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ESPN FC  By ESPN staff

The year in words: ESPN FC's best features of 2016

The Exploding Heads cap off 2016 with the annual Football Awards and beg footballers to stay away from ink in 2017.

With 2016 coming rapidly to a close amid a flurry of Premier League fixtures, we thought it would be good to look back at the year that was for ESPN FC. It was a hectic, heavy year for the sport and we captured it all.

January

Lionel Messi won the Ballon d'Or, and we were in Zurich to see it all unfold. (Here's how the players voted.)

Also Neymar made headlines for some perceived showboating against Athletic Bilbao that earned the Brazilian some crunching fouls. But to deny him his tricks is to deny the sport's most important element: fun.

February

Before the flurry of high-profile stars began heading to China late in the year, we reported on the well-established pipeline between Brazil and the CSL.

FIFA elected a new president this month, former UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino. Can he create meaningful change? (Before the election, we gathered what you need to know about the FIFA scandal's main characters in one handy document.)

The UEFA Champions League round of 16 kicked off, prompting us to look at how you win Europe's top club competition. As our data shows, there are many ways to approach the prize.

March

Laurie Cunningham, the first British player to represent Real Madrid, would have turned 60 in 2016 but his impact on the club still remains. Also in Spain, the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo era has been dominant but the original Ronaldo has been a little bit lost in the mix. "O Fenomeno" deserves more credit.

Cruyff's death caught the football world by surprise but his memory will live on forever in the sport.

Johan Cruyff died on March 24. The Dutch playmaker will forever be known as the sport's top trail-blazer. We recalled Cruyff's time dominating North America, and his work, both good and bad, in modernising Dutch football.

Our annual MLS survey made a splash yet again, with 123 players speaking anonymously about the league's quality, salaries, pro-rel and much, much more.

April

Antonio Conte has adjusted brilliantly to the Premier League as his Chelsea side are clear atop the table. At the time of his appointment, we had this light, lively profile of what makes the tireless tactician tick.

"Rather than the end of a cycle, this season has been the first of a new one." Juventus won a remarkable fifth straight Serie A title, but the magic was in how they did it. (And of course, they've since gone from strength to strength.)

May

Jose Mourinho was confirmed as the new manager of Manchester United just a few short months after leaving Chelsea by mutual consent. We looked at the big task ahead of him -- one he hasn't yet completed.

Luis Suarez finally secured his move to Barcelona in the summer of 2015 and was arguably the key component in their 2015-16 title.

Oh, and some team named Leicester City won the Premier League? It was arguably the most unlikely title in sporting history. We spent several weeks in the city waiting to rejoice. Fans reveled despite a delay in their coronation but the unforgettable party soon arrived. The city soaked up a celebration that may never be seen again.

Leicester won the Premier League in spectacular fashion, capping one of the all-time great sports stories.

Wright Thompson went to see the aftermath of their improbable victory and found a complicated place not entirely united behind the Foxes' joy. And if you still don't know the players behind their success, we broke the squad down in GIF form.

We also reflected back on Zinedine Zidane's first six months as Real Madrid manager, his first full coaching job. Needless to say, he was a roaring success back then -- they clinched the Champions League in May, the 11th of their history -- and has only gone from strength to strength since.

Pele talked to ESPN FC about Neymar, Brazil's decline and the Copa America Centenario.

With the Euros just a couple of weeks away, we revisited the tournament's most unpopular champions, the Greek team that stunned the world with victory at Euro 2004.

June

Peru didn't do much at the Copa America Centenario but national team legend Teofilo Cubillas tasted Copa glory and made his mark at a World Cup. He talked about his career in football from is home in Coral Springs, Florida.

Remember the greatest goal ever scored at the European Championships? Relive them here. Also, we talked to the inventor of the "Panenka," Antonin Panenka himself, who also had some thoughts on his favourite all-time imitations.

Also happening in 2016, beyond the Copa America Centenario and Euro 2016, was the CONIFA World Cup for football teams that don't have a country. We were there to watch Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Kurdistan and the Chagos Islands battle for something more than a trophy.

This year was the 30th anniversary of Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal -- but don't neglect his other unforgettable strike that day against England, one that goes sadly overlooked.

Think you know everything about Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Think again. We wondered if Wayne Rooney could stage a late-career revival at the Euros. (Spoiler: He couldn't.)

Does anyone command the spotlight better than Zlatan Ibrahimovic? We laid out the world according to Ibra.

We also got our first look at Iceland, the team that would capture our hearts all summer long. ESPN FC went to see their progress up close, from sharing facilities with horses to tournament qualification. We also spent some time with the dentist-turned-co-manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson.

Wright Thompson was on the road during the Euros, too. He learned about Cristiano Ronaldo's childhood and the father he never really knew. And he hung out with the World Cup 1998 champion who now sells swimming pools for a living.

We profiled the Xhaka brothers, Granit and Taulant, who represented two countries this summer and went head-to-head. And there was plenty of reflections about Iceland after their stunning -- and fully deserved -- victory over England in the knockout stages.

The Copa America Centenario was a success but the U.S. participation ended in humiliating fashion vs. Argentina. Speaking of Argentina, their defeat in the final against Chile caused the stunning (and temporary) retirement of Lionel Messi. Did the pressure of the moment get to him, or was it something more?

Finally, Man United confirmed the signing of free agent Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a blockbuster move designed to make them winners again.

July

Wales' remarkable Euro 2016 run eventually ended with a semifinal defeat vs. Portugal, but their progress will never be forgotten.

Portugal's victory brought a flurry of reaction. Well done to them but let's hope they don't do it again, said one contentious column, while another argued that their history proves they are worthy winners.

Portugal's Euro 2016 victory was so improbable but felt right given how they grew through the tournament.

And let's not forget Ronaldo's vantage point. Instead of scoring the winning goal, he watched on, injured, from the sidelines as a de facto assistant coach. His side's indomitable team spirit did the rest.

August

Brazil ended their Olympic drought on home soil as Neymar delivered a gold medal in Rio. It was a much-needed ego boost for the Selecao, who had been in a downward spiral since the 2014 World Cup.

The Premier League returned! We picked out 10 players you need to keep your eyes on and the influx of world-class managers will be a major storyline to follow. We also gave you a fresh look at the home and away kits of all 20 teams.

Paul Pogba's move to Manchester United was confirmed after much speculation, but risk aside, it was smart business. Also goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen won Barca's No. 1 job with Claudio Bravo's exit. We got some insight as to how the young German asserted himself at the Camp Nou.

September

Landon Donovan came out of retirement to help the LA Galaxy finish the season in style. It was a risk worth taking.

Arsene Wenger celebrated 20 years as Arsenal manager. We asked Nick Hornby to sum up the Frenchman's two decades in charge.

History was made for Kosovo as they prepared for their first competitive match. Nick Ames was in Finland with the team when the news broke.

And Francesco Totti turned 40 this month. Despite a difficult adjustment to life as a backup, he never once thought of turning his back on beloved Roma.

October

Bob Bradley's hiring at Swansea City proved to be short-lived, but in his first interview after taking the job, he explained why he felt ready for the challenge and what brought him to this point.

The international break -- well, the latest one -- gave us a chance to lay out what we'd change about football. (Oh, and we did a mash-up between football's biggest teams and the NFL.)

Also, we took a look at the Premier League's fabled intensity. It's certainly no myth but it arguably comes at the expense of genuine quality as some stars decide to play elsewhere.

November

Several big-name bosses endured plenty of misery in 2016-17, prompting us to ask the big question: why would anyone want to be a football manager?

The U.S. presidential election cast a shadow over the Nov. 11 game in Ohio but the players and managers were committed to a show of unity despite any lingering tension. And of course Rafa Marquez landed the winning blow for El Tri, ending the "dos a cero" curse with a 2-1 win.

Football's rogues play the game by their own rules. We give them the Star Wars treatment.

Then came the inevitable: Jurgen Klinsmann was fired as U.S. national team manager. The German's endless list of excuses proved to be his downfall.

Before Real Madrid's UCL trip to Sporting Lisbon, we visited a city and country very much in thrall of Ronaldo, their prodigal son -- there's even a hotel dedicated to his exploits.

The Chapecoense tragedy shocked the football world as the Brazilian minnows suffered an inconceivable loss on the eve of what was set to be their biggest triumph. They were the mighty mouse that roared to the very end.

December

The first Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid ended in a 1-1 draw that showed signs of life for the struggling Catalans despite Sergio Ramos' late goal.

Don Garber has been at the helm of the league's best season to date but it wasn't without challenges. He talked to ESPN FC about the future, expansion, promotion/relegation and more on the eve of MLS Cup.

Speaking of MLS Cup, Brian Schmetzer took over in Seattle in mid-season and turned a lost season into a title-winning campaign. Meanwhile, Toronto FC fell agonizingly short of winning MLS Cup. But they're determined to turn this into motivation for 2017.

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" released and we took the opportunity to animate and illuminate some of football's biggest rogues.

And finally, some timely lessons. What you thought you knew about La Liga isn't true at all, "pressing" is the tactic du jour that has flaws, VR technology will be a leading trend in 2017 and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo won 2016.

Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.

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