2018 IIHF World Championship: Hockey impressions

If you have yet to read the previous post on my experience at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, click here.

As you might already know, I was bunked in Copenhagen for the 2018 IIHF World Championship. And even though I only watched a handful of matches in full, parts of a few more and barely anything that went down in Herning, I still want to collect a few takeaways from the tournament and each team I followed. Without further ado:

Austria

Immediately demoted following every previous top division appearance, the Austrians arrived in Copenhagen with a single goal in mind: avoid relegation at all costs. An achievement unlocked with flying colours after their resounding 4-0 triumph over Belarus in a do-or-die situation and, impressively, just 24 hours after a traumatic 2-5 loss against fellow relegation fodder France. It’s true that way back in their tournament opener Austria had surprisingly forced Switzerland to play overtime, escalating internal expectations, but more couldn’t have been asked from a team missing star forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner.

Eventually Philadelphia’s Michael Raffl showed up to infuse some NHL skill into the lineup, notching two eye-popping goals against the Czech and four in total, while veteran goalie Bernhard Starkbaum (91.79 Sv%, 2.72 GAA) authored some of the most spectacular desperation saves in the tournament, nonetheless the Austrian’s 14th place in the final standings is generally representative of their potential.

The Austrian players kneel to thank their fans for the support in the game against Belarus (new-iihf.com).

Belarus

A team in transition now that the Kostitsyn brothers and Mikhail Grabovski are being phased out, not many expected the Belarussians to bother the big nations like they’ve done at times in the past, yet their Danish nightmare went way deeper than that. Thrashed by France (6-2) between expected routs from Sweden and Russia, five days into the competition coach Dave Lewis was relieved off his duties, however the move didn’t rally the troops and the results continued to go from bad to worse, with that embarrassing defeat to Austria sealing their first relegation since 2003.

Madly inept in front of the goal, Belarus only scored 8 times in 7 games and half of those came in a washed out finale against Slovakia, where they provided their faithful with some semblance of hope, turning a 0-2 into a 4-3, before surrendering 4 straight Slovakian markers. Disastrous.

Belarus’ players react after their 7th and final loss at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Czech Republic

There was so much to like about Czech Republic’s performance in Copenhagen, so much promise, and they still headed home empty handed for the sixth consecutive year. Pushing the Swedes like few others did, and defeating Russia in a thriller, the Czech’s group prospects were eventually undone by the crucial points dropped in those early overtime encounters against Switzerland and Slovakia, forcing an extra trip to Herning and an unpredictable quarter-final with the USA decided by Patrick Kane’s genius.

Still, another last-eight exit couldn’t overshadow the confirmation of Pavel Francouz as one of Europe’s best goalies and a smart pickup by the Colorado Avalanche nor the heady play of a relatively anonymous blueline, where Detroit’s prospects Filip Hronek (20-year-old) and Libor Šulák (24) as well as newly-signed Montreal Canadien David Sklenička (21) shone. Moreover, up front, beyond the boost provide by David Pastrňák and David Krejčí, there was a lot to get Carolina Hurricanes’ fans excited about Martin Nečas (19), Vegas fans expectant about what Tomáš Hyka (25) can do in a bigger NHL spell and confidence-building performances by Dmitrij Jaškin(25) or Dominik Kubalík (22). After some bare years, the Czech revolution is underway and it’s a just a matter of time before they barge into the podium again. And how sweet looks the prospect of doing it in Slovakia next year?

Czech center Martin Nečas is chased by his teammates after scoring a late equalizer versus Slovakia.

France

After threatening to reach the quarters last year in Paris, there were natural aspirations regarding a possible second ever top-eight (2014) finish for France, however, despite a positive tournament, they never got particularly close. Hammered by Russia (0-7) in the first day, Les Bleus rebounded to handily best direct rivals Belarus (6-2) and Austria (5-2), yet they would have liked to cause more problems to the Czech (0-6) or the Swiss (1-5).

Taking into account that their two best forwards, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and Antoine Roussel, didn’t don the sweater, Cristobal Huet is history, and the lack of alternatives to long-time mainstays such as Damien Fleury or the da Costa brothers is an inescapable reality, securing a 12th consecutive top division appearance in 2019 was not only an accomplishment but a nice way to bid adieu to retiring coach Dave Henderson.

France’s Jordann Perret reacts after scoring a goal on Belarus (Getty Images)

Russia

As I see it, you can evaluate Russia’s performance under two distinct prisms: they were without their five best players (Malkin, Kucherov, Tarasenko, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin) but still clinched second place in the group before falling in an hard-fought QF against Canada, which is obviously no shame and therefore qualifies Ilya Vorobyov’s first competition in charge as satisfactory. Or you could state that the Olympic Champions (…) dropped a winnable match against the Czech, were squarely beaten by Sweden and, once again, faltered in the moment of truth in a tournament they weren’t overwhelming favourites…

Not sure which option was favoured by Russian media, so I’ll just skip ahead and note that young Kirill Kaprizov put together another star-making performance in the international limelight, netting 6 goals in 8 games (Patience, Wild fans, exert patience), and together with Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk rekindled the magic of Pyeongchang to form the most dominant line seen in Copenhagen. Want another KHL player to keep tabs on? SKA St. Petersburg’s Alexander Barabanov, a skilled 23-year-old, bottom-six winger who posted 4 goals and 4 assists to turn scout’s heads aplenty.

Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk in action against Switzerland in a preliminary group match (Russian Ice Hockey Federation)

Slovakia

Just like their neighbours, Slovakia hasn’t medalled since 2012. Unlike the Czech, it’s difficult to anticipate that streak will be broken soon. Sure, the 9th place obtained in Denmark is an improvement over the disastrous 14th of 2017, but that shouldn’t be the standard for one of hockey’s traditional nations, which ought to get into the last eight regularly. Pipped to fourth place in Group A by virtue of a 0-2 defeat to the Swiss, the Slovaks showed fighting spirit against Sweden and the Czechs, failing both times in overtime, yet their well-documented struggles in graduating fresh blood into the national team setup were front and centre once again.

Goalie Marek Čiliak played decently, especially against the Czech, but he didn’t steal a game, the Slovak defence was still anchored by veteran Andrej Sekera – though it was nice to see draft-eligible Martin Fehérvary getting a test run – and the attack paced by the everlasting Ladislav Nagy, who posted 10 pts (5 against Belarus) as a 39-year-old top-line winger. With just two NHL players amongst their ranks (defenseman Christián Jaroš, from Ottawa, was the other), at least the tournament gave Tomáš Jurčo (4 goals) a chance to display some signs of life, with his raw skill sticking out from the mob.

Slovakia’s Tomáš Jurčo celebrates his goal against Austria (nhl.com)

Sweden

Preliminary round success in international play is a patented Swedish tradition and they delivered. After that, things naturally get trickier, but buoyed by the yellow wave that invaded Royal Arena, the Tre Kronor surfed high expectations in Copenhagen to end up seizing a second consecutive world title. Not that the Swedes were always overwhelming  – Latvia, Slovakia and Switzerland can attest to that – however they managed to keep their nerve while trailing, continuing to pummel the opposition until they found a way to retake control of the proceedings.

And it helped, obviously, that their roster was brimming with established NHL talent and experience, headlined by the best defence corps in the tournament (Larsson, Ekman Larsson, Klingberg and Lindholm is a sick top-four) and a top forward line that clicked immediately, as Mattias Janmark (10 pts) managed to keep pace with Mika Zibanejad and Rikard Rakell (6 goals each). In any case, if that wasn’t enough firepower for opponents to deal with, Mattias Ekholm, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist soon disembarked directly from North America just to exacerbate the problem, and their supposed Achilles heel, the goaltending position, sorted itself out as Anders Nilsson ousted Magnus Hellberg’s competition before running away with Media All-Star honours (95.4, 1.09, 3 SO)..and the Cup.

Team Sweden listen to the national anthem after winning a match at the 2018 IIHF World Championship (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Switzerland

Who would have thought the same Swiss team that struggled to squeak past Austria in their opener would eventually shock the hockey world two weeks later? In fact, not just once, which can be attributed to luck, but almost three straight times in a span of four days, upsetting established hockey nations with relentless team effort and discipline. Looking back though, the turning point for the Swiss might have been that tough back-to-back against Russia and Sweden (12/13 of May), when their battle level wasn’t enough to erase deficits but inspired belief.

Afterwards, the Swiss stomped France to book a place in the QF, raided Finland in a four-minute second period blitz, and built a Cinderella story that deserved a happy ending. It wasn’t meant to be, nonetheless Switzerland paved the road to success for mid-level nations: extract tremendous contributions from your NHL players (Timo Meier, Nino Niederreiter and Sven Andrighetto notched a point per game, Mirco Mueller stepped up in the medal round, late-arrivals Kevin Fiala and Roman Josi added a new dimension), ride a hot goalkeeper (Leonardo Genoni was immense vs Canada and Sweden) and – not least – unearth a few hidden gems along the way. For the Swiss, that was synonymous with defenseman Ramon Untersander (3 goals, 7 points), sneaky forward Gregory Hofmann (4 goals) and the tournament’s revelation, Enzo Corvi, the 25-year-old HC Davos center who rode shotgun with Niederreiter and scored a beauty of an overtime winner against Austria.

Jubilant Swiss players get together to celebrate victory over Canada in the semi-final of the 2018 IIHF World Championship (Getty Images)

Canada

Connor McDavid is unlikely to be available for the Worlds for much of the next 15 years (right, Edmonton?) and the Canadians, to put it simple, blew away a great opportunity to level Russia’s (including Soviet Union) record tally of 27 gold medals in the competition. Evidently not due to the young phenomenon’s efforts, since he piled up the points (17 in 10 matches), scored an hat-trick on the Norwegians and an overtime winner that avoided embarrassment versus Latvia, but it’s still a fact that McDavid didn’t exactly rip the opposition to shreds in the playoff round. This in spite of the three assists against Russia, followed up by a frustrating match versus the Swiss, and the disappearing act in the team’s putrid effort on a bronze medal contest that epitomized Canada’s tournament, one with more valleys than peaks.

Still, positive grades go out to Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko (that cannon of a shot is a sight to behold) and all the question marks are reserved for Canada’s entire goaltending situation: a tandem of Darcy Kuemper (awful performance) and Curtis McElhinney (serviceable…)? No comments. Except we’ll take the time to report the name of Canada’s third string goalie: Michael Di Pietro. Who?

Canadians Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly and Aaron Ekblad celebrate victory over Russia at the World Championship quarter-finals (Getty Images)

Latvia

Why, Latvia? Who allowed you free reign to destroy our beautiful dream, a Sweden-Denmark quarter-final? I’ll only forgive you because Latvian hockey fans are awesome and your goalies have a penchant for creating chaos. How else can we explain the fact unheralded Kristers Gudļevskis put a scare into the Canadian hearts again? Or that Elvis Merzļikins – great name, greater numbers (94.04 Sv%, 1.50 GAA, 2 SO) – shut down Denmark, forced the USA to OT and came pretty close from doing the same to the almighty Swedes?

USA

For once the Americans didn’t tank a bronze medal game! Because they still felt the sting of their semi-final debacle? Maybe. Because they cherish every opportunity to get an upper-hand on the Canadians? A bit. But I prefer to believe they badly wanted to honour Jim Johannson, the USA Hockey mainstay and mentor who unexpectedly passed away in January at age 53.

In an emotive ceremony, John Johannson, Jim’s brother, handed out the bronze medals to the American players and, afterwards, they all expressed their profound esteem for the man, yet they should know the best way to preserve his legacy at USA Hockey is to follow Patrick Kane’s lead: show up every May with a strong, committed group and establish the Americans as a force to be reckoned at the World Championships too. This was another step, as no one scored as much as the USA (46 goals) or picked up more points than Kane (20), the tournament MVP, but to claim a World title in the future, they’ll have to clean up the type of lacklustre performances that caused Finland and Sweden to pump six goals into Keith Kinkaid’s net.

Nick Bonino of the U.S. scores a goal in the bronze-medal match (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Finland

The mystifying tales of a talented Finnish duo that was setting Herning on fire didn’t take long to reach the Danish Capital, and just as I rubbed my hands in anticipation of the incoming circus, the party was over. Forty goals in eight games, demolitions of Canada (5-1) and the USA (6-2) interspersed by head-scratching losses to Denmark and Germany. Of course, Finland would have to draw their worst version against Switzerland. Still, 18 pts for Sebastian Aho (9 goals!) and 14 (5+9) for Teuvo Teräväinen, with the Hurricanes’ duo combining for a +29 rating in just 8 games? Absurd.

Denmark

It’s fair to call Denmark’s tournament a(n on-ice) failure. Quarter-Finalists in 2010 and 2016, they were dumped out, on home soil, by tiny Latvia in a winner-takes-all preliminary finale contested days after, predictably, achieving the most difficult: overcome Olympic silver medallists Germany and steal three points from the high-flying Finns.

It’s true that Denmark’s most explosive offensive weapons, Nikolaj Ehlers and Lars Eller, were still involved in the NHL playoffs, but the hosts still boasted the majority of their stalwarts (Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Bødker, Jannik Hansen) and none could buy a single goal against Latvia. Frederik Andersen, their joker, did all he could (94.38 Sv%, 1.65 GAA) on the other end and his titanic effort still went to waste. Bah.

Goalie Frederik Andersen leads Team Denmark’s salute to the public of Herning after the victory over Finland on May 9th (Martin Rose/Getty Images Europe)

Nothing to report: Germany, Norway, North Korea

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Field Report: 2018 IIHF World Championship

They promised Heroes would come and when they finally departed, a trail of indelible memories was left behind: of on-ice feats that will ring for generations to come, of the visitors who fuelled an unprecedented party, of jam-packed arenas and rivals turned friends. Along with multiple accounts of parents and kids watching the sport for the first time, of locals inspired by vulcanized rubber and skates scratching the ice on a country that soon realized what it was missing on.

Fifteen years. That’s how long Denmark has squared off, spring after spring, with ice hockey’s powerhouse nations and how long it took to place the sport in the national conversation. A decade and a half of breakthroughs, milestones and small victories, but also of  painfully slow growth in dedicated infrastructures, number of participants, attendances and exposure. So much that every other (European) top-division regular exercised its right to host the sport’s annual showcase, the main IIHF World Championship, before the Danes took a leap of faith, believing that a country with just 27 rinks, 5000 registered players and an average turnout of 1300 spectators in the national league could rise to the challenge. With a helping hand from the hockey world, both in the stands and behind the scenes, Denmark aced the test, crushing expected attendance figures and administering an immaculate sports event whose financial and capital benefits will trickle down the national hockey edifice for a long time.

However, as much I would like to continue to pump the Danes’ tires, this is a post about my personal experience in Denmark as one of 1100 volunteers that helped stage the Ice Hockey Worlds and, necessarily, as a rabid hockey fan, so let’s get on with it. First, should I introduce you to my “working” space?

Inside and outside Royal Arena

Contested by the 16 best ice hockey nations, the IIHF World Championship Top Division is yearly held across two venues, with teams divided in two groups of eight that run concurrently before a knockout stage. For the 2018 competition, that meant the city of Herning, in the central Jutland Region and the country’s hockey hotbed, welcomed hosts Denmark and seven opponents at the impressive Jyske Bank Boxen Arena, while the remaining eight nations, including bordering Sweden, faced off in Copenhagen and the brand-new Royal Arena.

Royal Arena shining under the sun in the first day of the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

Opened last year, the result of a private-public partnership that desired to bestow the Danish capital with a modern entertainment venue that could host major spectacles and sporting events, the Royal Arena is as conveniently located as any leading, non-central venue could be. Served by a regional training station that runs to the airport, the city centre or across the Øresund in a few minutes, and with two metro stations (Ørestad and Vestamager) in walking distance, the building is not only a centerpiece of Ørestad’s development into one of Copenhagen’s burgeoning residential districts, but also a state-of-the art, lustrous setting that blends glass and wooden details into an elegant, distinct Nordic style look.

Moreover, on the inside, the curvy concourses in all levels are spacious and delicately illuminated as to take advantage of the natural light when available, whereas the three-tiered stands came short of forming a full bowl since one of the sides ends in an adjustable walled area that can fit multiple purposes, including the installation of a provisional stand for the World Championship. With decent sightlines and dark seating all around, the arena might need a suitable audience to feel accommodating, yet, at near full capacity (12490 spectators for the tournament), the noise and colours popped out nicely to produce some raucous and genuinely fun atmospheres.

Still, there’s no arguing that the added magic of major, tournament-like sport events lies as much in what happens while the real action is going on as the festive environment before and after the matches, and that was definitely taken care off at the Worlds Fanzone. Conveniently located just across the street (Hannemanns Allé) from the Royal Arena, the 10.000m2 outdoor area staged a true manifestation of the friendly nature of hockey fans, with rival factions drinking, playing and, generally, hanging out together and behaving exceptionally well even as beer flowed freely.

A packed Fanzone awaits the start of the Final.

As someone much more used to the sectarian, markedly antagonistic nature of football fans – especially at the club level – I can’t exactly say that surprised described my feelings when I took a few minutes to enjoy the festival-like environment, but I was, definitely, a little proud of the sense of camaraderie emanating as game-time approached and the amicable banter that followed the on-ice battles.

Furthermore, with many activities and games fit for children and youngsters available, Copenhagen’s Fanzone was also a favourite of the natives, with the local organizers making a concerted effort to invite and provide arena access to schools for lower-profile matchups, and the kids, in turn, taking full advantage of the opportunity. Hopefully, a few of those boys and girls shooting a puck for the first time felt inspired to take on this beautiful sport (since they actually can, you know L).

Alas, I didn’t travel to Copenhagen to meander through the fanzone or sit in the stands, so what the hell was I actually doing?

At the Media Center

Media Center Assistant. Loooots of fun (”Czechoslovakia” speaker voice, please). No sporting event these days makes sense without the men and women tasked with disseminating its stories to the world, and making sure they possess all the conditions to do just that was the central mandate of our job.

In short, we’re talking about guaranteeing a functional working environment before, during and after the matches, from the early mornings (when teams held their practices) up to two hours after the end of the last game of the day (usually past midnight). That entailed, amongst others, distributing crucial tournament information to the people who needed it fast (and burning through an Amazonia-like tonnage of paper in the process), keep all the relevant updates available and easily accessible, sort out ways to help with any odd situations that may arise (baggage/equipment storing, for example) and, critically, make sure that they kept their minds sane in spite of the furious workload they’re subjected to during the fortnight. The secret?  Media Center’s own Holy Trinity: Coffee, bananas and cookies!

Honestly, I know that might not sound that exciting unless you really enjoy sifting though piles of all kinds of hockey statistics, glancing at game reports or checking roster updates every day (*raises hand*), but the job does come with manifold perks that would make anyone’s time worthwhile, namely premium access to the media stand and several short windows to follow the action and soak the arena’s in-game atmosphere.

Nonetheless, if you’re a media buff like me or simply a hockey enthusiast, the opportunity to contact, meet and chat with all kinds of accredited media, from acclaimed reporters, broadcasters and writers to the more inconspicuous cameramen and photographers hailing from all parts of the hockey world is probably enticing enough, and things might get even better as soon as you realized that journalists only form a portion of the tremendous amount of hockey people that prowl the IIHF World Championship Media Center on a daily basis.

Look, kid. That guy’s a hockey legend.

Have you heard the expression “a healthy scratch watching from the press box”? Well, if players want to observe their teammates or opponents in action, they do need to find a seat in the Media tribune. And with them come the coaches. And team officials. And honourable guests, from NHL General Managers to head coaches or scouts, who would very much like to socialize with fellow hockey people and grab a lineup to help follow the activity on ice.

So, now imagine if you get a bit star struck simply by bumping into TSN’s Darren Dreger, or having to interrupt the intermission chat of the best commentating duo in the business (Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro) to deliver a game report, and now magnify it when you notice that Nick Lidstrom is standing a few meters away seconds before jumping on air to provide analysis of Sweden’s debut. Also spotted in this bustling area during the tournament by this overexcited hockey nerd: legendary players like Alexei Yashin (Russia), Jiri Fischer (Czech Republic), Miroslav Satan (Slovakia) and Martin Brodeur (Canada), NHL GMs such as Ray Shero (New Jersey Devils) and Jim Nill (Dallas Stars) and Stanley Cup winning-coaches like Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking now. “Stop bragging, idiot! Also, big deal. A bunch of has beens. What about the (current) stars of the show?” Well…

The Mixed Zone

If you’ve ever followed a major sports event, such as the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, you’ve likely heard of the Mixed Zone, loosely defined as an area where athletes speak with the media after doing their thing in front of millions of spectators.

For a guy like Usain Bolt at the Olympics, the Mixed zone ritual is an interminable, energy-sapping labyrinth of international press that has to be navigated, and while the IIHF World Championships and most of its athletes obviously aren’t at the same level, hockey players have to deal with a similar kind of apparatus after every game, with all competitors funnelled right as they leave the ice to a room where they meet plenty of faces eager to get a money quote.

A looping area divided in four sections, the Mixed Zone is a tightly-run entity that offers broadcasters and official TV rights holders the first crack at the players, who subsequently move to face radio reporters, web media personal and the voracious print /online writers in this order.

The Mixed Zone room (after a practice session).

While not obliged to express their feelings, every dressed player (and head coach) is still required to do the full tour and since competition for exclusive time with star players is fierce, things are bound to get messy and confusing without some kind of proactive action. And that’s where we entered as in order to expedite and facilitate the process, we kept an eye on everyone to guarantee no regulations were broken (especially regarding illegal video recording), but also sought media requests, tried to liaison with the team media managers, and regularly helped spot and stop the most coveted athletes so that everyone would leave happy. Likewise, a similar procedure followed every practice session held on the main arena or the adjacent (and absolutely freezing) practice rink.

All in all, standing on the mixed zone, rubbing shoulders with reporters and standing centimetres apart from every hockey star in the tournament was, unequivocally, a highlight of my experience. And since I was fortunate enough to be assigned for it frequently and on a daily basis, might as well just spit out some loose (but innocuous) observations based  on what I saw and listened in there regarding the eight teams that formed group A plus Canada, transplanted from Herning for the quarter-finals.

Insights from the Mixed zone

  • Exactly where’s the separation between Belarus and Russia? I’m aware of the close political, cultural and linguistic ties, but it still took me a surprisingly long time (and a lot of accreditation double-checking) to pinpoint the breadth of the Belarussian contingent dispatched to Copenhagen as they diligently split allegiances, attention and resources through the group stage. Additionally, reference to the unpredictable scheduling of Belarus’ head coach(es) declarations, dizzyingly bouncing at will between off-days, post-practice, pre-game and post-game, in turn creating a few logistical problems, and to goalie Vitali Trus, winner of the “seriously, how old is this guy?” award by defying his pubescent looks for a full decade.
  • The Austrian’s post-victory routine with their travelling devotees was fascinating, but they were still, by far, the quietest bunch in terms of press interest. Virtually no domestic coverage, limited outside curiosity for a roster that lacked buzz, and a lot of expectant faces trekking the mixed zone and waiting for a chance to share their thoughts that rarely came.

Ice-level view of the stands.

  • How big is hockey in Czech Republic? I figured I had a good idea, but it was still impressive to notice the all-hands-on-deck coverage on every platform, from TV to web and print. Including, I was told, plenty of eminent on-air talent reporting from Denmark, and large amounts of backstage/TV production equipment on site.

In addition, the frenzy around the team noticeably piqued after the arrival of the two NHL Davids – even if one persisted in trying to skip part of his media obligations – whereas the distinct change of the guard was also evident in the mixed zone. While Tomáš Plekanec’s presence barely registered a blip, Martin Nečas prominence ratchet up by the game. Oh, and Philadelphia’s Radko Gudas is a surprisingly affable guy off the ice… or maybe his invaluable contributions to the Penguins playoff cause were simply too fresh on my memory to cloud my judgement.

  • Allez Les Blues. Putting aside the fact that I’m still bummed Stéphane da Costa somehow evaded my watchful eye, the French definitely shot up my preferences during the tournament. A rather small but polite and welcoming group of journalists, players thrilled to answer every request regardless of the origin, and our unofficial award for the finest media managing work claimed by Team France’s Valérie Thibault. Well, the free keychains/pins helped too, I guess.
  • The Russians. Ever-present in all media areas, they were clearly better left on their own unless you happened to speak the language as both players and media looked noticeably uninterested in making much of an effort to speak English. In fact, such trump card was repeatedly played by many of their KHL-based elements, which further increased the international media burden on the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Artem Anisimov (btw, we missed you, Ovi). Get ready, Mr. Kaprizov, that’s what the near future holds for you, sir. Outside of ridiculous offensive stats on the ice and female worshipping of it, of course.
  • If clinging to the past defines the current state of Slovakian hockey, shipping one of the less than a handful of radio reporters working in the tournament is its media-equivalent, right? Anyway, kudos to coach Craig Ramsay for the gracious way he handled the pressure of the Slovak media after the early exit, and to captain Andrej Sekera, also their runaway leader in the number of post-game engagements. Meanwhile, he didn’t play much, but the tournament’s youngest participant, 18-year-old Martin Fehérváry, drew his fair share of curiosity in the mixed zone.

Rikard Rakell doing extra hours in the mixed zone after one of Sweden’s early matches

  • For geographical reasons, Sweden’s media contingent was, by far, the biggest in the competition and, naturally, it just kept growing as the Tre Kronor marched to the title. Already a premium ticket for their blend of talent, recognizable faces and English proficiency, all Swedish mixed zones were wild, especially in the print media area, unbearably crowded by the end. Still, no one could ever criticize the players’ effort as the Swedish stars held court multiple times and rarely rushed out of the loop. The patience displayed by the likes of Rickard Rakell, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mika Zibanejad and the late arriving Filip Forsberg and Patric Hörnqvist was truly commendable.

On the contrary, it was disconcerting to notice that a guy like Hampus Lindholm flies as much under-the-radar at home as in the NHL and even captain Mikael Backlund’s low-profile from Calgary held up. Young Elias Pettersson broke a finger midway to cut short his tournament, but I can report his media education is going quite well (the same can’t be said of his physical maturation), such was his cordiality and generosity in repeatedly answering the same questions about Vancouver, whereas head coach Rikard Gronborg really strikes an imposing presence, his mastery in contact with the media and ability to spew out words without actually saying much the final proof that an NHL opportunity is right around the corner.

  • Not unlike their hockey team, Swiss media was hardly noticeable throughout the first week of the tournament, displaying the usual Helvetian reserve and efficiency, but as the group increased and the Eisgenossen soared, they made their presence felt. For instance, by taking over the final corner of the print section and diligently waiting for their heroes to navigate the rest of the maze, which also made our job easier. Moreover, there seemed to be a real sense of togetherness that extended from the team to the media, regardless of language differences, and that probably contributed to make Patrick Fischer’s ritual though the media zone more enjoyable, as the 42-year-old head coach steadily ploughed through all the requests in the country’s three official languages (Italian, French and German).

As for the players, there was a healthy mix of interest dispensed to both the European-based guys, especially the breakout names, and the NHL guys, but Roman Josi, unsurprisingly, proved to be on a different level, brushing aside a disappointing end of the season and all the miles logged in the last two seasons to show up in Copenhagen ready to handle almost as much off the ice as inside.

  • How can you infer that it is time to scale back your hockey-time allocation? When you can identify TSN’s Tessa Bonhomme in the flash zone area without having to check her accreditation card…Anyway, Canada relocated from Herning, and while I obviously can’t speak to their approach in the preliminary stage, their press managers definitely meant business in Copenhagen after the elimination games, escorting players from stop to stop and making sure they didn’t talk more than the absolutely necessary.

McDavid? He dutifully stopped by TSN’s place and then moved straight to the print section, where this happened: “Connor, Connor, anyone wants Connor?” – Cue pandemonium and mass migration, with reporters pushing and elbowing each other and a major scrum forming in a matter of seconds, an indistinct melee of phones, audio recorders, heads and arms. 97 fielded a pair of questions and onward he went, with whoever missed him left to grab someone else. Amongst the frontrunners I can nominate Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Colton Parayko, but it was Aaron Ekblad who drew my biggest chuckle throughout the experience at the mixed zone: A “Do you want to join too?” directed at a volunteer too animated in his attempts to not let another Canuck slip away from a web request.

Extras:

  • To Team USA’s press manager: Please return my semi-final sheet. Or, at least, next time make sure any of the inquiries is met. Tks. Also, props to Patrick Kane, the American captain who answered the call even after their embarrassing semi-final performance to honour his much-appreciated commitment to the competition.

A few American players kick a ball around before the third-place playoff.

  • The Finnish players never landed in Copenhagen, but the amount of media (and fans) that still showed up for the medal games was impressive.

Press Conferences are only held at the World Championship from the quarter-finals forward, which means I was present at just two (CAN-RUS and USA-CAN) of the six scheduled for Copenhagen, but I’ll still leave two notes.

  • The third place match really highlighted the lack of North American interest in the tournament. Outside of the TSN crew, there was one (I think) Canadian reporter looking for Bill Peters’ takes on the game. Meanwhile, the victorious American coach, Jeff Blashill, literally held a one-on-one exchange with reporter Julie Robenhymer.
  • Why ask your coach anything in English when you can just swarm him and start the deposition after the press conference is called off, right Russian media?

And that’s it for behind-the-curtain fodder I’m willing to share. A few more sections remaining in this post though.

Five favourite players to watch during the tournament

  1. Connor McDavid

The (next) best hockey player in the world performing in front of my eyes and I didn’t even had to cross the Atlantic? Pretty cool. Still, If only he hadn’t forgotten to sip his coffee before the bronze medal match…

  1. Rikard Rakell/Mika Zibanejad

They made some sweet music together on the ice, and repeatedly staying late in the mixed zone meant I could actually listen to their views on the game.

  1. David Pastrňák

The entire gulf in intensity between the NHL playoffs and the IIHF World Championship expressed in one night. Although Patrick Kane didn’t appreciate my hot take enlisting Pastrňák as the tournament’s second best player and the Czechs suffered in result.

  1. Pavel Datsyuk

A legend walking amongst the mortals.

  1. Filip Forsberg

I was on the edge of my seat (if I had one, duh) every time he received the puck in the offensive zone. A magnetic presence that deked the hell out of Sweden’s rivals.

Five memorable games

  1. CZE 4-3 RUS (OT), Group Stage

A rivalry always incensed by massive political and sporting backdrops, the temperature rose quickly at Royal Arena when the Russians opened the score early to break the game apart in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. Fuelled by the fire-branding talent of reinforcements David Krejčí and David Pastrňák, two sleepless demons who combined for 7 points on the night, the Czech should have claimed the three points in regulation, however the 3-3 scoreline was upheld until OT.

Eventually the irrepressible Pastrňák deftly banked the winner to cap an exciting extra session, but the dropped point would make all the difference to separate both teams in the final group standings.

  1. RUS 4-5 CAN (OT), Quarter Final

It’s a shame that hockey’s premier arch nemesis contested an afternoon tilt in a Royal Arena short of full capacity (9.017), but the hockey more than made up for the tepid ambience.

The vaunted Canada-Russia QF matchup

It all started with a Colton Parayko howitzer from the point, the first of three crucial powerplay goals for Canada, and after Russia rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the second, the teams went head-to-head in a wacky third period that demanded extra innings. An overtime hero in PyeongChang a few months ago, Kirill Kaprizov’s debatable penalty opened the door to Canada and Connor McDavid took advantage, threading a sweet pass that was deflected into the winner by Ryan O’Reilly. In a blink, Russia’s dream of an Olympic / World Championship double in the same calendar year went up in smoke.

  1. CAN 2-3 SUI, Semi-Final

There are few things a neutral sports fan enjoys more than a monumental upset, and even if this wasn’t the best possible Canadian team, hats off to the underdog Swiss for taking full advantage of the opportunities, mustering timely secondary scoring (Scherwey, Hofmann and Haas hit the twine) and surviving countless periods of intense Canadian pressure without capitulating or taking penalties.

With a 45-17 discrepancy in shots on goal, Switzerland’s victory was only possible because goalie Leonardo Genoni stood on his head, including a last-second desperation save on Connor McDavid, yet the way the Swiss collapsed in front of the net and kept play to the outside said a lot about the team’s mettle and validated this historical result.

  1. CZE 3-2 SVK (OT)

If someone needed a reality check on how much this tournament means for European nations, this was it. A vibrating, electric atmosphere inside a stuffed hockey arena in the second day of the tournament, a Saturday delight sponsored by a reported 7000 travelling Czech fans and a mass of boisterous Slovaks, an engaging party disguised as a hockey game  between two abutting, brotherly nations with so much in common.

On the ice, the favoured Czech carried the play, but the points belonged in full to the scrappy Slovaks until Martin Nečas found a hole on Marek Čiliak’s armour with just 10 seconds to go in the third period, blowing the roof off the building in the process. Later it fell to teammate Dmitrij Jaškin the responsibility to put an end to a wonderful contest in overtime, picking the puck off his own shot before slipping a backhand over the Slovak goalie’s leg, and outside went both sets of fans, eager to continue the festivities through the night.

  1. SWE 3-2 SUI (SO)

Going into the final day, I knew it would take a majestic decider to take that Czech Republic-Slovakia encounter off the higher perch, and even if history was millimetres away from being made in Copenhagen, the tournament’s climax ultimately delivered enough drama to nudge just ahead.

A Swiss defender lugs the puck up the ice during the Final against Sweden

Taking the lead twice to stun the mostly yellow-clad crowd, the Swiss once again relied on a spectacular Genoni to keep the Swedes in check on this reedition of the 2011 Final, yet the prohibitive tournament favourites managed to puncture the red wall enough times to level at two and force sudden-death. Then, a spine-tingling 20 minute, 4 on 4 extra session featured incredible chances for both sides, particularly Kevin Fiala’s point-blank shot denied by Anders Nilsson’s glove and Adam Larsson’s ping at the final buzzer, however destiny had reserved the abhorrent shootout format as the ultimate tiebreaker. Inching closer to an unprecedented World title, the Swiss again took the lead (Andrighetto) only to watch as Sweden responded with back-to-back conversions authored by NHL All-Stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Filip Forsberg. The weight of the world fell on Nino Niederreiter’s shoulders, but he failed to deceive Nilsson and assured Denmark’s maiden tournament would crown their neighbours and a repeated Champion.

Notes on Copenhagen (and Malmö)

You know the drill. This ain’t a travel blog, but I can still summon a few general thoughts on the setting, can’t I?

  • Yes, the Danish Capital is laughingly expensive. But one of the World’s most liveable cities is also absolutely gorgeous when the sun is shining, with locals (and expatriates) rushing to sprawl on the parks, streets and cafes. And boy, the glorious weather decided to bless the World Championships with delightful regularity, I’m happy to report.
  • As an advocate of the “walk-until-your-feet-hurt” city exploration method, it can’t get much better than Copenhagen’s accessibility and compactness in terms of major venues and sights. It’s a pedestrian paradise without the bustle of Amsterdam, and still brimming with canals, water and green everywhere you look.

Frederiksberg Have

  • Getting back, for a minute, to my hockey fan persona. What was up with the complete absence of outdoors publicizing the biggest sporting event in the country’s history around the city center? One banner tucked over one of the side exits of the main train station won’t cut it for the majority of tourists oblivious to the competition, much less shoddy advertisement in some peripheral metro stations on the way to Ørestad.
  • Speaking of Ørestad: if you find yourself in the area and enjoy modern architecture, take the time to admire some of the edgy residential buildings.
  • With minimum research you’ll discover the must-watch sights and tourist traps (one rhymes with idle barmaid), so I’ll leave you with my own non-hockey fanboy moment: Lingering around Christiansborg’s courtyard half-expecting Birgitte Nyborg to turn up and start whispering with political adversaries under the arcades.
  • Favourite places to walk: Frederiksberg Have, Fælledparken (admittedly because of all those football fields marked on the grass) and the lakes area (also quite good for people’s watching, if you’re into that).
  • Favourite place to Bike: Kalvebod Fælled, in Amager. A splendorous wild area of protected wetlands, forest, and lakes rich in wildlife. It’s massive, but you can reach the outer edge in ten minutes from Brygge Islands, just across the canal from the city center.
  • Finally, definitely reserve one day to visit Malmö, just across the Øresund. The views from the bridge crossing are worth the train fare, and the Swedish city has undeniably eschewed for good the bad reputation that stemmed from its industrial past, social divisions and multi-cultural makeup.

If you can tell why I framed this Malmö location, we’re friends for life.

Be aware that Malmö has a charming yet small historical centre (Gamla Staden). Blink and you might miss it coming out of the train station. Thumbs up for the tons of green spaces, the two modern sports venues (Malmö Arena and Swedbank Stadium) and the upscale Västra Hamnen district. Especially its waterfront, a stone throw away from the Turning Torso, which offers great views of the coast, the bridge and the Øresund.

Ok, now that’s really all I have for you in this post. Although not the totality of my “coverage” from the 2018 IIHF World Championship. If you care to read my hockey thoughts on the tournament, head here. If not, thanks for reading.

The multiple layers of a rotten Oranje

Once the trail-blazing frontrunners of the beautiful game and epitomes of swagger on the field, the Netherlands are now teetering on the edge of football irrelevancy, the Oranje’s first consecutive major tournament misses in over three decades propelling the highest structures of Dutch football into a collective frenzy.

How could a proud footballing nation that finished third at the 2014 World Cup and was a shot away from lifting the trophy in 2010 spin out of control so dramatically in a handful of years? How did a berth of progressive ideas that revolutionised and reshaped the sport manage to become this trite, decaying entity, drained of its identity, their innovative notions of the past first appropriated, then upgraded by neighbours and competitors?

The only nation in history to play three FIFA World Cup finals without claiming the ultimate prize, the Netherlands blessed the footballing world with some of its greatest sides and players since Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff co-geminated the inspiring Totalvoetball in the late 1960’s. Flooding Dutch football like the indomitable tidal streams on the low countries, this intoxicating philosophy based on ruthless pressing, neat passing and positional swaps powered the domestic outfits to immense success in the 1970’s and the national team on  unforgettable campaigns every genuine football fan can babble about.

In fact, from the Cruyff and Johan Neeskens-led Clockwork Orange sides that lost the 1974 and 1978 deciders in heart-breaking fashion, past the brilliant generation chiselled in gold by Marco Van Basten’s iconic volley at the 1988 European Championships, through the hypnotic Dennis Bergkamp and the prodigious 1995 Champions League winners with Ajax, up to the contemporary days of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who came within a whisker of swiping the World Cup from the hands of an emblematic Spain, there is so much to reminisce about.

And still, this very nation, whose footballing history was built on a combination of pulsating attacking football and such supreme talent that elevated the sport to a form of art unlike anything seen before, is now a stuttering machine, a laughing stock even, its main institutions incapable of churning out neither the style, nor the skill and results that do justice to the past.

As football minnows such as Iceland, Albania and Wales debuted at the 2016 European Championships, the Netherlands humiliatingly missed out on the expanded 24-team field, and they couldn’t do better in the 2018 World Cup qualifying, activating the blinking, screeching siren looming, somewhat quietly, over their football for a few years. Not anymore. It’s time to analyse and rethink the game in Holland and beyond, and in this article we’ll try to shed some light on the multiple reasons that compound the response to the main question facing Dutch football, particularly its (men’s) national team.

How did the pioneering Total Football derive into Total Flopball?

 

I –  National Team failures: The aftermath of the 2014 World Cup

For most, the last image elicited by the men clad in orange is one of triumph. At the third-place playoff of the 2014 World Cup, a young Netherlands squad guided by the cantankerous Louis van Gaal crushed a traumatized Brazilian team with three unanswered goals, and it seemed the future was bright for the Dutch, their squad anchored by a mixture of experienced stars and an array of up-and-coming, just-entering-their-prime support pieces.

Daley Blind of the Netherlands (5) celebrates scoring his team’s second goal with Ron Vlaar (2), Georginio Wijnaldum (20) and Bruno Martins Indi (right) during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Third Place Playoff match (Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)

However, the seasoned mentor would soon leave the post for a new challenge at Manchester United, and what followed was a truly catastrophic qualifying campaign ahead of the Euro 2016, with Guus Hiddink, at first, and his assistant Danny Blind later, overseeing an inconceivable fourth-place finish in the qualifying pool. With only 13 pts collected in 10 games, the Oranje compiled more losses (5) than wins (4), and couldn’t muster a single triumph (1D, 5L) over direct rivals Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, who all headed to France.

This outcome resulted in a first European Championships miss since 1984, and a major tournament failure unseen since they were pipped by Portugal and the Republic of Ireland ahead of the 2002 World Cup, yet the changes hardly came by. Blind, who had lost three of four qualifying matches, was kept in charge despite his limited experience as a head coach – he had only guided Ajax for 14 months a decade earlier – and following the departures of assistants Dick Advocaat and Marco van Basten, the shortcomings of the former defender would quickly came into the fore.

Drawn into a group with France and Sweden in World Cup qualifying, the Dutch wrestled an important point in Stockholm at the pool opener, performing well in spite of the absence of captain Arjen Robben, but a month later a screamer from Paul Pogba proved enough to earn France a 1-0 victory in Amsterdam, placing the Dutch immediately behind the eight ball. Skip a few months forward, and the Blind experiment met his rational end after a resounding 2-0 defeat in Sofia, a game marked by the unfortunate debut of center-back Matthijs de Ligt, 17 years old at the time, merely two starts into his professional career and a prominent feature in both Bulgarian goals.

A shocking loss in Sofia marked the beginning of the end for Holland’s 2018 World Cup dreams (Reuters)

For the second consecutive campaign, the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) was forced to replace the chief-commander in the middle of the journey, and this time, to no one’s surprise, the option fell on another patriarch of Dutch football, 70-year-old Dick Advocaat. He took over with back-to-back 5-0 routs in Rotterdam against the Ivory Coast (friendly) and Luxembourg, but dropped the ball in the first major test, the crucial visit to Paris.

Despite being thoroughly dominated by the hosts, the Netherlands were still alive at the hour mark in the Stade de France, trailing by a single goal, when Kevin Strootman was sent off and Advocaat reacted by committing to the irresponsible decision of urging all units forward in search of a tying marker, admittedly unaware that goal-difference could prove essential to the group’s decision.

Naturally, the nimble French forwards held a feast in the acres of space left available, smashing three more past Jasper Cillessen for a 4-0 defeat that sunk the Netherland’s World Cup hopes well before the final blow delivered by Luxembourg, throttled 8-0 in Stockholm hours after Advocaat famously laughed off a question forecasting such possibility.

Under the weight of an unsurmountable goal deficit, the Netherlands picked up a difficult victory in Belarus (1-3) before shooting for a near-miracle in the last game versus Sweden. They needed a preposterous 7-goal triumph in Amsterdam just to reach the playoffs, yet fell way short, bouncing out with 19 pts amassed by virtue of a 6-1-3 qualifying record. Not the sheer disaster of the previous campaign, nevertheless a second consecutive fiasco, unheard in the Oranje since the 1982-86 period, the fallout of Johan Cruyff’s generation.

At this point, savvy readers will point out the Netherlands returned to the biggest stage in 1988 and with a bang, an emergent, fresh crop of talent torching the opposition on the way to Holland’s only major title to date. Can we expect history to repeat itself in the short term?

II – Transitional crisis

Well, broaching comparisons between sides separated by almost three decades is always a tricky proposition, but it can be argued that some connecting dots are to be established between the origins of the two most recent stagnation periods in Dutch football and, in particular, their respective prominent faces.

In fact, even if their international appearances lacked the same flamboyancy and worldwide veneration reserved for the rampaging heroes of the 1970’s, the core group that led the country’s fortunes for the vast majority of the XXI century earned much of the same high esteem showered on the likes of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol or Arie Hann by virtue of their impressive collective accomplishments and individual accolades, which rank at the very top of every relevant statistical category in national team history.

Born between 1983 and 1984, we’re talking about veterans that peaked at the 2010 World Cup though their influence stretched from the mid-2000’s, past the latest Oranje appearance in a global stage (2014), and into the most recent disappointments, a longevity that ensures the moniker of a “golden generation”.

Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben back in 2006, the early days of their national team careers. Happier and easier times for the Netherlands (ANP)

The first to earn a senior cap, playmaker Rafael van der Vaart (now 35-years-old) wore the Oranje jersey 109 times, fourth all-time, until his time ended just before the 2014 World Cup due to injury, while striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (34) may have never been a full-fledged starter yet in almost a decade (2006-2015) of work plundered 42 goals, second only to Robin van Persie (34), whose 50 tallies obtained in 102 games make him the top scorer in national team history.

The former Manchester United and Arsenal standout is now a shadow of his former self, having returned to Feyenoord in January, but he continues to resist calling an end to his international career, contrary to Wesley Snejder (33), the quintessential number 10 who became the most capped (133) Dutch player before opting to retire from the National Team a few weeks ago.

Finally, this influential quintet is completed with Arjen Robben (34), arguably the only Dutch mainstay who can still be labelled as “world-class”; the perpetuity at Bayern Munich seemingly extending his shelf life as an impact player. The genial winger, who vaulted the squad at the 2014 World Cup, scored 6 times (7 matches) in the latest qualifying campaign before announcing his international retirement following the game with Sweden. Tallying  twice in that night in Amsterdam, including a trademarked inside run and left-footed, curled shot that will linger as a perfect reminder of his brilliance, Robben then talked about the need to “pass the baton” to the next generation, casting a light on the tortuous reality: who will pick it up?

Looking at the group of established players that will comprise the nucleus of the Dutch national team moving forward, the pickle isn’t exactly the lack of good players entering the prime of their careers or evolving into solid performers, but the bare cupboard of transcendental talents and top-level performers plying their trade in Europe’s heavyweights in the same way minor Dutch factions once cohabitated in Barcelona, Milan or Madrid.

Truth to matter, peruse the rosters of perennial Champions League contenders these days and you’ll encounter the aforementioned Robben in the German giants, Daley Blind, a utility man at Manchester United who, ideally, wouldn’t be the first option at any position, and FC Barcelona’s backup goaltender Jasper Cillesen. OK, if you’re feeling gracious, let’s expand the net to include Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, once a can’t miss prospect who didn’t blossom as expected, teammate Virgil van Dijk, recently moved for a defenseman’s world record fee, and AS Roma’s Kevin Strootman, who missed the large part of two consecutive seasons (2014/15 and 2015/16) due to injury. Seven names…

Several Dutch players surround England’s Dele Alli in a recently friendly match in Amsterdam. It will be, necessarily, a different Oranje moving forward (Associated Press)

Furthermore, while Blind, Cillesen and Wijnaldum played prominent parts at the 2014 World Cup, some of the other youngsters who caught the eye under Louis van Gaal failed to evolve as expected in order to reach the European elite. Snapped out of Feyenoord after the tournament in Brazil, center-backs Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij are perfect examples of it, as their respective careers stalled in the meantime, the former falling out of favour at FC Porto, the latter encountering injury problems during his stay at SS Lazio. Remember diminutive midfielder Jordy Clasie, once likened to Xavi? Incapable of carving his space during a two-year spell at Southampton, he’s on loan in Belgium this season hoping to revive a dwindling career.

And what about Van Gaal’s crown jewel, winger Memphis Depay? Dazzling for PSV in 2014-15, he botched the opportunity at Manchester United and is only now, at 24 years old, displaying glimpses of his tantalizing potential in Lyon, teasing with incredible pieces of skill but also showing that some ripening is still needed before he can be expected to pull all the strings for the Oranje.

As a result of this absence of go-to options or even a coherent group ready to bridge the gap, one might be compelled to the notion that something went terribly wrong in respect to player development in the Netherlands over the last decade-plus. Or, perhaps, they’re simply facing a momentary talent famine?

III – Dropping off the radar: lost generations and a shifting recruitment pool

Far from a flawless predictor of success at the senior level, repeated excellence at the youth levels is as good an indicator of the health of a development system as we can find in football, not least because it tends to lead into waves of talent and a well-stocked pool at the top of the pyramid.

Spain and Germany, the two most accomplished European nations of the last decade, are obvious examples of this, and while it’s been well documented that the vast majority of their best players previously tasted victory at the U-17, U-19 or U-21 level, the reality is, in hindsight, the Netherlands ought to place at a similar level.

After all, of the five UEFA (men’s) trophies that are exposed on the KNVB cabinet, four were captured in the last dozen of years, and the back-to-back triumphs at the U-21 European Championships in 2006 and 2007 emerge as a cautionary tale in this exercise.

The Netherlands won the Under-21 European Championships at home in 2007. Do you dare to name any three of the boys in the image? (Getty)

Positioned on the final part of a youngster formative years, with most participants already well established amongst the professional ranks, this showcase event is, usually, a final stepping stone towards stardom for the most promising individuals however, due to a variety of reasons, for the large majority of the Dutch players that comprised the two aforementioned squads, the continental championship, more than a peak in terms of silverware, functioned as a tangible zenith in performance.

Indeed, a total of twenty-two players from those rosters earned full international debuts at some point, yet only three stuck around for a meaningful period of time (Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, center back Ron Vlaar and winger Ryan Babel) whereas the likes of Hedwiges Maduro, Urby Emanuelsson, Demy de Zeeuw or the 2007 Golden Player of the tournament, Royston Drenthe, flamed out as soon as they were thrusted into the spotlight for their clubs or set foot abroad.

Incidentally, since those consecutive triumphs, the Dutch failed to qualify for four of the last five U-21 tournaments, making an appearance in 2013 to reach the semi-finals with many of the players that starred one year later in Brazil (De Vrij, Blind, Martins Indi, Depay, Wijnaldum, Clasie) and a few from whom a lot was expected to no avail (Adam Maher, Marco van Ginkel, Ola John).

Consequently, it seems the transition from the youth ranks to the highest-levels of professional football (especially outside of the Eredivisie) has proved traumatic for many of the country’s best talents lately, and as we delve further into the system, this theory gets further validation.

A regular presence (5 of last 8) at the Under-19 European Championships, the Netherlands made it to the final four only once (2017) in that span, therefore failing to qualify for any U-20 World Cup since 2001 (they hosted in 2005) and also providing a stark contrast with their exceptional U-17 performances as of late. On the last ten U-17 Euros, the Netherlands reached six semi-finals, advanced four times to the decider and captured the title on two occasions, 2011 and 2012, both times defeating Germany in the Final.

Senior Dutch internationals Memphis Depay (#11), Tonny Vilhena (#10) and Karim Rekik (#4) were part of the U-17 European Championship success in 2011 (UEFA)

Some of the members of those winning generations, now aged 23-24, have already broken into the main Oranje (Nathan Aké, Karim Rekik, Terrence Kongolo, Jetro Williams, Memphis Depay, Tonny Vilhena), yet none looks primed to grow into a true game-changer as many anticipated the likes of Vilhena or 2011 Best player of the tournament Kyle Ebecílio would become. And if you’re wondering whether it is still too early to draw conclusions from those classes, look no further than 2012 runners-up Germany, who featured Julian Brandt and Leon Goretzka, two influential figures on the last Confederations Cup, or France, already reaping dividends from the likes of Anthony Martial or Thomas Lemar.

In any case, we can safely assume that gifted footballers are still sprouting on the fields of the Netherlands, and whatever is belying their full maturation has to do with nurturing, nonetheless there’s another pressing issue that needs to be addressed in regards to the talent pool available in the country.

A former maritime and merchant powerhouse, the Kingdom of the Netherlands held possessions around the world well into the second half of the XX century, when the decolonisation fever eventually hit their enclaves and outposts in the Caribbean. Still, the Dutch were able to keep a grip on some overseas territories (Curaçao, Aruba, Sint Maarten and the Caribbean Netherlands) until very recently and sports, as many other areas, got important contributions from the diaspora for a very long time.

The birth land of thousands who moved stateside in search of better opportunities, Suriname, an independent country since 1975, particularly stands out amongst the former Dutch territories as plenty of the Netherlands’ football stars of yesteryear carried Surinamese descent, yet that spring has also dried up significantly over the last few years. Where once the Dutch mined Patrick Kluivert, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids or Clarence Seedorf, legends that perfectly combined the technical proficiency of local football-education with South-American flair and exuberance, they’re now tied to Quincy Promes, Georginio Wijnaldum, Ryan Babel or Virgil van Dijk, and the gap is still to be filled with impact players hailing from the melting pot that is the Dutch society today.

Oranje legends Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids line up before a match against the Czech Republic at the Euro 2000.

On the current national team, you’ll find players with origins in Tunisia, Angola, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Ghana or Guinea-Bissao, however plenty of others rose up the ranks under the watchful eye of the KNVB only to later change alliances, agreeing to represent the country of their parents. In most cases, the loss won’t prove substantial, but since quality, more than quantity, is what usually makes the difference at the top levels, someone as talented as Morocco international and Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who could have eased the transition following Wesley Sneijder’s decline, shouldn’t have escaped.

 

So, as we’ve established that some of Dutch football’s decline stems from flawed player development as well as an inability to syphon the best of the evolving Dutch society, now it’s time to examine another important aspect: the application of their footballing philosophy.

IV – Identity: the strenuous compromise between style and results

Bold, enthralling, beautiful and fun. Dutch football used to be the benchmark of an aesthetically pleasing experience in pure footballing terms: slick passing, and positional and spacing fluidity the guiding principles for a country that grew to favour style over substance. So much that almost unanimous acclamation disguised the fact that the Dutch national team didn’t win as much as it should have in its glorious eras; trophies left on the hands of others and painful losses shrugged off in the name of adoration by neutrals and prudish adherence to defining principles and ideals.

Such approach flew through the decades, generations of artists collapsing in the moment of truth time and time again, but still earning appraise from plaudits. It’s no coincidence then that Johan Cruyff once posited that ”There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style” neither that the 2008 European Championships marked, perhaps, the last time such saying resonated, the Netherlands commanded by Marco van Basten displaying the same finesse of the former striker as they swept through the group phase with rousing triumphs over France (3-0) and Italy (4-1) only to be dumped out by a Russian team led by fellow Dutch Guus Hiddink.

After that competition, though, van Basten stepped down and new manager Bert van Marwijk turned things around 180°, leading the team to the 2010 World Cup Final with pragmatism, cohesion, discipline and, might we say… a lot of hard graft, embodied to perfection by the midfield vigour of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, an unmovable stab of concrete in front of the defensive sector. Ultimately defeated by Spain in one of the most rugged finals in history, the National team members were pelted back home with accusations of “betrayal” for renouncing to the traditions of Dutch football, their “anti-football” methods – as dubbed by Cruyff itself – an “ugly, vulgar” compromise forged in the name of victory at all costs.

Spain’s Iker Casillas stops Arjen Robben’s point-blank chance in a crucial moment of the 2010 World Cup Final (Getty)

We’ll never experience how history would have unfolded had Arjen Robben’s shot evaded the outstretched leg of Iker Casillas in the night of Johannesburg, but we know that the KNVB doubled down on the matter-of-fact approach in 2012, substituting van Marwijk, following a disappointing European Championships, with Louis van Gaal. Setting up a defensive 5-3-2/3-5-2 hybrid that relied more than ever on defensive compactness, blistering counter attacks and the individual brilliance of a couple of names (Robben, Van Persie), the Netherlands’ option was vindicated when they extracted revenge from the ball-hugging wizards of Spain in a 5-1 drubbing in the opener in Brazil, before proceeding to get within a penalty-shootout victory of returning to the World Final.

And then, in spite of getting closer to glory with this ruthless, pragmatic mind-set than at any time throughout the previous two decades, the national purists brandished their forks again to demand a return to the possession-based blueprint, and their pleas were acquiesced. Hiddink, Blind and Advocaat imposed the return to the 4x3x3 formation that’s imprinted into the fabric of Dutch football, however the results were nothing short of calamitous. Why?

The straightforward answer lies in the enormous progresses experienced in the game of football, particularly in the tactical side, but, mostly, on the realization that Totalvoetball has always been about so much more than a mere formation or striving to hold the ball just for the sake of it. Built around the whole idea of space and time and how it can be maximized (on offense) and shrunk (on defence), incisive possession football necessitates quick-thinking, reactivity, creativity and awareness, traits that aren’t in abundance on the current Dutch squad, as well as fine-tuned collective movements, complementarity and superior understanding between players.

Consequently, more than the lack of skill and physical attributes to replicate the frenzied demands of an intense, high pressing game or to formulate intricate passing sequences, the Dutch national team simply can’t sustain such a complex, challenging model because it’s not able to foster familiarity without a solid foundation over which to instil the main attacking principles. Cue the “sterile possession” paradigm that grace the Netherlands today, expertly parodied by the late Johan Cruyff, one of the fathers of the ideology, as the “world champions [of] passing sideways and back”.

For instance, try to catch a national team game – under the previous regime – against half-decent opposition and it’s distressing to note the Netherlands’ inability to devise a clean breakout from the back, with the ball slowly passed around the defenders and deep-lying midfielder, the buildup process unable to draw adversaries out of their defensive shape in order to create space for a penetrating pass that kick-starts the offense.

Moreover, as the ball circulates around the perimeter and sometimes up the flanks, underlapping or overlapping runs are few and far between, interior movements to explore pockets of space in between, devise passing triangles or create overloads scarce, and positional fluidity, a staple of Total Football, a foreign concept. In result, danger is only generated from the outer channels, and in the few instances a winger manages to receive the ball up the field, he usually has to resort to hopeful crosses towards the box as the central midfielders are mostly overlooked in the construction phase and reserved a secondary role in the final thirds.

With Robben, Sneijder and van Persie in their prime, the Dutch may had been able to live with this primitive, predictable style of football, but the palpable shortage of difference-makers can’t masquerade and explain everything, much less deficient organization and the bevy of defensive inconsistencies that haunt many Dutch teams. An obvious coaching issue exacerbated at the national team level by subpar management (more on this after the jump), nevertheless also a clarion call for a country that needs to realize that nostalgia and reviving used formulas isn’t playing to one’s strengths.

Johan Cruyff runs at Franz Beckenbauer during the 1974 World Cup Final won by West Germany

Emulating Spain and Germany, who have thrived on the possession-based dogma, is easier said than done without a lot of groundwork on a daily basis and, necessarily, at the club level. In fact, the eminent Dutch teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s were concocted by merging strong blocks from Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, tapping on mechanisms and mutual partnerships that could be easily transposed to the international realm, and, evidently, the same happened over the last few years with Spain (2008-2012) and Germany (2014), whose subtract of success was grinded away at FC Barcelona (supplemented with superb Real Madrid individuals) and Bayern Munich.

Naturally, the biggest clubs in the Netherlands aren’t afforded the opportunity to keep their players long enough to build crucial chemistry, and with Dutch players scattering across Europe, it’s impractical to aim for the same lofty notes of decades ago. If Holland aspires to get back to the top of the game, mindlessly mirroring the past it’s definitely not the way to go, and the same extends to the methods implemented by the men tasked with orchestrating from the dugout.

V – Coaching: the merry-go round and a class stopped in time

Since the fourth and last tour of duty (1990-1992) undertaken by the emblematic Rinus Michels, the leading job in Dutch football has been occupied by one of two types of coaches: the members of the old guard, elder statesman who earned respect all around the World over the last three decades, and raw faces, usually former players with limited international experience at the time of appointment.

In regards to the first group, most football fans can name the trio of men that, every time the Dutch job opens up, are automatically placed on the short list of candidates, their reputations almost granting permission to take turns between club posts. Since 1992, Dick Advocaat (70 years old), Louis Van Gaal (66) and Guus Hiddink (70) have trained the national team in 7 different occasions (3+2+2) and for a combined 12 years (4+3.5+4.5), but with Advocaat stepping down, van Gaal in a sabbatical period following his departure from Man United in 2016, and Hiddink similarly in reclusion after an interim stint at Chelsea in 2015-16, none of those options was on the table ahead of the new two-year qualifying cycle.

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie celebrates with head coach Louis van Gaal after scoring a goal during a 2014 World Cup match against Spain (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Likewise, it was highly implausible the KNVB would tap one of the other recent incumbents, their curriculum and post-Netherlands endeavours a forewarning that a healthy mix of experience and future vision was vital in these turbulent times. Take Frank Rijkaard, for example, who led the nation to the semi-finals of the Euro 2000 in his first managerial experience, played a huge part in the rebirth of FC Barcelona between 2003 and 2008, but then hiked through Turkey (Galatasaray) and Saudi Arabia (National team) before falling off the radar in 2013.

The announcement of Rijkaard’s retirement came last December, at age 55, and followed shortly after one of his former teammates, Marco Van Basten, also put his coaching prospects on hold. Streamlined into the Dutch job in 2004, The Swan of Utrecht’s subsequent coaching ventures at Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ Alkmaar failed to bear fruits, and after serving time as a KNVB employee, filling managerial and assistant roles, he joined FIFA as the “Chief Officer for Technical Development”.

A UEFA Cup winner (2002) with Feyenoord, Bert van Maarwijk’s was a more accomplished manager at the beginning of his four-year tenure (2008-2012), but after the disastrous Euro 2012 campaign which determined his exit, he also hasn’t racked up the achievements, following up the Dutch job with an embarrassing 143-day spell at Hamburg, a stint in Saudi Arabia cut short by contract disagreements, and the recent appointment to lead Australia next summer in Russia. And then, obviously, there’s Danny Blind, for some reason groomed by Hiddink to succeed him even if his résumé features all of one year (2005-2006) as Ajax’s head coach and plenty of labour as an anonymous assistant.

Still, the fiasco of Blind’s 20-month experiment finally gave the KNVB enough pause to launch a thorough process in order to select the right man for the job, and while many wanted them to cut right through the established practices and go outside the box (or outside their borders..), they eventually settled for another uninspired choice, another kick at the 1988 class of European Champions.

Boasting a solid career at home and abroad, Ronaldo Koeman’s name was always bound to rally a large consensus, as he remains the only person to have not only played but also managed the Dutch “Big Three” of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, and the man who was spurned in favour of Hiddink back in 2014 finally got his turn. Pointing to a solid track record mentoring young players and thriving when the overall quality at his disposal was underwhelming, the 55-year-old was judged to embody the perfect profile considering the current circumstances facing the Dutch National team, and the early signs are certainly promising.

Ronald Koeman, manager of the Netherlands (L), looks on from the team bench prior to the international friendly against England last month (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Taking the reins surrounded by a renovated support staff, including new sporting and general directors, Koeman led the Netherlands to a splendid 3-0 victory over European Champions Portugal in the latest round of friendlies, his novel 5-2-3 providing more options to build through the thirds and occupy the half spaces in possession, yet one can’t shake the feeling Koeman’s appointment still sounds as a lost opportunity to revamp the entire status quo in the country.

As mentioned before, times have changed and, as the Netherlands display some difficulties to accompany the evolution brimming around the continent, their coaching landscape functions as a paramount example worth exploring, an area where the Dutch are still programmed to do what they’ve always done. For instance, the default option for top clubs in Holland is still the appointment of former club players to run the main show in spite of limited previous experience. Phillip Cocu (PSV) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord) are the most recent examples of this learning-on-the-fly approach, and while they had no problem padding their CV with national honours, deficiencies end up being exposed in European competitions or as soon as they venture abroad and onto more competitive environments, like happened with Frank de Boer, a four-time Dutch Champion with Ajax who lasted less than 3 months in his most recent positions (Inter Milan and Crystal Palace).

Conflictingly, the type of academy-trained, scientific-inclined minds that are flourishing all over Europe face uphill battles to land top jobs, with Peter Bosz (53-years-old), who guided Ajax to the Europa League final last season, and new Ajax manager Erik ten Hag (48), the Rinus Michels Award winner in 2015-16, shining as beacons of hope for a minority that, for better or worse, will eventually elbow their way to the forefront in short order just like it did, to cite a clear-cut success case, in neighbouring Germany.

Alternatively, it’s also not difficult to make the case that the foreign path should be explored both at the club and national team level since, on a deeper level, it finds inspiration on the history of the Netherlands as a country and football nation. In fact, well before their influence spread throughout the world, also in footballing terms, the Dutch were renowned for being unusually receptive to exterior ideas and expertise, their cosmopolitan capital a fervent hub of innovation, opened to learning, crafting and improving methodologies that would be shared with the world. Ultimately, that was the genesis of Totatvoetball, how it spawned and blossomed under Michels and Cruyff and, it can be argued, the principal lesson the Dutch should absorb looking back at their history.

The legendary Rinus Michels holds aloft the 1988 European Championships trophy won by the Netherlands, their only major (men’s) international honour to date (Getty)

Therefore, at a time Holland has grown (too) protective of its footballing principles, rooted to outdated theories and afraid of testing new tactics and concepts, the traditional notions simply have to be challenged and deconstructed. And to ensure a full reboot, not unlike what Germany (yup, them again) went through in the beginning of the century, they should (re) open their borders like they’ve done in all other walks of life. There’s no way around it.

The Austrian Ernst Happel, who sat on the bench at the 1978 World Cup, was the last foreigner to lead the Dutch National Team, and soon they may have to reconsider it again because sometimes it takes swallowing the pride to overhaul an entire system or, in this case, to shake the excessively inward-looking, conservative mentality that has gradually seeped into Dutch football. And, in addition, a successful stint by a foreign national manager might open the floodgates and convince domestic clubs to dip into uncharted waters, scour the global market and think progressively when they need to fill managerial voids, which can only enhance the future prospects of a national league in its own state of crisis.

VI – The National League: sequels of an abrupt fall from grace

So far we’ve focused primarily on the national team and the broader problems of Dutch football, however another aspect has greatly contributed to the demise of the game in the low lands: the downfall of the Eredivisie, the National League, and consequently of the major football institutions in the Netherlands, once among the most renowned in the world.

In the 1970’s, the apogee of orange football, the local clubs were the watermark of Europe, a reality inked in silver with the 9 European trophies conquered during the decade, starting with Feyenoord’s European Cup success in 1970 which would be followed by three consecutive titles for Ajax Amsterdam. Meanwhile, PSV Eindhoven collected the UEFA Cup in 1978 and a decade later would herald another run of Dutch success, with their 1988 European Cup success preceding five other international trophies until 1995, when Van Gaal’s kids brought the Champions League, European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup to Ajax’s museum.

Members of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League winning team celebrate. They are the last to bring the iconic European Cup to the Netherlands (AP)

However, the seismic Bosman ruling came into effect in late 1995, and the profound implications that would unfold in the transfer market demarcated the moment Dutch clubs started to lag behind their European counterparts. It’s no coincidence that since the turn of the century a single continental honour is on record, the 2002 UEFA Cup won by Feyenoord at their own De Kuip stadium, and the descent into obscurity gives no signs of halting despite Ajax’s sentimental run to the 2017 Europa League Final.

Actually, more than the harbinger of a renaissance, De Godenzonen’s latest accomplishment is seen as a blip in the radar for a country that hasn’t produced a Champions League quarter-finalist since 2007 (PSV) and barely groaned, in wistful resignation, as all five representatives in the 2017-18 UEFA club competitions got emphatically bounced out by the end of November. Defending National Champions Feyenoord (Champions League) and Cup-holders Vitesse Arnheim (Europa League) qualified directly to the group stage of their respective competitions before mustering just two wins combined, while Utrecht, PSV and Ajax were eliminated in the Europa League playoffs, with the Amsterdam giants taking just three months to go from surprise finalists to a first-year without European competition in more than five decades…

Accordingly, the nation’s top-flight is currently ranked 14th in the UEFA League rankings, miles away from the top-five, Russia and Portugal, but also chasing the likes of Belgium, Ukraine, Turkey, Switzerland and the lowly Austrian and Czech league. Definitely embarrassing for a country of such tradition, although a situation not borne out of a lack of fan engagement, as corroborated by the attendance figures of 2016-17. No matter how dispirited by the progress of their football, the locals continued to flock to the stadiums in good numbers, with the Eredivisie’s average turnout – set at more than 19k per game – ranking eighth in Europe, or the highest outside the five largest markets (England (EPL + Championship), Germany (Bundesliga 1 and 2), Spain, Italy and France).

Nevertheless, this encouraging gate numbers fail to amount to much when the sizable economic gulf to other nations imposes a sad reality manifested in a sharp loss of competitiveness at the senior levels and the establishment of a vicious cycle that proves hard to break. Undeniably, athletic Dutch kids are still attracted to play football and the clubs continue to educate and graduate youngsters into their squads with incredible frequency – and, perhaps, more prematurely than ever -, yet clubs from abroad come knocking on the door so early that many promising players leave their homeland before being ready for the step up and fizzle out, lost in the shuffle at foreign academies or languishing on the benches until they’re forced to take a step back and return home with confidence shattered and the lustre all but gone.

The list of once highly-rated prospects plagued by this issue encompasses the likes of Luuk de Jong and Marco van Ginkel, both currently at PSV, Ricardo Kishna (Den Haag), Zakaria Labyad (Utrecht) or Luc Castaignos (Vitesse), however the revolving door gives no signs of ceasing at every transfer window; the most recent players fleeing the nest before fully asserting themselves being 22-year-old right back Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord to Roma), 21-year-old midfielder Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax-Wolfsburg) or 22-year-old winger Anwar El Ghazi (Ajax-Lille).

Chelsea FC loanee Marco van Ginkel is unlikely to ever find his way back to the Premier League powerhouse (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Additionally, such annual exodus has another major repercussion, the watering down of the Eredivisie’s level of play as clubs can’t afford to replenish the rosters by recuiting the type of mature players that would, immediately, fill the shoes of the departed and, in turn, end up choosing richer locations. From here, a chain reaction emerges, with players easily snapped out because they can’t properly develop at home due to unsatisfactory competition (and coaching), and teams reeling, particularly internationally, since many revenue streams are dependent on results and, consequently, on the overall quality of the squad.

Once the perfect breeding ground for talents from all over the world, the gateway for the likes of Ronaldo Nazário, Romário or Luis Suárez, Dutch clubs haven’t exactly lost the eye for spotting quality, or even the appeal for a youngster from Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, Scandinavia, the Balkans or the Baltics, just to cite a few examples, yet  the story arch for a foreign signing is quite similar, as they also arrive earlier now and say goodbye when fans had barely met them, relegating the Dutch top-flight to the role of a, de facto, conveyor belt and supplier of the dominant European leagues.

VII – Rays of sunshine: from the prototypical Dutch player to the stars of tomorrow

Running parallel to a decaying national league that fails to prepare its athletes to the speed and intensity of the top-tier competitions, the Dutch player developed at home is also known to display a few characteristics that may play a small part in the current futility of the game in the Netherlands.

While as smart, versatile, technically proficient and tactically astute as any other, most Dutch products seem to have been coaxed out of some of the best attributes former generations enjoyed: the self-determination to express themselves in the middle of collective tenets and the audacity to think and execute differently. Some of this can be pinned on the decline of street football and the consistent football practices instructed worldwide, but there’s some basis to the notion that the Dutch have succumbed to the error of culling individual flair in favour of purely diligent players, who can read the game and fulfil a routine task with the efficiency of the best although they do struggle solving unexpected problems and going off-script.

Leaving behind the reality that this delicate balance between individualism and collectivism was pivotal during the Oranje’s heyday, experience also dictates that some of the quirks of Dutch players of the past are gone since today’s players seemingly perform better under a manager who tells them exactly what to do – like Louis Van Gaal – rather than someone who challenges and affords more leeway.

Additionally, with this mutation in the genetics of the Dutch game, their positional strengths have shifted away from the roles that demand more artistry and improvisation. Once a nation brimming with creative offensive players, the chivvying of dribbling, for example, is responsible for the sparse number of Dutch wingers that excel in one-on-one confrontations or look to execute in crowded spaces. And those that exist frequently butt heads with their clubs and coaches, like happened with Memphis Depay at PSV.

Sweeper, midfielder, goalscorer. The incomparable Ruud Gullit symbolized the wild nature of Dutch football. In the picture, he is in action against the URSS at the Euro 1988 (Pichon/L’Équipe)

Furthermore, the elegant ball-playing defenders that were key features of legendary Dutch sides haven’t been seen in a long time, which is a shame for the nation that pioneered the sweeper role where Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman, Danny Blind and Frank de Boer excelled by mastering the art of the long pass, advancing from the back line and becoming an additional midfielder that would confuse the opposition and open passing lanes.

Fortunately, though, there are a few positive signs regarding these problematics, not only with a change in mentality that was evident on the free-flowing Ajax side that dazzled in Europe last season but, particularly, in the form of the rising tide of Dutch talent, whose development should continue to be handled with extreme care. For a case in point, look no further than the most exciting offensive talent to emerge in the country in a long time, 18-year-old Justin Kluivert (Ajax), who is already dealing with a lot of pressure, both for his notable bloodlines – he’s the son of Patrick Kluivert – and magnetic skills with the ball at his feet, namely the ability to eviscerate defences with his dribbling and close control.

The pacy wing man is already hailed as the heir apparent to Robben, however there’s more help on the way, including two well-rounded midfielders that impress for their intelligence in possession and smart passing, 20-year-old Donny van de Beek (Ajax), who has already bagged over a dozen of goals this season, and AZ Alkmaar’s crown-jewel, the gangly Guus Til, who complements his technical skills with the ability to win aerial challenges in the middle of the park.

Still, it is in another young midfielder that lies the biggest potential to reshape the face of Dutch football, 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong (Ajax), a mesmerizing talent for his ability to effortlessly fill any role in midfield due to his vision, passing range and versatility, but also a player that is thriving this season from deeper areas, used as a libero with free reign to define the pace of play, dribble out of the back and stride forward in mazy runs, raising comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer or a young Ruud Gullit.

The 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong is one of the diamonds of Ajax’s squad (ProShots)

Moreover, the cupboard in defence also features left-footed center back Rick van Drongelen, who made a seamless jump from Sparta Rotterdam to Hamburg at age 19 and is garnering admirers for his impressive Bundesliga debut season, Feyenoord’s Jeremiah St. Juste (21 years old), a bright spot during his team’s Champions League campaign, and, of course, the precocious Matthijs de Ligt. Already an Oranje first-team indisputable, he took over the captaincy duties at Ajax Amsterdam at age 18, and his physical and emotional maturity is a sight to behold, with de Ligt displaying outstanding composure on the ball, the ability to pick out passes of any range from the backline and decisiveness in confront with opposing forwards, where the teenager flashes uncanny speed and sense of timing.

Provided the development of these building blocks goes smoothly, and they continue to expand the base, there’s a potential for a return to the winning ways to come in the medium-term for the Netherlands, and such timeline can even be accelerated if they could add two crucial pieces to this cohort. An elite goalkeeper that would take the mantle from Edwin van der Saar, one of the first stoppers proficient with the ball at his feet and versed on the advantages of assuming a meaningful role in the team’s circulation, and a skilled, prolific marksman to spearhead the line and push incumbents Vincent Janssen and Bas Dost down the pecking order, continuing the heritage of Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie.

Conclusion

Few doubts exist the Netherlands have hit rock-bottom, that a country and a national team whose ground-breaking approach to the game merited cult status are nowadays in a state of trauma, probing for solutions and a new direction in a world that has moved on from their philosophy. Still, the best part about floundering is the sense there’s only one way to go – back up – and, sooner or later, the vibrant orange jerseys will, unequivocally, marvel the football world again.

A litany of errors and missteps have been made at all levels, from a national federation that has struggled to find answers to stop the slide down the sport’s hierarchy, to the clubs, unable to compete with counterparts from countries that face similar challenges in a new economic reality that favours the giants, a coaching class that lacks the outside-the-box, forward-thinking attitude of yore, and players that can’t simply rely on natural talent and smarts alone, however no one disputes the Netherlands are still one of the sport’s guardian nations.

Dutch fans wave flags during the Women’s Euro 2017 Final in Enschede, Netherlands (AP)

That much is evident in the streets, on the slick fields of the lowlands, on the colourful fans that, while distressed with the current situation, keep showing up in major numbers and, from time to time, on the biggest football meetings, as last summer’s triumphant Women’s European Championships exemplified.

It may take more than anticipated to rebuild Dutch football from the ground up, to advance coaching and management practices that are lagging behind their competitors, to groom and mould the stars of tomorrow, to recover the respect cultivated over four decades and, especially, to come to terms with the country’s stand in this ever-evolving football landscape where knowledge is widely available to everyone who seeks it, but others countries went through their own soul-searching periods, sought inspiration outside, overhauled their processes and are now reaping the benefits of their methodical approaches.

The “neurotic genius” of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff turned around football history in a country that was an afterthought for the first half of the XXI century, and if the Dutch hope to avoid a return to this faraway past, the non-conformist, inventive aura instilled by those visionaries should guide them out of the crumble and through the paradigm-shifting changes needed. Even if those include the hard-to-digest decisions they’ve been dreading and putting off for clashing with their romantic, self-professed football notions and the idealistic “Dutch-way” of doing things. Because, it goes without saying, football is rarely beautiful when one is losing.

 

2018 Winter Olympics review: Final Takeaways

We’ve figured out who were the best athletes and our favourite moments of the 2018 Winter Olympics, but before closing the book for another four years, I wanted to touch on a few other topics to deliver a more comprehensive picture of what the action in PyeongChang entailed and what we can derive from it, especially on a country-by-country basis.

However, before we delve into the results, let’s award a few special mentions that could complement the previous chapters of this Winter Olympics review.

Best duel: Alina Zagitova vs Evgenia Medvedeva

Friends, training partners and compatriots, but also opponents with distinct skating styles and artistic concepts. The 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, despite her ballerina manners, is all athleticism and poise, exploding off the ice for breath-taking sequences of jumps and twists that she lands with age-defying efficiency. Three years older, Evgenia Medvedeva is eminently gracious and creative, an artisan who pours her soul into the routines and disappears into character, sublime in the technical aspects though not quite able to pull off the same physical exertion of her rival.

Standing head and shoulders above anyone else in the ladies’ figure skating competition, a mere 1.31 pts separated them in the end; Zagitova’s advantage secured with her world-record short program and controversially kept by the jury when the two teenagers scored the same total in the free skate. Superior in the choreographic and interpretative elements, the World Champion Medvedeva was left to rue her luck as Zagitova’s strategical decision to backload her act with the most difficult jumps to leverage extra points paid off. And so the fledgling prodigy beat the established star for Olympic gold, and one girl sobbed while the other smiled, still insensible to what had she had accomplished.

Russian teenagers Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova shared the podium in PyeongChang (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Similarly to gymnasts, the career of female figure skaters, particularly those that explode at such a young age, is difficult to handicap, but if Medvedeva and Zagitova can keep the flame burning, watch out. This could be a rivalry for the ages.

Eye-watering (non-sport) moment: Team Korea

We all know the world didn’t change because North and South Korean athletes and officials walked out together in the Opening Ceremony and waved the same flag, depicting a unified Korean Peninsula, but if PyeongChang is to be remembered as a miniscule step towards a political agreement that ends a decades-long stalemate, we can all agree that it was worth it. Platitude or not, sport really does have the power to unite people and nations like few else, and even the most cynical person would have to breach a smile at the sight of players from both countries battling and celebrating together on the ice while forming bonds off it.

And if, ultimately, this concerted effort by both nations’ leaders and the IOC means nothing, every person caught on that arena when Randi Heesoo Griffin scored Korea’s first goal will always have one historical moment to look back on. As will all the members of North Korea’s delegation that got to spent two weeks outside of their secluded state, including the mesmerizing “army of beauties” who trudged from venue to venue, unmistakable on their matching outfits and physical features, waving props, dancing to the beat, clapping and singing catching tunes like “Be Strong” and “Win. Win.”. Ok, the chants were bad but that’s not really what counts, is it?

Worst storyline: The brutal wind

After the mild temperatures found in Sochi 2014, the Winter Olympics were back in the appropriate environment, with freezing conditions castigating the athletes right from the Opening Ceremony, yet the Games could have been staged without the merciless gusts of wind that wrecked competitions and forced multiple delays, particularly in the first week.

Amongst all sports, the alpine skiing calendar was the most affected, with many races postponed to dictate a schedule compression that compelled star athletes (Mikaela Shiffrin, for instance) to drop events, while both biathletes and ski jumpers endured conditions that hampered their ability to shoot straight or land safely.

Course crew slide slip to the finish area after the women’s giant slalom was postponed due to high winds at the Yongpyong Alpine Center (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Nonetheless, the really problematic situations happened in the women’s snowboard slopestyle and women’s aerials (freestyle skiing) events, which shouldn’t have gone ahead because of the whipping wind. Turning the competitions into a mess or mere survival battles, the unpredictable conditions led to a parade of ugly falls and swaths of athletes restraining from attempting their riskier acrobatics, and that’s a real shame for the IOC. Athletes shouldn’t work four years with a single goal in mind, only to be forced to stake their physical well-being beyond the reasonable for the sake of a sporting competition.

Best venue atmosphere: Short track speed-skating

The Gangneung Ice Arena doubled as the figure skating venue, yet no other ticket in town was a sought-after as an invitation to the electric nights of short track, when locals regularly lost their marbles in the face of their favourite winter sport, the excitement palpable even for those watching on television.

Already one of the most action-packed, chaotic disciplines in the Winter Olympics, every short track race where the national athletes took part was an adventure on its own, with fans enthusiastically cheering name introductions, saturating the building with nervous tension, puffing at the sight of a fall and exploding in hysterics every time a South Korean moved up the pack to close on victory or contest a sprint. And let’s not even get to the outrage and rebelling raining from the stands when any home favourite got disqualified…

Local favourite Choi Min-Jeong strides to victory in the semi-final of the 1500m as two of her opponents wipe out in behind (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images)

Country-by-country roundup:

Non-traditional nations that accomplished milestones

A record 30 National Olympic Committees gained medals in PyeongChang, and among those stand out a few that reappeared on the list after long absences. For instance Hungary, one of the most decorated Summer Olympic nations, who reached a podium for the first time since 1980, and couldn’t have asked for better from their short track men’s 5000m relay team, which made the national anthem sound for the first time in a Winter Olympics. Encomiums are thus in order for Viktor Knoch, Csaba Burján and siblings Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandór Liu, born in Budapest to a Chinese-father and key parts of the country’s seventh Winter medal since 1924.

Meanwhile, Spain hadn’t medalled in 26-years when Regino Hernández finished the men’s snowboard cross competition in third place, and they didn’t have to wait much more for another since figure skater Javier Fernández twirled his way to a deserved bronze medal in the men’s singles event contested two days later. Although, if we’re rewarding the quickest rebound from feast to famine, New Zealand takes the cake, tripling its all-time count in Winter Olympics in a matter of minutes due to consecutive bronze medals from a pair of 16-year-olds, freestyle skier Nico Porteous (men’s halfpipe) and snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women’s big air), the first Winter medallists from the Pacific nation since 1992.

Javier Fernández celebrates with the Spanish flag after winning a bronze medal on the men’s singles figure skating event (David J. Phillip)

Sick of watching their northern neighbours hoard medals in speed skating, Belgium coaxed a bit of glory when Bart Swings finished second in the men’s mass start to snag the country’s first medal since 1998, whereas alpine skier Tina Weirather finally fulfilled her Olympic destiny, placing third in the women’s Super-G to reopen Liechtenstein’s account after 20 years. With Weirather’s success, now 7 of the 10 medals obtained by athletes from the tiny Principality belong to the same family since Tina’s mother, Hanni Wenzel, and uncle, Andreas Wenzel, also achieved podium positions in representation of the only country to hold medals from the Winter Olympics but not the Summer Olympic Games.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

Stripped of the national flag, anthem and colours in result of a scandalous doping scheme, the Russian athletes were placed on the eye of the storm and the results they delivered in strenuous circumstances underwhelmed, with the country’s representatives falling way short of the 11 golds and 29 medals that, to this day, make the official tally from their home Games in 2014.

A total of 168 athletes were cleared by international federations to don the special OAR tracksuits in PyeongChang, however, deprived of leading figures such as short track star Viktor Ahn, biathlon’s Anton Shipulin or cross-country’s Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Legkov, the distinctive performances amongst the group were few and far between, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia totalling 17 medals and just two golds.

While true that those came in iconic events, men’s ice hockey and women’s singles figure skating, it’s no less legitimate to affirm that discomfort from not possessing enough clean athletes to compete in team events in biathlon or speed skating was galling, and things would have looked even bleaker if not for a tremendous up-and-coming generation of cross-country athletes headlined by Aleksandr Bolshunov, Denis Spitsov and Yulia Belorukova, who amassed a surprising 8 medals, almost half of the team’s final sum.

Ice hockey delivered one of just two gold medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Furthermore, despite all the back spinning going on at the IOC, who seemed desperate to reinstate the Russian Olympic Committee in time for the Closing Ceremony, the OAR delegation still found a way to undermine their own chances, producing two of the four doping cases of the 2018 Olympics: the bizarre failed test of curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who had to return his mixed doubles bronze medal, and the burlesque positive of bobsleigh pilot Nadezhda Sergeyeva, who had modelled a “I Don’t Do Doping” t-shirt just days before the start of the Games.

Still, Russia’s NOC was eventually welcomed back right after the dust settled, and mediocre results slipped under the radar at home because Vladimir Putin got the last laugh and the one thing he really desired: Olympic gold hanging from the necks of his ice hockey heroes.

China

Four years before the winter sports show stops in Beijing, China got an idea of how much work it still has ahead if hopes of making waves in 2022 are to be realized. In PyeongChang, Chinese athletes collected just 9 medals, the same number of Sochi, yet only one was mined from the most valuable metal and, critically, no improvements could be discerned in most sports despite the army of foreign experts brought on board to expedite the process.

In reality, between the Nordic disciplines (alpine skiing, cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping) and the three sliding sports (luge, skeleton and bobsleigh), the Chinese failed to place a single athlete in the top 10, and even though they picked up some honours in freestyle skiing, snowboard, figure skating and speed skating (first podium appearance), the only sport where they’re undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with remains short track speed skating, where they’ve conquered 30 of 53 all-time medals. And, naturally, China’s only title in South Korea was conquered at the Gangneung Ice Center, with 23-year-old Wu Dajing setting two world records on his way to an impressive, wire-to-wire victory in the men’s 500m.

Short track speedskater Wu Dajing was the only Chinese athlete to leave PyeongChang with a gold medal (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Japan

For only the second time, and first outside of their home soil, the Japanese reached double digits in terms of Winter Olympics honours, and the secret behind that progress were the remarkable results achieved in the Gangneung Oval by their ladies, whose rejuvenated speed skating program tabbed 6 of 13 Japanese medals, and three of the four Nipponic golds.

Accordingly, the highlight of the Japanese performance in South Korea was, arguably, the spectacular victory in the women’s team pursuit over the mighty Dutch trio, though the star of the delegation was still figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who defended his title by finishing ahead of compatriot Shoma Uno in the men’s competition despite concerns over a nagging right ankle injury. As for the less expected outcome, it would pertain the third-place obtained by the women’s curling team, which spelled a first ever medal in the sport for the country.

Japan’s Miho Takagi (left), Ayano Sato (center) and Nana Takagi race in the women’s team pursuit final en route to a gold medal. | KYODO

South Korea

The unified ice hockey team grabbed the headlines at home, particularly during the first week, and that may have been exactly what the rest of the South Korean contingent needed to shake off the nerves and deliver an outstanding fortnight, eventually ensuring that the proverbial host nation bump signified a doubling of the medal tally from Sochi (8 to 17).

As expected, most of the load fell on the speed skaters, not only in the short track (3 golds, 6 medals) but also on the longer course (1 gold, 7 medals), whereas figure skating retreated into the shadows on the wake of Yuna Kim’s retirement to cede the stage to a swath of unprecedented successes in disciplines that hold significantly less following in South Korea.

Members of the South Korean women’s curling team celebrate after their semifinal victory over Japan (Aaron Favila / AP)

The case in point would be the success of the “Iron Man” Yun Sung-bin, who tamed the Alpensia track like no other skeleton competitor, but the nice stories extended farther, comprising the four-man bobsleigh unit, who shared the podium with two German sleds, snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, who became the first Korean athlete to win a medal over snow when he finished in the runner up spot of the parallel giant slalom, and the lovely women’s curling team. Nicknamed the Garlic girls for their city of origin, they notched an incredible 8-1 record in group stage before securing silver in what was the country’s first ever participation in the sport.

Sweden

A traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse, Sweden’s delegation left PyeongChang one medal short of Sochi’s total (14 instead of 15) but, probably, in a much better mood by influence of the seven Olympic titles, which equalled the record haul of Torino 2006.

In fact, the total of 2014 was enormously dictated by cross-country (11 of the 14 medals), and while it wasn’t ideal that they got eclipsed by rivals Norway in endurance skiing this time (6 medals against 14), the Swedes found a way to compensate elsewhere, with the most unexpected news travelling from the biathlon centre, where a young team shone brightly to score four podiums and two brilliant gold medals (women’s individual and men’s relay) that bested their neighbour’s record.

Fredrik Lindström heads to the finish line in front of the Swedish crowd in the final moments of biathlon’s men’s relay (Getty Images)

Moreover, in another major battleground for Sweden, the slopes, veterans Frida Hansdotter and André Myhrer claimed a surprising sweep of the alpine skiing (individual) slalom events, while both of the nation’s curling teams played the respective finals in front of the visiting King Carl XVI Gustaf. Unfortunately, the men skipped by Niklas Edin couldn’t resist an American group on a mission, settling for silver, but Anna Hasselborg’s foursome completed the job and made up for the disappointing results in ice hockey, where both Swedish teams failed to reach the last four.

Netherlands

For the second consecutive Olympics, the Netherlands lodged inside the top-five in the final medal standings and, this time, they even showcased a bit of range, spraying some of their speed skating expertise to success in the short track, which accounted for a fifth of their twenty podiums. Including a first ever gold medal, captured by Suzanne Schulting in the 1000m, and a remarkable bronze snatched in the women’s 3000m relay after the Dutch got relegated to the B Final!

Dutch athletes Yara van Kerkhof and Lara van Ruijven rejoice after learning about their unlikely bronze medal in the women’s 3000m relay (ANP)

As for the proceedings in the Oval of Gangneung, the winners of a staggering 23 of 36 medals in Sochi 2014 garnered 16 of 42 (two mass start races added) in Pyeongchang, and 7 of 14 titles, a tally that seemed on the rise when they picked up six in the first seven speed skating events contested before falling flat. Regarding podium sweeps, after the incredible four of 2014, the Dutch swayed just one this time (women’s 3000m) and that can’t be disassociated from the decline in performance of their two legends, Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst.

The veteran duo, though, still managed to pick up medals number 9 and 11, respectively, to become the most decorated speed skaters in Olympic history, and they were not the only flying Dutch to rewrite the history books since teammate Jorien ter Mors will be immortalized as the first female to medal in two different sports at a single Olympics, winning the 1000m in the long track and bronze with the 3000m relay in the smaller ice rink a few days later.

United States of America

Ranked fourth in both the gold medal (9) and total medal (23) counts, the United States produced their worst Winter Olympics showing since Nagano 1998 because they metamorphosed into the team of the “Almost”.

Indeed, an uncharacteristic 35 American athletes finished between fourth and sixth, however the most worrying trend is another, which keeps popping up at every four year cycle: despite all the money, the USA have grown increasingly reliant on the X-Games events – added in 1992 – to keep a meaningful slice of the pie, and that is manifested in 11 of 23 medals originating from the plethora of freestyle skiing and snowboard showdowns.

17 year-old Red Gerard won the first medal for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics (Mike Blake/Reuters)

At one point, the four Olympic titles obtained by American athletes belonged to snowboarders, with 17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim pairing repeat Champions Jamie Anderson and Shawn White in the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions, but the final picture wind up getting a fresh coat of paint in the form of the three standout gold-medal performances amongst the entire American contingent: by the women’s ice hockey team, which ended Canada’s domination, the cross-country’s women’s sprint team, which secured the first ever Olympic title in the sport, and the men’s curling team, with John Shuster’s band of renegades charging to gold over Sweden.

Other positive surprises included a first ever singles medal in luge, courtesy of Chris Mazdzer, and the unmatched ability to generate contributions from 11 of 15 sports, though that shouldn’t disguise clear underperformance from the likes of bobsleigh, both speed skating disciplines – even if the women’s team pursuit salvaged bronze after the embarrassing goose egg in the Oval of Sochi – and figure skating, whose disastrous overall display in the women’s event was just the tip of the iceberg. In a minor level, reference to biathlon – the only Olympic sport where the USA have yet to reach the podium – and alpine skiing, which had to live with floundering men and the three medals gathered by Mikaela Shiffrin (gold and silver) and the departing Lindsey Vonn (silver).

Canada

Eight years after Vancouver, which marked a first look at the results of the “Own the Podium” program, Canada signed off from PyeongChang boasting a new record tally of medals (29) and a total of 11 golds, ranking third in both categories (and ahead of the USA, it should be noted), however these notable achievements couldn’t completely wash out the bittersweet taste left by what they missed out on.

Ice hockey and curling are Canada’s national past times and the proud holders of the four Olympic titles attributed in both sports were left to lick their wounds after relinquishing every single one of them in South Korea. They picked up the title in the novel curling mixed doubles event, but that’s small consolation since both genre’s foursomes finished off the podium, something that had never happened to Canadian men or women since the sport debuted in 1998. In addition, on the other sheet of ice, the women’s hockey team capitulated to the USA in the Final and the men had to settle for bronze in a tournament contested without NHL players.

Canada forward Meghan Agosta (2) and forward Marie-Philip Poulin (29) react after losing to the United States in the shootout of the women’s Olympic final Olympic (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On the positive side, Canada’s beloved figure skating pair won two golds in PyeongChang, with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir leading the way in the team event before recovering the ice dancing title, and to the four figure skating medals acquired, the country appended a healthy five in short track speed skating, with Kim Boutin snagging one in each individual event, as well as four golds and an admirable seven podiums in freestyle skiing, a sport where they hold the all-time lead.

Furthermore, Canada medalled for the first time in luge, with Alex Gough hitting the top-three in women’s singles and as part of the relay, Dutch-born Ted-Jan Bloemen became the first Canadian athlete to win an individual Olympic speed skating event in 34 years, and the bobsleigh two-man unit piloted by Justin Kripps stunningly tied for gold with a German sled, repeating the unusual circumstances of Nagano 1998, when Canada and Italy couldn’t be separated in the first gold medal dead heat in bobsleigh’s Olympic history.

Germany

Anointed as the pre-Olympics favourites to top the medal table, the Germans fell just short of the goal, bagging a mere 31 (the maximum are still 36 at Salt Lake City) in spite of matching Norway for a new winter record of 14 titles, nonetheless their authorities should be thrilled with the performance.

Improving massively on the haul of 8 victories and 19 podiums collected four years ago, Germany was only blanked once in 16 days of competition and managed to keep their usual strongholds, sweeping the gold medals in the Nordic Combined, including the entire top-three in the Individual large hill/10 km event, and bobsleigh, where they had been shockingly shut out in Sochi, and coming close in luge, with the fourth triumph flying wayward due to Felix Loch’s mistake.

World champion Johannes Rydzek led a German one-two-three finish in the Pyeongchang 2018 Nordic combined individual Gundersen large hill/10 kilometres event (Getty Images)

In truth, between the three sliding sports, the Germans bagged a record six golds at the Alpensia Sliding Center – more than all the other countries combined – and 11 medals, but there was much more to be excited about, from the 3 titles and 7 podiums heaped by biathletes in spite of Laura Dahlmeier’s “modest” contributions, to the four medals conquered by ski jumpers.

Regarding the rest of the contingent, a deserved reference to the gold captured by 34-year-old Aliona Savchenko (partnering Bruno Massot) in the pair’s figure skating competition of her fourth Olympics, and the surprising silver in men’s ice hockey, where the underdogs eliminated the reigning World Champions (Sweden) and Olympic Champions (Canada) on the way to a first medal since 1976.

Norway

I have no idea if Norway’s success in winter sports is based on their reticence to keep score below the age of 13, allowing the kids to fall in love without the pressure of competition, or some truth to the old adage that Norwegian children are born with skis on, however I’m convinced the future is unlikely to bring another Olympics where so many things go right at the same time for this Nordic nation.

Landing in PyeongChang with the 10th largest commission (109 athletes), the Norwegians not only blitzed past the United States’ Winter Olympics record of 37 medals (Vancouver 2010) and destroyed their previous best, totalling an unprecedented 39 after the 26 of Lillehammer and Sochi, but also matched Germany (2018) and Canada’s (2010) marks with a record 14 gold medals at a single Olympics.

Simen Hegstad Krüger waits for team-mates Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund as Norway completed a clean sweep in the men’s 15 kilometres + 15km skiathlon (Getty Images)

It’s well known that Norway’s national sport is cross-country and, unsurprisingly, their athletes drove the bus in South Korea to erase memories of a tepid performance four years ago, racking up an unparalleled 14 medals which comprised 7 golds, a podium sweep in the men’s 30km skiathlon, five metal biscuits for the legendary Marit Bjørgen, three titles for wunderkind Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and, amazingly, 0 honours for the reigning World Cup and Tour de Ski Champion Heidi Weng….

Moreover, keeping up with the best practices over two planks, ski jumpers pitched in 5 medals, including the first ever gold in the team event, biathletes contributed with 6, even with a single individual triumph from star Johannes Thingnes Bø, and the strength of their vaunted “Attacking Vikings” – which finally netted a maiden gold in the men’s downhill (Aksel Lund Svindal) – was supplemented with the first podium appearances for female alpine skiers since 1932.

Freestyler Øystein Bråten also joined the ski party by triumphing in the men’s slopestyle, and even the lack of individual medals (silver in team event) in the Nordic Combined, where the country leads the all-time standings, was eventually offset by the timely return to glory of Norway’s once-dominant speed skating team, who hadn’t won a title since 1998 before claiming the men’s 500m (Håvard Lorentzen) and men’s team pursuit in PyeongChang.

Havard Bokko, Sindre Henriksen, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen of Norway celebrate after winning the gold medal during the Speed Skating Men’s Team Pursuit Final (Dean Mouhtaropoulos /Getty Images)

Throwing the bronze medal in curling’s mixed doubles – rescued after the OAR disqualification – into the pile, 8 of the 11 sports where Norway competed chipped into the pot, and that summons their approach: capitalize on what you’re good at and leave the other chips to fall where they may.

2018 Winter Olympics review: Best Moments

The best thing about any Olympic Games, what keeps us glued to the television after all, are the athletes and the beautiful ways they inspire the generations to come. The second best thing? The memories created along the way, from those hair-raising, spine-tingling instances that will get discussed for eternity and immortalized in video, photography or gif-form, to the less widespread occasions that resonate on a more personal level and around niche audiences.

Consequently, mobilizing the perspective to sort through the many moments that could fill this category is more challenging than it looks, yet that’s what I’m (not) paid to do, so here you go: five moments I’ll cherish from the PyeongChang Olympics, in a mixture of monumental upsets and emotional breakthroughs recounted in detail, followed by a list of others that could have easily been featured.

  1. Biathlete Hanna Öberg romps to startling 15km Individual triumph

The Individual races are biathlon’s longest solo efforts, and far from the most thrilling format when we take into account that they’re contested against the clock, with the favourites spread across the start list and competing detached of references. Still, these are also events where shooting accuracy is of paramount importance, and a clean slate can do wonders on the way to smashing surprises.

With a couple of top-seven finishes under her belt, Swedish Hannah Öberg had already shown good form in Pyeongchang when she departed for her third race of the Winter Games sporting the No. 24 of 86 competitors, however few would have fancied her chances of a medal at the time.

Positioned outside the top 50 in the 2017-18 World Cup ranks and having never medalled amongst the elite, the 22-year-old would remarkably down every single target on a day of instable weather conditions, going 20-of-20 on the range before motioning fast enough through the tracks to hold off a blazing skiing performance by Slovak Anastasyia Kuzmina (2 misses). When Öberg crossed the line to set the fastest time, she collapsed of exhaustion and soon the nerve-racking process of waiting on her luck began.

A perfect shooting performance set the stage for Hanna Öberg’s incredible triumph (REUTERS)

As the minutes trickled in, one by one the big names did just enough to fall out of contention, and realization that a medal was coming her way started to creep into Öberg’s face on the rest area as the number of athletes still to finish dwindled rapidly. Donning bib 80, double Olympic Champion Laura Dahlmeier represented the last roadblock to a major upset, yet the German flagged in the last loop around the circuit and could only clock the third best time, consummating the young Swede’s delight.

In a perfect representation of the Olympics’ magic, overnight Hanna Öberg went from complete unknown into a national star brimming with confidence, and she punctuated her breakout performance by authoring an incredible comeback in the women’s relay a few days later, vaulting Sweden from eight to second in her anchoring leg to leave PyeongChang with two medals in tow.

The unheralded Swedish biathlete scored two surprising medals in PyeongChang (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

  1. Yun Sung-bin wins historical gold for South Korea in skeleton

In an era where hosting the Olympic Games is an humongous enterprise suited only for a rotating cast of economic powerhouses, historical breakthroughs in home soil can be characterized as a thing of the past, yet it wasn’t that long ago that host nations capitalized on the ultimate Olympic honour by funnelling resources into areas of weakness in order to enjoy major strides in sports that never before formed part of the national conversation.

For South Korea, the Winter Olympics have always been about excelling in ice skating sports, namely figure skating and short track speed skating, and not in the sliding disciplines rooted in Europe and North America, however that changed when Yun Sung-bin’s triumphed in men’s skeleton. Only six years after taking the sport, and four since placing 16th in Sochi, the 23-year-old took full advantage of his familiarity with the Alpensia Sliding Center to record the largest margin of victory in Olympic skeleton history or any sliding event since 1972.

Yun Sung-bin captured the imagination of his compatriots with a dominant performance in men’s skeleton. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters)

Sung-bin accumulated a ludicrous 1.63 seconds less than silver medallist Nikita Tregubov by posting the best time in all four runs, and he not only became the first Asian to medal in skeleton, but the first man born outside of the two leading continents to win an Olympic sliding event. And just so the symbolism wouldn’t be lost in the Olympic daily shuffle, after breaking the track record in the final descent, Sung-bin was serenaded by a venue overflowing with beaming compatriots, the local fans flocking in a national holiday to see their new hero complete history.

  1. Jessie Diggins out-sprints Stina Nilsson to secure USA’s first ever Olympic gold in cross-country

There’s no shortage of snow, wilderness or funds that might justify the fact that the United States had never won an Olympic title in cross-country skiing, still that piece of information ringed unequivocally true. Traditionally dominated by Norway, Sweden and Russia, the only previous American honour in the sport dated back to 1976, when Bill Koch claimed silver in the men’s 30km, but that would change on February 21st and in stirring fashion.

Jessie Diggins rejoices after securing the United States first medal in cross-country skiiing in more than 40 years (Lars Baron / Getty Images)

One of the most engaging races in cross-country’s Olympic agenda, the women’s team sprint consisted of 6 by 1.25km sprints alternating between 2 teammates, and when the last exchange took place, favourites Norway, Sweden and United States had already wrapped the three podium positions, leaving only the medal distribution to hang on the efforts of American Jessica Diggins and the reigning individual sprint Champion and runner-up, Stina Nilsson (Sweden) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (Norway), respectively.

The Norwegian was the first to make a move on the final lap, but the others glued behind, leapfrogged in the descent and entered the stadium in front, with Falla lagging as Swede and American prepared for the decisive rush. In earnest, Nilsson surged ahead off the final curve, seemingly on her way to victory by way of her formidable finishing speed, but the 26-year-old Diggins jumped out of her shadow and started to erase the deficit stride by stride to arise in front at the finishing line, winning an exhilarating final sprint for Olympic immortality.

Quickly mauled by Kikkan Randall, the teammate with whom Diggins had also won the team sprint at the 2013 World Championships, disbelief and joy irradiated from the American pair’s emotional embrace, a moment that symbolized more than four decades of national frustration leading up to the United States’ first ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing.

  1. United States finally overthrows Canada for women’s ice hockey gold.

How is it possible that these two teams never disappoint? That United States vs Canada in women’s ice hockey is always synonymous of drama and chaos, enduring moments, heroic performances and everything else that makes hockey great. Four years after a bouncing piece of vulcanized rubber, a post, a soul-crushing ping and Marie-Philip Poulin denied the American players of Olympic glory in Sochi, redemption was once again in their hands, the chance to end Canada’s string of four consecutive gold medals and write a fresh chapter in a sports rivalry with so many twists and turns except when it matters the most.

Twenty years later, the tables finally turned between USA and Canada (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

Superior in the team’s group stage encounter in PyeongChang despite falling to Canada by 2-1, the Americans started the Olympic Final on top, scoring on a powerplay deflection by Hilary Knight in the closing seconds of the first period, but the script flipped quickly in the second, with Haley Irwin batting one home before the inevitable Poulin, who had scored the game-winning-goals in the 2010 and 2014 deciders, drove a dagger into the US heart by taking advantage of some sloppy defence. For the next 26 minutes of playing time, frenzied American pressure and superb goaltending by Canada’s Shannon Szabados hailed no changes, and just as it looked like Poulin would be the hero again, a lackadaisical line switch afforded Monique Lamoureux-Morando a breakaway that she buried for the leveller with less than 7 minutes to go in regulation.

For a second consecutive Olympics, the path for Gold would require the sudden-death, anxiety-inducing overtime, but this time Canada couldn’t convert on a late powerplay, and a delightful Final resorted to a skills competition or, as they call it, the (f*ckin) shootout.

One on one against the goalies, Gigi Marvin (USA) and Meghan Agosta (CAN) scored in consecutive attempts, Amanda Kessel (USA) rifled one to answer right after Melodie Daoust (CAN) pulled off “The Forsberg”, and then, on the sixth American shot, Justine Lamoureux-Davidson carried out the move of a lifetime, faking a backhand before dragging the puck across the body of an helpless Szabados and sliding it into the cage.

Leading 3-2 in the shootout in extra innings, all the Americans needed was a save from Maddie Rooney on Agosta, and the 20-year-old, cool as a cucumber and smiling through her mask, kicked out the final shot of the women’s tournament to end an Olympic drought that mirrored her age. At last, time had come for the tears of frustration and sadness to rain from the eyes of the woman clad in red as blue sweaters piled on top of each other a few meters away.

  1. Ester Ledecká rocks Alpine skiing world in dazzling Super-G run

“You are first. You are the winner.

Noooooooooooo.

You are!”

I can’t pinpoint the last time TV spectators were treated to a raw exchange between an athlete and the men manning the camera, yet standard procedure went out the window when the object of attention finished the race and stared slack-jawed at the pandemonium spawning, clearly failing to comprehend what the senses were communicating to the brain. The uproar, the flashes, the flabbergasted faces looking at her and, most definitely, that bright green light flaring up on the screen in front. Shock, disbelief, bewilderment and excitement blending inside Ester Ledecká’s head and invading those lucky enough to catch one of the most extraordinary moments in Olympic history.

But let’s rewind the tape. In alpine skiing, the top-10 contenders for each race are allowed to pick their starting positions, choosing odd numbers between 1 and 19. The next group of ranked athletes are assigned the gaping digits (2 to 20), and the remaining names are tucked to the end, completing their runs when the snow is much softer and irregular. Hence, the last participants are not only less qualified, but usually impaired by worse conditions, and that’s why so many declared Austrian Anna Veith, the defending Champion, as the impending winner of the Olympic Super-G shortly after her compatriot Cornelia Huetter (bib 19) clocked the 7th best time. More than half of the 45 competitors were still buying their time in the starting house, yet none had ever finished a Super-G race amongst the elite and, surely, that wouldn’t happen at the friggin’ Olympics.

Czech Ester Ledecka on her way to gold in the Super G (Getty Images)

Now, slot bib 26 into the narrative, a number that belonged to Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká. A full-fledged snowboard star that had accumulated sporadic appearances in the Alpine skiing World Cup since 2016, she only caught the full attention of onlookers some 40 seconds into her run by speeding past the second checking point in a time 0.18s faster than Veith’s. Definitely an interesting mark, though far from unheard off since 14 others had accomplished the same and the much more relevant intermediate three loomed downhill to restore normality. Except, against all odds, it didn’t and green radiated again, this time enclosing a tiny – 0.04s.

Over the next 20 ticks, as many held their breath, Ledecká negotiated a couple of turns, tucked for a long jump, landed nervously and raced to the line, stopping the clock at 1:21.11. Just one hundred of a second better than the previous best, the minimum separation accepted in Alpine skiing, yet more than enough to turn an unassuming 22-year-old from Prague into a household name at home and abroad.

 

Also in the running:

Martin Fourcade and Simon Schemp produce closest finish in biathlon’s history at men’s mass start.

Marit Bjoergen caps her Olympic career with runaway 30km victory.

Canada and Germany tie for Bobsleigh two-man Olympic title.

Marcel Hirscher and Henrik Kristoffersen implode in the men’s slalom.

“The Rejects” get hot at the right time to earn first curling gold for the United States.

Twin sensations Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva dazzle in women’s figure skating final.

Felix Loch blows three-peat with catastrophic error in final run of men’s luge.

Shaun White uncorks back-to-back 1440s to reclaim men’s snowboard halfpipe.

2018 Winter Olympics review: Best Athletes

What? The 2018 Winter Olympics concluded more than a week ago, World Cup action has resumed for the majority of sports, an athlete we’ll mention later even merited an Oscars shout out and you’re still rolling out posts about it?

Well, life’s busy, the Olympics’ hangover is a thing that exists and procrastination an aberration of modern societies, but I didn’t want to let PyeongChang slide under the rug after having so much fun for 17 days, therefore let’s do a three-part review of the most important multi-sport event of this year.

We’ll start by turning the spotlight onto the men and women who captivated audiences worldwide with their incredible displays, honouring the best of the best amongst the 2900 athletes that competed in the XXIII Winter Games. In the second instalment, we’ll shift our focus to the most memorable moments of the Games, and our final entry – hopefully published later this week – will be dedicated to a further breakdown of the results, including takeaways on team performances by the most representative winter nations.

Without further ado, here are the five names that ruled in South Korea last month and four (maybe three… Ask Canada) more that were in the mix. And yes, athletes that enjoyed multiple chances to bag medals had the upper hand, but that’s just how it goes. Sports ain’t fair most of the time.

Martin Fourcade (Biathlon, France)

One of the most dominant athletes on all sports, Fourcade led France’s delegation into the stadium on the opening ceremony and then he manufactured a few more opportunities to wave his nations’ flag in Korea, racking three gold medals in PyeongChang to elevate his career total to five titles and two silver medals, the most accomplished Olympic resume of any French Olympian.

Martin Fourcade and the French flag. A relationship that marked the 2018 Winter Olympics (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

Rebounding quickly from a disappointing 8th place in the Sprint, which was made inevitable by three uncharacteristic misses in prone, the biathlon star flew up the tracks to renew his title in the pursuit one day later, and the same would have happened in the 20km individual were it not for a shocking two consecutive errors in the last stop at the shooting range.

Amending for the crushing photo-finish loss of Sochi, Martin Fourcade later secured the second gold medal of his campaign in the Mass Start, overcoming a fall and beating German Simon Schemp by the tip of a ski in a frantic finale, and clinched his final triumph in the mixed relay event, nullifying a 38-second deficit entering the final leg to give France a magnificent victory. A fourth title, which would have tied Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s record at a single Winter Games, could have materialized in the men’s relay, but the gap accrued by his teammates proved unsurmountable, with France finishing a distant fifth. Still, three golds in six races make for a tidy bundle sure to lift Fourcade’s spirit as he inches closer to become the greatest biathlete of all-time.

Marit Bjørgen (Cross-country skiing, Norway)

Back in February 2014, when she obtained her fourth Olympic title in the skiathlon race of Sochi, 33-year-old Marit Bjørgen became the oldest cross-country gold medallist in history. Fast forward to PyeongChang, and you could barely notice the differences on the soon-to-be 38-years-young, the sport’s GOAT brandishing the Norwegian flag across the finish line, no rival in sight, an incredible eight gold medal sealed in sensational form on the women’s calendar most gruelling race, the 30km classical.

Eight long years after sitting atop Vancouver’s medal table with 5 medals, the Iron Lady set her sights on achieving four podiums in South Korea to surpass Ole Einar Bjorndalen’s Winter Olympics record of 13 and, admirably, she fulfilled the task with room to spare, reaping a similar haul in quantity, if not in quality (two golds instead of the three) when compared to 2010, when the Norwegian stood at the very top of her powers.

Marit Bjoergen celebrates with her teammates after sealing victory in the women’s relay and her historical 14th Olympic medal (Photo: Matthias Schrader, AP)

Bronze in the 10km Free and the Team Sprint, silver in the skiathlon, gold in the 4x5km relay to pair the iconic 30km marathon victory. With a total of 15 Olympic medals (8 gold, 4 silver, 3 bronze) laying amongst her extensive roll of honours, Queen Marit of Norway will soon ride off into the sunset as the most decorated Winter Olympian in history.

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (Cross-country skiing, Norway)

The prodigious Klæbo is hailed by many experts as the most talented U-23 athlete the cross-country skiing world has ever seen, and the Norwegian justified the tremendous expectations placed upon him by becoming just the fourth male athlete to win three gold medals at the Winter Games before turning 22.

With unmatched strength and acceleration, the 21-year-old handily shrugged off the opposition in the men’s sprint, his signature event, and then anchored two relays, darting to victory over the Olympic Athletes from Russia in the team sprint and exploding in the final elevation to leave behind the same team in the final leg of the 4 x 10km relay.

Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo looks in the night sky after becoming the youngest male Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist with his victory in the men’s sprint (Associated Press)

The current Cross-country World Cup leader, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo is still building his stamina, which explains the 10th place in the skiathlon and decision to skip the 15km Free and 50km Mass Start, however he’s already flashed the ability to triumph in longer distances and that should be a really terrifying prospect for everyone looking to challenge him in Beijing 2022.

Ester Ledecká (Alpine skiing/Snowboard, Czech Republic)

If all Ester Ledecká ever did was toggle between skiing and snowboard on a regular basis, alternate three-week blocks of training for two very different sports held in concurrent seasons, and summon the discipline necessary to excel and achieve Olympic qualification in activities that only share the natural elements (snow and slopes), she would have already been worthy of commendations aplenty. But then she went so much further.

What Ester Ledecká did the unthinkable in PyeongChang (AFP)

The first athlete to compete at the Winter Olympics in alpine skiing and snowboarding, the Czech was always going to write her name in the history books, but no one anticipated she would pen it in bright gold, the victory in the snowboard parallel giant slalom, a discipline where she was the reigning World Champion, almost subdued by what happened a few days earlier over borrowed skis.

Departing long after all the alpine favourites, the 22-year-old who had never placed higher than 19th in any Super-G event scooted down the hill, miraculously kept within striking distance of the best run in spite of a couple of glaring mistakes, and hunched over the finish line to shake the alpine skiing tour, the sports world and her own, very special existence. Incredibly, the stubborn girl who persisted on stretching the limits of athleticism was on her way to become just the third athlete to do a multi-sport double in the same Olympics – none since 1928 – and the first to accomplish it in sports that use different equipment.

Chloe Kim (United States, Snowboard)

The athletes who steal the show at any Olympics are usually those who amass multiple medals, but if you’re 17 and so ridiculously good your victory was pretty much a formality, convention goes out of the door.

Already a wunderkind at age 13, when only age-restrictions prevented her from appearing in Sochi, Chloe Kim was, nonetheless, the perfect breakout star of (and for) PyeongChang; the daughter of two Korean immigrants in the United States who grew to become the embodiment of the millennial sports star: excitable, charming, laid-back, an engaging social media presence (even during competition..) and insanely talented in a youth-driven sport.

Korean-American teenager Chloe Kim reacts after securing Olympic gold in the women’s snowboard halfpipe (Reuters)

Soaring through the air, flipping and twirling with reckless abandon, Kim locked gold in the women’s snowboard halfpipe before her final attempt and proceeded to delivered a majestic coronation run, pulling off back-to-back 1080s for the first time in Olympic history to score a near-perfect 98.75 (out of 100) that sent the Phoenix Snow Park crowd into raptures.

If everything goes according to plan, at least three more Olympics are on the horizon for Chloe Kim, and that may be just enough time to breed a cult sports star ready to significantly elevate snowboard’s status inside the cluttered sports world. But no pressure, girl.

Missed the cut:

Marcel Hirscher (Austria, Alpine skiing)

The Austrian superstar finally expunged the only knock on his claim to be the best Alpine skier of all-time, picking up his maiden Olympic titles with resounding victories in the giant slalom and alpine combined. Nonetheless, suffering a first DNF in more than two years on his trademark event, the slalom, has to sting just a little bit.

Natalie Geisenberger (Germany, Luge)

The third woman to defend the Olympic title in singles, joining countrywomen Steffi Martin Walter and Sylke Otto, Natalie Geisenberger also posted a field-best first run to power Germany’s Team Relay performance, resulting in a personal fourth Olympic Gold medal and fifth overall, both maximums amongst female lugers.

Natalie Geisenberger sucessfully defended her Olympic titles in luge (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (Canada, Figure Skating)

The Canadian pair grabbed first place in both ice dance components of the Team event, rewarding their nation’s unrestrained love with the maximum 20 pts to help secure Gold, and then skated to new WR-record performances in the short program and combined total of the ice dancing competition to rescue the Olympic title surrendered in 2014. Tessa and Scott have now amassed five Olympic medals together (three gold, two silver) and if that was truly the end, they’ll retire as the most decorated figure skaters of all-time.

2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

Arriving to PyeongChang, South Korea, from all corners of the World, athletes from 15 different sports will battle for the 102 sets of medals available during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifices in the name of a dream.

Unfortunately, this writer won’t be one of them, which means I can’t do much more than sit back, monitor the proceedings from my living room on the other side of the planet…and try to look smart doing so. But how? Well, by predicting the Olympic medal winners in advance and before the wind, unexpected temperatures, injuries, illnesses or just plain bad luck conspire to reshape the course of history.

Now, forecasting 100 different events is a lot for a single person, and since I won’t bother to trick you into thinking I have any idea who is going to take the freestyle skiing ladies’ aerials gold, let’s narrow the field to 28 events and my own Fab Four: Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Ice Hockey and Ski Jumping.

For full disclosure, the projections released by Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the statistical genius at Gracenote were consulted before publication, but the future will certainly prove my brilliance in comparison with the so-called experts and machines. Or not. Still, on a related note, can we, reasonable people with a functioning brain, agree that biathlete Laura Dahlmeier won’t leave Pyeonchang with six gold medals? Great. Let’s get down to business then.

 

Alpine Skiing

The Pyeongchang Games are expected to coronate overall World Cup leaders Marcel Hischer and Mikaela Shiffrin, but exactly how much metal can this star duo accumulate? Moreover, is Lindsey Vonn going to add a few extra Olympic honours to the 2 medals obtained in Vancouver 2010, further padding an already stellar career? Is comeback King Aksel Lund Svindal destined for greatness on his final Olympic appearance? There’s no shortage of intrigue ahead of the alpine skiing events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

American Mikaela Shiffrin shined as an 18-year-old in Sochi 2014 and she’ll be looking for more gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

World Champion Beat Feutz leads the downhill standings this season by virtue of 3 victories and 2 runner-up finishes in 7 races, and he’s the man to beat in the fastest of the alpine disciplines. Svindal should return to the Olympic podium at age 35, making up for the disappointment of Sochi, while an Austrian always seems to sneak into the podium in these occasions. My money is on defending Champion Matthias Mayer, wildly inconsistent but someone who’s been showing signs of life recently.

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

Kjetil Jansrud defends the crown from Sochi and leads the World Cup charts at the moment, but he’s going to have his hands full with the Austrian armada. Between Franz, Kriechmayer and 2015 World Champion Hannes Reichelt, the most decorated Alpine country has nice probabilities of snatching multiple medals, and I believe the 28-year-old Franz is the man to devise the perfect run.

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

Alexis Pinturault has topped the Alpine combined standings in four of the last 5 seasons and he’s due a major title. The French will pick up gold after holding off the slalom charge of Marcel Hirscher. Veteran Peter Fill clocks the best time of the downhill run and then clings to the podium in the ensuing slalom.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

If you’re as much as a casual alpine skiing spectator, you probably know Hirscher has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. That will end in PyeongChang, and as occurred in many previous instances this season, Henrik Kristoffersen will fill the bridesmaid role. After a first season podium on the GS of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Ted Ligety won’t approach the top two nor impact the fight for his succession, but the American still manages to shrug away the opposition for bronze.

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

Triumphant in six of the seven slalom events he’s contested this season, Hirscher is the odds-on favourite for the Olympic crown, but Kristoffersen will, undoubtedly, be lurking around if the six-time overall World Cup Champion commits the most insignificant of mistakes. Aerni, the 24-year-old who won the Alpine Combined at the 2017 Worlds, pipes Michael Matt (Austria) for third.

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

Vonn and Goggia starred on the final speed events ahead of the Olympics and they’ll again put their friendship on the line in South Korea, with the American prevailing to reclaim the downhill Olympic title. Mowinckel wins bronze to clinch Norway’s first ever medal for a female Alpine skier (all previous 29 were collected by men).

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Four years after crashing in a downhill training run in Sochi, Tina Weirather finally emulates her mother, Hanni Wetzel, and becomes the second Olympic Champion from Liechtenstein. Fourth in 2014, current Super-G World Cup leader Lara Gut climbs two steps to claim silver, while Nicole Schmidhofer, the reigning World Champion, is bested by Lindsey Vonn for the final podium position.

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

Repeating the triumph of last year’s World Championships, Wendy Holdener creeps ahead of Shiffrin, the Slalom Queen, to savour her maiden Olympic title. In an all-Italian battle for third, Brignone knocks Sofia Goggia and Marta Bassino out of podium contention while Lindsey Vonn straddles a gate in the slalom to DNF.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

The most consistent GS competitor of the season, Rebensburg recaptures her Olympic crown four years after placing third in Sochi, therefore ending Shiffrin’s bid for 3+ titles in a single Olympics. A World Champion in 2013 and 2015, Tessa Worley makes up for the deception of missing the 2014 Olympics by rescuing the bronze medal.

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

With an advantage of over one second, Mikaela Shiffrin blows the competition apart to secure a second consecutive gold medal in her signature event. The in-form Holdener settles for second, while 32-year-old Frida Hansdotter takes advantage of Petra Vlhová’s tentative run to steal third place from the Slovak’s hands.

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

Marcel Hirscher will bookend a spectacular Winter Olympics by guiding Austria to the top of the podium on the first Team event in Olympic history. A talented Switzerland ensemble guarantees silver by upsetting the France of Pinturault, Worley and Mathieu Favre in the semis, though the French rebound to push Sweden out of the picture in the small final.

 

Biathlon

Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Bø have monopolized attentions this winter by hoarding 14 of the 15 individual competitions staged so far in the biathlon World Cup season, and their multiple clashes are bound to set alight the Alpensia Biathlon Center, nevertheless don’t sleep on the women. Laura Dahlmeier will be looking to reproduce her unconceivable five gold, six-medal performance of last year’s World Championships, and she’ll be up against a smattering of powerful opponents, including Sochi’s dominant figure, Darya Domracheva, and the current World Cup leader, Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

Johannes Thingnes Bø (L) and Martin Fourcade (R) will renew hostilities in PyeongChang (biathlon-hochfilzen.at)

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

Despite leading the sprint World Cup standings, Fourcade has only one victory to Bø’s three in this discipline in 2017-18, and the Norwegian has generally looked faster from the get-go at every World Cup stop. Therefore, we expect Johannes to take the first assault in Pyeongchang, with Martin Fourcade stopping the clock a few ticks later for silver. The steady Jacov Fak, World Champion in this discipline in 2012, concludes the podium lineup due to a clean shooting performance in a day where most of the other contenders will miss more than usual for lack of acclimation to the track and Olympic atmosphere.

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

Staying ahead of Fourcade during the Pursuit following his sprint successes hasn’t been a problem for Johannes Thingnes Bø this season, and we predict the same will happen at the Olympics. The 32-year-old Svendsen has picked up an Olympic medal in every other biathlon discipline between the 2010 and 2014 Games, and it would be neat if he managed to complete his set at the Pursuit.

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

The hectic Mass start is a race that gets Fourcade’s emotions flowing like no other, and the French will outlast his Norwegian rival here, erupting to victory by a comfortable margin. For his part, Johannes may string a few misses on the day, but his magnificent skiing form should pull him out of trouble and back into medal territory. Tarjei Bø will take a ride with his younger brother and land on the last podium position.

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Martin Fourcade is the reigning Olympic Champion in the 20km individual and he won three consecutive World titles in this event before the third place of Hochfilzen 2017. The clear favourite since the race suits his deliberate shooting style and skiing prowess, the French will win ahead of Erik Lesser in a repeat of Sochi’s results. Meanwhile, Johannes Bø is not at his best in biathlon’s longest individual effort, but this season he tied his rival in the discipline’s standings by capturing a victory and a third place, and the Norwegian has the legs to make ground on the rest in spite of one, maybe even two, extra misses.

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

Anchored by the two stars of the season, the men’s relay is expected to come down to the Johannes Bø – Martin Fourcade final showdown, with the French likely to start a few seconds late. In top form, a Norwegian group with Svendsen, the Bø brothers and Ole Einar Bjorndalen would be nearly unbeatable, however the legend was left off the team and Lars Helge Birkeland, while a steady athlete, doesn’t have as much international experience as the French trio supporting Martin. Simply because I’m still salty due to the absence of the greatest Winter Olympian ever, I’ll edge my bets on France.

With an experienced and reliable group, the Germans only need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot to secure third ahead of Austria, Italy and the Swedes, who recently triumphed in Oberhof. Russia, who won at home soil four years ago, couldn’t clear enough athletes to form a team for PyeongChang.

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

Dahlmeier has yet to showcase the dominant skiing form of 2016-17, yet I sense she’ll explode off the gates in South Korea, shooting clean to overcome Anastasiya Kuzmina, the sprint Champion from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. Tiril Eckhoff is usually at her best on the sprint, and the easy shooting range combined with an up-and-down track should suit her qualities, guiding the Norwegian to a second individual medal after the Mass Sprint of Sochi.

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

Shut out of medal contention on the last two Winter Olympics, Kaisa Mäkäräinen will break her duck on the Pursuit, bursting ahead of Dahlmeier after the standing shootout to clinch an emotional victory. Denise Herrmann, the ultimate wild card with her lightning fast skiing and erratic shooting, will enjoy a good day in the office and power up the field to take the final podium position.

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

Although Dahlmeier won’t amass five gold medals like last year, she’ll still head home with a stuffed trophy case. This race will provide her with another opportunity to ascend to the highest podium level, while Domracheva, the 2014 Mass start Champion, will scamper away from the opposition with the finish line in sight to secure silver. Building back her form through the week after an untimely illness, 21-year-old Justine Braisaz will claim bronze and a first career medal.

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

Returning to the World Tour after a couple of lost seasons due to mononucleosis and pregnancy, Domracheva is unlikely to repeat her haul from Sochi, but she won’t leave empty-handed either. I trust the Belarussian will keep her cool on the shooting range, defend her Olympic title and be joined on the podium by her teammate Nadezhda Skardino, who will shoot clean to secure the top-three for a second consecutive Olympics. Dorothea Wierer, the winner of the last 15km individual race in Ruhpolding, showed clear progression as the Games approached, and that will merit a silver medal on the event where she’s tallied three of her four World Cup victories.

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

Winners of seven of the last eight women’s relays, the German ladies should lock the Olympic title without too much trouble, and that will ring true even if they opt to save their trump card, Laura Dahlmeier, after the mixed relay. Surprising Champions in Sochi amidst political turmoil back home, Ukraine returns all four athletes and they’ll be in the mix again, but I just like more the blend of experience and youth on the French team. Moreover, Italy’s relay is filled with sharp-shooters and in Dorothea Wierer they have an excellent anchor, which should be enough to drive Ukraine away from the medals.

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

Swapping Tora Berger and Bjorndalen for Marte Olsbu (or Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold) and Johannes Thingnes Bø shouldn’t have a major effect on the strength of Norway’s relay compared to Sochi, yet the opposition looks stronger this time and the race difficult to handicap. Provided Martin Fourcade is in the lineup, France will exhibit a formidable unit, and Germany would be a pain to deal with if Dahlmeier checks out in front.

As the reigning World Champions, I’m picking the Germans to outlast a fierce French challenge for the title, with Norway dropping to third. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Italy, a credible threat to replicate the bronze of Sochi if Lukas Hofer and Dominik Windisch manage to keep their erratic shooting in check…

 

Ice Hockey

Canada swept the titles in the two most recent Winter Olympics, but without NHL players, they’ll be in a tough spot to emerge victorious out of the deep pool of candidates on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s event should feature another North American battle between the Americans and the Canadians, and history has proven anything can happen when those two meet.

Canada beat the United States in the women’s ice hockey Final in Sochi 2014. These two teams should reconvene at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

Youngster Rasmus Dahlin steals the show and goaltender Viktor Fasth slams the door shut on the high-powered Russians, who leave the tournament disgruntled in spite of managing their best result since 1998. The makeshift Canadian team edges the hard-working Finns in a low-scoring bronze medal game.

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

The four-time defending World Champions USA finally get the best of Canada, ending their neighbours’ run of four consecutive Olympic gold medals after yet another memorable chapter of one of world sports most underrated rivalries. Before that, Finland’s star goalkeeper Noora Räty almost steals a Final birth, but Canada eventually progresses out of the semi-final in OT, leaving the much-improved Finns to outduel Sweden for third place.

 

Ski Jumping

Kamil Stoch reigned supreme in Sochi four years ago, and the Pole’s name is again at the very top of the shortlist of favourites, but duplicating the achievement won’t be easy as his path to victory is brimming with talented Germans and Norwegians.

Kamil Sotch jumped for imortality at Sochi 2014. He’ll try to reach the same heights in South Korea (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports Eric Bolte )

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

Five weeks after an historical Four Hills Tournament sweep, Kamil Stoch defends his Normal Hill title by upstaging the dynamic German duo of Andreas Wellinger and Richard Freitag. Junshiro Kobayashi falls to fifth after posting the best mark of the first round, and he’s not the only Japanese to miss the mark since 45-year-old Noriaki Kasai also fails to follow up an excellent first attempt.

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

Poland’s Kamil Stoch is pestered by difficult wind conditions on his first jump and he wastes the chance to repeat the double triumph of Sochi. The 22-year-old Andreas Wellinger flies to victory, while reigning World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft finds his stride at the right time after a difficult season start. Daniel-André Tande scores an individual medal to lead a Norwegian team that places 4 men inside the top 10.

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

The World Cup leaders from Norway extract revenge from the poor showing of Sochi by riding their balanced foursome to the Olympic title. Poland’s Kamil Stoch sets a new hill-record on his final jump to push Germany in the battle for silver, but Richard Freitag answers the call in response to limit the losses for the 2014 Champions.

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

Maren Lundby, the runaway World Cup leader, battles the nerves to win the second ever women’s gold medal in ski jumping. After a field-best first attempt, four-time World Cup overall winner Sara Takanashi finds redemption from the fourth-place of Sochi by securing the runner-up spot, while Katharina Althaus, second on the World Cup standings, has to settle for bronze ahead of compatriot – and defending Champion – Carina Vogt.

 

European Tour of Sports – Albania

The Basics

Population: 2.8 M

Area: 28 748 km2

Capital: Tirana

Summer Olympic Medals: 0

Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular Sports and History

By virtue of its name, Albania registers at the top of the charts – right after Afghanistan – every time the countries of the World are listed, but as soon as sporting laurels are tallied up, this small nation verging the Adriatic and Ionian Seas immediate drops into the depths. Indeed, of the 71 Olympic committees that have participated in the Olympic Games, Albania is one of just five from Europe to never obtain a medal, sharing the distinction with minnows Andorra, Monaco and San Marino, the Mediterranean island of Malta and fellow Balkan nation Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A secluded, communist state for much of the post – WWII era, Albania’s international isolation only came to an end in 1991, when the Socialist Republic instituted by Enver Hoxha was dissolved. One year later, the country would return to the Olympic stage in Barcelona, resuming a story that knew its first and only episode two decades earlier, in Munich 1972.

A regular participant of the Games since then, including the Winter Olympics since an inaugural appearance at Torino 2006, Albania’s representations usually congregate up to a dozen of athletes, yet the country is still to unearth metal of any order in spite of a few honourable performances over the years, particularly from their weightlifters.

Alpine Skier Erjon Tola waves the Albanian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics (Paul Gilham/Getty Images Europe)

The sport where Albania’s credentials at the global scale are more significant, weightlifting has made the nation proud on many occasions, with Albanian athletes racking up almost two dozens of medals between Continental and World meetings to turn into some of the most recognizable figures around. However, a veil of suspicion was thrown over the country’s success for occasion of the 2014 World Championships held in Astana (Kazakhstan), when stars Daniel Godelli and Romela Begaj, who had just become the first Albanian athletes to win World Championship gold in sports on the Olympic program, as well as teammate Hysen Pulaku, failed doping tests by accusing the presence of Stanozonol, a substance that is used to increase muscle mass in animals and humans.

Naturally, the competition’s results were erased and the athletes suspended, which hindered the strength of the Albanian team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and curbed the expectations as the group headed to Brazil featured just a pair of weightlifters alongside two swimmers and track and field participants. This was a major let-down for the country but, at least, the Albanian people could find some solace on another high point of the nation’s sports history, the qualification to the 2016 UEFA European Championships.

A football-mad country like many other continental counterparts, Albania had never reached a major men’s football tournament and their trip to France was further sweetened by their first victory, a 1-0 triumph over Romania in the final group stage match that eclipsed the previous standard set by a quarter-final appearance at the 1984 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. A nation with a large diaspora, reflected also on the number of talents of Albanian-heritage competing for other countries – Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka being prime examples – the Albanian national team has in Lorik Cana its most distinct football representative, as the former PSG, Lazio and Olympique Marseille midfielder amassed a record 93 international caps between 2003 and 2016.

Albania’s participation in the UEFA Euro 2016 was one of the greatest moments in the country’s sports history (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, domestically, the all-time dominant clubs are all from the capital city, with KF Tirana, 24-times National Champions, Dinamo Tirana (18) and Partizani (15) leading in number of trophies, but being supplanted in recent times by other organizations, including Skënderbeu Korçë, who won five consecutive titles between 2010 and 2015, and reigning Champions FK Kukësi.

Beyond football, the most popular team sports in Albania are basketball and volleyball, even if the country is far removed from the continental elite. The men’s national basketball team was invited to early editions of the EuroBasket, but couldn’t do better than last place in 1947 and 1957, while the women can boast a Mediterranean Games gold medal in 1987. At the club level, BC Partizani Tirana, 33-times Champions, hold the record of men’s national honours, while KB Tirana, the basketball branch of KF Tirana, is historically dominant on the women’s side (40 national titles).

In respect to volleyball, Albania’s peak dates back to the Communist period, especially the 70’s and 80’s, when Dinamo Tirana’s women’s team reached the Final Four of the Women’s CEV Champions Cup in two instances (1979/1980 and 1989/1990). On the men’s side, Dinamo was equally dominant until 1996, conquering 25 titles, before ceding the stage to KS Studenti, the team representing the University of Tirana who has collected 14 of the last 18 editions of the national league.

The Albanian women’s volleyball team during a match against Finland in Tirana (cev.lu)

Moreover, in international competitions from sports such as athletics, swimming, wrestling and shooting, Albanian athletes have also enjoyed some degree of success, especially in secondary events like the Mediterranean Games, whereas in snow and ice disciplines Albania’s tradition is virtually non-existent outside of the odd representation sent to the Winter Olympics, where alpine skiers Erjon Tola and Suela Mëhilli have worn the red and black of the Albanian flag.

Star Athletes

Luiza Gega (Athletics)

The Albanian flag bearer at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Luiza Gega is the best middle-distance runner in the country’s history, holding the national records in four separate distances (800m, 1500m, 3000m, 3000m steeplechase).

A medal winner in several international meetings, including the 2013 Summer Universiade (bronze), the 2013 Mediterranean Games (silver) – both in the 1500m – and the 2015 European Games (gold in the 1500m, silver in the 800m), the 29-year-old’s most important result is, however, the silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase of the 2016 European Championships, where she only trailed 2015 World Championships bronze medallist Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany.

Luiza Gega in action at the 2016 Athletics World Championships (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Elseid Hysaj (Football)

Before developing into the standout right back of Italian powerhouse SSC Napoli, Elseid Hysaj was a shy, 15-year-old boy crossing the Adriatic Sea to join his father, an emigrant in Tuscany, and pursue the dream of a professional footballing career. Accepted at Empoli’s academy, the youngster rose through the ranks and amassed over 100 appearances for the first team until 2015, when he caught the eye of Napoli, moving south alongside coach Maurizio Sarri to assume a key role for the Serie A runner-up in 2015-16.

Also a bulwark for the national team, which he represented at the historical Euro 2016 campaign, Hysaj is, at age 23, one of the most sought-after full backs in the game, and he is destined to take over every Albanian record currently held by the retired Lorik Cana.

Evagjelia Veli (Weightlifting)

One of the few top-level Albanian weightlifters that has not run into trouble with the anti-doping authorities, Evagjelia Veli parlayed her breakthrough 5th position in the 2016 European Championships into a finalist place at the Rio Olympics, coming out eight in the Women’s 53 Kg, one of the best Albanian results ever at that level of competition.

Albanian Weightlifter Evagjelia Veli prepares to lift at an international competition

The 26-year-old then confirmed her status as one of the best in the world the following season, placing 4th at the continental event and 8th at the World Championships in a heavier category (58 kg), and a final step into medal territory is expected by the local fans of this battered sport.

Other Athletes: Izmir Smajlaj (Athletics), Sidni Hoxha (Swimming), Etrit Berisha (Football), Eugert Zhupa (Cycling), Briken Calja (Weightlifting)

Venues

In just a few months (June 2018), Albania will open the new pearl of their sporting infrastructure, the Arena Kombëtare. Being erected on the same site of the former national stadium, the Qemal Stafa, the new, fully covered facility with capacity for 22,500 spectators will receive the Albanian Cup Final, house the national football team, and be the main getaway for concerts. Unfortunately, contrary to its predecessor, which stood for seven decades, the arena won’t possess an athletics track, which means any track and field meetings from now on must be hosted at the Elbasan Arena.

This is what Albania’s new national stadium, the Arena Kombëtare, will look like when it opens in a few months (FOTO: Anadolija)

The home ground of KF Elbasan, this venue reconstructed in 2014 hosted the national football team over the last few years, and the 12,800 fervent fans in attendance were always a menace for opposing teams, yet, even with construction going in Tirana, the biggest stadium in the country is not the Elbasan Arena, but Shkodër’s Loro Boriçi Stadium, which has accommodated up to 16,000 KF Vllaznia fans since 1980 and was used by the Kosovo National football team during the 2018 World Cup qualifying. Furthermore, another important venue, the Selman Stërmasi Stadium, has capacity for 9,500 spectators and regularly welcomes the games of the capital’s most important club, KF Tirana.

An Albanian national basketball team match at the Asllan Rusi Sports Palace (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KB_Tirana)

In terms of indoor venues, Albania’s main facility is still the old Asllan Rusi Sports Palace, a 3,000-seats building named after a former volleyball player. Opened in the 1950’s, this place hosted the 2013 Weightlifting European Championships, one of the most important events ever organized in Albania, and it houses the basketball sections of Partizani and Dinamo Tirana.

As for SK Tirana’s basketball and volleyball teams, they play at the Farie Hoti Sports Palace, whereas the Albanian national basketball and volleyball teams are in the process of moving from the Asllan Rusi to the new Tirana Olympic Park, a recently-inaugurated, multi-purpose infrastructure that congregates all of Albania’s sports federations around several training facilities and a 1200-seats sports hall.

Yearly Events

So, we’ve already established that Albania isn’t exactly a hotbed for international sporting competitions or great sports spectacles, however, if you happen to be in town and are craving some entertainment, attending an Albanian Superliga match can make for some heated, colourful antics, particularly if teams from Tirana, Shkodër (KF Vllaznia), Elbasan or Korçë (Skënderbeu) are in action. The football league runs from August to May, and since that might prove insufficient, I also gathered a few more events that may be of interest for sports fans:

Rally Albania, Rally Racing  

Tirana, June

Tirana Half Marathon, Athletics

Tirana, October

The Notebook: 2018 Australian Open

Every Grand Slam forges its own history. Its unique heroes and villains, those who capture the imagination of fans or revolt against the audience, players who relish the spotlight or shrink under it, figures who find redemption and break longstanding ducks and those who leave before we even notice they were there. In the early weeks of every new tennis season and frequently under the brutal heat and humidity of the Aussie summer, tribulations are magnified, storylines get blown of proportion and many take the final outcomes as if it sets up what’s to come on the ensuing 10 months of action.

The most recent fortnight of the Australian Open was no exception to this, although its distinctive feel is expressed on its two singles’ Champions: tasting the same sweet flavour of victory, exuding a similar range of emotions yet incarnating two contrasting outlines: the puerile joy of the first time and the touching breakdown of someone who keeps redefining personal success. Nonetheless, while the emotional portraits of Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer will forever depict the 2018 edition, there were secondary characters aplenty in this sporting tale which engendered something we wish to carry forward. And since those memories eventually evaporate, nothing better than transposing them to words so that we can preserve what they elicit against the backdrop of the unceasing passage of time and whatever the future reserves.

Consequently, about those tribulations, narratives and, above all, the characters, here is the 2018 Australian Open notebook.

 

1 – America (not) First. All in all, despite Serena Williams’ lengthy absence, 2017 was a surprisingly excellent year for American tennis. A Fed Cup title, female representatives in every Major final, the rebirth of Venus, stepping-stone seasons for CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens, a strong run for Madison Keys at the US Open and a resurgence in the men’s side, with Jack Sock shining at the Paris’ Masters and Sam Querrey’s semi-final at Wimbledon. Impressive diversity in scope and scale, felicitations all around, and then… the 2018 Australian Open happened, particularly that abhorrent day one which exposed the vulnerabilities of America’s preeminent players.

A sick CoCo Vandeweghe was one of the early casualties in Melbourne (Andy Brownbill)

Mired in a head-scratching, eight-game losing-streak post-US Open, Sloane Stephens can’t seem to figure out how to handle the expectations of being a Grand Slam Champion and the hyper-motivated opposition that follows. The 2017 AO finalist, Venus Williams, always takes time to shake off the rust of the holidays and primed for an early upset, the cocktail of a streaking Belinda Bencic and suffocating heat proved too much. Corroborating her hit-or-miss nature at the Slams (three first round exits in her last six majors), a flu-affected CoCo Vandeweghe lost her marbles against Timea Babos and was dumped out unceremoniously. Lifeless after a short offseason, Jack Sock completed a disastrous Australian swing by bowing out after one match in his first Major appearance as a top-ten player. Nestled inside the top-20 but getting up there in age, John Isner (World No. 16) and Sam Querrey (No 13) were also directed to the exits quite early. That left Madison Keys and that Tennys-Sandbag-that-shall-not-be-mentioned to save the honour and, for different reasons, they didn’t exactly ace the task.

 

2 – In an era of tennis history where teenage phenomenons are increasingly rare since players take more time to reach the physical and mental standards required to compete at the very top levels of the tour, the sight of a 15-year-old in the third round provoked an adrenaline rush. An already precocious Australian Junior Champion in 2017, Marta Kostyuk got an invitation for the woman’s qualifying in 2018 and she crushed forehands over players more than a decade older for six matches until her run in Melbourne Park was finally halted by compatriot Elina Svitolina.

The youngest player since Martina Hingis in 1996 to reach the third round of the Australian Open or qualify to the main draw of any major since 2005, the Ukrainian charmed with cheeky remarks, fascinated for the crisp ball striking abilities and “easy power” generated by her developing body, and impressed for the way she handled the occasion and the big stage. Tutored by Roger Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, and blessed with equal doses of ambition and thirst for self-improvement, Kostyuk looks ready to trail the long road to the top, ditching the junior tournaments to waddle in the lower ranks until free access to WTA Tour events is possible, which won’t happen until she turns 18. That’s obviously a long time from now, but over the next twelve months we should get a better idea of the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. Was this the start of something really, really special?

Marta Kostuyk, a 15-year-old from Ukraine, was the sensation of the first week (Getty Images)

3 – The recently announced return to the 16-seed format at the majors in 2019 promises to be a hot topic of discussion throughout the season, however the first signs at the Australian Open favoured the side campaigning against the idea. Even if everyone knows that, in the men’s tour in particular, the first week of the Slams tend to be rather predictable, It’s still difficult to champion the need for more randomness and upsets when almost half of the 64 protected names in the single’s draws fell within the first two rounds, and 10 of the top 16 ranked ladies headed home before the arrival of the middle weekend. More importantly, though, compelling matches were the norm, not the exception, with the searing heat adding just another layer of uncertainty to intriguing clashes such as Kvitova – Petkovic, Tsonga – Shapovalov or Del Potro – Kachanov, who seeped drama for hours.

 

4 – Garbiñe Muguruza is turning into a mystifying player, equally capable of waltzing through the field or pack her things and leave big tournaments hastily if something doesn’t go according to plan. After retiring in Brisbane (tight injury), the Spaniard was nowhere near her best, nonetheless we’ve seen time and time again that Champions build their form during the fortnight, and the Spaniard simply ought to overcome an unconventional, yet clearly overmatched opponent like World No. 88 Su-Wei Hsieh, a player whose singular brand of tennis had delivered exactly one top-20 victory in a decade and a half.

Possessing the explosive strokes to dictate points from the get-go and chase her second round opponent out of the court, Muguruza was incapable of using them to her advantage and wilted in the heat to depart meekly after two sets, wasting a great opportunity to reclaim the World No.1 she surrendered last fall.

 

5 – Watching Denis Shapovalov is a rollercoaster. It’s both fun and disheartening, it’s exciting and hectic most of the time, sluggish when he simply can’t help himself. It’s always entertaining though, as the kid oozes energy, both good and bad, boasts the swagger of the predestined and the swashbuckling shot making of supreme talents. With his patented backward cap, cartoonish backhand, high-octane tennis and outsized personality, El Shapo is impossible to miss or ignore. You can either love or hate him, but if you like tennis, you’ll be glued to the television and this bustling teenager, waiting for the next highlight-reel shot or dreadful mistake born out of impatience.

Canadian Denis Shapovalov hits the ball during his second round encounter (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Up 5-2 in the fifth set against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Canadian teen didn’t choke as much as he lost his cool, judgement and vigour when his legs faltered. No matter how gifted, any 18-year-old is prone to bouts of inconsistency and sudden energy draining, yet the young Canadian will learn from this disappointment against the same man he defeated for his first Major breakthrough (US Open 2017) and who has seen too much to fall for the same mistakes twice. By the way, remember that unfortunate incident with an umpire in Davis Cup competition a mere twelve months ago. It feels ages in the past, doesn’t it?

 

6 – It must have felt like a dream for Jana Fett, the materialization of her childhood visions of grandiosity. She was finally competing in her maiden Grand Slam draw, playing in a major stadium and against a decorated opponent, the World No.2. And then the image got brighter and more vivid. With nothing to lose, she relishes the opportunity and aims for the lines. The ball kisses the white paint, the off-balance shots clip the net and skip past the opponent. She steers bold returns past her rival. Fett gets into a groove and good things continue to happen: there’s a set for you and then one for her. It’s going the distance. Look, a break. And another. You see her racket flying, smashed in frustration. And OMG, you’re serving for the match at 5-1 and you can almost taste the biggest win of your career. And then you battle the nerves to get to the cusp. One…no, TWO Match Points. Go for the killer ace…almost, just wide. Put the ball back in play and, oh no, your opponent survives. Once, twice…after all, they say she has multiple lives.

The murmurs in the crowd augment. You retreat, the tension finally engulfing your body and you hope, no, pray, actually, beg her to finish it for you. No chance, she clearly knows better than that. But it’s still 5-2. You sit down and dwell on what happened. And then it stops clicking. You spray ball after ball. 5-3. Wake up! Keep it in play, Jana! 5-4. Why doesn’t she miss a shot? 5-5. Blink. 5-7. Game. Set. Match. Fett. Wozniacki. Did that really happen?

 

7 – 4-6, 6-4… 15-13! Multiple sets jammed into a gripping decider that showcased the guts and tenacity of the World No.1, but also casted the floodgates on her undersized opponent, an unheralded American that packs way more punch than her figure lets on. Unfortunate that the feet failed her just as the finish line emerged on the horizon, the fast-moving Lauren Davis was still a revelation, a masterful example that a strong lower-body and beefy legs, not unlike catapult-like arms, can assist in generating tremendous power and winners galore.

American Lauren Davis falls during her epic third round match against Simona Halep (Paul Crock / Getty Images)

Matching Simona Halep roar by roar, sprint by sprint and groundstroke by groundstroke – particularly backhands – for almost 4 hours, one of the smallest players in the WTA Tour capitulated by her serve, but stockpiled confidence for the future, where the second week of a Grand Slam is an inevitability.

 

8 – Many believed Maria Sharapova would soar up the WTA ladder as soon as she got the green light to return from her suspension, but six months of ups and downs in 2017 proved the game as evolved and it would take the Russian some time to get back into a groove.

That being said, it’s a bit troubling that she’s still looking rusty and out of it on so many instances, unable to string victories, losing to players she shouldn’t, concocting dominant sets that are immediately followed up with error-filled sequences, and failing to assert her mental strength in prominent matchups. Such as the blockbuster third rounder against Angelique Kerber, the type of match Sharapova used to elevate for. Conversely, in Melbourne, she barely bothered the German and left through the back door. Maybe, it’s time to realize that a return to the top ten in the near future is unlikely.

 

9 – It’s always embarrassing when the fourth seed has a meltdown and gets baggeled with the game on the line, but the real problem for Alex Zverev is that this was not a solitary instance. His startling lack of responses, physically, mentally and tactically, to the challenges posed by long marathons are well documented – he’s yet to win a best-of-five match against a top-50 player on his career – and without breaking that ordeal, there’s no way he’s going to get where he wants and where he should be, the latter stages of the Grand Slams.

The racket paid for the struggles of Alex Zverev in Melbourne (AAP: Julian Smith)

At age 20, time is obviously on the younger Zverev’s side, but he’s got to keep filling his body and find a way to strengthen his splintering legs, so that no one walks over him like Hyeong Chung did in Melbourne.

 

10 – Ashleigh Barty, Australia’s leading female player, lasted just three rounds in Melbourne but the way she managed to rally back from a set down and harness the firepower of Aryna Sabalenka and Camila Giorgi was eye-popping. Blessed with nifty hands, the 21-year-old is able to redirect pace with the best, craft angles, chose the best option at most times and play a combination of spins and slices that bodes well for her chances at future editions of her home Slam.

Eventually outlasted by a better-rounded powerhouse in the form of Japanese youngster Naomi Osaka, the newly-minted top-twenty player is one to keep a really close eye in 2018 since her fast rise up the rankings in the last twelve months may not be completed just yet.

 

11 – There are lingering reservations about Nick Kyrgios’ dedication to the craft and his mental fortitude under pressure, but if Melbourne wasn’t the place for his second career Grand Slam quarter-final, this time it wasn’t due to self-sabotage or energy channelled the wrong way. Fresh of a title in Brisbane, Kyrgios was unusually chilled through 4 matches at the Australian Open, composed in a whole lot of occasions, and brilliant when his unassailable serve and thunderous forehand were firing on all cylinders.

Nick Kyrgios serves during his first round match at the 2018 Australian Open (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Ultimately, this mix would resulted in a statement win over Tsonga in a round three showpiece at Rod Laver Arena, and contribute decisively to one of the matches of the tournament on the men’s side: his adieu after four comprehensive sets against World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov where Kyrgios gave it all but couldn’t overcome three tiebreaks that went the other way. Gracious in defeat as much as in victory, this tournament was a major step forward for the outrageously talented Aussie, destined for greatness shall he desire such thing.

 

12 – With six WTA titles amassed since the beginning of 2017, Elina Svitolina has been the most consistent tour player in Serena’s absence, however the World No. 4, the betting favourite ahead of the Open, took off from Melbourne still searching for a maiden semi-final at one of the tent pole events of the game.

A solid all-around player, the Ukrainian won four matches for a career-best run at the tournament, yet three of them came against qualifiers, and she failed to impress or look comfortable on court before disintegrating against Elise Mertens. Overwhelmed by the speed of the Belgian’s strokes on the fast court of the Rod Laver Arena, Svitolina’s movement flagged and her belief sunk as the games piled up on the other side of the net and the sun rose in the sky. In the end, she mustered just three total games in two sets against an unseeded rival, and displayed a disconcerting inertia on court reminiscent of the quarter-final’s third set at Roland Garros last May. Precocious as it may sound, these might be the initial stages of some light Grand Slam dread.

 

13 – Unveiling an abbreviated service motion after his six-month lay-off, Novak Djokovic was supposedly close to healthy entering the tournament, but game action would betray that notion. The shoulder-to-wrist sleeve on his right arm was a feature throughout, and despite hitting high-levels of performance at times, the Serb never looked loose on his new skin, the groundstrokes lacking punch, the first delivery faltering recurrently and his trademark stamina and agility a work in progress.

Easing past Donald Young, a weakened Gael Monfils, and Spaniard Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Djokovic encountered a mirror image of his younger self in the fourth round, the elastic Hyeon Chung, and couldn’t find the solution to a riddle the six-time Australian Open Champion posed so many times to his rivals. Yielding after just three sets, he will now re-evaluate the state of his elbow and if surgery is the only option, another long leave may be in the cards for a man who is quietly closing on two years without a Grand Slam title.

Novak Djokovic (R) congratulates Hyeon Chung (L) on his fourth round victory (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

14 – Seemingly as quirky inside as off the court, everything in Su-Wei Hsieh’s game is unorthodox: her fragile physique, the way she moves around, how she, more than hit, sometimes batts the ball over the net like she was “swatting away a fly”. Plus the absurd placements she can explore from any position, the angles she finds, the unpredictability and ability to disguise what’s coming next – which completely fritted away Garbiñe Muguruza’s resolve – the variety of spins, amorties and slices that make up for a confounding match if you’re not ready to run around and, more importantly, to dictate from the onset.

Reaching her second AO fourth round at age 32 after tricking the Wimbledon Champion and out-smarting another pace-averse maven, Agnieszka Radwanska, the Taiwanese veteran came pretty close from derailing the Angie Kerber-hype train until her own wheels fell off in the last moments of the second set. Soon after, her surprising run was over, but the name left engraved on the minds of those who had just made contact with the throw-back style of this doubles specialist.

 

15 – Looking like an irrepressible force through four matches, including a 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of eight-seed Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys’ damning no-show in her quarter-final versus Angelique Kerber made for one of the major let-downs of the fortnight. A terrific server with a massive forehand to boot, the American had already compiled just three games in a disastrous first Grand Slam Final at the US Open, and duplicated the lacklustre performance in Melbourne when things started to get out of hand.

Obliged to force the note in order to penetrate Kerber’s exceptional defence, Keys quickly plunged into a tailspin, collecting only 4 of 23 first set points and accumulating unforced errors (25 in 15 games) as her opponent eased to a 51-minute drubbing no one expected. Especially not the flabbergasted Keys, who’s still to fully unlock her ominous ceiling.

 

16 – By stringing a 14-match winning streak to kick off the new season, Angelique Kerber put to bed a puzzling 2017 and resurged in Australia, perhaps, as an even better version of her multi Grand Slam, career-defining form of 2016. At least, that’s what her consummate tear down of Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys resembled, with the German surrendering a total of 7 matches in what were supposed to be two big tests to her revival.

Angelique Kerber serves in the shadows of the Rod Laver Arena (Michael Dodge/Getty Images AsiaPac)

With her head cleared after a coaching change and regained trust on the serve, Kerber relied more than ever on the fundamentals of her previous success: the ability to block one more ball than the opposition and the willingness to run for hours, a gutsy approach to pressure situations, and that patented down-the-line forehand that can be devastating when she takes time away by connecting on the rising ball. Against Simona Halep in a nail-biting semi-final, all the best features of her counterpunching style were clicking and that’s why she came within one point of winning an outstanding battle of wills, eventually succumbing 9-7 in the third set. Kerber picked the wrong side of the coin on that occasion, but that won’t happen a lot if she sustains this form through 2018. Welcome back, Angie.

 

17 – When Andy Murray announced his decision to skip the Australian Open, no one predicted a British gentlemen would reach the latter stages, but it only took a couple of surprises to dig a massive hole in the draw a dark horse could sneak through. The 22-year-old Kyle Edmund helped his cause by upsetting US Open finalist Kevin Anderson (11th seed) in a five-set thriller in round one, others took care of susceptible seeds like Jack Sock (8) and Lucas Pouille (18), and the soft-spoken 23-year-old trudged ahead, beating three players ranked outside the top-60 to set up a clash with Grigor Dimitrov (3) in his maiden quarter-final.

Kyle Edmund drills a backhand during his semi-final match in Melbourne (Getty Images)

At that stage, merely good was not good enough, but the familiarity between the two competitors indicated this might be a winnable match for Edmund if he just managed to summon his A-Game, and he sure did. The much-improved serve responded in critical situations, his booming forehand hit the marks for most of the match, and Edmund secured a famous victory against the ATP Finals winner. Unfortunately for him, Marin Cilic conquered a forehand battle two days later to dispatch the young Brit home, but few think that’s the last we’ve heard of him.

 

18 – Ranked No. 127 in January 2017, Elise Mertens didn’t participate in the Australian Open last year since she missed the qualifying to attend (and win) Hobart yet, if you were paying any attention to the 2017 WTA season, you noticed her meteoric rise and the rave reviews to her burgeoning attacking game. Equally adept at ripping from the baseline or further up the court, the Belgian who describes her game as a mixture of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters negotiated some difficult early encounters in Melbourne, and stole the spotlight in the quarter-finals, demolishing fourth seed Elina Svitolina to become the unseeded intruder in the final four.

Against Wozniacki, some rookie nerves early on, and the inability to keep her offensive instincts in check and wait for the right opportunities to lace a winner conspired for her demise; although not before she came back from a break down to force the second set tiebreak and give just another display of the arsenal that may guide her to the top ten before long.

Belgian Elise Mertens went further at the Australian Open than ever before (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

19 – A shy, bespectacled Korean ranked No. 58 in the World isn’t anyone’s image of a giant-killer, but Hyeon Chung, the reigning Next Gen Finals Champion, was on a lot of radars well before his sensational back-to-back victories over Alex Zverev and Novak Djokovic. Fast and athletic, the 21-year-old boasts the type of wiping-shield defence that vaulted the career of his Serbian idol, and as you watch him do splits on the baseline, extend his arms to crucially keep the ball in play, and complete passing shots from compromising positions, you can’t help to marvel at the glaring similarities.

That uncanny ability to flip from defence to offense in a hurry is a feature of today’s tennis stars (think Novak, Rafa and Andy) and therefore the Korean looks poise to continue his upward mobility on the rankings, but let’s not anoint him as a future Grand Slam winner just yet. Fellow youngsters like Zverev and Kyrgios bear more options to get there, and while no contemporary beat Chung to a first semi-final appearance, he was still blistered by Roger Federer on the spot.

 

20 – For the second time in eight months, Simona Halep lost a Grand Slam Final against a lower-ranked opponent; however you would be hard pressed to find a World No. 1 that concluded a tournament without the trophy on her hands yet so much to appreciate from the two weeks of action. For instance, for the Romanian, this event was perhaps the last obstacle she had to transverse before completely embracing her status as a dominant figure in the WTA Tour and a player ready to withstand and thrive in every circumstance. At least, that what we hope she is taking from the experience, from all those hours fighting with a sprained ankle, a sore right foot, headaches, cramps and the like, with her body stretched to the limit but buoyed by inspiring bravery and self-belief.

Simona Halep fires a forehand during the women’s singles Australian Open Final (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The common thread between the three best matches of the entire fortnight (the historical 3rd round vs Lauren Davis, SF and Final), Halep saved five match points between the first two encounters at moments when her mind and legs clamoured for rest, and she managed it by stepping inside the court, shorting the points and displaying an aggression, especially on her forehand, unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. Amassing 90 total winners against Angie Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki is something akin to Jelena Ostapenko or Madison Keys, and a true game-changer for the Romanian, representing the roadmap to become a favourite in every major even when the likes of Serena, Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova fully resettle.

One of the best athletes around, Halep sadly capitulated for a third consecutive Grand Slam Final in the last couple of games of the deciding set, her demise accelerated by a second serve that ceased to exist when her batteries finally ran dry after more than 14 hours of competitive tennis. Even if she deserved something other than the runner-up silver plate for her herculean effort, this was an epic performance through and through.

 

21 – With four of the Big five of men’s tennis impaired, it’s just natural that whoever manages to reach a Grand Slam Final is slightly overlooked, yet Marin Cilic, a Grand Slam Champion in his own right, deserves all the respect in the world, not just for his campaign in Melbourne but for a career that is still in the upswing as he nears the thirties. Once merely renowned for his massive serve and the free points he got from it, Cilic evolved into an all-around threat when he started to jump behind the delivery, his heavy groundstrokes a distress to any opponent and his deft touch at the net a nice complement. Moreover, the 29-year-old wouldn’t be able to trade blows with Rafa Nadal for five sets if he couldn’t move surprisingly well for a towering man.

Marin Cilic stretches to return a ball during his semi-final match (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Cruising through the first week, the Cilic we saw in Australia wasn’t the in-the-zone version that romped to the US Open title in 2014, but it was enough to outlast Nadal in the QF when everyone counted on the contrary, and to push Roger Federer the distance in the Final. Ultimately, his chances rested in all those break opportunities in the beginning of the fifth set that the Swiss managed to fend off before kicking into overdrive, still Cilic will get some consolation from his new career-high mark of World No.3, and the bolstered notion that only Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy and Stan can boast better resumes in this golden era of tennis than Marin, the gentle giant of Medjugorje.

 

22 – 811 WTA matches, 12.5 years, 43 Grand Slam appearances, 27 WTA titles, 67 weeks as World No.1, countless questions about a distinguished, yet “slamless” career, so much blood, sweat and tears until that magical moment when Caroline Wozniacki could caress her Daphne. As in the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the Australian Open woman’s single’s trophy, the prize the many millions she has accumulated wouldn’t buy, and the corollary of the Dane’s career.

Jubilation for Caroline Wozniacki at the end of her third career Grand Slam Final (Andy Brownbill/The Associated Press)

Appointed as one of the favourites following her WTA Finals victory at the end of 2017, Wozniacki’s campaign was close, so so close from ending in its infancy, but a mix of poise, experience and luck got her over the hump in round two, and she proceeded to make the best of her time playing with “house money”, breezing to the Final with reckless abandon, new-found aggressiveness and that steely determination of someone who feels her time was arriving less than 18 months since the day she found her name lost on the depths of the Top 100. And she was right about it, because this was the best Caroline we’ve ever seen, the Caroline who can claim cheap points with her serve, who’s not afraid to let it rip looking for winners, who dictates points while still being able to retrieve every ball, play wondrous defence and limit her unforced errors under heavy pressure, especially on the backhand (6 in the final, only 40 from over 1000 points contested through the tournament).

In the Final, after almost three hours of awe-inspiring tennis, the arm-wrestle concluded with a netted backhand off Simona Halep’s racket, and Wozniacki was free to let the emotions flow, let go off all the frustrations, call herself a Grand Slam Champion – the first hailing from the Kingdom of Denmark -, the World No.1, a record six years after she last relinquished the post, and a great of tennis history. Even if, at the time, she could barely think of anythink but Daphne.

 

23 – On the 50th anniversary of the Open Era, men’s tennis got to meet its first 20-times Grand Slam Champion. That’s 10% of the sport’s biggest tournaments claimed by the same individual, the incomparable Roger Federer, the only man who could string sequences of seven best-of-five victories at age 36 like it’s a walk in the park. It very much isn’t, as the tears rolling down his eyes testify, but, regardless of the fact that every other contender in the field surrendered to an upset or injury, the achievement is, most definitely, a testament to Federer’s staying power, his unfettered dedication to the game and a superior intellect, which detected where his weak spots lied during some lean years and adapted, tweaked, improved until he could add glorious new chapters to the “fairytale”.

Roger Federer kisses his sixth Australian Open trophy (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

Unencumbered for six rounds, Roger Federer suffered with Cilic’s ball weight during the Final, especially when the point lengthened, but his refined offensive game and ever-gracious movement prevailed in the vast majority of the points played: short (76% were concluded after 4 shots or less) and usually dictated by Federer’s serve (24-16 in aces) or quick, offensive bursts following the Croat’s second delivery. In short, another example of the blueprint behind Federer’s resurgence, which has earned the Swiss three of the last five majors and now a record-equalling sixth Australian Open. Simply magnificient.

Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.