Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, the two pillars of football’s new money movement, suffered surprising collapses in 2016/17. City finished third in the Premier League and were eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League, while PSG missed out on the Ligue 1 title to Monaco and suffered quarter-final second-leg calamity against Barcelona.
They were not silenced for long. Before the last-16 draw was made, City and PSG were the top two favourites for the Champions League and, at the time of writing, have a combined 24-point lead in their respective domestic leagues. Next year could well be the year that new money finally ends in European dominance after several years of trying. Both clubs will surely only continue to strengthen.
It is a fitting indictment of modern football that the standout event of the year came not on the pitch, but off it. PSG’s signing of Neymar for a fee of €222m more than doubled the previous record, a truly extraordinary deal. If Barcelona can have one of their most valuable assets poached, the game has changed.
As is now typical in these super-transfers, Neymar’s move was beset by snags and became a 24-hour soap opera. When his lawyers attempted to deposit the money to buy himself out of his contract — as is customary in Spanish football — La Liga rejected the payment and made complaints of Financial Fair Play violation. I’ve written two paragraphs on one of the world’s best footballers and not mentioned his ability or form in Paris.
Attacking players had always cost more. No sport values its ‘scores’ as much as football, where an average of 2.5 goals per game is the rough norm, so those who have the ability to finish and create those scores have always been cherished above those who prevent them. Perhaps it is a subconscious battle between good or evil, or perhaps people simply dream of scoring goals rather than saving them.
However, 2017 was the year defensive players suddenly became more valuable commodities. Virgil van Dijk ended it by becoming the seventh most expensive player of all time, but Manchester City paid £102m for Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker, while Leonardo Bonucci, Victor Lindelof, Ederson, Jordan Pickford, Antonio Rudiger, Davinson Sanchez, Mamadou Sakho and Danilo all cost more than £25m.
Between 2012 and 2017, English clubs had not produced a single Champions League winner or even a finalist. Of the 48 quarter-finalists in those six years, Spain had 17, Germany had 10 and England had just five. English football was being embarrassed.
No longer. The rise in transfer budgets following vast increase in broadcasting revenues has allowed Premier League clubs to stride ahead of their continental cousins, evidenced by half of the eight Champions League groups being topped by English teams. With Manchester City clear favourites to win the trophy, the least England should expect is one or two semi-finalists.
With Manchester City 15 points clear of their closest rivals, it’s easy to convince yourself that their title victory was an inevitability. Yet, at the start of the season, the two Manchester clubs were similar odds for the title. At the end of September, they were level on points.
Since then, Pep Guardiola has overseen an extraordinary run of victories, while Jose Mourinho has struggled to get his Manchester United side into third gear. City have gained 15 points on their neighbours in three months. Having spoken of title intentions in August, Mourinho is now attempting to lower all reasonable expectations.
For a manager who prides himself on second-season success and victory in his personal duels with rival managers, Mourinho is shrinking from sight in Guardiola’s rearview mirror. Is it really only a year since people were suggesting that Guardiola would fail in England?
Real Madrid are a club where standing still is going backwards and taking even a couple of steps in the wrong direction leads to root-and-branch reviews and the sacking of the manager. Zinedine Zidane knows all too well that goodwill quickly dissipates at the Bernabeu.
In May, Zidane became the first manager since Arrigo Sacchi to retain the European Cup, and Real Madrid the first club to do so in the Champions League era. It was also the first time that Real had won the La Liga and European Cup double since 1958. Zidane was king.
Fast forward seven months, and Zidane’s job is in jeopardy. Barcelona hold a 14-point lead over fourth-placed Real in La Liga, and finishing second behind Tottenham in their Champions League group has resulted in a last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain. Lose that, and the only question is when Zidane will leave.
Italy have been present at the last 14 World Cups. Chile have reached the knockout stages at the last two World Cups. Netherlands have reached the semi-finals of the last two World Cups. USA have been at the last seven World Cups. Ghana have reached the knockout stages at two of the last three World Cups. Cameroon have been at six of the last seven World Cups.
None of those countries will be in Russia next year, making for a World Cup tournament with a fresh feel. If some of the group matches are slightly underwhelming (Russia vs Saudi Arabia, Morocco vs Iran, Panama vs Tunisia), variety is the spice of life. It’s worth remembering that some of the matches between established nations in 2014 were rotten, too.
While the men’s game in the Netherlands has suffered a catastrophic fall from 2014 onwards, with little hope for the next generation, the women’s team have provided the country with a much-needed good news story.
As hosts of Euro 2017, the Dutch team were ranked as fifth favourites behind Germany, Spain, England and Sweden. They won their group with three victories by one-goal margins and then outclassed Sweden and England in the quarter- and semi-finals. The ultimate victory came with a 4-2 win over surprise package Denmark, while individual success would follow, with Lieke Martens named as Best FIFA Women’s Player in October. If the future of women’s football is Oranje, it only makes the Republic of Ireland’s draw in Nijmegen all the more praiseworthy.
The year started with Marco Silva being appointed over Gary Rowett at Hull City, a decision that sparked outrage among those who believed British coaches were being blocked in their route to the top. More ammunition would come with the arrival of Frank de Boer and Mauricio Pellegrino, return of Claude Puel and promotion of Silva to Watford.
Yet, 2017 also saw a return of English football’s old guard, with Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and David Moyes all getting Premier League jobs. Nine of the last 17 managerial appointments in the Premier League have been Brits aged over 50. The recycling of the same old names is the true barrier to young, British coaches.
Football in 2016 was overshadowed by the horrific LaMia Flight 2933 plane crash on November 28 that killed 71 of the 77 people on board, including Chapecoense players and staff and Brazilian football journalists. In 2017, this extraordinary club fought its way back from tragedy.
Chapecoense refused the offer of immunity from relegation, preferring to rebuild properly. On November 17, they beat Vitoria 2-1 to avoid relegation from Brazil’s Serie A. “We promised to keep the team in Serie A, which is where our warriors left us,” said striker Tulio de Melo.
Two weeks later, five days after the anniversary of the tragedy, Tulio scored a 95th-minute winner to ensure qualification for next year’s Copa Libertadores. The three Chapecoense players who survived the crash circled the pitch after the game, to the adoration of fans.