If the most important factor for the judges is which team’s achievement was the most unlikely, they should look no further than Leicester City. Money doesn’t just talk in the Premier League, it stands an inch from your ear and shouts into it with a megaphone, and no one, probably not even Claudio Ranieri’s mother, had Leicester down as title contenders. Promoted from the Championship in 2014, they had escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth and many tipped them to go down after they sacked Nigel Pearson to bring in Ranieri. Yet once Leicester gained momentum, they were unstoppable. Jamie Vardy could not stop scoring, Riyad Mahrez produced moments of pure beauty, N’Golo Kanté ruled central midfield and they played as a team, overcoming their lack of experience by maintaining their resolve until the end. Shocks on that scale are rare in modern football, which is why Leicester’s triumph was a victory for the little guy.
In an Olympic year, it may prove difficult to look beyond Great Britain’s exploits in Rio. Team GB met and exceeded all expectations during the summer, pipping China to finish second in the medals table after winning 27 golds, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes. Their haul of 67 medals was their most since the 1908 Games, beating the 65 they claimed at London 2012. Perhaps the dilemma for the judges will be whether to give the award to Team GB as a whole or whether to give it to individual teams who made a particularly noteworthy contribution, such as the cyclists or the gymnasts. Then there is the matter of acknowledging ParalympicsGB’s stirring efforts in Rio. Britain won 147 medals during the Paralympics, easily beating the target of 121, and finished second in the medals table. However it should be pointed out that TeamGB and ParalympicsGB have separate identities. Should one be placed above the other? That would feel unfair. Both teams received the award in 2012.
GB women’s hockey team
Then again, if we are looking for a standout team in Rio, Britain’s memorable victory in the women’s hockey takes some beating. Hockey is a sport that often flies below the radar in Britain but the win over the Netherlands in the final captured the imagination. The Dutch were the heavy favourites and they dominated much of the game, only for the underdogs to demonstrate outstanding levels of resilience by frustrating the defending champions. A late equaliser from Nicola White forced penalties after a dramatic 3-3 draw. In a tense shootout, it was Hollie Webb who converted the decisive strike, earning Britain their first Olympic gold in women’s hockey. Danny Kerry’s team of fighters made history and there will be no complaints if they pick up one more gong. Unlike the cyclists, whose excellence has become a matter of routine, they were not expected to win.
Wales football team
When Daniel Sturridge scored England’s winner with the final kick in Lens, it seemed Wales had been given a Euro 2016 reality check by opponents whose superior individual quality made the difference in the defining moments. Unable to hold on to their half-time lead, Wales’s resistance cracked at the end. As it transpired, though, the defeat by England in their second group match was no more than a minor inconvenience for Chris Coleman’s team. They recorded a stylish victory over Russia to reach the last 16 as group winners and saw off Northern Ireland two days before England crashed out to Iceland. Like Leicester, their run owed much to their unbreakable unity, not to mention their impeccable organisation. Tempting though it is to focus on the genius of Gareth Bale and the drive of Aaron Ramsey, Wales provided a reminder of the value of teamwork, which was most evident in the stunning victory over Belgium in the quarter-final. Undermining their appeal, however, is the semi-final defeat to Portugal.
England rugby union team
Ridiculed after the early exit from their own World Cup last year, England bounced back spectacularly, remaining unbeaten throughout the campaign. They knew they were on to a good thing under Eddie Jones when they dominated the Six Nations, ending their 13-year wait for the grand slam, and their fine form continued with three assertive displays on their tour of Australia in June. England have developed an admirable hunger for winning. That mentality carried them to further successes in the autumn internationals. They made an impressive statement against South Africa and finished the year in style, getting in one more win over Australia, the team who so ruthlessly exposed them at the World Cup. It has been a commendable effort from Jones’s side, 14 consecutive wins raising optimism about their prospects, although they look like outsiders next to Leicester and the Olympians.