Top stories of 2017: Neymar to PSG, Ronaldo beats Messi, World Cup shocks
At the end of another year of big-money transfers, historic triumphs, tragedy and scandal, ESPN FC brings you the top stories of 2017.
Neymar joins PSG from Barcelona for world-record €222 million fee
Usually, when a megastar moves from one mega-club to another for a mega-fee, the deal is months or even years in the making and by the time the contract is signed it is old news. But when Neymar was unveiled as a Paris Saint-Germain player on Aug. 4 -- and spoke to ESPN FC about the move beside the Parc des Princes pitch -- it was just 18 days after the first news about the transfer had emerged and the football world was still in disbelief.
Barcelona tried and failed with several attempts to sign Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool to fill the void -- they seem certain to try again next summer -- and instead turned to Borussia Dortmund prospect Ousmane Dembele for an initial fee of €105m.
Real Madrid retain Champions League
Barcelona's comeback against PSG was amazing, but they still fell at the next hurdle by succumbing to Juventus in the quarterfinal. Juve went all the way to the final in Cardiff, and were level at 1-1 at half-time, but a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid hit back to win 4-1 and become the first club in the Champions League era to retain the trophy.
That triumph extended Madrid's record haul of European Cup wins to 12, and Zinedine Zidane won the competition for the second time in just 18 months as a top-flight head coach.
Italy, United States, Netherlands fail to qualify for World Cup
In October, there was a major shock in World Cup qualifying as the U.S. failed to reach next year's finals in Russia by losing 2-1 in Trinidad & Tobago. That defeat allowed both Panama (with the help of a ghost goal) and Honduras to qualify ahead of them from the CONCACAF region but, more significantly, it meant the Americans would not be at a World Cup for the first time since 1986 and led to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati announcing that he would not seek re-election for the post.
But there was another surprise to come the following month when Italy lost to Sweden in their qualification playoff. It meant that the four-time world champions will not be at a World Cup for the first time since 1958, and led to goalkeeping great Gianluigi Buffon's tearful announcement that he would be retiring from international football with immediate effect.
Netherlands were another major European national team to fail to reach Russia, although the Dutch could at least point to their women's team winning the 2017 European Championship on home soil as some reason to celebrate.
Ronaldo beats Messi to major awards
The decade-long grasp on world football's top individual awards by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continued in 2017, with the former coming out on top this year in the running for both the Ballon d'Or and FIFA's The Best Men's Player award.
Ronaldo was rewarded for leading Real Madrid to glory in the Champions League and La Liga, although fans in Argentina may well value Messi's heroic hat trick to secure the national team's place in Russia next year above any solo prize he could have claimed.
Both superstars also garnered plenty of column inches speculating about their futures, with Ronaldo's representatives letting it be known that the Portugal captain was considering a move out of Spain due to his tax case and Messi leaving it until late in the year before signing a new contract with Barcelona.
Manchester City make history with winning streak
Manchester City surpassed Arsenal's record winning run in English top-flight football in early December with a 4-0 victory at Swansea City to make it 15 Premier League wins in a row. Pep Guardiola's side have since extended that streak to 18 victories (and counting), and they also set a new record for consecutive wins in all competitions this season, a run which ended at 20 matches with defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League in their final, meaningless group game.
This City side have a habit of breaking records -- Sergio Aguero broke the club's scoring record in November, netting his 178th goal, in a Champions League win over Napoli.
Another record breaker in December will be Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who will surpass Sir Alex Ferguson's 810 Premier League matches in the dugout when the Gunners play at West Bromwich Albion on New Year's Eve.
Barcelona complete historic comeback vs. PSG
Barcelona made the impossible possible in March, as they recorded the greatest comeback in Champions League history by hammering Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 at the Camp Nou to reach the quarterfinals by winning the tie 6-5 on aggregate with three late goals.
Barca were staring elimination in the face after losing the first leg 4-0 at the Parc des Princes, but Sergi Roberto's winner deep into stoppage time completed a stunning reversal that still looked off the cards when Edinson Cavani's second-half strike gave PSG a precious away goal.
The victory was celebrated with such gusto in Catalonia that a minor earthquake in the area was registered on the Richter scale.
Chapecoense reach Copa Libertadores one year after air crash tragedy
When Brazilian club Chapecoense were involved in a plane crash that left 19 of their players among the 71 fatalities last November, football united around them. The full impact of the tragedy will scar the club and the city of Chapeco for generations, as ESPN's Sam Borden found out when he met some of those affected.
But a year on and Chapecoense triumphed over adversity in inspirational manner. In November they managed to avoid relegation from the Brazilian first division despite having to start the season with almost an entirely new squad. Just a few weeks later they managed to secure a place in next year's Copa Libertadores, setting a club record of nine games unbeaten in the Campeonato Brasileiro along the way.
Leicester City sack Claudio Ranieri nine months after Premier League title win
The Leicester City fairy tale officially ended in February when Claudio Ranieri was sacked as manager just 298 days after he had led the Foxes to one of the most unlikely championships of modern times and claiming FIFA's Coach of the Year award in the process.
Ranieri was not the only Italian boss of near-universal popularity to lose a big job in 2017, with Bayern Munich deciding that a 3-0 defeat at PSG in September was the last straw for Carlo Ancelotti. Bayern brought former coach Jupp Heynckes out of retirement to steady the ship, and they went from languishing behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga to having a comfortable 11-point lead at the winter break.
Another major managerial exit of 2017 was Luis Enrique, who announced in March that he would not be renewing his contract. Barca would go on to win only the Copa del Rey as Real Madrid dominated at home and abroad. Under his successor, Ernesto Valverde, Barca beat Madrid 3-0 at the Bernabeu just before Christmas to extend their lead at the top of the league to 11 points. And all without Neymar.
Football's biggest names called to answer tax charges
It was a bad year to fall foul of tax collectors if you're one of the world's top footballing figures. ESPN was part of media scrum outside the Madrid court at which both Cristiano Ronaldo (in August) and Jose Mourinho (in November) were ordered to appear to defend their affairs, as was their agent Jorge Mendes. All deny the charges against them.
In June, Lionel Messi's 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud was replaced with a fine of €400 per day for the duration of the sentence -- a total fine of around €255,500. Messi's father, whose sentence was reduced to 15 months upon appeal, was asked to pay €180,000.
In October, an appeals court in Brazil fined Neymar 3.8 million Brazilian reales ($1.19m) for acting in "bad faith" regarding his attempts to delay a tax evasion case.
Harry Kane becomes 2017's top goal scorer as Tottenham emerge from Arsenal shadow
Tottenham Hotspur had spent a generation in the shadow of local rivals Arsenal, having not finished above them in the league since 1995. But that all changed in 2017 when Spurs finally ended the season as the pride of North London, beating the Gunners 2-0 in the final derby at White Hart Lane in April en route to finishing second in the Premier League table and consigning their neighbours to the Europa League.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino, playmaker Christian Eriksen and attacking midfielder Dele Alli can all rightly claim the credit that has flowed their way, but Harry Kane remains Tottenham's talisman and this year has surely proved even the last remaining doubters that he is one of the world's top forwards.
The striker put the gloss on a glorious 2017 in December with a hat trick in Tottenham's 5-2 win against Southampton. He will finish 2017 as the top goal scorer in elite European football with 56 goals for club and country -- one more than Messi -- and broke Alan Shearer's 22-year-old record for Premier League goals in a calendar year with 39.
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