Basketball

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

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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.

Weekend Roundup (September, 17th): Slovenia wins the 2017 EuroBasket

Welcome to our new weekly report in Wheeling a round puck: the Weekend Roundup, where we’ll provide a rundown of the events that happened in the world of sport on the two busiest days of each seven-day spam.

While this concept is still a work in progress that is sure to see a few chances over the next months, the hope is that these pieces – mostly informative, but veering into commentary at times – will deliver a sensible summary of the most important incidents and results from a selected group of sports.

Therefore, football (mostly the five major European leagues), cycling (World Tour races) and tennis (ATP and WTA Tour) will be ever present – except in the offseason, of course – and it’s probable we’ll also venture regularly into the World Cup of the major winter sports (alpine skiing, ski jumping, cross country, biathlon) when time comes.

Moreover, we’ll tackle other sports as the calendar rolls around and major competitions from the likes of Athletics, Swimming or ice hockey take the spotlight. As you’ve already guessed, in this first post basketball makes an appearance due to the end of the 2017 EuroBasket, and that’s precisely the model to follow. So, let’s jump right into the hoop(s).

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

After 18 days of competition across Europe, the European Basketball Championships ended this Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Turkey, the location selected to host the knockout rounds of a competition whose group stage span four different countries (Finland, Israel, Romania, Turkey) for the second time.

Slovenia and Serbia, two nations that were once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made it out of the 24-team field to contest the decisive match and, following a thrilling spectacle, the Slovenians were crowned European Champions for the first time by virtue of a 93-85 win.

Built around an explosive backcourt that featured Miami Heat’s point guard Goran Dragić, and 18-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić (Real Madrid), the Slovenian’s high-flying offense had earned rave reviews throughout their flawless campaign (8-0 in the final tournament, 6-0 in qualifying), yet the Serbian’s were able to establish control in the first ten minutes and close the first quarter up 22-20.

However, with the nerves of a maiden Final put on the rear view, Slovenia took charge in the second inspired by a sublime Dragić – who ended the game with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals – and they crafted a nine point advantage (56-47) at the half.

After the break, Serbia’s hopes were hanging by a thread as Slovenia looked to pull out, yet disaster struck with 4.44 min to go in the third when the influential Dončić hurt his left ankle. A consternated green-and-white fan section looked frozen as his prodigy was helped off the court, and the situation offered a perfect rallying call for their opponent. Led by Bogdan Bogdanović, which served as Serbia’s primary facilitator in the absence (from the tournament) of the entrancing Miloš Teodosić, the deficit shrank and, by the middle of the fourth period, the lead was changing hands in every possession.

It was right around this time that Slovenia’s captain Goran Dragić was also forced to leave with an injury, and few believed his team would still be able to pull off victory without its two best players. But, stunningly, they did, with their backup guards Jaka Blažič and Aleksej Nikolić coming up big in crunch time, shooter Klemen Prepelič icing big three pointers all night, naturalized forward Anthony Randolph stepping up in the final minutes, or center Gašper Vidmar making a huge block on a Bogdanović reserve lay-up to stunt Serbia’s chances of a late comeback.

Slovenian players exult after the final buzzer (credits: fiba.eurobasket)

A truly epic team effort to seal a sensational run by Slovenia, which swept Group A (Helsinki, Finland), dispatched Ukraine in the round of 16, fended off a Kristaps Porzingis-led Latvia in the quarters, and vanquished the defending Champions Spain in the semi-finals to surpass their previous best result at the EuroBasket: a fourth place in 2009, when they fell to Serbia in overtime on the semis. Not bad for a country of just 2.1M people.

Moreover, to cap it off, Goran Dragić was elected the tournament MVP, and he was joined by Dončić, Russia’s Alexei Shved, Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanović and Spain’s Pau Gasol on the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team. In the third place game, Spain defeated Russia (93-85) to claim bronze and provide a fitting send off for retiring captain Juan Carlos Navarro, who collected a staggering tenth international medal with the national team.

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

Third consecutive week without ATP Tour events, as Grand Slam action in New York was immediately followed by the last batch of Davis Cup ties highlighted, naturally, by the semi-finals of the World Group.  France and Belgium hosted Serbia and Australia, respectively, and they took full advantage of home court to book a spot on the Final, scheduled for late November in France.

In Lille, the French faced a Serbian team missing Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but they couldn’t avoid an early scare when Lucas Pouille succumbed to Dušan Lajović in four sets at the opener. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made quick work of rookie Laslo Đere to level on Friday, and then two-time Grand Slam Champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut won in doubles to set France on the right path.

Tsonga completed the job by ousting Lajovic on Sunday, laying waste to the final rubber, and thus sending the team captained by Yannick Noah to a third final in seven years (2010, 2014). With no Novak Djokovic (2010), Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka (2014) standing on their way, France has no excuses this time. They should end their 16-year drought in a couple of months.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga jubilates after winning the Davis Cup semi final against Serbia (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Meanwhile, in Brussels, pundits expected a cracking matchup and it delivered. Belgium’s No.1, David Goffin, dropped the first set against John Millman but rebounded quickly to pull the hosts in front, while Nick Kyrgios rallied back from 2-1 down to brush past Steve Darcis in five sets and level at 1-1.

On Saturday, Australia’s pair (John Peers/Jordan Thompson) captured victory in commanding fashion, yet Belgium was able to respond with their backs to the wall 24 hours later. The resolute Goffin slowed down Kyrgios to triumph in four, and then Darcis snatched the vital third point in a straight sets victory over Jordan Thompson. Elation in Brussels. Belgium will make a short trip south of the border to contest a second Davis Cup Final in three years after capitulating at home to Andy Murray’s Great Britain back in 2015. Maybe they’re reserved better luck as huge underdogs on the road.

The plucky Belgians are back in the Davis Cup Final (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the World Group playoffs, Canada (without Milos Raonic), Croatia, Germany (missing  the Zverev brothers and Philipp Kohlschreiber) and Switzerland (no Wawrinka or Federer) were able to guarantee another year amongst the elite, while Russia was upset by Hungary and the 2012 and 2013 Champions Czech Republic fell to the Netherlands. Without Del Potro, Argentina lost at Kazakhstan to become just the third nation to be relegated the year after winning the title, while the Japan-Brazil (3-1) tie was only concluded on Monday after rain and an incoming typhoon cancelled play in Osaka on the weekend.

On the WTA Tour, the aftermath of the US Open brought a week imbued with two small, 125k international tournaments (Tokyo and Québec City) boasting rather unremarkable draws. Consequently, it wasn’t exactly a major surprise that the Japan Women’s Open Final pitted two qualifiers, World No. 171 Miyu Kato and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas (No.100), nor that the slightly more experienced competitor eventually prevailed.

Diyas, a finalist on the same tournament back in 2014 (loss to Sam Stosur), conjured better memories this time and triumphed by 6-2, 7-5 to hold aloft her first WTA Tour trophy. Incidentally, despite a stronger field, similar scenes were observed in Canada, where Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck defeated Hungary’s Tímea Babos in three sets (5-7, 6-4, 6-1) to conquer the 25th Tournoi de Québec and her first title at this level.

Zarina Diyas, of Kazakhstan, kisses the trophy of the Japan Women’s Open

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

With no World tour races on the calendar ahead of the World Championships, the highest ranked competition of the weekend was the Primus Classic (1.HC), also known as the GP Impanis-Van Petegem. A Belgium event won by the likes of Fernando Gavíria, Andre Greipel or Greg van Avermaet in recent seasons, this year’s edition reaffirmed the credentials of one of the most in-form riders on the tour.

Fresh off four stage wins in Spain, Quick-Step Floors’ Matteo Trentin flexed his muscles once again to triumph in Boortmeerbeek, Flanders, on Saturday. Part of a 15-men group sitting in front of the peloton late, the 28-year-old disregarded a highly-advantageous situation for his team – numbers in the break and sprinter Gaviria lined up to take victory – when he took off with 6.5 km to go carrying just BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker on his trail. A risky move bound to upset his directors had it gone wrong, but one the Italian would follow up perfectly when he eschewed his partner-in-crime with a couple of kilometres to go and rode solo to raise his arms at the finish line.

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

With the World Championships road race one week away, that was a mightily impressive display from the man that should lead a strong Italian contingent looking for a first title since 2008.

This weekend also concluded the 2017 Tour of Denmark with a fourth consecutive overall triumph for a local boy. About to complete his first World Tour season, 21-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), the Danish National Champion, held off two-time winner (2014, 2016) Michael Valgren (Astana Pro Team) to secure his best career win to date in front of his compatriots. Pedersen had obtained the lead after winning stage 3, edging Valgren at the finish, and he administered his meagre advantage during Friday’s ITT and Saturday’s last stage, when he finished second to Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb) to clinch victory in the general classification.

On Sunday, the UCI World Championships kicked off in Bergen with the team time trial competition. Since the rebirth of the event, in 2012, only five teams (BMC, Quick Step, Orica-Scott, Sky and Movistar) had managed to medal, yet the day would belong to Team Sunweb, still regarded as an outsider despite boasting, probably, the best time trail specialist in the World.

Team Sunweb won the team time trial title at the start of the World Championships in Bergen (NTB Scanpix/Cornelius Poppe via REUTERS)

With Tom Dumoulin and fellow Dutch Wilco Kelderman powering the six-men unit, the German outfit upended pre-race favourites BMC, who repeated the second place of 2016, and the star-studded Team Sky, whose lineup contained Chris Froome and former World Champions Vasil Kyrienka (ITT, 2015) and Michal Kwiatkowski (road race, 2014). Quick-Step Floors, who has won a record three times, including in 2016, finished fourth, 35 seconds off Team Sunweb’s pace.

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

Traditionally, Real Sociedad’s Anoeta is one of the toughest grounds in Spain, and Real Madrid didn’t make their task any easier by dropping points unexpectedly in the previous two matchdays and lining up without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema (all injured) and Cristiano Ronaldo (suspended). Zidane’s team couldn’t afford to give Barça more leeway at the top of the table, and they didn’t, scrapping a 3-1 victory against a team that was three of three up to this game.

One day earlier, at Getafe, FC Barcelona suffered to keep their 100% win record intact and the four-point gap on the rivals. The hosts scored first, on a screamer from Shibasaki – the first goal allowed by the Catalans on the league – but substitutes Denis Suárez and the much-scorned Paulinho turned the game around. The bad news would came later, when it was announced their 105M addiction Ousmane Dembélé had been ruled out for a few months with a thigh injury.

Paulinho’s first goal with FC Barcelona allowed the Catalans to grab the three points at Getafe (Denis Doyle/GettyImages)

Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid opened their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, with a narrow 1-0 victory over last place Málaga. Antoine Griezmann scored the game’s lone goal and the “Colchoneros” moved up the table to fourth, tied with their city rivals, while Sevilla passed at Girona with a goal from Colombian forward Luis Muriel and rose to second, with 10 pts. At the bottom, Málaga is still stuck on neutral, as is Alavés, still goalless on the season and comprehensively beaten at home by Villareal (0-3) this week.

English Premier League

Heading into round 5, Manchester United and Manchester City shared the Premier League lead with 10 pts, and things didn’t change in the weekend after both sides picked up easy wins and watched as their competitors left points on the board.

On Saturday, Manchester City cruised to another rout, pumping 6 goals at Watford, who had entered the round undefeated (2W, 2D). Kun Agüero tallied three times on the afternoon to  push the Citizens goal scoring record over the last seven days to a staggering 15-0, while their rivals responded by dispatching the struggling Everton (1 win in five matches) by 4-0. It wasn’t as easy as it looks though, since Old Trafford was only allowed a sigh of relief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal in the 83th minute.

Argentine striker Sergio Agüero was on top form in Man City’s visit to Watford (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea continues in pursue of the front duo, but they lost ground after drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. Liverpool dropped points at home once again, this time to Burnley (1-1), while Tottenham couldn’t break past Swansea’s wall and have yet to win at Wembley for the Premier League. It stands to reason their mid-week triumph over Dortmund didn’t broke the curse, and that’s good news for a team like Newcastle, who won for a third consecutive week after dropping the first two matches of the campaign, and leaped to fourth.

At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s sacking of Frank de Boer and subsequent appointment of Roy Hodgson didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former England manager oversaw a 0-1 defeat to Southampton that saw the South Londoners write some history…

And the nightmare may not end soon since their next three opponents are Man City (a), Man Utd (a), and Chelsea (h)…

Serie A

Inter, Juve and Napoli had collected three points in every game played and they kept the pace in round four. The Nerazzurri found two late goals at Crotone to snatch victory, Paulo Dybala bagged a hat trick to steer Juventus on their visit to Sassuolo and now counts eight goals in four matches, and Napoli schooled newly-promoted Benevento (0 pts, last place) at the San Paolo (6-0).

Ciro Immobile’s brace helped Lazio came out victorious at Genoa (2-3), keeping the capital side two points off the top, while AC Milan bounced back from last week’s loss with the Laziale to climb to fifth, with 9 pts, after overcoming Udinese (2-1)

Bundesliga

After being surprised on the Europa League mid-week, Hoffenheim couldn’t beat Hertha Berlin at home on Sunday, and were thus dumped out of the front carriage. Hannover and Dortmund, who routed Cologne (5-0) and have yet to concede a goal, are now the duo ahead, with ten points each, while Bayern Munich is right behind.

The Bavarians calmed their fans with a cool 4-0 home win over Mainz courtesy of their star forwards. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski (2) were on target, and the five-time defending Champions now accumulate nine points, the same as Schalke 04, who triumphed at Werder Bremen.

Thomas Muller (#25) and Robert Lewandowski (#9) celebrate one of the goals scored against Mainz on Saturday (Andreas Gebert/dpa)

Last year’s runners-up RB Leipzig were stifled by Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-2), while Bayer Leverkusen finally picked up a win (4-0, Freiburg) to leave the relegation zone.

Ligue 1

Monaco hosted Strasbourg after the humbling 0-4 defeat in Nice last week, and they did what was asked, with Falcao notching twice in their 3-0 victory to keep them three points off PSG. The Colombian now has 9 goals in 6 games to top the Golden Shoe race, and distanced himself from Edison Cavani, who was held off the scoresheet as the Parisians eventually broke Lyon’s opposition late. It took own goals by defenders Marcelo and Jérémy Morel, but PSG is now a perfect six of six.

Saint-Etiénne, winners 1-0 at Dijon, are in third place with 13 pts, followed by Bordeux, Lyon and Marseille, while Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille lost in stoppage time at Guingamp, and haven’t taken three points since the opening fixture. They have 5 pts amassed in six matches, and are just one above the red line.

Moment of the weekend

A couple of outstanding football goals around the world this week, but we’ll grant the stage on this first Weekend Roundup to another debut.

After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid revealed their new home and Antoine Griezmann was the man on duty, directing home the ball after an excellence play down the right flank by Angel Correa. A goal worth three points for Diego Simeone’s team, and just another reason to celebrate on a special night.

 

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (II): Major events to book on your schedule

With 306 medal events on the Rio 2016 Olympic calendar, it´s impossible to follow all the action coming in droves from Brazil over the next fortnight. Daily, there will be multiple alternatives that cater to every profile of sports fan, but a few selected competitions stand above the rest, either from the magnitude of the sides in battle, the significance of the potential victors on the broader heritage left from this specific edition, or the traditional media coverage expected. With these criteria in mind, I tried to mine some of the most relevant events that are on the program, and adjusted to collect Brazil’s best chances of producing riveting displays for the hollering native audiences on site.

I’m obviously spitballing on the athletes or teams that will reach the decisive encounters on these events, and undoubtedly my own predilections guided a few of the choices, but I believe the list below is sensible enough to pass the sniffing test.

Team competitions are in vast majority in this article as they are easier to pinpoint (for example, if you don’t follow fencing on a regular basis, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on a program containing dozen of events,) but keep in mind that on the final two parts of this preview I’ll dive into the must-watch events of the Olympics’ two blue-ribbon sports, Swimming and Athletics.

So, in chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Cycling Men’s road race, 1.30 pm, August 6

The major event of day 1 of the Olympics will see the world’s best road cyclists compete on a 256.4km course that passes through Rio de Janeiro’s landmarks. With two circuits that include cobble sections and a total of 10 climbs, counting a 8.5km ascension that is run three times, there’s an excellent chance the historically chaotic race is decided by a highly selective group of riders equipped to power in the hilly parkour. The 20km flat run-in to the finish may prove too much for Chris Froome, who dreams of becoming the first man to complete a Tour de France-Olympic Gold medal double, but other Grand Tour contenders have a major opportunity, including Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who always seems to be the bridesmaid when wearing his national colours, or Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov took top honours in London 2012

The reigning World Champion, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, will be absent to focus on the mountain bike competition, but one-day specialists like Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert or France’s Julian Alaphilippe can pose major threats if they’re not eliminated uphill. With the traditional powerhouses Spain, France, Italy and Belgium (plus Great Britain) possessing a pair of team leaders, the dark horses come from the loaded rosters of Colombia and Netherlands, where every man can legitimately envision succeeding Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov, the winner in London 2012.

Gymnastics Women’s team final, 8 pm, August 9

In one of the tent-pole events of every Olympics, the USA’s girls want to repeat as Olympic Champions, something they’ve never been able to do. After dominating the team competition in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, the Americans are the clear frontrunners possessing a unit highlighted by  Simone Biles, the brightest gymnast of the last few seasons, and the returning pair of Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, two multiple medallists in London.

The USA, which took five of the last seven world titles, edged Russia four years ago and the successors of the Soviet Union, an historic powerhouse, are once again a strong contender, while Romania, bronze medallists in 2012 and podium-bound in every Olympics since 1976, did not qualify this time. A prominent position is thus opened for China and Great Britain, respectively second and third at the 2015 Worlds.

The United States are hoping to rehash this image in Rio de Janeiro

Tennis Men’s Singles Final, 4 pm, August 14

For a competition that prematurely lost half of the top ten players in the ATP rankings largely due to concerns about the Zika virus, a tournament-saving Final pitting Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would be a welcome sight for tennis officials looking to save face. With Roger Federer out injured, the Serbian’s quest for a career-crowning Olympic gold medal is the storyline the game needs, and nothing looks better than a potential five-set thriller against the defending Champion.

Anything else, except for an unforeseen run by a homeland boy, would put the event squarely on the backburner in the middle of the Olympic festivities, and cast doubt over the sport’s future inclusion in light of the masses of players evidently disregarding the competition.

Beach Volleyball Women’s Final, 4 am, August 17

Brazil’s Larissa Franca came back from retirement to take another shot at Olympic Gold

With the majestic backdrop of Copacabana Beach, this midnight fest may turn into an absolute classic if the Brazilian pair that has dominated international competition makes the final. Larissa Franca, maybe the best beach volleyball player of all-time, has won everything except for the Olympic title, and halted retirement in 2014 to join forces with Talita Antunes in route to Rio. The pair amassed 61-straight victories topping in the 2015 World Tour Finals title, and reaches the Olympics as the prohibitive favourites, determined to give Brazil the first gold medal in this event since 1996.

Larissa was a bronze medallist in London behind two American pairs, with Kerri Walsh Jennings collecting his third consecutive title alongside Misty May-Treanor by defeating April Ross and Jen Kessy. With May-Treanor’s abandon, Jennings partnered with Ross and they appear poised to become the main challengers to Franca and Antunes. The Brazilians hold a 5-1 head-to-head record and will count on the rowdy home crowd, but don’t discount the experience of Jennings, going into her fifth Olympic Games.

Football Women’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 19

In five previous Olympic tournaments, never the reigning World Champions were able to add the Olympic title the following season. The USA will try to do just that and since they’ve won the last three editions and four of five, the odds seem to be in their favour.

With a roster slightly retooled and revitalized from the squad that triumphed in the 2015 World Cup, the Americans’ more dangerous opponents are the hosts, silver medallist in 2008, Germany, the three-time bronze medallists and twice World Champions, and France, an enormously talented ensemble that has mind-bogglingly failed to reach the podium in successive international competitions. Japan, the finalists in 2012, are shockingly absent after being surpassed by Australia and China on Asia’s qualifying tournament.

Carli Lloyd (#10), the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year, was on target twice at the 2012 Olympic Final

Football Men’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 20

The future of men’s soccer in the Olympics (at least in the current stripped-down configuration) may well depend on a long run from the hosts, with Brazil desperate to complete their mantle adding an elusive gold medal that escaped four years ago at Wembley. With a side once again led by Neymar but significantly less potent than in 2012, the hosts will be on a mission to exorcise the demons of the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat on home soil during the 2014 World Cup.

Incidentally, Germany may cross their path in the SF should both teams win their respective groups, and a possible rematch with Mexico or a derby with Argentina might coalesce in the final. Either way, its gold or bust for Brazil and the home boys missing the Final would significantly decrease the relevancy of the match to be contested at the iconic Maracanã Stadium.

Volleyball Men’s Final, 17:15 pm, August 21

One of the hottest tickets in the Olympics is the Volleyball men’s event, where the hosts have a great chance to reclaim the title after the gold medals of 1992 and 2004, and the silver medals of 1984, 2008 and 2012.

The Russian’s soared above Brazil at the 2012 Men’s Volleyball Final

A powerhouse boasting several World Cup, World League and World Championship triumphs since the turn of the century, Brazil will nonetheless face stiff competition from the likes of Russia, the reigning Olympic Champions, the USA, winners in 2008 and the current World Cup Champions, Poland, the World Championship holders, and Italy, bronze medallists in London 2012.

Men’s basketball Final, 19:45 pm, August 21

The last event to complete at the Olympic Games should once again affirm USA’s basketball domination, with the complement of NBA stars massively favourite to collect a sixth title in seven editions since the “Dream Team” shook the 1992 Games held in Barcelona. Despite missing a plethora of the World’s finest players, the Americans – unbeaten internationally since 2006 – should cruise through the competition much like they did in the last two Olympics, where they defeated Spain in the final. With the eternal Paul Gasol still leading the way, the Iberian side may once again reach the decisive game despite some important absences (NBA All-Stars Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka).

Can Spain (or any other team) halt USA’s rise to the top of the men’s basketball podium?

However, other teams are vying to outdo the European Champions, from their continental counterparts France, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania to South America’s Argentina, Champions in 2004, and Brazil, which obtained their last medal in 1964.

 

Athletes to watchMarquee eventsSwimming GuideAthletics Guide

Rio 2016 Olympic preview (I): A (personal) list of athletes to follow

The world’s quadrennial sports smörgåsbord is about to get underway in Rio de Janeiro – well, technically as I write this, it has already started – as over 10 000 athletes have descended on the first South American host city looking to extol the virtues of four years (or a lifetime) of intense, unappreciated preparation. Seven years after the so-called “Cidade Maravilhosa” was selected to welcome the world’s fittest individuals, the novel tradition of derogatory buzz about the conditions waiting the delegations is already surfacing in every media outlet, yet (hopefully) just a few hours remain for everyone to focus on the spirit of this incomparable event.

The Olympics. A communal celebration of the World we live in, its outstanding diversity and history, but also an expression of global unity as representations from 206 countries /nations converge to compete for eternal glory and national pride through the pursuit of athletic excellence, expressed on one of Humanity’s most powerful drivers, sports. Or simply, borrowing the London 2012 motto: The Olympics. Inspire a Generation (too corny?).

During 19 days of competition, not only 306 new Olympic Champions will be crowned, but countless stories will arise, get shared, debated and imprinted on the collective memory, iconic images and heroes will be shot and etched, humans will sense unbridled joy and despair, succumb to sadness and anger or soar to touch the paradise. The Olympic Games should be about this for a fortnight and not the financial, social and political hardships of the hosts, the environmental missteps, the administrative shortcomings, the health concerns that significantly depleted the field of competitors on disciplines like tennis and golf, Russia’s appalling doping issues or even the undercurrent allegations of corruption and fraud that plague the Olympic movement.

For a few weeks every four years, exceptional individuals get to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience that reaches 3 650 million, and we get a front row seat into their life, to experience their victories and the crushing weight of their failures. Heck, at the opening ceremony, entering the Olympic Stadium shortly after the legendary Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will be 10 athletes with refugee status, courageous men and women who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag, a redeeming story with so much of unique and inspirational and that still shouldn’t have ever come to life.

This time Brazilian athletes will be the last to touch the Olympic Stadium

Anyway, time to drop the babbles of someone way-too-excited and finally getting to the gist of this article, the first part of the Olympic preview, which will focus on the athletes I’ll keep my eye on during the Olympic Games.

With 42 sport disciplines represented in the Games, it goes without saying that it’s impossible to grasp and highlight every notable athlete (well, they are all notable, actually, since they got to this distinctive stage) while getting a clear picture of what they represent to their sport. Yet, tapping into my knowledge and a bit of research, I compiled a list of eight names (or seven plus a team) that I’m keen to see perform at Rio de Janeiro, based on factors like the personal stakes in the game, the relevancy of their performances at the national level, the worldwide visibility of their results, or simply my own preferences, quirks and interests.

In short, if you’re expecting weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers (sensing a theme here?), diving competitors, synchronized swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts or guys that stroll mounted on horses, you’re out of luck.

Some of the names on the list already enjoy worldwide popularity, others may be on their way and in some cases that won’t ever happen, but all of them have the chance to leave Rio with silverware. I found a way to balance the genres and the athletes compete in different sports, but in terms of nationality wasn’t as successful. Meanwhile, keep in mind that in the next posts I’ll have the opportunity to sift through a bunch of other remarkable athletes.

Without further ado, here is my batch of eight.

Kevin Durant (USA, Basketball)

The main figure of the 2016 summer in USA’s sports landscape arrives in Rio with something to prove after leaving his own Ducat in Oklahoma City and taking his talents to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. An Olympic Champion in 2012, when he was still an emerging superstar fresh of an NBA Final appearance, the career of Durant peaked in 2014 with an MVP award before things sizzled due to nagging injuries.

Kevin Durant will have a chip on his shoulder in Rio

From a contender to LeBron James’ crown as the Planet’s premium basketball player, he became a second-row spectator on James’s show and surplus of Steph Curry’s meteoric rise. The decision to join Curry’s band of brothers will always be a paradigm shifting move on his life, but the start of that new chapter will only come after an attention-grabbing tournament where he’s the main lure.

Despite still being the mightiest group, the American roster in Rio will be missing so much primetime talent (LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis…) that it can quickly become Durant’s team, for better or worse. He’ll be the fulcrum of the media, the man tasked with the money balls (if they even occur) and his relationship with future teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be scrutinized before he even enters their own club’s locker room. The 27-year-old better make good use of his closing days as the alfa dog.

Dafne Schippers (Netherlands, Athletics)

For a long time, the sprint events at international competitions have been subjugated by athletes hailing from North and Central America – with Africans sprinkled in – but this blonde phenomenon from the Netherlands has recently pestered their safe heaven.

The 24-year-old Schippers broke into the world stage as a heptathlon competitor, even meriting the third place at the 2013 World Championships, but in 2014 decided to focus on the burgeoning sprinting chops she had been displaying since adolescence. Winning the 100m and 200m in the European Championships was just the first step on a ladder that continued with the furious late charge to take the 200m World title a year later on a national and continental record time of 21.63s, the third best mark of all-time. Additionally, in the 100m, the Utrecht-native was second despite a slow start, and thus jumped to the vanguard of contenders on both races ahead of these Olympics.

It’s entirely possible that a tall, white woman with acne marks dotted on her face will stand on top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro as the Sprint Queen, and that is really cool, no matter the callous, unproven allegations her swift ascension has brought forward.

Neymar (Brazil, football)

A 20-year-old Neymar reacts during the 2012 Olympic Final

Hailed as the poster boy of the Olympics at age 24, the Barcelona superstar is the trump card his country will play to end the chase for a gold medal in the national sport, but it’s about more than that for him. The intrepid winger has personal history to erase, from the loss to Mexico at the 2012 Final to the disappointment of being forced to the sidelines while a catastrophe submerged the “Canarinha” at the 2014 World Cup. Extremely productive for his national team (46 goals in 70 caps), no other football player competing in Rio is even remotely at the same level – the second best in Rio may be South Korea’s overaged forward Heung-min Son and some staunch football fans would be pressed to name his current club – as the third place finisher in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or election.

Brazil pretty much punted the 2016 Copa America to get him here and with that comes the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation of 200M, something he’s experienced before. He’ll deliver, mark it in ink (or don’t).

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics)

The history of the Olympic Games, whether you particularly enjoy Gymnastics or not, has been written on several occasions by the superb displays of grace, agility and balance paraded by the athletes of this sport. Nadia Comaneci is one of the most recognized Olympians of all-time and every four years female gymnasts carry on with her legacy, delighting worldwide audiences that seldom watch the sport. Some of those gymnasts have turned into fleeting darlings that never again touch the Olympic stage, but it would be a shame if that’s the destiny of Simone Biles.

The 19-year-old Simone Biles is Gymnastics undisputed Queen

The diminutive (145cm high) gymnast will make her Olympic debut after absolutely crushing her competition since 2013. A three-time all-around World Champion, Biles has already collected the most gold medals (10) of any female in World Championships history, adding multiple all-around, team, balance beam and floor triumphs due to her unmatched power and creativity. At age 19, she’s the building block on the USA’s challenge for a second consecutive team triumph, and the Texas-native can leave Rio with up to four gold medals, consolidating her case as one of the best gymnasts of all-time. Look for her face to be plastered on Rio 2016 memorabilia.

Roger Federer / Martina Hingis (Switzerland, Tennis)

Damnit. The charmed reunion of two of the craftiest players to ever grace the tennis courts – who have combined for 39 total Grand Slam wins – is not happening in Rio..or ever, for that matter. Shame. Moving on.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Cycling (track))

Despite growing up as a track racer, the Manx Missile’s illustrious career has been erected on his impressive skills as a pacey finisher on the road, having amassed a plethora of stage wins in all three Grand Tours, a Monument victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, and the title of World Champion in 2011. All of this definitely wouldn’t have been possible without putting behind the ambitions indoors, which happened following a disappointing 2008 Olympics, but destiny has given him another opportunity.

Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his maiden Olympic medal

In Beijing, he and partner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning World Champions in Madison, were only ninth despite holding justified medal hopes, and Cav promised to never come back to the track. Then, in 2012, his Olympic dreams were once again ruined as the home boys fought tirelessly on the road to force a sprint finish, but were ultimately unable to control a wild competition. At age 31, the Rio de Janeiro Games presented a last chance, but the design of the course outside proved too tough for Cavendish to handle, facilitating the decision to take his word back. Having returned to the track competitions last year, he was able to narrowly obtain the passport to Rio, where he’ll compete in the omnium and the team pursuit.

If the third time’s the charm and he can add Olympic silverware to a résumé that includes an outstanding total of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, Cavendish may force the Queen’s hand. He would surely relish the title of “Sir”, joining fellow cyclists and (multiple Olympic medallists) Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy.

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)

While watching a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky triumph in the gruelling 800m freestyle race of the London Olympics, one couldn’t help to feel excited for what would be coming ahead. Four years later, the unassuming youngster from Washington-DC is the leading face of her entire sport, the one where a certain Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, is still active.

Katie Ledecky, perhaps the greatest athlete in the World at the moment. Would you believe it?

This would only be possible because Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even if absolutely no one would believe it looking at her physique, distant from the broad torso, long-limbed freaks that ruled the pools before her. She doesn’t need that to demolish world record after world record, to finish race after race with ungodly advantages, to blow away the audience (and her rivals) with efficient strokes, sheer pace and unmatched stamina.

Ledecky will probably sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races in Rio de Janeiro, and if the 1500m were part of the women’s calendar, she would win that one too, regardless of the need to get in the water three or four times per day to race heats and finals of individual and relay events. Her unprecedented range at elite level is something to behold, and every sports fan should jump at the chance to watch history. After all, she’s “better at swimming than anyone else is at anything”.

Fiji Rugby Seven’s National Team (Fiji Islands, Rugby)

Since first debuting at the Olympics in 1956, the athletes that have represented Fiji, a Pacific Ocean country of 0.9M citizens, haven’t been able to collect a single medal to warm the heart of the nation. However, at Rio de Janeiro, history can be just around the corner, as the national rugby seven’s team is the favourite to take the inaugural Olympic title.

The rugby seven’s Fiji National Team, a group hoping to reach the Olympic pinnacle and make proud an entire nation once again

On a sport that returns to the Games for the first time since 1924, this time on the quicker, more wide-open version of seven-men aside, Fiji is able to regularly beat the usual heavyweights of the rugby of 15, where they rank 10 in the World. Nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are still forces to be reckoned with, but the last two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles were conquered by the Fijians, who due to their consummate speed, skill and flair thrive on a full-sized field over two short seven-minute halves.

Some of the alluring members of the team already ply their trade abroad for the best European Teams, but nothing compares to the potential happy ending with Fiji standing on their maiden Olympic podium. The pursuit of glory by the Pacific minnows boasts every ingredient to develop into the feel-good story of the Olympic Games.

Majlinda Kelmendi (Kosovo, Judo)

The Olympic Committee of Kosovo was the 205th organization to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee, having joined in December 2014, thus the Rio Olympics symbolize the first opportunity for Kosovar athletes to compete under their nation’s flag. Carrying the banner on the opening ceremony will be Kelmendi, a two-time World Champion in the -52kg category, and the country’s best medal hope amongst an eight-people delegation.

Majlinda Kelmendi will return to the place of her international breakthrough

The 25-year-old Judoka represented Albania in the 2012 Olympic Games, going out in the second round, and since then has transformed into his discipline’s most feared combatant, leading the World rankings over the last while. In 2013, incidentally at Rio de Janeiro, Kelmendi beat the home favourite Erika Miranda to claim her first World title, and she repeated the feat in 2014 at Chelyabinsk, also adding two European Championships in 2014 and 2016. The weight of the expectations of 2M people hardened by the war, and still awaiting full-independence ratification, will stand on Kelmendi’s powerful shoulders, and you only need to check her “game face” to understand she’s more than ready for it.

Her aggressive, ferocious, resolute style on the tatami channels her personality, and nothing less is expected from someone born on a town, Peja, decimated during the Kosovo War in 1999.

 

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Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

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And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!

European Tour of Sports: Latvia

The Basics

Population: 2M

Area: 64.6 km2

Capital: Riga

Summer Olympic Medals: 19 (3G-11S-5B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 7 (0G-4S-3B)

Popular sports

As a former member of the Soviet Union, the achievements of Latvian athletes have to be put in contest for the period between 1940 and 1990, with twenty Latvian born athletes taking part in team and individual Olympic successes representing the former URSS on the Olympic stage. Thus, the numbers transcribed above only include the medals obtained from 1924 to 1940, and after the independence of the country, in 1991.

Latvia Ice Hockey National Team

The sporting landscape on this Baltic country is dominated by three team sports. As in most of Europe, football ranks quite high among Latvians preferences, despite the relative obscurity of both his national team and the main clubs. The qualification of the national team for the 2004 UEFA European Championships is by far the biggest achievement in the country’s football history. Conversely, the relative importance of Latvian ice hockey on the world’s scale is much bigger. Dinamo Riga, the country’s most important team, was part of the sport’s establishment on the Soviet Union in the 1940’s, and was a runner-up for the championship title in 1988. Today, the club is the Latvian representative on the second most important league in the world, the KHL, while some of the country’s best all-time players, like Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Irbe, started their careers at Dinamo before moving to the NHL. The national team took part on the last four Olympic tournaments, and the country organized the 2006 World Championships.

Basketball is the third main sport in Latvia, with the country’s tradition expressed on the men’s European title of 1935 and the 2nd place in 1939. Several Latvian players were part of URSS teams that became European and Olympic Champions, while at the club level, teams from Riga won multiple domestic and European titles in both genders. Actually, the ladies of the TTT Riga team of the 70’s and 80’s won the European Cup an astonishing 18 times. Today, both national teams are regular participants in international competitions.

Latvia Women’s Basketball National Team

On athletics, the country has always produced excellent javelin throwers, with Janis Lusis listed as one of the best of all time in the discipline, while tennis has seen his popularity grow in the last decade due to the successes of Ernests Gulbis. Beyond ice hockey, other winter sports like luge, bobsleigh and skeleton are also recognized, with several Latvian athletes excelling at the international level. With 500 km of beaches, Latvia also produces good beach volleyballers, while names like Piotr Ugrumov and Roman Vainsteins have shined on the biggest cycling races.

Star Athletes

Ernests Gulbis (Tennis)

Named after Ernest Hemingway, the best Latvian tennis player of all-time comes from a wealthy family and this detail has been part of his career results’ analysis since the beginning. In fact, besides being one of the funniest and more charismatic players on the ATP Tour, the uber-talented Gulbis has been accused of having too much interest in partying and not a lot in practicing, with this circumstance taking a toll on his in-court performances. Despite this, the 26-year-old has built a nice résumé since he turned professional in 2006. His first ATP title came on doubles at the 2008 Houston tournament, and two years later he collected the ATP singles tournament of Delray Beach. Today, the 26-year old Latvian holds six career ATP titles and seems to be on the verge of breaking definitely into the top 10, with the 10th position, reached in June 2014, being his all-time best ranking. A gifted offensive player with consistency problems, Gulbis reached the semi-finals at the 2014 Roland Garros tournament, attaining his best result yet on the Grand Slam stage.

Maris Strombergs (Cycling, BMX racing)

Maris Strombergs, Double Olympic Champion

The Republic of Latvia has gained only three Olympic gold medals on his history and this man is responsible for two of them. Maris Strombergs was born in 1987 and didn’t take long to display his talent on a bike, winning his first World Championship (on his class) at the age of 9. In 2008, the cyclist achieved the pinnacle of his sport when he gathered the European, World and Olympic titles in the same season. Nicknamed “The Machine”, the Valmiera native already has his name on two World Championships and three European Championships, while also holding the honour of being the only racer with Olympic Gold medals on the sport, since he won in 2012 too. A two-time Latvian sportsperson of the year, Strombergs is one of the most popular athletes in Latvia.

Martins Dukurs (Skeleton)

Deemed the best athlete in Latvia on three separate occasions (2010, 2011 and 2013), Martins Dukurs boasts an impressive collection of accolades: five consecutive World Cup titles (2009-2014), five consecutive European titles (2010-2014), and two World Championships (2011 and 2012). However, one thing is missing: the Olympic gold medal on the Winter Olympics, something Latvia never had a chance to celebrate. Despite his domination on the skeleton over the last half decade, Dukurs was not able to surpass the home favourites in Vancouver (John Montgomery) and Sochi (Alexander Tretiakov), having to settle for silver on both occasions. Strangely, his older brother, Tomass, finished both times in…fourth place, making it seem that the Olympics are somewhat cursed for the Dukurs family. In 2018, the 30-year old has a new chance for glory and Latvia will be watching anxiously.

Martins Dukurs celebrating

Others: Andris Biedrins (Basketball), Martins Plavins/Janis Smedins (Beach Volleyball), Ainars Kovals (Athletics), Andris Sics/Juris Sics (Luge)

Venues

The Arena Riga is the most important sports venue in Latvia. With a capacity of up to 12.500 spectators for basketball games, and 10.300 for ice hockey, the building was constructed in 2006 to be used as the main venue in the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championships. The arena hosts the games of the KHL’s Dinamo Riga, where the atmosphere is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe, and the basketball games of VEF Riga, the main basketball team in the city. The Skonto Hall, also in Riga, is the second biggest arena in the country, with capacity for 6500, and hosted the most important concerts and sports exhibitions in the country until the opening of the new Arena Riga.

The Skonto Stadium, in Riga, is the biggest stadium in Latvia, holding 9500 spectators. The venue is used by Skonto FC and the football National Team. FK Ventspils, the most successful Latvian club of the last decade, plays in the Ventspils Olympiskais Stadions, which holds 3200 people.

Yearly Events

Beyond the numerous basketball and ice hockey games, both at the national and international level, occurring around the country from September to May, these are the most relevant events held annually in Latvia.

Start of the Riga Marathon

Riga Marathon (May)

FIA European Autocross Championship Event

National Motorsports Centre Musa, Bauska (May)

Speedway FIM World Championships Grand Prix

Lokomotiv Stadium, Daugavpils (August)

Luge World Cup Event

Luge and Bobsleigh Track, Sigulda (January)