As 2016 comes to a close, The Sports Lowdown brings its weekly feature of footballers who have risen to the occasion in the calendar year. After a year filled with high drama, intense action, successes and failures in the biggest and best competitions in the sport, this is the definitive list that singles out the 25 best footballers on the planet this year.
15. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
“Auba knows how to take his chances and he works hard on his finishing every day. It’s fun to play alongside him.” – Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus.
The French-born Gabonese forward has enjoyed a stellar year with the black and yellow of Borussia Dortmund in Germany. He’s set the Bundesliga alight with his blistering speed and superb form in front of goal where he managed to finish as the Bundesliga’s second highest goal getter with 25 goals, second only to Bayern Munich’s Polish forward Robert Lewandowski. For his records, he was elected as the Bundesliga’s Player of the Season for 2015/16 and managed to carry his brilliant form into the next campaign.
In Dortmund’s return to the UEFA Champions League in the 2016/17 season, Aubameyang has scored 3 goals in 3 appearances, including once against Real Madrid in their 2-2 stalemate. For his national team, he added two more goals in three games over the course of the year to take his international record to 21 goals in 51 appearances. A Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year nomination further justifies Aubameyang’s sensational year and he will be a key cog as Borussia Dortmund look to recover from their poor start and challenge on all fronts over the course of the season.
14. Jerome Boateng
“I look up at Jerome. He has proven himself in the national team. He has won a few titles I can learn from him.” – Boateng’s international teammate and Arsenal centre-half Shkrodan Mustafi
Jerome Boateng has come a long way since leaving Manchester City for Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich in 2011 and enjoyed probably the best year of his career in 2016. He had a fine campaign in France for Germany at the European Championships where he was one of the tournament’s best defenders. His contribution in the first game against Ukraine, where he made a jaw-dropping clearance off the line made one of the best scenes of the tournament and he also managed to score his first goal of the tournament against Slovakia later in the competition as the world champions disappointingly crashed out to hosts France at the semi-finals stage. On a personal note, he earned a spot on the tournament’s best team, voted by UEFA.
For the Bavarian giants, he helped the side win their fourth successive Bundesliga shield as well as another DFB-Pokal and was the Footballer of the Year by German publication Kicker in a landslide victory. The defender won the award, earning a mammoth 163 votes, 68 clear of the nearest challenger Thomas Muller. In doing so, he became the first defender to win the award since former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich stalwart Jurgen Kohler in 1997.
13. Sergio Aguero
“Sergio Aguero is a photocopy of Romario, they are the same player,” – ex-Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini
Sergio Aguero had another wonderful year for Manchester City and Argentina. Despite having injury problems yet again, he was an immense figure. Whenever he did manage to get minutes on the pitch, he proved to be the key to his side’s Champions League run, where City played their way to the semi-finals of the competition, beating the likes of Paris-Saint Germain and Dynamo Kiev, before losing out to eventual winners Real Madrid in the last four. He was also the Premier League’s fourth highest goalscorer last season – one would argue that he would have been higher on that table and this list had it not been for his persistent injury problems.
Aguero also helped Argentina reach the Copa America final – the country’s third major international final in as many years – but saw the same result as the previous two as Chile triumphed in a penalty shoot-out success for the second year running. The disheartening result contemplated international retirement for the forward and many of his teammates, but they refused to do so and carry on. Nonetheless, he’s made another great start for his club side under new boss Pep Guardiola where he’s scored 14 times in 15 games and looks set to have his best ever season in the sky blue of Manchester City as they look to regain the Premier League and challenge for the UEFA Champions League once again.
12. Kevin de Bruyne
“I think he is a special, outstanding player. He makes everything. Without the ball he is the first fighter, and with the ball he is clear – he sees absolutely everything.” – Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
Few midfielders in the world are better than the Belgian. Now more dynamic and mercurial, he was a vital asset to the Blues in their historic Champions League run, where he played a starring role in the quarter final defeat of French champions Paris-Saint Germain and closed last season with 16 goals and 14 assists across all competitions for the Pellegrini’s side. He has also made a great start to the current campaign, racking up an impressive 3 goals and creating 8 in just 15 games as Manchester City have had an inconsistent patch following their all-conquering start under Pep Guardiola.
He also wowed many at the European Championships in France for Belgium. After a poor start with a defeat to Italy, he showed his class for the world to glare upon with a masterful showing against the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Hungary, before crashing out to surprise packages Wales in the last 8. His ability, speed, technicality and versatility have been in awe of over the last year, and still just 25 years old, he has the potential to be amongst the best players in world football over the coming years.
11. Leonardo Bonucci
“Bonucci has the personality and coolness to handle situations and is also seen in offensive raids. He plays the ball more and seldom gets agitated. For me he has the qualities to become the new Scirea.” – Former Italy and AC Milan goalkeeper Giovanni Galli
Probably the best defender in Italy, Bonucci has had a significant say in Juventus’ success over the last few years and is now out of the shadow of Giorgio Chiellini as Italy and The Old Lady’s main stalwart. Brave, strong and willing to go to any limits for his side, he was vital to his team’s success in the Serie A as well as their Coppa Italia final glory against old rivals AC Milan. They may have failed to get past a defiant Bayern Munich side in the Champions League, but European glory may not elude them for too long with the squad they’ve built, and Bonucci will be at the heart of that team.
The European Championships were another example of Bonucci’s fine year. They reached the quarter final stage, beating defending champions Spain and overcoming a Belgian challenge. The defender was as tough as a rock in both those victories and the Azzuri kept clean sheets in both with Bonucci being voted as the man of the match in the Spain game. He also scored his fourth international goal in the quarter final defeat to Germany to cap off a fine tournament as Italy defied expectations. Now 29 and at his peak, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Bonucci makes the FIFPro World 11 at the FIFA Football Awards in January 2017 – a list dominated by defenders from the Spanish La Liga.