For Spanish football, 2016 brought more European club football success and another league title for Barcelona. But not everyone covered themselves in glory as the national team flopped in France and some big-name coaches were told to clear their desks.
Happy Three Kings day, Rafa!
Spanish kids get their presents on the night of January 5, delivered not by Santa Claus but by the Three Kings. Rafa Benitez had been scribbling his Christmas list down during games for the previous four months of the season but all he got from the Wise Men of the Orient was the sack. He had won 17 of his 25 games and even overseen a 10-2 defeat of Rayo Vallecano but a 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona in the season’s first Clasico meant the writing was on the wall. So as the wrapping was torn off thousands of Real Madrid shirts all over the Spanish capital on January 5, Rafa was replaced by Zinedine Zidane.
Gary putting a positive spin put on fan abuse
Gary Neville had gone 11 league games without a win in the league and just as it looked as if a cup run might save him at Valencia, his team lost the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final 7-0 at the Camp Nou in February. A crowd of angry supporters were waiting to call for his sacking when the team bus pulled into the training ground in the early hours. With a touch of political genius he actually praised the dedication of supporters who had stayed up so late to sing ‘Gary Go Now’. Fan passion never faltered but it was not replicated by the Valencia players and Neville was sacked in March having won only three out of 16 league games. Whatever possessed him to make Valencia his first job in management?
Cristiano ‘the hat-trick’ Ronaldo
Were he a middleweight boxer, or a darts player (think Bobby George and it’s not such a stretch), CR7 could not pick a more suitable middle-name moniker. He was at it again this year with a brilliant treble back in April to get Real Madrid out of a Champions League hole they had dug for themselves, losing 2-0 away to Wolfsburg in their last-16 first leg. His goals meant they went through 3-2 on aggregate. He also scored three in the last ever La Liga Madrid derby in the Vicente Calderon and got a match-winning hat-trick in the FIFA Club World Cup final in December.
Luis worth his weight in goals
Luis Suarez’s team-mates often refer to him as ‘Gordo’. Literally translated into ‘Fatty’ it doesn’t sound too friendly but it’s not an uncommon term of endearment in South American circles and Messi and Neymar were grateful to the big man as he weighed in with 40 precious goals last season, which delivered the title for Barcelona and the Golden Shoe for Suarez. His exceptional form since signing for Liverpool also earned him a new five-year contract in December.
Two teams! You’ve only got two teams!
Once again the idea that there is nothing to Spanish football beyond Real Madrid and Barcelona was blown away by La Liga clubs’ domination of European club competition. Villarreal made it to the Europa League semi-finals; Atletico Madrid reached their second Champions League final in three years; and for the third consecutive season Sevilla won the Europa League.
The order of the Turnip for Vicente
One of the many honours bestowed on Vicente del Bosque after he guided Spain to the World Cup back in 2010 was The Golden Turnip, given him by the brotherhood of the Friends of the Turnips in La Foz de Morcín, Asturias in 2011. A crueller tabloid sports press in Spain might have had his face on a turnip after Spain followed up their awful World Cup campaign in 2014 with a last-16 exit from Euro 2016. Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle scored for Antonio Conte’s Italy and Del Bosque’s team had no response as they limped out. It still seemed like a good tournament for La Liga’s Madrid clubs with Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann the most impressive players on display and Ronaldo and Pepe coming away with winners’ medals. Del Bosque, the most successful coach in Spain’s history, stepped down after the tournament with Julen Lopetegui jilting Wolves at the altar to take on the national job.
Barcelona and the Brewster’s Millions transfer window
Woe betide Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu if it turns out there isn’t enough money left in the kitty to renew Leo Messi’s contract. He oversaw the spending of around €123 million in the summer with Jasper Cillessen arriving from Ajax, Lucas Digne from Paris Saint-Germain, Samuel Umtiti from Lyon, Denis Suarez from Villarreal and Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes from Valencia. None of them have become first-team regulars yet.
Gus did say managers should be given time
Then Real Betis boss Gus Poyet was kind enough to open his manager’s office door to me in November for an interview – the thrust of which was ‘coaches don’t get given enough time’. He made a case for Sunderland to stick with David Moyes, and told jumpy Madrid fans to lay-off Zinedine Zidane, who was getting flack at the time. He was fired in November not long after the interview was published. A 6-1 home defeat to Real Madrid and the usual unrealistic expectations played their part. You called it Gus.
Sergio you lucky boy
Unable to remember the name of the Club World Cup final referee, I entered ‘Ramos should have been sent off’ into Google. And of course there were 4,680,000 results found. It was actually Zambian whistler Janny Sikazwe who was officiating when Real Madrid took on Kashima Antlers. He had his hand in his pocket fumbling for his cards late in the game when he appeared to change his mind – perhaps realising Ramos had already been booked. The defender stayed on and helped Real Madrid win the game. “The referee was not as brave as my players,” bemoaned Antlers coach Masatada Ishii. Ramos did have another incredible year it should be said, scoring in yet another Champions League final win for Real Madrid and getting injury-time goals in both the European Super Cup final and the Clasico.