“I enjoy talking about football, about what players do on the pitch... If I think something, whether it’ll go down well or badly, I’ll always say it. I’m a free man and free to give my opinion too.”
So said Dani Alves to FIFA.com in January 2016, and plenty of those reading the Brazilian’s words would have been nodding their heads in agreement. With top-level footballers ever more wary of adverse headlines, it is always refreshing for supporters when someone from the beautiful game strays from the well-trod territory of clichés and banalities.
FIFA.com has been fortunate in that respect over 2016, with many major figures having proved ready and willing to share candid and often illuminating views and insights. Arguably the most famous footballer of all, Lionel Messi, helped establish that trend at the start of the year when he told us of his as-yet unrealised ambition to play for a club side in Argentina.
“It was always my dream when I was a boy,” he explained, “though I had to leave at a very early age because of my situation and it didn’t happen. But I would still like to return to Argentinian football one day.”
Frank reflections on childhood were common, even among major stars, with Nani – one of Portugal’s UEFA EURO 2016 heroes - unequivocal on football’s importance in his formative years. "There's no doubt that it saved me from getting into trouble when I was small,” he told FIFA.com. “I'm not going to say I've never done anything wrong. That was normal where I used to live. I got up to some mischief with my friends, childish things, but they led me astray from the right path. But when the time came to play football, I dropped everything for it. It kept me entertained and everything revolved around the game for me. That's how I stayed clear of bad things."
While Nani spoke to FIFA.com amid a mood of elation in Portugal following that shock final win over France, Moussa Sissoko – one of the EURO hosts’ surprise stars – was plagued by thoughts of what might have been. Nonetheless, he was still able to see the positives in Les Bleus’ campaign and appreciate its wider significance to the French people.
"The fans saw a united France team, which is what everyone, from the coach to the supporters, expected from us. We showed that we’re still a great nation,” he said. “We also felt especially proud after all the things that had gone on in France before the EUROs, with the terrorist attacks. The country was under pressure and I think we soothed the hearts of the French people with our performances."
Passion and perspiration
Genuine love for the game and an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement were recurring themes among the players and former players to whom we spoke. Rafael van der Vaart, for example, vowed to “play until I can’t run anymore” when we caught up with the Dutch midfielder following his surprise move to Danish side Midtjylland.
Germany legend Lothar Matthaus, meanwhile, offered some words of advice to aspiring footballers, insisting that the journey to the top must begin early. "You have to keep improving yourself, even as a child,” he explained. “If you leave it until you’re a youth player, it’s already too late."
In this respect, the 1990 FIFA World Cup-winning captain would have been impressed by the sentiments subsequently expressed by Sergio Ramos, who spoke to FIFA.com ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup earlier this month. “I get up every day with the same desire to keep on improving, which is what I’ve been doing since I was a kid,” said the Real Madrid defender. “I’m not looking for recognition. All I want to do every year is do even better, forget about what we’ve won and set new challenges for myself.”
Ramos was far from alone in pursuing perfection over plaudits, with Shinji Okazaki among the most admirable in this respect. The Japanese striker enjoyed a supremely successful year, completing a century of Japan caps, becoming AFC International Player of the Year and, most memorably of all, winning the English Premier League title with Leicester City. “When I joined the team, I was prepared to help Leicester avoid relegation,” he said of that unlikely triumph. “The aim was just to get 40 points and remain in the league.”
Yet, despite playing a vital role in the Foxes’ fairy tale championship success, particularly as the season neared its conclusion, Okazaki admitted to having continually doubted himself. “I kept asking myself if I had done well enough in contributing to the process,” he revealed. “Did I score enough goals as a forward? I am not satisfied with myself, even though it proved a good season with the team."
Opinions from off the field
While player interviews dominated, there were also fascinating insights from coaches and officials operating at the game’s elite level. Julen Lopetegui, for example, spoke to us about the challenge of taking on the job of Spain coach, while also sharing his love for cycling. “Ah yes, that’s something that helps me switch off,” he revealed. “I grab the bike and do one of the Tour de France hill climbs - the mountain stages are what I most enjoy.”
Lopetegui’s World Cup-winning predecessor, Vicente del Bosque, also spoke openly about the ups and downs of his reign. In doing so, he identified the aspect of the job of national team coach he liked least. “It's when you have to take decisions trying to pick the best [players] and you might not get it right because the margins involved are so tight,” he explained. “I'd include that in the negative box, that sometimes when choosing players we might have wronged some of them, though not through any sense of malice at all.”
In April, we heard from Jorge Sampaoli, the man who oversaw Chile’s famous victory over Del Bosque’s Spain at Brazil 2014 and then led Alexis Sanchez & Co to glory at the following year’s Copa America. The Argentinian explained in that interview how he had sought to overcome doubts arising from his lack of playing pedigree, having been forced to retire through injury aged just 19. "I knew I didn’t have much of a reputation,” he said. “That’s why I made a point of trying to get in players’ minds a little, letting them know that I’m a football person 24 hours a day. Though I wasn’t part of a dressing room in the first division, I was at amateur level. I manage to transmit that whole essence of things, which has gone out of football a little today."
Identifying and acting upon areas where the game, and its governing body, have gone astray is the job that this year fell to Gianni Infantino. The former UEFA Secretary General was elected FIFA President in February and, immediately after taking the job, he sent via FIFA.com a message to fans around the world.
He said: “I would like to tell them to trust us. To trust me, because I’m a football fan as well. I’m like them. I love the game. I know what it means to travel week in, week out to go and watch your favourite team because I did this myself many times. I know what it means to love football and follow a team. Football without the fans is nothing. We need the players and we need the fans, and I think these two elements have been neglected for too long. Now it’s time to change this. It’s time to bring them in and involve them in all that we do.”
Interested in reading more of what Infantino, Sampaoli, Messi and several more of the game's biggest names had to say? Then head to our interviews section, where you can find these and many more of our exclusive one-on-one chats from the last 12 months.