Around the world of soccer, 2016 has been the year of the Cinderella Story. From Portugal in the European Championships to Leicester City in the Premier League, the unexpected and seemingly impossible became the norm in the global footballing landscape. Fairytales like Wales and Iceland’s runs in the Euro’s coincided with Chile’s wild run to back-to-back Copa America titles. Leagues from Latin America to Europe and beyond gave us storylines that kept us coming back for more.
The personalities of the beautiful game we love so much placed themselves in our collective mind, and refused to leave. Players, managers, and fans alike took center stage in spectacular, strange, and unique ways throughout 2016. Keep it tuned to Soccer Nation, as we count down the 16 biggest stories of the year that was.
With numbers 12 and 11, we take a look at the years that were for two players. One is a cultural icon, a black belt and a goal scorer, a half man half ego who waltzes through life with a swagger idolized by millions but matched by none. The other is a no frills midfielder who was one of the most important pieces in the ultimate fairytale puzzle. We start with that man, as he is now halfway into another potential title winning project.
Number 12: The Unwavering Grit of N’Golo Kante
We’ve all heard the line by now, but it bears repeating.
Two thirds of the world is covered by water. The other third is covered by N’Golo Kante.
Had Andre Pierre Gignac’s stoppage time tap against Portugal in the Euro 2016 Final been an inch or two toward the inside of the post, N’Golo Kante would have put together arguably the most brilliant calendar year in modern soccer history for a “non-scoring” type player. Even without the Euro 2016 triumph, Kante’s collection of 365 days is rivaled by few around the world.
In the summer of 2015, Kante was brought to Leicester City in a deal worth around $8 million. He came from Ligue 1 side Stade Malherbe Caen, hardly a club known for its famous exports. He may have been the steal of the century for the Foxes and Claudio Ranieri, Kante playing all but one Premier League match during Leicester’s unimaginable and unforgettable run to the Premier League title.
At Leicester, Kante made an aging back-line look young and spry. He was the string that tied the bouquet, while also assuming the role of the heart in the body of the fox. As a defensive minded central midfielder at the top of his game, he allowed Riyad Mahrez to roam freely as an attacking brain, the Algerian proceeding to have the season of his life en route to Premier League Player of the Year honors. It was a domino effect that influenced the forward play of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki. Kante made Leicester the team they were last season.
His strong play continued in June and July with the French national team, Kante doing everything in his power to hold down every blade of grass in the European Championships. Though France came up just short, Kante’s stellar 2016 was just hitting its stride.
We can call Kante’s style “no frills”. His play certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the financial big dogs of the English top flight. Roman Abramovich came calling during the summer months, with Kante eventually being sold to Chelsea for $40 million. A player that had been bought from a relatively small French club for $8 million in August of 2015 was sold by those buyers just eleven months later for $40 million, two months after snatching the Premier League title and being part of the ultimate Cinderella story. Kante will forever be a Leicester folk hero, but the fans in West London are taking to him as well.
As the calendar year draws to a close and the 2016/17 season reaches its halfway point, Kante’s new club are the cream of the Premier League crop. Under the tutelage of an Italian who is just as new to Stamford Bridge as the French midfielder, and who has a strikingly similar name that sounds, well, exactly the same (Antonio Conte), Chelsea look poised for a serious title run after the new year and into May. Kante has been right in the thick of it, as expected, doing most of the same things he did at Leicester, but with an even better supporting cast around him.
If Chelsea were to win it all, Kante will have created a category all his own as the only player to ever win back-to-back Premier League titles in his debut seasons with two different clubs.
He covers ground like a gazelle and glides like a figure skater. He tackles like a lion and defends like a knight. His 2016 was as good as any, but Kante ain’t looking in the rear-view mirror. It’s onto the next challenge, and he and his Chelsea mates are half way there.
Number 11: “Manchester, welcome to Zlatan!”
According to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he “came to Paris like a king and left like a legend”. Whether or not he replicates that type of performance in the devilish red of Manchester United remains to be seen.
What is known is that Zlatan is one of soccer’s great figures, a walking, talking statue of a man, capable even in his late career stage of utter brilliance and improvisational skills that make fans blush and beg for more.
His arrival in the Premier League this summer (coming on a free transfer from Paris Saint Germain) marked the start of a true test in his incredible footballing life. Ibra’ was part of Jose Mourinho’s summer shopping bonanza, with the manager making it abundantly clear that he saw the Swedish legend as a cornerstone of his side’s attack. At 34 years of age, Zlatan may not be the karate kicking spring chicken he once was. But an output of 12 goals in his first 17 Premier League games still puts him in the upper echelon of strikers in England, and he has hat a real boil after a timid start to his tenure in the British Isles.
There’s an unmistakable arrogance about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s part of what makes him the character he is and always will be. As far as United fans are concerned, he is the closest thing to the second coming of Eric Cantona. Will he help Mourinho and United climb back into the title race? Or will “Ibra’ at Old Trafford” just be a really good show? Either way, fans around the world are looking forward to more.