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Podcast | Digging Deeper - The best year in international sports (since 2017)

On this episode of Digging Deeper, we’re counting down the 5 biggest events in sport in 2018.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom


2018 has been a great year for sports. We say that every year, of course. Every season is sports season; it's summer somewhere. We are watching a ball being kicked, hit, thrown, chucked, struck, caught, or not, all through the year. To say nothing of those games without balls. Sports are popular with young people sure, but even older fans who have an axe to grind are known to have terrified the roughest of football hooligans.

A Nielsen survey spanning 18 global markets had 43 percent of respondents say they were “interested” or “very interested” in football in 2017. Given how the Champions League went earlier this year, as well as the FIFA World Cup in Russia, I suspect that number won’t be dropping anytime soon.

Sports are increasing in popularity so much worldwide that basketball is the second most popular sport on the planet. Sure, we’ve all read Michael Jordan’s autobiography, but who outside the USA even follows basketball anymore, other than teenage boys?

If you are a basketball fan who is offended, please ask yourself if anyone even cares. They don’t. Even if the NBA are flying the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings down to Mumbai in October 2019 for two preseason games.

On the other hand, football receives much the same treatment in the US - some call it soccer, others even mockingly call it kickball. That said, football was the biggest thing in sport in 2018. EPL, Champions League, World Cup, the next Champions League, UEFA, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga - there’s enough football to keep fans addicted nearly every night.

Let’s spare a thought for the sports desks at non-European newspapers that stay up all night - if you’re not a fan of football, it’s a literal yawn every night. Alright, enough digs at the beautiful game. We could trigger a hooligan or two, or twenty.

Other sports had a great year as well - tennis, formula one, badminton, cricket (especially Test cricket),even MMA.

Today we’re counting down the 5 biggest events in sport in 2018.

1 ) There was nothing bigger in sport this year than the football World Cup in Russia. The first question on everybody’s mind was, if Russia lost their matches, would Putin invade those countries? I’m kidding. Football fans don’t care about wars and invasions, unless someone invades a football pitch. Unfortunately, Putin didn’t invade anything that month. And no fixing either. Russia didn’t collude with even one country in the World Cup.

The World Cup saw underdogs punch above their weight and favourites collapse under the weight of expectations. I’m looking at you, Germany. It wasn’t even winter. While Germany’s exit gave the world a major case of the schadenfreude, England did surprisingly well, getting to the semifinals. To no one’s shock, they lost once the fans started celebrating.

Football has its share of romantic stories, and Croatia at the 2018 World Cup was one such tale - the unfancied underdog turned into a giant killer and nearly won the final, only to lose to favorites France but winning a legion of fans. Luka Modric will forever be recalled as the best player of the 2018 World Cup. And posterity will remember the fantastic 2018 edition thus:

Germany couldn't get out of their group; Portugal, Argentina and Spain crashed in the round of 16; Brazil fell in the quarter-finals. England, Croatia, Belgium and France remained standing. France and Belgium are the traditional heavyweights while England and Croatia were unexpected. In what will become a famous final, France defeated Croatia 4-2 to lift their second World Cup trophy.

Then there were the fascinating perspectives. Like VARS. Some loved it, others hated it. But it was certainly effective. Good or bad depends on whom you were supporting. For instance, Nordin Amrabat articulated the opinion of many when he said, “It’s bullshit.” Fifa said it was extremely satisfying. Some fans wanted a Ronaldo v Messi thing. Heck, there was even that cringefest when Ronaldo pulled up his shorts before a free kick. Others like Kylian Mbappe had no time for such hype. On 30 June, both the icons were sent home early while Mbappé scored twice in four minutes. Mbappé says he’s not bothered by Ballon d’Or talk. “I couldn’t care less about that. I want the World Cup. I want to sleep with it.”  And here we talk about how many times Ronaldo and Messi won that Balloon. Sorry, Ballon.

There was also the FIFA actions to demonstrate zero tolerance against discrimination: : Russia was fined €8,500 for a neo-Nazi banner, Mexico €8,500 for homophobic chanting, Sweden €60,000 for “unauthorised sock branding”, and Croatia €60,000 for allowing players to consume non-official-sponsor beverages on camera. Oh, those evil Croatians. And let’s not forget the Maradona’s infamous stupidity: during a tournament watched by millions of children, Fifa’s £10,000-a-match envoy made a “slant-eyed gesture” at South Koreans; called a referee a “thief”, all while looking markedly less than sober.

Last, but not the least, massive props to Japanese fans who cleaned up after themselves after every match. The same goes for the Japan team - A 3-2 defeat in the 94th-minute of their last-16 game left them in tears. They then went to their changing room, showered and changed, tidied up, removed the rubbish and left a note for ground staff reading “thank you” in Russian. Class act as always, those Japanese.

Another lovely later in the year was a result of Croatia’s nearly perfect run at the Cup - skipper Luka Modric won the Ballon D’Or for his fantastic performance during the tournament, perhaps even signalling the end of Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance of football.

It was a terrific World Cup, one for the ages.

2 ) The second biggest moment in sports this year was, without a doubt, the two Koreas coming together at Winter Olympics. An inspiring and moving decision that gave many hope that the future could be better - all that sport aspires to be, when its not doing itself proud by way of match-fixing or monkey chants.

At the 2018 Winter Olympics in February, hosted by Pyeongchang in South Korea, sports and politics blended seamlessly as South and North Korea — two nations usually more given to talking nuclear war — marched under a unified flag.They fielded a joint women's team in the ice hockey event. The Winter Olympics thawed the North's frosty relations with not just the South but also the US, and culminated in the historic Trump-Kim summit in June.

Not bad progress, considering that Kim Jong-un said in 2013, “You should break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.” He’s like Drax the Destroyer from Guardians Of The Galaxy - the threats are more to assuage his own helplessness, apparently.

It was the stuff of peacenik dreams. And a symbol of what sports can accomplish.

There were the inevitable India-Pak analogies, but perhaps it’s best to let the two Koreas revel in their moment and not impinge on a beautiful moment with other agendas.

3 ) The third biggest sports news that took the world by storm was, well, something of a storm in a teacup. Anyone recall Serena Williams’ big meltdown?

Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese tennis player to win a grand slam at the US Open. But nobody remembers that anymore. Her thunder was stolen by Serena’s showdown with the chair umpire.

After receiving a coaching violation in the US Open final, Serena Williams shouted at the chair umpire and threw what is now widely considered one of the biggest tantrums in a Grand Slam final. Her coach, , Patrick Mouratoglou, was seen by chair umpire Carlos Ramos making hand motions at Williams. He warned her for illegal behavior.

An incensed, and indignant, Serena told him loudly, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose.” Meanwhile, commentator Chris Evert, who knows a thing or two about tennis, suggested it was a signal to come forward and play at the net. Serena lost serve a few minutes later, slammed her racquet on the ground and received a warning, both of which are relatively common occurrence during tennis matches.

But because it was Serena’s second violation, she was assessed a point penalty that gave Osaka a 15-0 lead in the 1-1 service game. Sometime later, she called Ramos a thief. He was having none of it. He assessed a game penalty that put Osaka up 5-3, just one game from victory. What followed was this: Serena yelled, “Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me?”

The penalty helped 20-year-old Naomi Osaka pull off a massive upset, sending Serena to her second straight loss in a Grand Slam final. That was the third time that Serena has lost a match late in the tournament showed some emotion on the court. It has however resulted in a defeat each time. And unfortunately for the superstar, Mouratoglou later admitted to the coaching, adding something to the effect of ‘everyone does it.’

Looking back, it was game, set, and match Ramos.

4 ) Number four is, once again, from football. To be precise, Real Madrid’s triumph in last season’s Champion’s League, and the exciting final against Liverpool in Kiev which they won 3-1, was a high watermark in European football.

La Liga may not have worked out for Real Madrid this year, but at least they can call themselves champions of Europe for the third straight year. Most European clubs would give everything and then some to get their hands on the coveted UEFA Champions League just once. Real did it twice consecutively to reign supreme. Then, the club from Spain went and did a hat-trick of Championships - that’s the stuff of dark arts right there.

In May 2018, Los Blancos were crowned European champions for the third straight time, and 13th overall. Madrid's dominance of the league, which is so much more competitive today than ever before, is astounding - they have 13 UCL titles to their name. The next best is Milan, with a distant seven. Real Madrid now have four Champions League trophies in the last five years, the best five-year stretch since the team won five straight from 1956-1960.

You can see why Ronaldo moved from Real to Juve - to paraphrase Donald Trump, it was just too much winning.

5 ) 2018 is a great year for Tennis. Everybody’s favorite good guy Roger Federer was in great form, winning the Australian Open; Rafael Nadal won a staggering 11th French Open title; a rank newcomer Naomi Osaka won the women’s title at the US Open.

But the greatest moment in Tennis this year was the return of Novak Djokovic - coming back from surgery, Djoker attained the number one ranking after two years,and won two grand slams - Wimbledon and the US Open.

2018 didn’t bode well for Djokovic. Was there enough fuel in the tank left? An elbow injury threatened to finish off his career and his off-court dilemmas plagued him with self-doubt. The Serb had to overcome many physical and mental hurdles to step onto the court again.

Forbes described his predicament like this: “When Novak Djokovic dropped out of the top 20 in early May – the first time he’d been outside it since 2006 –some people were quick to write off the former world No 1 off as a challenger for the sport’s biggest titles. Out for the last few months of 2017 as he rested his injured elbow, Djokovic returned in January of this year. But after elbow surgery the following month, he lost early in Indian Wells and Miami and admitted he had come back too soon.”

But what a comeback it eventually turned out to be! Five months later, the Serbian player had won two more grand slams, and looked set to end the year ranked No 1.

Djoker went onto win his fourth Wimbledon title, and 13th major title overall, with a straight-sets win over South Africa's Kevin Anderson. He then followed that up with a masterful performance at the US Open. He recalled, “It turned to out to be a perfect five months of the year, with two Grand Slam titles.”

2018 is also the year that marked the end of the 118-year Davis Cup in its traditional format. A revamped version of the competition starts next November that brings together 18 nations in one place for one week of intense tennis.

There were many more important moments in 2018 for sports - great ones like Lewis Hamilton winning the F1 championship; Kazakhstani boxer Gennady “GGG” Golovkin losing for the first time in his pro career against Mexico's Saul "Canelo" Alvarez; Khabib Nurmagomedov destroying MMA superstar Conor McGregor in what could well become MMA’s Ali-v-Frazer moment.

There were terrible ones like Australia’s ball-tampering; Serena Williams’ notorious meltdown; American sports doctor Larry Nassar’s prison sentenced of 40-125 years for sexually abusing gymnasts - the number of victims hovered over 300 at last count; and, probably worst of all for sports in the long term - the OAR fiasco at the winter olympics, with doping once again casting a long shadow.

169 Russian athletes competing in Pyeongchang had to be clubbed under an OAR flag, meaning “Olympic Athlete from Russia” in the 2018 Winter Games as a punishment for the Russian government’s massive doping scheme that allowed it to cheat in the past two Olympics.

But looking past those disappointments, it’s been an year when sports helped uplift people’s spirits in what has otherwise been a dispiriting year.

Just bring on 2019 already!

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First Published on Dec 27, 2018 07:17 pm
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