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Sports

Year in Review 2016: From Leicester’s triumph to Messi’s ‘retirement’, moments that defined football

firstpost.com

The year gone by turned out to be an eventful one from the footballing perspective. Whether it was the high of Leicester City’s fairytale triumph in the Premier League or Bengaluru FC’s dream run to the AFC Cup Final, the low of Lionel Messi’s missed penalty and the subsequent ‘international retirement’ after Copa America, or the tragedy of the Chapecoense plane crash, 2016 saw it all.

Leicester City’s Premier League fairytale

2016 saw one of the greatest underdog stories unfold as Leicester City clinched their maiden Premier League title.

What Leicester achieved was extra-ordinary. From rags to riches, the Leicester story was nothing short of inspirational. This was a club that had escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth last season. This was a club that had sacked its manager after his son was embroiled in a sex scandal along with two other players.

This was a club which had hired a manager who had never won a major league title, who was always mocked and considered second best. This was a club that was formed with rejects, misfits and players plucked from obscurity.

This was a club that had never won the English first division league or an FA Cup. They were in oblivion, having not been in the top flight for 10 years, until last season. This was a club whose existence was endangered some 12 years ago, until it was bailed out by a consortium of fans.

This was a club which cost eight times less (£54.4 m) than the richest club in England – Manchester City (£418.8 m), five times less than Arsenal (£251.9 m) and three times less than Tottenham (£161.1m). But against all odds, they did the unthinkable.

A positive brand of football coupled with sustained consistency over a period of nine months and 38 matches helped them touch the sky. There was disbelief and then there were tears of joy. This is a story which each and every sports fan will tell his grandchildren in years to come — Jigar Mehta

A missed penalty might have broken several Argentine hearts, but Lionel Messi’s decision to hang up his boots as far as international football was concerned certainly turned out to be one of the most shocking announcements of the year.

The bombshell was dropped right after Argentina were vanquished in the Copa America final by Chile (incidentally for the second consecutive time), losing 2-4 on penalties after a 0-0 draw at extra time. Having sprayed wide off the target during the tie-breaker, the crestfallen Barcelona superstar made the announcement right after the match.

“The national team is over for me. It’s been four finals, it’s not meant for me. I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over,” Messi was quoted as saying right after the match.

However, the 29-year-old’s international retirement did not last long, as he announced his availability for selection to La Albiceleste’s squad for the World Cup qualifiers. Let’s hope Messi bows out with a trophy in his hand this time while wearing the national jersey — Amit Banerjee

When Cristiano Ronaldo became a ‘manager’ and a ‘cheerleader’

Cristiano Ronaldo, the player, can leave the best of defences in a trance. But what about Cristiano Ronaldo the ‘manager’ and the ‘cheerleader’? Can we imagine him in those roles? One of the biggest stages of world football provided one of the most enduring memories – a rare occasion in which Ronaldo made an impact, not as a player, as he usually does, but as a talisman from the touchline. It was the final of Euro 2016. Portugal were on the cusp of their first major title, but in their path was Antoinne Griezmann’s France, who were playing like a well-oiled machine.

Portugal hadn’t had the smoothest of campaigns, but Ronaldo had almost single-handedly taken them to the final of the coveted tournament. And on the big night, disaster struck. Ronaldo had to be stretchered off after only about 20 minutes. It was an emotional moment as a tearful Ronaldo sat on the pitch, with the team huddling around him, perhaps wondering who could take them over the line now.

It, however, galvanised the entire team, who clearly wanted to win it for their great talisman. As the match went into extra time, Ronaldo was back on the touchline, willing his teammates on. His passion had to be seen to be believed. And when Eder buried a long-range shot into the French net, Portugal’s joy knew no bounds.

Ronaldo and the rest of the team burst onto the field, and no injury could hold Ronaldo back now. He led his team to the podium and held aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy – a fitting end to a finale, which established Ronaldo as an inspirational leader, in addition to being a great player — Debdutta Bhattacharjee

Football world unites in support of Chapecoense after tragedy hits Brazilian club

The football world was sent into mourning on 28 November 2016, when news broke that the plane carrying players, staff of Brazilian club Chapecoense crashed while travelling to Colombia for the first leg of their final against Atletico Nacional. The crash took the lives of 71 people, including almost all the players from the Brazilian side. The tragic event brought together the footballing world, who came forward to support the affected club.

Atletico Nacional, Chapecoense’s opponents in the final campaigned for the trophy to be awarded to the Brazilian club and a week later, CONMEBOL officially awarded Chapecoense with the 2016 Copa Sudamericana. Several Brazilian clubs offered Chapecoense their players to take on loan, to fill the void left by the crash. Brazilian legend Ronaldinho and former Argentine midfielder Juan Riquelme offered to play for the club in these dark times.

While the pain of the loss will take forever to heal, the unity shown by the footballing world shows that football is indeed a beautiful game — Kaushal Shukla

England crash out of Euro 2016 and the ‘Viking Clap’ goes international

Anyone with a passing interest in world football will tell you that England crashing out of a major world tournament is as predictable as the Sun rising in the East or sugar tasting sweet. And every two years – either before a World Cup or a European Championship – the English media builds a skyscraper of hype around the Three Lions (with claims like ‘this is the best team since 1966’ and such-like) only for it to come crashing down.

And as per plan – with the notable exception of 2008, when the team failed to qualify for the Euros – England cruised through the qualifiers, swatting aside mighty names such as San Marino, Estonia and Lithuania. Also, as per plan, England then limped, crawled and somehow made it over the line to get out of their group and make it to the knockout stage.

It’s usually at this stage that a heartbreaking loss on penalties or a ball rebounding off the underside of the cross bar or something of the sort that sees England head home. Ashen-faced and deeply embarrassed, the manager steps down and leaves the altar empty for another lamb to walk up for its sacrifice.

So while it’s usually the Italys, Portugals and Swedens of the world that dump England out, in 2016, it was the plucky Icelanders who did it. An early Wayne Rooney goal had English fans incredibly excited…for around two minutes. A swift Ragnar Sigurdsson equaliser and a late Kolbeinn Sigthórsson goal sent Icelandic fans into raptures and English ones into despair.

That the predictability of it all couldn’t take away from what was a moment of such epic giant-killing (Senegal trouncing France and South Korea’s progress in World Cup 2002 come to mind) was what made it such a memorable moment.

And of course, what followed next was that Iceland’s ‘Viking Clap’ became a household name, almost like the ol’ vuvuzelas back in 2010 — Karan Pradhan

Bengaluru FC defy odds to reach AFC Cup final

For Indian clubs, reaching the knockout stages of the AFC Cup was seen as a commendable feat. Being among the final sixteen in the second tier of Asian football was a satisfactory return from a season for clubs in India until Bengaluru FC decided to show a bit more hunger.

Having failed to go beyond the last sixteen in their first two seasons, Bengaluru FC were keen to go at least a step better in 2016. The first setback in their bid to do so was a tough draw away to Kitchee in the pre-quarter finals and it became much more daunting when Ashley Westwood’s side fell behind under seven minutes. But Bengaluru, who started the game with four attacking players, turned the game around to emerge 3-2 winners. The win didn’t just give the club the belief, but also helped them explore a side of their own game that they had never seen.

Riding on this confidence, Bengaluru eked out a 1-0 aggregate win over Tampines Rovers, despite a change in management. The Blues from Bengaluru added the much needed steel to the swagger under new coach Albert Roca and a combination of that helped them dump defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim in the semifinals with an aggregate score of 4-2. There was no fairytale for Bengaluru as they lost out in the final, but by becoming the first Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final, they have raised the bar for India in Asian competitions. — Kaushal Shukla

Spurs implode to gift Arsenal their beloved St Totteringham’s Day…yet again

No Premier League title…no problem. Exit in the Champions League round-of-16 stage…no problem. No domestic trophies…no problem. Arsenal fans always have one thing to cheer about: St Totteringham’s Day. And it happened yet again. Amidst the gloom and heartbreak of ‘so close but yet so far’ Premier League moments, Tottenham provided them the smiles, as always, as they imploded in spectacular fashion to finish below Arsenal in the 2015-16 season.

Just a fortnight earlier, Spurs were in the race for the title and it felt as if they would break the age old Arsenal tradition. But as always, they faltered in the final stages. It all started with the draw against West Brom at White Hart Lane and then another draw at Stamford Bridge killed their hopes; a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Southampton followed, which sucked the confidence out of the young, vibrant squad.

Still, there was hope of finishing above their bitter rivals going into the final day. Against an already relegated Newcastle United, they needed only a draw to finish above Arsenal for the first time in 20 years. But what ensued left the Spurs fans in utmost shock, as they got hammered 5-1 at St James’ Park.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Emirates was encapsulated with joy and emotions as Arsenal thumped relegated Aston Villa 4-0 to provide a perfect send-off to stalwarts Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

“It’s happened again,” the Arsenal fans sang while Mauricio Pochettino described it as the worst day of his managerial career — Jigar Mehta

Atletico Madrid hearts broken again

Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos may well be known as public enemy number one at Vicente Calderon, given the repeated heartbreaks he has inflicted upon Atletico Madrid. Two years after a dramatic 93rd-minute goal that denied Atletico the biggest prize in world football, he was at it again. The two clubs met in the Champions League final yet again, and this time he went one better: There was a goal in regulation time, and a penalty during the shoot-out, consigning Atletico to the runners-up medal yet again, and giving Real Madrid a 700 million dollar Undecima. Who said money cannot buy success? — Aashray Hariharan

Louis van Gaal steals Rashford’s spotlight

As a Manchester United fan, there’s very little that’s more enjoyable than beating an old rival like Arsenal.

What’s better? If the win were to come at a time of adversity. An under-strength United took on third-placed Arsenal, looking to improve their abysmal form in Louis van Gaal’s nightmare second season. Young and unproven Marcus Rashford, on his debut, was tasked with leading the line. The 18-year-old stepped up in spectacular fashion, scoring two to sink Arsenal’s limp title challenge.

However, in a match straight out of a movie script, the eyeballs were surprisingly (or perhaps not, in retrospect) grabbed by United’s eclectic manager Louis van Gaal, whose touchline antics after Alexis Sanchez’s dive provided meme fodder for weeks to come — Derrek Chundelikkatt

RB Leipzig’s meteoric rise

German football’s most hated club, RB Leipzig, made their first foray into the Bundesliga this season. The reason for the hate? RB Leipzig’s owners, the Austrian energy drink company known as Red Bull. Renaming a club from SSV Markranstädt to Rasen Ball Leipzig, just so that the identifiable ‘RB’ acts as a suffix for the club, is one of many reasons why the club is treated with disdain in a country which reveres its football so much that commercial interference is considered highly inappropriate.

However, the Bundesliga new boys shrugged off the ‘soft drink club’ tag, playing a brand of passionate football that reminded us of a prime 2015/16 Leicester, on their way to a record breaking 13-match unbeaten run in the league. They capitalised on Bayern slip ups to be league leaders for a fair few weeks, before suffering a shock defeat at struggling Ingolstadt and then being crushed 3-0 by the mighty Bayern. However, the early season grit shown by Leipzig bodes well for any football neutral, proving that smart financial investments coupled with a lot of heart can trump even the most intimidating monopolies — Derrek Chundelikkatt

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