Without wishing to get drawn into the popular hyperbole that 2016 was ‘the worst year ever’, it would certainly be fair to say that it was the year that the status quo got a firm kicking. Referendums, talk of Hard and Soft Brexit as though leaving the EU as though the EU were akin to confectionery and a businessman becoming the President of the United States. Satirists certainly have had a lot to work with this year.
The world of sport was no different, with 2016 being a year of epic feats. Obviously it was an Olympic year which does tend to bring forth inspiring performances that put millions across the country to shame. Athletes at the peak of their powers pushing the bounds of human achievement – it’s what sport should all be about really isn’t it? Mo Farah securing double distance gold again, Usain Bolt achieving the triple-triple and Wayde Van Niekerk smashing Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record were among many highlights from Rio. Oh, and the green swimming pool.
Probably the status quo’s biggest bashing of 2016 was Leicester City, who had narrowly avoided relegation the season before, won the Premier League title by 10 points. Spearheaded by Jamie Vardy, who had gone from non-league to a household name in just three years, Claudio Ranieri’s men never looked back and in the end ran away with the title. The Foxes now only sit three points above the relegation zone but they will never forget their moment in the sun and they seem to have triggered a wave of smaller clubs making waves across the continent.
Defensively rigid Portugal continued the trend of upsetting the favourites at the summer’s European Championships, showing that physicality and backline solidity would win your more trophies than the expansive football, pursued by French coach Didier Deschamps, would. A customary glance across Europe’s major leagues show a change amongst the elite. It is Nice, without a French title in 57 years, and Monaco that occupy the top two places and not PSG. Monaco are also the highest scoring side across Europe’s top five leagues. Germany’s Bundesliga is topped by Bayern Munich but the next four sports are occupied by RB Leipzig, Hertha Berlin, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim – hardly the regular members of European football’s top table. The trends are less apparent in Italy and Spain but Leicester’s triumph does seem to have galvanised many European clubs, which can only mean for more competitive football that’s better for fans and players.
Football probably thought it had largely managed to avoid the scythe of the Grim Reaper, which seemed to strike with added frequency and star power this year. Dutch star Johan Cruyff had been the biggest name to be taken from us this year but in November a tragedy befell Brazilian club Chapecoense that would strike a chord with every football fan across the world. The plane carrying the club, only formed in 1973, to the first leg of their first ever Copa Sudamericana final crashed, killing 71 of the 77 people on board. The anguish on the faces of those left behind in Brazil was plain to see and it very much brought a dark cloud over the game.
That dark cloud looks set to grow in 2017, in Britain at least, as further revelations about the scale of child abuse at British clubs look set to abound and bring further disrepute to a game that could do with a real boost.
The Rugby field was another arena that played host to some epic feats during the year. England, under the tutelage of new coach Eddie Jones, won all 13 games during the year in impressive fashion. Many of that side came from Saracens, who dominated domestically and in Europe, but the more impressive feats and the sport’s saddest moment of 2016 came from Irish shores. Connacht, the Irish Province who had never reached the play-offs in the Pro12, swept all before them and took their maiden title. Much like Leicester they have fallen away during the ongoing campaign but their exciting brand of rugby made stars of several players and has earned coach Pat Lam a move to England next year. In the autumn internationals Ireland made history by beating New Zealand – not only was it the first time they had achieved it in over 100 years, it ended an unbeaten streak for New Zealand stretching over 18 games. It was all the more incredible considering the sudden death of Anthony Foley in October.
Axel, as he was known, played over 200 times for Munster and 62 times for Ireland and had become coach of Munster in 2014. He died of a heart attack in a hotel in France the night before Munster’s game with Racing Metro, aged just 42. The loss was one felt across rugby but none more so than by Ireland’s representatives from Munster. Their tribute to Axel before the game meant there was not a dry eye in Soldier Field, and since then players like Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and in particular CJ Stander have been phenomenal. Maybe, in some way, the spirit of Axel lives on.
On the pristine wickets of the cricket field it has been an interesting year. The West Indies began the year with a victory in the World T20 championships, overcoming England in the final. India excelled in the Test format of the game, beating the West Indies 2-0, New Zealand 3-0 and most impressively England 4-0. India, captained by Virat Kohli, look to be the side to beat in 2017 and it could be an era of change, with Alistair Cook potentially on his way out of the England captaincy.
In the glitz and glamour world of Formula 1 it was Nico Rosberg who came out on top, preventing Lewis Hamilton from winning a fourth drivers world title. It might not have been pretty and people were quick to discredit his achievement but he thoroughly deserved his success and his decision to retire at the end of the season, and thereby becoming the first driver to not defend his world title, was incredibly honourable and typical of the man; dignified and classy. With new technical regulations in 2017 promising a more even playing field, next year could be very exciting.
Andy Murray truly made a statement in 2016, reaching three Grand Slam finals and winning one, winning a second Olympic Gold medal and becoming World Number 1. Now reunited with coach Ivan Lendl, he looks the best he ever has and although his ascent to the highest ranking may have owed a lot to Djokovic’s end of year meltdown, Murray has been phenomenal and is promising an even better 2017.
Boxing and MMA both had good years, with the former experiencing a real British renaissance and the latter gradually gaining more traction in the mainstream media. The death of Muhammad Ali will probably remain the biggest boxing storyline of 2016 but there were many other high points along the way. From Pacquiao’s return to numerous classic bouts in the former of Thurman vs Porter, Chisora vs Whyte and Ward vs Kovalev it had everything but the biggest theme to watch in 2017 is the growth of British boxing. Britain finished the year with 13 world champions and in Anthony Joshua they have a new bona fide heavyweight star. In terms of MMA, Conor McGregor continued to outgrow the sport and gradually grab more public attention. His bravado grew throughout the year, despite his March loss to Nate Diaz, and in November he made history, becoming the first man to hold belts in two UFC weight classes simultaneously. The UFC was sold in July for $4 billion, making it the most expensive sports organisation in history. MMA really is growing and 2017 promises to be an interesting year for the sport’s leading promotion.
A fitting place to finish would be with the Chicago Cubs. By winning the Baseball World Series they broke their hoodoo of 108 years, showing that in 2016, truly anything was possible.