2016 has been a fascinating year for football. From Leicester City’s league title triumph at odds of 5000/1, to Portugal‘s shock victory in the Euro 2016 final, to the bizarre rise of Will Grigg on and off the field, the last 12 months have not been short of entertainment. This five-part series looks at 50 of the most captivating footballers of 2016. For part 1, click here; for part 2, click here.
50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 3
By Michael Davies
Gareth Bale has had an extraordinary 12 months. The 27-year-old was central to Real Madrid’s march to a second Champions League title in three years, repeating the feat of 2013-14 by beating city rivals Atlético Madrid yet again in the final. The Welshman proved himself capable of being the star man, showing fans that there will be life after Cristiano Ronaldo, scoring some spectacular goals and providing a cutting edge in Zinedine Zidane’s new-look side.
Euro 2016 also proved to be historic as Bale scored three times and captained Wales to their first ever semi-final in a major international tournament, eventually being knocked out by Madrid team-mate Ronaldo and tournament winners Portugal.
A great year was cemented by personal recognition as he was nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award and was rewarded for his fine form with a new £15m-per-year contract at Real. All in all, 2016 was a tremendous year for Bale, now probably the most successful British footballer ever to ply his trade in continental Europe.
By Nic Hendrickson
Darren Fletcher‘s story is one for all football fans to take joy in. His career at Manchester United was ended not because of his playing ability, but because of health issues. Seeing Fletcher struggle to get out onto the pitch because he was cursed with something like ulcerative colitis was not pleasant, but he seemed determined to redeem his career, and to continue playing until he could retire on his own terms.
After joining West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer in February of 2015, things started to get better for the Scot. In the calendar year after signing for them he was named captain of the club, returned to the form everyone saw while he was at United, and even made his return to international football.
With the Baggies performing well and Fletcher wearing the armband, the smart money is that 2017 will be just as prosperous for the 32-year-old.
By Philip Meese
Radamel Falcao has had a rough couple of years. Since he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament in January 2014, it has been a long battle to get himself back to form and fitness; one which it seemed certain he wasn’t going to win.
Falcao spent two seasons on loan in England, with Manchester United and Chelsea respectively. During that time he scored just five goals, with neither club taking up the option to buy him. He returned to Monaco at the start of this season, and it initially looked as though his struggles would continue. He scored just twice in the first eleven league games.
In November, however, things took a turn for the better when he scored twice against Nancy in a 6-0 win. He repeated the feat a few weeks later with another double against Bastia. The following weekend saw Falcao hit his first hat trick for Monaco, in a 4-0 away victory over Bordeaux.
He has scored fifteen goals from eighteen matches so far this season. It remains to be seen if this is a return to the Falcao of old, or just a flash in the pan. Most fans will hope it is the former.
By Matt Roller
Theo Walcott‘s 2015/16 season was perhaps encapsulated by his run in a 1-1 home draw against Crystal Palace. On as an 85th-minute substitute, tasked by Arsène Wenger with trying to change the game, Walcott picked up the ball deep inside his own half. However, rather than beating his man, or playing a brilliant through-ball, the former Southampton player seemed almost bewildered by the amount of time and space afforded to him, running awkwardly for a few seconds before falling over his own feet under pressure.
This campaign has been a completely different story for the 27-year-old. Walcott looks visibly stronger this season, and is contributing much more defensively; whilst it is almost impossible to recall a time when he had outmuscled an opponent in his previous eleven seasons in North London, the winger has used his upper body effectively to help out right-back Hector Bellerin on several occasions. Furthermore, his final ball, criticised so often in the past, has been exceptional this season, scoring eleven times and contributing two assists in all competitions this season. Whilst his 2016 has been a tale of two halves, Walcott will be hoping for a consistent year—and a couple of trophies—in 2017.
By Hugo Jennings
2016 has been a tale of two halves for Joe Allen. A disappointing second half of the 2015-16 season saw him feature only occasionally for Liverpool. He was able to produce a few memorable moments, including a late equaliser against Arsenal and scoring the final penalty in a shootout against Stoke to take his side to the Capital One Cup final, but at the end of the campaign, he chose to look for a new club in search of regular football.
At Euro 2016, he flourished. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey won most of the plaudits during Wales’ famous run to the semi-final, but Allen was a crucial part of the side. He won recognition for his efforts when he was named in the Team of the Tournament.
He signed for Stoke in the summer transfer window and has not looked back since. He has scored five goals in the league already this season, including a dramatic late equaliser away to Manchester United, and has been the Potters‘ best player in the last few months. A place on the 40-man shortlist for the UEFA Team of the Year was the icing on the cake for the 26-year-old.
By Nat Goodlad
Having been signed for £32 million by José Mourinho in 2014, much was expected of Diego Costa when he moved to Stamford Bridge. In his opening season, he managed to live up to his price tag, scoring 20 goals as the Blues stormed to the Premier League title.
2015 saw his and Chelsea’s form dip. He scored just 12 goals in all competitions as his side stumbled to a 10th place finish in one of the worst title-defences the Premier League has seen.
2016, on the other hand, has proven to be a good one for Costa. After both he and Chelsea picked up on the back end of 2015/16, he has continued to improve to the point where he has 13 goals already this campaign; one more than he got in the whole of last season. Should he be able to continue his purple patch into 2017, the league title will be firmly within Chelsea’s reach, thanks mostly down to this man.
By Mike Taylor
A key figure in Leicester’s incredible Premier League title win, Riyad Mahrez comfortably slots into this list. Originally bought for a minimal £400,000 fee in 2014 from Le Havre, the Algerian blossomed in 2016 and showed his frightening ability. Forming a dynamic partnership with Jamie Vardy, the winger scored 17 Premier League goals and 11 assists, displaying selfless performances, well-timed passes, magic footwork and sublime finishing. His career-defining season yielded individual praise and plaudits, including the PFA Player of the Year award and seventh place in this year’s Ballon d’Or.
Resisting the advances of larger successful clubs, Mahrez opted to stay in the Midlands to assist in his side’s debut Champions League campaign, scoring against FC Copenhagen and Club Brugge to send the Foxes into the knockout stages as group winners. The champions have yet to repeat last season’s remarkable league form, and Mahrez will be hoping to spur on a resurgence in 2017.
By Nic Hendrickson
Sergio Ramos has had a fantastic career filled with dozens of trophies and individual awards, and 2016 was no exception to this trend. Despite only playing in 23 matches in La Liga during 2015-16, he was one of the highest rated defenders throughout the competition.
After the transfer of Iker Casillas to Porto, Ramos was named captain of Real Madrid. He also wrote his name in the headlines for a less than favourable reason, receiving his 21st career red card against Barcelona, and his fourth in El Clásico fixtures alone. He was, however, able to add more positives to his already glistening career with a Champions League trophy, picking up the Man of the Match award in that match after scoring in the final of the competition for the second time.
Being named in the FIFA Team of the Year would be the perfect way to cap off 2016, should Ramos be picked. Regardless, it’s safe to say that he has had an historic year, and 2017 will be sure to follow much of the same tune.
By Michael Kovacs
Fans of Major League Soccer will certainly have the recent MLS Cup on their minds. The bitter disappointment of watching arguably the league’s best player, Sebastian Giovinco, leaving the pitch in a huff, was hard to stomach for Toronto FC fans. What made it worse is that he was substituted minutes before a penalty shootout would ultimately decide the outcome, leaving the club without their star player to select. How much can be attributed to his physical condition after a long season and demanding post-season is up for debate.
However, the bitter disappointment of December was preceded by many months of quality play. Expectations were high, of course, having to follow last season’s MLS MVP season when he boasted 22 goals and 16 assists in 33 matches. While not improving on 2015, Giovinco was able to score 17 goals, adding 15 assists in 28 matches this season.
Despite another quality campaign, he was snubbed by Giampiero Ventura’s Italian squad for this fall’s World Cup qualifiers. The manager bluntly explained his decision: “I have done everything to help him but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t matter much.”
by Michael Kovacs
Cristiano Ronaldo was recently awarded with the Ballon d’Or, and it seems only Lionel Messi is being considered as a potentially more deserving recipient. However, attention has to be given to what has been another phenomenal calendar year for Zlatan Ibrahimović.
The 35-year-old scored a staggering 49 goals in 2016. Only Messi has more goals for club with 51—Ronaldo has 42. With Manchester United having two matches still to play before the new year, the Swede has a real shot at catching the Argentine. In 17 matches of this Premier League season, he already has 16 goals to go along with the 33 he scored in the second half of the Ligue 1 season for Paris Saint-Germain.
At 35, pundits have been waiting for Zlatan to slow his goal-scoring rate for several seasons. But if 2016 is any indication, it looks like fans will continue to enjoy seeing one of this era’s top strikers.