From Totti to Neymar in Paris: ESPN FC writers pick their moments of 2017
With 2017 coming to an end, it's worth noting that it's been another remarkable year in football with no shortage of memorable, dramatic moments. We asked some of ESPN FC's writers to share the one moment that stood out most for them this year.
Farewell to Francesco Totti
It may well be that we'll remember 2017 as the year of the retiring legend, from Frank Lampard Jr. to Xavi, from Andrea Pirlo to Kaka, from Phillip Lahm to Dirk Kuyt, from Xabi Alonso to Ronaldinho. But the moment that will stick with me is Francesco Totti giving his farewell speech on the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Totti gave thanks for the ultimate privilege: playing for the club he supported as a boy in the city in which he was born and doing it for his entire career. Here was a guy who had turned down moves to Milan and Real Madrid because winning in his city, with his club, meant far more than amassing silverware elsewhere. Inject him with a truth serum, and he might even tell you that the one Serie A title with Roma brought him more joy than winning the World Cup five years later.
That day, in front of his people, he said he was grateful to have been granted the privilege of youth -- the kind that comes from playing a game for a living -- for so long. And he admitted that he was frightened of what comes next.
If you had a pulse, that day and those words gave you goosebumps.
-- Gab Marcotti
Ranieri's incredible run comes to an end
Sacking Claudio Ranieri was the right thing to do, but that didn't mean that it felt right. When the news broke on that cold February evening, the Leicester City fairy tale -- a story I'd covered closely for ESPN FC -- was officially over. I'd been there when they turned over Manchester City and we all started to wonder, I'd been there for the run-in, I'd been there in the city when Chelsea equalised and thousands partied in the streets. And now it was all over.
We'd been hearing rumours for months that Ranieri had lost the players, that people were shouting over him in the dressing room, that it had all gone horribly wrong. And we could see for ourselves that the performances had nose-dived. They had been nine games without a win when the axe fell. I went to watch Leicester's first game without Ranieri; they blew Liverpool off the park. They won six in a row from there.
Evidently, they were right to make the change. But it was all so profoundly sad.
-- Iain Macintosh
Neymar arrives in Paris
Monaco winning the league for the first time in 17 years while also being amazing in the Champions League was certainly a big highlight of 2017, as was Kylian Mbappe's incredible rise to the top of the game at only 18 years of age. However, the biggest and most memorable moment for me has to be Neymar joining PSG.
The French top-flight has had great players before. I remember being there when Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were unveiled in Paris, but the Brazil international has taken it to another level. This is the third-best player in the world; he's just 25 years old, a superstar and a global icon in his own right. It meant so much to PSG and to French football that he was attracted to Ligue 1. His transfer, for the highest fee ever (€222 million), had been a long saga with a happy ending, and you could sense something special was happening when he was presented at the Parc des Princes.
There was magic in the air and the magician has not disappointed so far.
-- Julien Laurens
Iceland make history
Flying out to Iceland for their decisive World Cup qualifier with Kosovo in October was the most last-minute decision I made all year, and probably the best. On the Friday night, I'd been on a train north for a weekend with friends when I noticed that Finland had scored an improbable equaliser in Croatia, meaning suddenly that Iceland would book their ticket to Russia with a win against the bottom team in Group I three days later. By the time I had reached my destination, the flight was booked; on Monday morning I found myself in Reykjavik, with Iceland gearing up for one of the biggest parties it had ever seen.
Later that evening I stood there in Laugardalsvollur, their windswept national stadium, as almost 10,000 jubilant Icelanders swayed to the impossibly melodic local folk song, "Eg Er Kominn Heim" ("I have come home"). The tune had been a feature of their incredible run at Euro 2016, which I had been privileged to cover from the start. Before that tournament I visited Iceland, spent time with their coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, and made friendships that have endured since; to see the players and entire FA staff out there on the pitch after their 2-0 win, arms around one another and moving from side to side together with the fans, was lump-in-the-throat material.
One of football's most remarkable stories of recent years had an unexpected new chapter, and as the team celebrated alongside the public later that night amid the kind of scenes unheard of in larger countries, the sense persisted that I was once again witnessing something truly unique.
-- Nick Ames
Wayne Rooney's still got it
Football is everywhere nowadays, with every goal broadcast over and over again to the point that great moments are often taken for granted and greeted with a shrug. But sitting in the press box at Goodison Park in November, the sight of Wayne Rooney scoring his hat trick goal for Everton against West Ham from inside his own half was a real "wow" moment.
The goal was stunning in its execution, with Rooney's technique keeping the ball on a low trajectory, but the moment was also about the man himself. Rooney, dismissed as yesterday's man after his return to Everton from Manchester United, showed himself to be the Comeback Kid with that goal and that hat trick.
-- Mark Ogden
An ode to Mertesacker
It was the first start of the season in the last game of the season for Per Mertesacker, and plenty of people were sure it would be a disaster. Much to the mirth of Chelsea fans, the 32-year-old was named in the starting lineup at Wembley, having missed the entire campaign with a knee injury. Would it be 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0?
Many felt a win for the champions of England, with the irresistible duo of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard up front, would be a formality against such feeble opposition. But the underdog was to have its day in glorious fashion.
Mertesacker, who had last played in a back three as a 12-year-old at Hannover 96 and had only found out about his involvement one day ahead of the final, superbly marshalled the Gunners' back line to pull off a surprise 2-1 win. "Not many expected that from us, perhaps we didn't expect it ourselves," the German World Cup winner said.
Arsenal's triumph stands as a lesson to never underestimate football's propensity of delivering an upset and to be careful not to write off players in the twilight of their careers too easily. They might only muster one game all season, but it could be the one that truly counts.
-- Raphael Honigstein
Messi wins the game, Ronaldo wins the league
What an outright privilege it is to cite not a moment in a match, not a brilliant quote in a press conference or a training ground insight as my highlight of 2017, but a "moment" in the seemingly endless and "exhilarating" battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for world supremacy. A battle where one "moment" can last one magical month.
When, on Apr. 23, Barcelona mounted a superb, pitch-long move so that Messi could score a 91st minute winner in the Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu, notching his 500th club goal in the process, I thought I'd seen not merely a season-defining moment but one for all times. What happened next was that his rival, furious and frustrated on the night, used the following 28 days to fight back in the most remarkable form.
Ronaldo reacted with six league goals in his next four La Liga games to make sure that the three-point gap between the sides wouldn't be closed. Thanks to him, Madrid were champions for the first time in five years.
Almost as impressively, Ronaldo immediately produced a hat trick to win the Champions League semifinal against city rivals Atletico and two cracking goals to beat Juventus so that Madrid became the first club ever to win consecutive Champions Leagues. And it was all sparked, I like to imagine, by the impotence and anger of being so badly upstaged in his own backyard by his nemesis, Leo Messi. Sheer beauty, sheer chutzpah. A magical month as a "moment" of 2017.
-- Graham Hunter
A goalkeeper's moment of brilliance
Imagine winning back-to-back promotions and playing in the top flight then turns out to be a miserable experience. Benevento lost their first 14 games, marking the worst start to a season ever in Europe's top five leagues. Unsurprisingly behind in stoppage time to AC Milan, goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli went up for one last chance, a free-kick on the edge of the area. The last man in the last minute for the team dead last in the table.
As the ball curled into the penalty area, he closed his eyes and says he dove like a keeper. When Brignoli opened them again, he couldn't believe what he saw. The ball was in the net. He had beaten Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy's goalkeeping wunderkind, and claimed Benevento their first-ever point in Serie A. It sent the Vigorito delirious.
To have one point in the table, and for it to come from a player whose position is associated with preventing goals instead of scoring them, was just magical. Brignoli became only the fifth goalkeeper ever to score in Serie A and when people look back on this season in Serie A they won't remember Benevento for being historically bad. The first thing that will spring to mind will be Brignoli and his leap of faith for a team written off as the Damned United.
-- James Horncastle
Arsenal won't be bullied anymore
The much-maligned FA Cup was rather entertaining in 2016-17: Sutton reached the fifth round, Lincoln made it to the quarterfinals and we enjoyed two excellent semifinals, with Arsenal beating Manchester City 2-1, and Chelsea overcoming Tottenham 4-2.
Then came the final, with Chelsea as strong favourites. They had just clinched the Premier League with the second-highest number of points ever while Arsenal were facing a huge selection crisis at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Gabriel Paulista were all out and so Wenger was forced to hand Per Mertesacker his first start of the season, slotted between youngster Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal. Up against their old foe Diego Costa, they didn't stand a chance.
Yet Arsenal, buoyed by coping Chelsea's 3-4-3 system, genuinely outplayed the champions. They were superior in defence, midfield and attack; more than anything else they simply looked up for the fight, so often their problem against Chelsea. This was typified by an exchange between Costa and Holding in the early stages: after a tangle between the two, Holding screamed in Costa's face, calling him "a nutter." It said something about Arsenal's approach that day: for once, they would not be bullied, and they eventually prevailed in a fantastically entertaining Cup Final.
-- Michael Cox
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