During the Global Soccer awards in Dubai early this week, where Cristiano Ronaldo was recognized as the best footballer in 2016, his coach at the Portugal national team, Fernando Santos, was named coach of the year.
Of course, with Portugal winning the 2016 European championship, it is probably hard to begrudge Santos of such recognition. However, that award would have been more fitting for Leicester City’s Italian coach Claudio Ranieri in more ways.
Although Santos also propelled a team (Portugal) known for being perennial underachievers to its first major title, Ranieri guided a team hitherto known to be bottom side to the Premier League title. This was Leicester’s first topflight title in its 132-year history; and it was harder to achieve.
Over a course of nine months, planning and strategizing, to beat everyone else to the post in 38 games, cannot be the same as winning a six-game tournament as Portugal did. Not that Portugal did not fight to earn what they did, especially defending so doggedly in the knockout stages, where they conceded no goal in three games.
But at least they could boast of stars such as Ronaldo, Nani, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe to get them over the line. Any team with such talent would normally stand a good chance to win at any stage because of their history to win in the past.
All the aforementioned Portuguese stars had been perennial winners at least at club level before. Yet, that had not been the case for the team Ranieri inherited; well, apart from securing promotion to the Premier League and lower division cups. That made Ranieri’s job harder, having to beat teams with bigger budgets and star players.
Inevitably, to win is never easy. Be it for Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola or Luis Enrique, who have star-studded sides. But it is even more difficult if you have to work with players whose quality is not that big. And it is one’s knack to instill belief and the general tactical organisation, to make up for the relative technical ability.
That is what Ranieri did on a shoestring budget, to make a team that was favourite to be relegated Premier League champions instead. Granted, awards depend a lot on personal preferences and opinion. And because Santos was the first to guide Portugal to a major title, the European Championship, against all odds, he is probably a good choice.
But Ranieri rewrote history. Not only did he do what Liverpool has never done, winning the Premier League since it was rebranded in 1992, his team was both offensively and defensively astute. And like they say, a good coach is ideally one that can make a lowlife into a society icon, an average team into champions.
Ranieri did that this year. Whether he can prove to be a top coach by keeping Leicester competitive in future remains to be seen. But as we await that, it would be foolhardy not to recognise him as the best coach, and consequently that the Leicester story is the biggest sporting moment this year.
Such could be said of Eder’s goal that won Portugal the European championship. It was beyond the wildest of imaginations, that Portugal would edge France when locked in a faceoff. Yet, even the goal scorer just proved how bloody football can be.
Considered one of the worst strikers at the Euros, Eder could not have been more pleased with himself. Whichever way his career may pan out in future, he wrote his name into football folklore with that goal and will never be forgotten. At least I will not.
King LeBron James
In the same breath, the Cleveland Cavaliers fight from 1-3 down, to eventually edge the Golden State Warriors 4-3 in the NBA play-off finals could have forced a tear. LeBron James showed why he is highly-revered in the sport, but also what it means to be leader.
Together with Kyrie Irving and JR Smith, the Cavaliers were an epitome of true fighting spirit, especially when one considers that the Warriors were overwhelming favourites in all respects; well, besides the James factor. But even he was not expected to act God, although as it turned out, they upset the apple-cut and duly left the world open-mouthed in awe.
West Indies'’ Carlos Brathwaite
But I doubt even James’ magical hands could match West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite’s moment of reckoning. England had scored 155 for 9. And as West Indies did the chasing, England had done a very good bowling job, to keep their opponents from cranking up the runs.
So, as they headed into the last over, it looked over for the West Indies, stuck at 137 runs, and needing 19 runs from six balls to win 161 for 6. Brathwaite just pulled a rabbit out of the hat by knocking four successive sixes off Ben Stokes’ deliveries.
The result was pandemonium, but in a positive sense, as the West Indies celebrated uncontrollably. The commentator advised as a result that the name Brathwaite should never be forgotten.
For the neutral, it was a phenomenon; the kind of stuff one will only dream about. However, it is also difficult to take out of one’s mind the picture of an uncontrollably-sobbing Stokes. It was moving, as the events I have written about, were for me, this year.
Happy New Year!