A Year in Sport
Appreciating sport, as Simon Barnes once said, requires a willing suspension of disbelief. The statement has never been better exemplified than when watching FC Barcelona play in recent times. Its football has been as mesmerising as it has been implausible.
When writing a year-end piece last December, I found it difficult to look beyond Barcelona’s 5-0 thumping of Real Madrid at the Camp Nou as the definitively brilliant moment of 2010. Now in September, Critical Twenties has completed a year – one that has been especially rewarding for me as a sports fan – and looking back, I would be hard-pressed to pick but Barcelona as representing the perfect synthesis of sporting excellence in the year gone by.
But in compiling this anniversary piece – if I can call it that – I would like to refrain from restricting myself to one sport. For the past twelve months have been littered with acts of excellence across them all – there have been others who have taken giant steps towards greatness, requiring us to suspend our disbelief. So I am going to list those individuals or teams that have showcased rare brilliance and have dominated their respective sport over the past year.
2011 has been an annusmirablis for Novak Djokovic. He has won 64 of the 66 matches that he has played this year, triumphing at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and at the US Open, most recently, to seal his place at the zenith of men’s tennis. To see two of the greatest ever players in the sport’s history, Nadal and Roger Federer, floundering, by their own lofty standards, has been mildly disconcerting for some, but it demonstrates the sheer brilliance of Djokovic’s displays this year. Tennis fans, for some reason, are struggling to come to terms with Djokovic’s stupendous form – he is nowhere near as liked as Federer or Nadal. But the enormity of his achievements deserves the highest acclaim.
He has lifted his game to dizzying heights of brilliance; his ability to turn defence into attack with a single swoosh of his racquet has been particularly awe-inspiring. Since he won his first major, at the Australian Open in 2008, Djokovic has struggled to make a sustained impact at the very top of the sport. It couldn’t have been easy to play in an era featuring two of the all-time greats. But credit to him, for not being content with being near the top. The improvements that he has made to his game and to his overall fitness has not only upset the apple cart, but it has led to a stunning shattering of the duopoly at the top of the men’s game. It has been both surprising and fun to watch.
I would have dearly liked to say that the year has belonged to India. After all, it won the World Cup after a gap of 28 years. Its run in March and April brought joy to millions in the country, culminating in that audacious six hit by M.S. Dhoni, which shall remain perpetually etched in memory. But since then, the team has stumbled, and how!
England, meanwhile, in spite of playing poorly in the World Cup has established itself as the top test team. It has paraded its rich talents with surprising flamboyance in the on-going drubbing of India, adding to its spectacular Ashes scalp earlier this year. The team is already being considered as the greatest English team of the last two decades – admittedly that may not be saying much – and one that can potentially stay at the top of the game for many years to come. Indeed it has the resources to do so; its batting is balanced with an equal measure of obstinacy and panache and the depth in its bowling is breath-taking. But, although it may be on the path towards greatness, it still needs to tread past several obstacles, not least the tests in the subcontinent. That said, under the outstanding stewardship of the Strauss-Flower axis, England is better equipped than ever before to counter the challenges that the subcontinent will throw up.
Tiger Woods’s slump has seen Rory McIlroy capture the imagination of the golfing world. But his genius contains flaws that require to be addressed. At Augusta, he played three rounds of the most sublime golf only to depressingly let it all slip in a hideous final round. Amends were made in the U.S. Open at the Congressional where he set a 72-hole aggregate score of 268 (16 under par,) the best in the tournament’s history. He played four rounds of nearly flawless golf that was a sight to behold. But at the Open Championships held in Royal St. George’s, McIlroy fell by the wayside, struggling to cope with the inordinately harsh weather. At the PGA Championships, plagued by a wrist injury that he suffered on the third hole of the first round, he finished with a final round 74. All in all, it has been a mixed year – he was exquisite throughout the US Open and for much of the time at August and less than ordinary in the other two majors. But the sport needed a new cult hero and McIlroy fits the bill.
Formula One Racing
Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel continued this season from where they left off last year. The German’s speed and will to win has been astounding and his ability to pull off a flying lap when most needed, especially in qualifying, never ceases to amaze. He has won eight of the thirteen races held so far this season, starting on pole in ten of those. But Vettel is not merely a champion of mechanical attributes. He is a precocious talent who combines thrilling racing – an ability to drive a car to its maximum, often unforeseen potential – with a temperament to win championships. In all, not only is he a remarkable racing driver, but also one who’s driving makes for an electrifying sight.
I am not sure what the odds on Dallas Mavericks winning the title were prior to the commencement of the season. But it surely couldn’t have been too high. Yet, inspired by Dirk Nowitzki, it overcame the odds to score a spectacular triumph. The Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were put to rest in the final through an extraordinarily brilliant display of basketball. Nowitzki was particularly superb, fighting a wrist injury and bouts of heavy fever to inspire not only himself, but also those around him to perform with zest and poise. Numbers can often be misleading in judging greatness, but a bare minimum is nonetheless a necessity. This first ring vindicates Nowitzki’s place in the pantheon.
For pure, unblemished excellence, though, look no beyond Barcelona. If one thought its 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid last year at the Camp Nou was unbelievable, its performance in the Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley took sporting excellence to a hitherto unseen, intoxicating level.
Manchester United had just come off a Premier League season in which it sealed a historic 19th league title (overtaking arch rivals Liverpool,) but in the Champions League final it was left hapless as Barcelona weaved pass after pass, mesmerising it into submission. It wasn’t so much about the final score, as the manner of the victory. Barcelona never wavered from its style. The ball was moved from corner to corner, with slick elegance and guile. Xavi Hernandez was at the bedrock of every move, passing both short and long, but never it seemed without an objective. His little poked ball to Pedro that led to the opening goal was a mark of genius – he seemed to wait for an eternity on the ball, before slotting it wide to Pedro just as the field began to open up.
Lionel Messi was being Lionel Messi, i.e. a Superman. He was whizzing past defenders with insouciance, and scored a fine goal – an arrowed left footed strike to the bottom right corner – to mark a period in the game of supreme dominance. David Villa, signed last summer from Valencia, was also magnificent, crowning Barcelona’s display with an astounding curled effort. Andres Iniesta, who had had an injury plagued season, nonetheless performed with rare aplomb, constantly flitting in and out of midfield and showcasing his mastery over the passing game.
These are, though, but names in a team that plays like a team. It is trite to say that Barcelona wins by virtue of the effort of the whole unit – but if any team epitomises such a quality it is Barcelona. Seven of their starters in the final were from the famed La Masia academy. Instilled in them were the tenets of Johan Cruyff’s philosophy. Coached by Josep Guardiola, himself a product of the Academy – one of its first graduates – Barcelona may not be more than a club as it claims to be, but it certainly is all that a club should be.
Critical Twenties is only a year old and this is perhaps my fourth tribute to Barcelona – albeit a miniature one – but, heck, even a thousand tributes wouldn’t do full justice to the enormity of this team’s achievements.