life and death.
6. Christian Pulisic breaks through at Borussia Dortmund
The word started filtering out in January: Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old American winger, was doing so well at Borussia Dortmund that the German club had included him in its senior squad ahead of the second half of the Bundesliga season. Then we started seeing for ourselves on TV: Pulisic, starting regularly for one of the world’s top club teams, was the best young U.S. men’s soccer prospect since Landon Donovan.
The superlatives piled up quickly: Youngest non-German to score in the Bundesliga; youngest player to appear in a U.S. men’s World Cup qualifier; youngest player to score for the U.S. men’s national team. Here was the real thing, a young American developed on U.S. soil (in Hershey, Pa.) with vision, speed and a soccer IQ that was off the charts. During the summer transfer window, Dortmund turned down a transfer offer from Liverpool that would have made Pulisic one of the most expensive 17-year-olds of all time.
He still had ups and downs, as any teenager would. But Pulisic continued to impress as the new season started. He scored a late equalizer to give Dortmund a point at Ingolstadt. He provided the pass on the equalizer at home against Real Madrid in Champions League. He started a game in the Bernabéu. He may be just 18, but Pulisic is already one of the best players on the U.S. roster. And with the Americans off to a rough start in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal, he’ll have to help the U.S. come up big to reach Russia 2018.
5. Lionel Messi falls short again with Argentina at Copa America
It’s become a sad, almost pitiable summer ritual—watching a forlorn Lionel Messi shuffle past a trophy he can’t touch with a shocked, vacant stare on his face.
If there’s a sad chapter to his remarkable soccer story, it’s about the strange disconnect he’s had, at times, with his homeland. Messi, now 29, left Argentina at 13 and has been more blaugrana than albiceleste since.
While he’s been all conquering at Barcelona, his international success has been limited to an U-20 World Cup in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal three years later. The eye test suggests he’s every bit the player Diego Maradona was, and Messi’s club and personal accolades offer evidence he’s the best ever. But he hasn’t cemented his legacy. Without winning a major senior international honor, his relationship with Argentina continues to be as much about his absence as his ability. The questions and comparisons continue. Maradona himself said in June that Messi “has no personality” and “lacks the character to be a leader.”
The Copa América Centenario offered a unique and appealing lifeline. Thrown together quickly once the U.S. Soccer Federation received sufficient assurance that CONMEBOL and CONCACAF were in the legal clear, the tournament was a pleasantly surprising success. Fans turned up, the famous players who weren’t Neymar gave it a go and the host U.S. advanced to the semifinals, thus saving Jurgen Klinsmann’s skin for a few more months. Oh, and Chile thumped Mexico, blanked Colombia and then beat Argentina on penalties at a sold-out MetLife Stadium to be crowned champion of the Americas.
But those are details (sorry Chile). The tournament will be remembered for the agony Messi endured that night in New Jersey. He did his best to drag Argentina to victory. He often ventured alone into Chilean territory, where he was blunted by multiple defenders with no other real concerns. Argentina outshot Chile, 18-4, but lacked precision in the attacking third—like they did at the 2015 Copa América final and the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil. Then Messi and Lucas Biglia missed their penalties, and the country named for Silver would settle for silver once again. This time, during the Copa’s interminable awards ceremony, Messi cried or sat alone on the Argentina bench. Three defeats in international finals in three years, and a fourth overall, was too much to bear.
He announced his international retirement in the mixed zone following the game, telling reporters that, “The national team is not for me. It’s what I feel right now. It’s a great sadness that it happened to me again …. It’s for the good of everybody. It’s not enough to just get to the final and not win.”
Chile’s triumph, its second straight, was forgotten. Messi’s despair was the story. Retirement didn’t take, of course, and he’ll give it another try in Russia (assuming Argentina gathers itself and qualifies). He clearly cares. He’s got more depth than Maradona might think. But thanks to this summer, there’s also more depth to his frustration and that one, infuriating hole on his resume.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo wins, wins, and wins some more
The Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi debate will probably never die. The two players are inexorably linked, the product of two otherwordly talents with the misfortune (or, perhaps, incredible fortune) of existing over the same period of time. But while 2015 was clearly Lionel Messi’s year, 2016 belonged to Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star may not have won La Liga in 2016, but his form under new manager Zinedine Zidane after the new year helped Real Madrid end the season on a 12-match winning streak and a second-place finish, just one point behind Barcelona. Ronaldo may not have scored the most goals in La Liga, but he did finish second with 35.
And outside of that, Ronaldo won everything there was to win. In the Champions League final, he buried the final penalty kick as Real topped their cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid for the club’s 11th European title. He later parlayed that success to a recent win in the FIFA Club World Cup, where he scored two goals in extra time to win the final 4–2 over Kashima Antlers. He won the Ballon d’Or, taking the award for world’s best player back after a one-year stewardship by Messi.
But his crowning glory of 2016, the primary reason he’s on this list at all, came in a game where he had to come off injured after just 25 minutes. The Euro 2016 final wasn’t the prettiest of games, and after Ronaldo suffered knee ligament damage after a tackle from France’s Dimitri Payet of France, it was robbed of arguably its biggest star. But Ronaldo’s influence remained over the game, as the man once described by many as selfish and individualistic directed his teammates from the sideline with more excitability and urgency than even his own manager, all with a giant ice pack covering his knee.
And when it was all over, Ronaldo’s locker room speech to his teammates, coaches, and family radiated pure gratitude.
“This is the one that was missing,” he said that night in Paris.
3. U.S. women fail at Olympics, but fight for off-field victories
The history is stark: No reigning Women’s World Cup champion has ever gone on to win the Olympic gold medal a year later. That was the challenge facing the U.S. women’s national team in 2016 after raising the World Cup trophy a year earlier. But there’s a reason why no women’s team has done the double, as Megan Rapinoe argued: Everything that goes into winning a World Cup—and the publicity deluge that follows—makes it really, really hard.
And so it went for the USWNT, which fell to Sweden on penalty kicks in the Olympic quarterfinals and failed to reach the semifinals of an Olympics or World Cup for the first time in the team’s storied history. Goalkeeper Hope Solo called the Swedes “cowards” for their park-the-bus approach and eventually was suspended for six months by U.S. Soccer for what it said was a series of transgressions.
Ultimately, the U.S. women’s team’s 2016 will be remembered as much for what happened off the field as for what took between the lines. Rapinoe became the most prominent white athlete to support Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police treatment of black Americans, taking a knee during the national anthem—and raising the stakes by doing so while representing the U.S., not just her club team.
Then there was the wage discrimination case brought by the U.S. women’s players against U.S. Soccer, charging that they deserved equal pay to the U.S. men’s team. At a time when equal pay for women is a hot-button topic in the country at large, the U.S. players drew plenty of support, but it remained to be seen if they would win their EEOC case. With collective bargaining talks continuing and the old agreement set to expire on December 31, a work stoppage loomed as a possibility in 2017.
2. Jurgen Klinsmann fired as U.S. national team coach; Bruce Arena hired
Jurgen Klinsmann vowed to take the U.S. national team to another level. And when he finally did—more than five years and some $20 million after saying ‘yes’ to an eager Sunil Gulati)—he was fired.
He was fired because that level was a low one, and the stakes, lack of progress and increasing pressure on Gulati ultimately left the U.S. Soccer president with little choice. Much of what Klinsmann was hired to do, and much of what he promised, always was going to remain in the eye of the beholder. Style is subjective. Player development, professionalism, the growth of MLS—they’re debated constantly in the here-and-now but can only be measured accurately over the long term.
But certain standards had to be maintained. And during Klinsmann’s second World Cup cycle, the national team regressed. A moribund performance and fourth-place finish at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup was a stunner—and perhaps an outlier. But Gulati was starting to contemplate alternatives. Then came the March defeat in Guatemala. Although a run to the Copa América Centenario semis stayed Gulati’s hand this summer, there was a palpable tension around the team. Losing to Mexico in Columbus probably was going to happen at some point. But Klinsmann’s decision to play three in the back and then blame his players postgame wasn’t inevitable or necessary. On November 15 in Costa Rica, his disjointed squad capitulated in a manner unheard of for men in a U.S. jersey. And so the plug finally was pulled, with no obvious progress accompanying the very steep price.
In came Bruce Arena, the former U.S. coach who succeeded at one World Cup and failed at another but arrives now with far more experience than he had when his first national team stint began in 1998. Amid the contrast between Arena and Klinsmann, U.S. fans must hope Gulati and his successors find the seminal lesson of the Klinsmann experiment. National team coaches work primarily with the finished product, and they do so minimally, a week or so at a time outside major tournaments. Their impact as visionaries who might overhaul a culture from the grassroots is going to be limited, especially in modern soccer. Klinsmann’s idealistic clashes with the likes of Landon Donovan and Don Garber produced little more than headlines. The German-Californian had some good ideas, but they remained just that.
What a national team needs is a manager who understands chemistry, team-building and managing relationships. He must have a handle on a player’s strengths, weaknesses, habits and limitations and should institute a tactical framework that allows for quick adaptation and the expected flux in personnel. Lineups and circumstances change constantly. If players have a sense of what’s coming and what’s required, confidence increases and they’re a step ahead. Arena gets that.
“We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on the team concept,” the five-time MLS Cup champion said when hired in November. “I really believe individually and positionally we have good players, and we’ve just got to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets on how you build good teams. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes communication. It takes discipline, and it takes some talent. And I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018.”
The Americans are 0-2-0 and in last place in the Hexagonal. It’s a place they’ve never been, and hardly the sort of frontier Klinsmann was expected to explore. If 2016 was about the death throes of his ambitious but tumultuous tenure, 2017 will be about reorganization and recovery.
1. Leicester City defies the odds, wins unprecedented Premier League title
It was the best sports story of 2016—and perhaps of the 21st century so far. Lightly regarded Leicester City, which had required a near-miracle to avoid relegation from the Premier League in the previous season, was a 5,000-to-1 shot to win the league in 2015-16. Upsets happen all the time in the Premier League when it comes to single games, but the title-winners in the Premier League era over 38 games have always been the wealthiest clubs. A championship by a team as humble as Leicester seemed unconscionable.
Yet somehow it happened. With a mix of talent, chemistry and sound counter-attacking strategy, Leicester made a run for the ages. Jamie Vardy, who had been playing in semipro leagues only a few years earlier, became one of the most reliable goal-scorers in the Premier League. Riyad Mahrez turned into a lethal attacking threat, while N’Golo Kanté established supremacy covering acres of space in the midfield. First-year manager Claudio Ranieri, a genuinely nice Italian man, finally won a trophy by showing restraint in the changes he made to a team nobody expected to challenge for the top.
Leicester’s struggles in the 2016-17 season only serve to show its title was a truly singular event. When the Italian Andea Bocelli sang for Leicester on the day it won the trophy, it was impossible to keep a dry eye. These Foxes had achieved the unthinkable.