The 25 most important soccer stories of 2017

FC Yahoo

There is no such thing as a quiet year in the world of soccer. And in a way, 2017 is case in point. Because in theory, with no major international tournament on the calendar, it could have been relatively uneventful.

In the end, it was anything but.

From legends reaffirming greatness to earth-shaking failures to the people who govern soccer in America and at FIFA not being particularly good at their jobs, 2017 was littered with stories that left their mark on the sport.

We’ve compiled a list of the 25 most important ones – important on a global scale, but from an American perspective. Not all of the 25 are important everywhere around the world. The idea is that every one of the 25 is important to a significant chunk of the soccer audience in the United States.

Without further ado, we’ll begin in Catalonia on one of the most memorable nights the beautiful game has ever given us, then jump around, in no particular order, to the other 24 stories that mattered in 2017.

1. Barcelona’s comeback for the ages

PSG’s 4-0 dismantling of Barcelona in a Champions League Round of 16 first leg felt like the end of an era. Instead, it set the stage for one of the greatest comebacks in the sport’s history. Barcelona won the second leg 6-1, and the tie 6-5 on aggregate, with goals in the 88th, 91st and 95th minutes.

Neymar was the catalyst, scoring the fourth and fifth and setting up the sixth. In the eyes of some – perhaps including his, and apparently including PSG’s – it was in those seven minutes that the Brazilian elevated himself to Lionel Messi’s or Cristiano Ronaldo’s level. In that sense, it was the opening chapter of European club football’s biggest story of 2017.

2. Neymar heads to Paris

The story of the year, for so many reasons, was Neymar to PSG. It was the story of a superstar craving megastardom, and needing a spotlight to himself. It was the story of a buyout clause falling victim to exorbitant transfer market inflation. It was the story of tectonic plates underneath European football shifting. It was, and still is, essentially the story of a repressive, authoritarian national government buying its way into the sport’s elite.

Neymar’s €222 million move to France made him the most expensive player ever. It more than doubled the previous record, took PSG’s ludicrous spending to another level, turned the Parisians into true Champions League contenders, raised all kinds of questions about Financial Fair Play, and became an emblem of a transfer market gone mad.

3. Transfer prices skyrocket

Gylfi Sigurdsson for £45 million? Kyle Walker for £50 million? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for 35? Danny Drinkwater for 35? Virgil van Dijk for 75? The transfer market went bonkers, especially in the Premier League. It was a direct result of the league’s newest TV contracts. All 20 clubs had (and have) more money to spend than ever before. Inflation took effect just like it would in a national economy. As clubs brought in more revenue, each pound became less valuable.

Adjusting for inflation, the £58 million Chelsea paid for Alvaro Morata was somewhat comparable to the £24 million it paid for Didier Drogba 13 years earlier, or the £30 million for Andriy Shevchenko 11 years ago. But as fees were exploding this past summer, it was difficult to recognize that. And with money still rolling in, prices will continue to rise. In 2017, the market changed forever.

4. Manchester City’s streak

It’s more than just the 18-game Premier League streak, actually. In general, City’s dominance has been staggering. It is one of Pep Guardiola’s crowning achievements. So many players – Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Nicolas Otamendi, and others – have thrived under his tutelage. The title race is over before New Year’s for the first time in a long time, and dreams of a treble are realistic.

5. Real Madrid’s reign

Madrid won its third Champions League title in four years, and second in a row, the first club in the competition’s history to go back-to-back. It took home five pieces of silverware in 2017. It spent most of the calendar year as the undisputed best team in the world, despite slipping over the first half of the current campaign.

6. England’s Champions League success

Madrid capped off a half-decade of European dominance for Spain and Germany. But the 2017-18 Champions League group stage was all about England. After several years of continental failures, the Premier League became the first league to send five teams to the Champions League knockout stages. Tottenham bested Real and Borussia Dortmund. Only Chelsea failed to win its group. The narrative of English inferiority in Europe is gasping for air.

7. Harry Kane’s records

Kane became the first player not named Messi or Ronaldo since 2009 to claim a calendar-year Golden Boot. He scored 56 goals in 2017, and capped it off with two consecutive hat tricks. The past 12 months weren’t a breakout; they were confirmation of Kane’s status as one of the very best strikers in the world.

8. Kylian Mbappe’s rise

Mbappe, at just 18, announced himself as the top teenage talent in the world with 26 goals for Monaco en route to a Ligue 1 title and the Champions League semis. Then he followed Neymar to PSG. But his story is different. He’s the second-most expensive player ever, but also still just a kid from a notorious Paris suburb. He’s still only a few years removed from idolizing Ronaldo and Neymar. His meteoric rise is transforming his hometown. And he’s absolutely the real deal. If an individual player won 2017, it was Mbappe.

9. Christian Pulisic’s (continued) rise

If an individual American player won 2017, it was Pulisic. His emergence was a 2016 story as well. But in 2017, he established himself as a clear-cut starter and preeminent catalyst at Borussia Dortmund. On the international stage, he cemented himself as the U.S. men’s national team’s best player at the age of 18, became the focal point of every opponent’s gameplan, and still starred. And yet …

Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic were dejected after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)
Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic were dejected after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

10. The U.S.’s World Cup qualification failure

On one of the wildest nights in soccer history, the U.S. men lost to a Trinidad and Tobago B-team and failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years. It was, without a doubt, the biggest stateside soccer story of the year. It was the worst moment in American soccer history. There were many culprits. There have been, and will be, many consequences.

11. U.S. Soccer will have a new president

Sunil Gulati considered running for a fourth term as U.S. Soccer president, even after Trinidad, but ultimately decided he would not seek re-election. That means there will be change at the top of the United States Soccer Federation. U.S. Soccer will have its first contested presidential election this century. Eight candidates will be on the ballot in February. The campaign so far has been dizzying and tumultuous, but the rhetoric surrounding it has been disturbingly lacking substance. The race will continue to take shape over the coming month-and-a-half.

12. U.S. women’s national team signs new CBA

A long, contentious labor dispute between the U.S. women’s national team and U.S. Soccer was resolved in April, when the team’s union and the federation both signed off on a new collective bargaining agreement. The federation still doesn’t treat the women well enough, but the CBA brought a welcome end to an at-times ugly battle that reflected poorly on U.S. Soccer.

13. Columbus Crew likely moving to Austin

Four years after buying Major League Soccer’s original franchise, absentee owner Anthony Precourt announced he was considering relocation to Austin. It has since emerged that Precourt had been plotting the move for some time. MLS, remarkably, is steadfastly supporting him, and it appears to be inevitable that he’ll follow through despite widespread resistance from the American soccer community. Both Precourt and the league have been lambasted ever since the October announcement. The Save The Crew movement grew from grassroots anger to an organized, nationwide campaign in around two weeks, and is still humming. But there is no acceptable resolution in sight.

14. Toronto FC storms through MLS

Toronto FC assembled the best team MLS has ever seen. It broke a regular-season record with 69 points, then capped off its memorable 2017 with an MLS Cup. Its success, on the back of unprecedented investment from ownership, should force the league’s more frugal owners to either pony up or get left behind.

15. U.S., Canada, Mexico favorites for 2026

The biggest positive development in American soccer in 2017 was the North American bid for 2026 World Cup hosting rights. It was announced in April, and by an August deadline, only Morocco emerged as a competitor. The U.S., Canada and Mexico are therefore heavy favorites to win the June 2018 vote. Sixty of the 80 games would be in the U.S. The bid committee has narrowed its list of potential host cities down to 32. Morocco has only confirmed nine potential stadiums, which is significant, because …

16. World Cup expansion

FIFA announced in January that its council had unanimously voted to expand the men’s World Cup to 48 teams beginning in 2026. The group stage will feature 16 pods of three, with the top two of three advancing to a 32-team knockout round. FIFA was widely criticized for the decision. FC Yahoo’s Leander Schaerlaeckens explained the many flaws of the new format.

17. FIFA shuns reform

FIFA’s decision back in May to dismiss the leaders of its ethics committee – the two men in charge of investigating FIFA – wasn’t one of the most memorable stories of 2017, but it’s one of the most significant. As Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Boberly, the dismissed judge and prosecutor, said in a joint statement, the “politically motivated” decision “puts de facto an end to the reform efforts.”

They weren’t the only reformers pushed out by FIFA leadership, either. Three former governance committee members have said they faced resistance when trying to enforce rules pertaining to gender equality and human rights. FIFA reportedly fired the chief medical officer investigating Russian doping. As a report from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) concluded, the “FIFA Council and [president Gianni] Infantino in particular wished to get rid of persons who might have embarrassed them.”

Most recently, the first FIFA trial sent two implicated officials to jail, and heard fresh evidence of bribery related to Qatar’s scandalous 2022 World Cup bid. Sounds like that warrants an investigation, right?

Nope. Infantino, the Sepp Blatter successor who promised reform, seems determined to avoid it. FIFA is as corrupt as ever. As the three former governance committee members wrote, “the system remains largely unchanged.”

18. Leagues of Nations

UEFA introduced the Nations League concept years ago, but in 2017, the rest of the world gradually got on board. CONCACAF announced it will adopt its own League of Nations. Representatives from all six confederations and FIFA have reportedly discussed a Global Nations League that could be in place by 2021. Seeds have been planted for an international soccer revamp.

19. VAR

2017 saw the introduction of video review around the world. It debuted at the Confederations Cup, in several top leagues (including the Bundesliga and Serie A), and in MLS. It is on track for use at the World Cup next summer. It is controversial, mostly in that it is the subject of constant traditionalists complaints about game flow. It also doesn’t entirely eradicate missed calls, which some fans have a hard time wrapping their heads around. But it is, all things considered, an improvement, and a major step forward for soccer.

20. Italy, other favorites fail to qualify

The U.S. wasn’t the only World Cup regular to miss out on Russia 2018. Italy failed to qualify for the first time in 60 years. The Netherlands and Chile also came up short, and both made our list of the 20 biggest qualifying flops since the second World War. The Ivory Coast and Ghana failed to make it through an unforgiving final qualifying round in Africa. Overall, 12 teams that were in Brazil four years earlier won’t be in Russia. That’s right in line with the historical trend, but the identity of the 12 was more alarming than usual.

21. The Iceland fairytale

One year after captivating fans at Euro 2016, Iceland became the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. It topped a qualifying group featuring Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. It will be one of two World Cup debutants. Panama also qualified for the first time in dramatic fashion.

22. Messi rescues Argentina

After two full years of consternation, stress and, toward the end, panic, Argentina found itself 1-0 down in Ecuador with its World Cup hopes on life support. But Messi singlehandedly revived an entire nation with a magical hat trick that booked a trip to Russia. It was one of two unforgettable Messi moments in 2017.

23. A Clasico for the ages

Every legend needs a few indelible moments ­– a few goals, plays or even images that will become immortal. Messi already has several. But not many, if any, will top April 23, 2017, with 91:46 on the Santiago Bernabeu clock. That’s when Messi broke a 2-2 Clasico tie in the final minute of stoppage time, then did this:

Lionel Messi beat Real Madrid, then held his jersey up to the stunned home crowd. (Getty)
Lionel Messi beat Real Madrid, then held his jersey up to the stunned home crowd. (Getty)

Madrid ultimately won La Liga, but that game, and that moment, are unforgettable.

24. Notable retirements

Every year, a few legends leave the game, and 2017 was no exception. Francesco Totti, Kaka, Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo all hung up their boots. So did Robbie Rogers, the first openly gay male athlete in major American professional sports. He’s as big an icon as Totti or Lahm is.

25. Chapecoense’s recovery

The biggest story of 2016 was undoubtedly Chapecoense, and the tragic plane crash that stunned the entire soccer world. That story is not over. It won’t be over anytime soon. And somehow, through the loss of life and mourning, the club maintained its indefatigable spirit. A little over a year after the crash, the club qualified for the 2018 Copa Libertadores with the last kick of the game on the final day of the Brazilian Serie A season.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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