2017 belonged to Mohamed Salah, Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane
The ballots for our annual ESPN FC awards have been tallied and Adam Hurrey reacts to the winners and losers of 2017.
Who did 2017 belong to?
Your vote: Mohamed Salah (70 percent)
Whether it's an acute case of recency bias, Ronaldo/Messi fatigue or just some very click-happy Liverpool fans in Cairo, Mohamed Salah has run away with this vote as emphatically as he's left Premier League defenders for dust since August. To call 2017 his year, though, is a stretch: the other candidates were hardly also-rans.
Cristiano Ronaldo strutted his way to a fourth Ballon d'Or in five years -- not a bad way to begin one's gradual decline. Lionel Messi remains indispensable to club and country, even after creeping to the wrong side of 30. If Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain was an attention-seeking one, it was an immediate success, but doubts linger over whether Ligue 1 really is a sufficiently sized pond for such a gargantuan fish.
That leaves Harry Kane, whose form -- in every sense of the word -- is surely more of a phenomenon than Salah's career purple patch. Fifty-six goals in 52 games isn't just Ronaldo/Messi levels, it's also an unprecedented output for an Englishman in modern times. Perhaps if he can start scoring in the month of August, 2018 might just be his year.
Who were the team of 2017?
Your vote: Real Madrid (56 percent)
Manchester City's relentless, shape-shifting magnificence so far this season ran Real Madrid close, but the calendar-year context can't gloss over the fact that great teams aren't crowned in December.
Real became the first club in almost 30 years to keep the European Cup locked away for a second successive season. In an era when the runners-up are able to lick their wounds each summer and come back with an expensive new game plan, to navigate the Champions League labyrinth twice in a row is the sign of a serious team of habitual winners.
Juventus, Monaco and Chelsea were making up the numbers here and, even if Real also relied heavily on the tail end of 2016-17 to win this vote, history won't be in a position to judge Pep Guardiola's latest masterpiece until it earns some silverware.
Who was the coach of 2017?
Your vote: Zinedine Zidane (52 percent)
Zinedine Zidane freely admits he would need a further decade of success to be elevated among the coaching greats, but -- for almost identical reasons as the previous category -- 2017 can't be claimed by anybody else.
After making history in Cardiff by retaining the Champions League, Zidane has found the follow-up to the follow-up tougher going. By this time next year, Pep Guardiola's stock as a managerial force may be higher than ever before but, once again, a few records in December mean little compared to what he has to deliver in May.
Without meaning to take even more gloss from Zidane's achievements, there should also be a word for Ernesto Valverde. He didn't make the shortlist here, but -- after a less-than-comfortable summer and a hammering from Real in the Spanish Super Cup -- Barcelona have been quietly restored to the top of La Liga's tree.
What was the moment of 2017?
Your vote: Barcelona's Champions League comeback vs. PSG (35 percent)
"If they can score four, we can score six."
There's optimism, there's defiance, and then there's Luis Enrique. Three weeks after a Valentine's Day disaster in Paris -- 4-0, a quadruple dose of their own medicine -- Barcelona backed up their manager's pre-match words.
But this was no straightforward comeback, no gradual chipping away at a deficit until it became inevitable. With an hour gone, they had clawed three goals back. With one stab of Edinson Cavani's boot at the other end, they suddenly needed three more.
Neymar went into overdrive: within the space of 437 seconds, he had whipped a free kick into the top corner, dispatched a penalty with nerves of titanium and then clipped a 95th-minute pass onto the toe of Sergi Roberto to complete an incredible evening of the greatest sport on earth.
It was a moment almost wasted on a round-of-16 tie but, still, nothing else in 2017 came close.
What was the disappointment of 2017?
Your vote: U.S., Italy, Chile, Netherlands World Cup qualifying failures (64 percent)
It's part of the official World Cup schedule to lament the absence of various historical heavyweights from the upcoming party, even if: 1. they invariably brought it on themselves and 2. the tournament rarely suffers as a spectacle in the end.
But the absence of this quartet stung in their own particular ways: the U.S. somehow contriving not to qualify from CONCACAF was a step back for their development as a footballing power, and a significant kick in the teeth for a few World Cup sponsors. The disappointment over Italy and Netherlands missing out was an almost automatic response, despite their respective shortcomings, because they are regarded as FIFA furniture.
Chile falling short is perhaps the biggest shame of all, because -- individually and collectively -- their contribution will be missed the most in Russia. Unlike the rebuilding Italians, Dutch and Americans, theirs was a generation that deserved a final chance to shine on the biggest stage.
What was the surprise of 2017?
Your vote: Neymar leaving Barcelona for PSG (68 percent)
Even in a time when every player is essentially a transfer waiting to happen, and we have all become desensitised to the size of the fees paid, Neymar being prised away from Barcelona for €222 million felt like the point of no return. Its ripples were soon felt: Ousmane Dembele, with just two top-flight seasons under his belt, was signed to replace Neymar for a deal ultimately worth €147 million.
Anyway, once the raw numbers have been digested -- and should we really care whether a player is worth a fee anymore? -- there was a curious footballing story to be told. Neymar, the stories went, wanted to move out of Lionel Messi's shadow and become a perennial Ballon d'Or contender, albeit by operating in a lesser league.
That naked individual ambition, combined with the determined spending power of Paris Saint-Germain, meant that this was a transfer unlike any other.
Who was the breakout player of 2017?
Your vote: Kylian Mbappe (51 percent)
This vote could only go one way. The big fear for Kylian Mbappe is that we'll already be taking him for granted by the time the World Cup rolls round in June. He'll still only be 19.
He was the electric, ice-cool frontman for Monaco's best breakthrough act of 2016-17. That team was destined to be broken up after their stunning run to the French title and the Champions League semifinals, and Mbappe braced himself for his own inevitable transfer saga.
PSG stepped in with an unorthodox loan deal, but their €180 million commitment doesn't seem like such a gamble. Mbappe ended his year in fine goalscoring form, completing one of the most astonishing introductions to world football a teenager has ever experienced.
Who was the comeback player of 2017?
Your vote: Raheem Sterling (38 percent)
To call Raheem Sterling's year a redemption story is to miss the point: he had nothing to redeem. In the face of those who said he had no end product, those who sneered that he would never score enough goals, and the tabloid headlines that declared him a "footie idiot" for enjoying the fact he'd bought a nice house for his own mother, Sterling has produced a perfect footballing middle finger.
It takes some fortitude to overcome those persistent doubters. Now Sterling is deciding games on his own, often with minutes left on the clock, on behalf of a manager who believes in him. Aimless dribbles with the ball have been replaced by darting, devious runs without it. As for that end product, Sterling has scored as many goals in 18 Premier League games this season as he did in his previous 64 for Manchester City. He's only just turned 23, too, so there's plenty of time yet for him to reveal just who the real "footie idiots" are.
Who scored the goal of 2017?
Your vote: Olivier Giroud (41 percent)
Wonder goals are a matter of personal taste sometimes, but you do occasionally have to recognise one-off genius. Olivier Giroud probably couldn't repeat his scorpion kick against Crystal Palace if you gave him a thousand goes at it -- nor was it a premeditated punishment of a weak spot he spotted and duly exploited -- but after more than 150 years of goals being scored in football, it's quite something when someone stumbles across a whole new way of doing it.
In comparison, Wayne Rooney's gorgeously flat-topped lob over Joe Hart and Mario Mandzukic's overhead equaliser in the Champions League final look almost routine. Andy Carroll's devastating manipulation of his giant frame into a bicycle kick is undoubtedly a spectacle -- and goalkeeper Oscarine Masuluke's equivalent even more so -- but Giroud's originality deserved his Puskas Award and the majority of the vote here.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.