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The best sports stars & teams from 2020

Oh man, what a crazy year. Not since the Second World War has the sporting landscape been so adversely affected. In March, sports events around the globe ground to a screeching halt. Administrators desperately sought ways to find a solution on how to safely continue their competitions during a pandemic.

The NBA and the PSL created bubbles that isolated athletes, coaches, and match officials away from society. Whilst the UFC was the first organisation to hold an event after the world had come to a standstill. Oh, and the Tokyo Olympics and the Euros were postponed. At least we have that to look forward to in 2021.

The sight of empty arenas has become commonplace. Coaches shouting instructions at players clearly audible as though you’re at your local rugby club. Accept for the Kiwis, whose ruthlessly efficient way of handling the virus has seen a return to normal life, including sold-out rugby matches.

As devastating as the Coronavirus has been, it wasn’t the only bad news we had to deal with. We sadly bade farewell to some sporting icons. Diego Maradona finally succumbed to his health issues, and the football world conveyed their condolences in various ways.

However, the biggest outpouring of grief was reserved for Basketball legend Kobe Bryant who tragically perished in a helicopter crash. The aviation accident also claimed the lives of eight other people, including Kobe’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Gianna. Details of the crash are still sketchy because the helicopter was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder.

A CVR is a major piece of evidence when authorities are conducting an air crash investigation. Surely future legislation will require helicopters to have a CVR. Because as long as the truth is missing, anything can take its place. Particularly in the world of social media misinformation.

Okay. Exhale. We did a recap for the 2019 sports year https://sleb.co.za/lets-check-out-the-sporting-highlights-from-2019/

And now we are here to focus on the positive sports stories of 2020 and those that triumphed, whether expectedly, or against the odds.

Liverpool

Whichever way you cut it, Liverpool have been phenomenal over the last three years. Only City’s oil money has prevented a complete takeover of English football. But right now, Liverpool are the best team in the country.

Jurgen Koop deserves a huge amount of credit. And when the next round of contract negotiations rolls around, Liverpool needs to pay the man whatever he wants. So dominant were Liverpool during the 2019/20 season, that the only thing that could’ve prevented a Premier League championship, was a pandemic. Alas, the Reds would not be denied their first championship in 30 years. https://sleb.co.za/liverpool-fc-and-the-thirty-year-premier-league-mystery/

In a 38 match season, Liverpool won a staggering 32 matches. Out of their 19 matches at Anfield, only Burnley were able to manage a point. Liverpool began the season with 18 consecutive wins. And with a run that began in the previous season, went 44 matches unbeaten. Six short of exceeding Arsenal’s invincibles record. This was a run that was ended by Watford of all teams. Liverpool fans won’t be too bothered about records. The 30-year hoodoo has finally been shattered.

Los Angeles Dodgers

After a significant drought, it has been a good year for LA-based sports teams. And in particular, the Dodgers, whos last World Series championship win was in 1988.

Major League Baseball (MLB) has been desperate for some positive headlines in light of the Houston Astros cheating scandal. But things got off to a rocky start as the beginning of the season was delayed due to the Coronavirus.

Once the season was underway, the difficult challenge that lay ahead became increasingly clear with the Covid-19 outbreak at the Miami Marlins. The MLB had opted against the NBA-like bubble, and thus positive tests were inevitable. Therefore the season was shortened from the regular 162 games to 60 games. Though the MLB ultimately decided to move the teams into a bubble for the playoffs.

And so the World Series came down to the final two teams, Tampa Bay Rays and the LA Dodgers. The best of seven series came down to Game 6 at Globe Life Field in Dallas. Dodgers pitcher Julio Arias closed out the match after Dodgers Mookie Betts’ double homer in the seventh inning to hand the Dodgers their first World Series win in 32 years.

Bizarrely, and keeping in line with the 2020 theme, Dodgers Third Basemen Justin Turner received news he had tested positive for the Coronavirus in the middle of the eighth inning and therefore had to be removed from the match.

Mamelodi Sundowns

For more than 300 consecutive days, Kaizer Chiefs sat atop the ABSA Premiership table. Ernst Middendorp and his men looked a sure bet to be crowned champions. But when the season resumed after a three-month pause, and with no fans allowed in the stadiums, Chiefs suddenly looked a shadow of their former selves.

It was Pitso Mosimane and Sundowns who capitalised on the Amakhosi’s faltering form and eventually leapfrogged over the gold and black on the final day of the season when Chiefs were held to a draw by relegation-threatened Baroka FC.

Incredibly, Sundowns only spent two days of the entire season on top of the PSL log, one of which was the final day of the season. The fates of the two coaches couldn’t be any more different. Ernst Middendorp was fired for his failure to deliver the championship. A bit harsh, but that’s Kaizer Chiefs for you. Whilst Mosimane is now the coach of Egyptian outfit, Al Ahly. African football’s most successful club.

Tyson Fury

The highly anticipated rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder seems like a lifetime ago.  A sold-out MGM Arena witnessed both men enter the ring in typical theatrical fashion. Any thoughts of a repeat of the first fight, a twelve round war, were dashed when Wilder was floored by a Gypsey King shot to the temple, that resulted in Wilder bleeding from the left ear.

A clearly disoriented Wilder was dominated until the fight was stopped in the seventh round after his corner threw in the towel, to ensure Fury remains the Heavyweight Lineal Champion.

After the fight, the Bronze Bomber chastised his team for throwing in the towel, and then blamed the 18kg custom outfit he wore to the ring for taking away his legs, and claimed Fury cast a gypsy spell on him. Yep.

Nonetheless, a trilogy fight has been muted, but no agreement has so far been reached. If anything, we are closer to a Tyson Fury/Anthony Joshua bout.

Kansas City Chiefs

For a more comprehensive understanding of the NFL check out this article https://sleb.co.za/let-me-take-you-through-the-basics-of-the-nfl/

Over the last twenty years the New England Patriots and Tom Brady have ruled over the American Football Conference (AFC), and indeed cast an overbearing shadow over the NFL. But when the Tennessee Titans dumped out the Patriots in the AFC Wild Card Round, and with Brady’s contract up in the air, it felt like the end of an era.

The question now is who would be the league’s next dynasty? Could it be either of the established Quarterbacks Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks or Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers? Both of whom are looking to win their second SuperBowl.

Or would it be the young bucks stepping up? The Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen), Houston Texans (DeShaun Watson), and Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson), all teams who made the playoffs, have starting Quarterbacks aged 25 years or younger.

Ultimately it was the Chiefs who separated themselves from the pack, as Patrick Mahomes and his explosive offensive unit scored 21 points in the fourth quarter of the SuperBowl against the San Francisco 49ers to win the franchises first Vince Lombardi trophy since SuperBowl 4 in 1969.

Mahomes was named SuperBowl MVP after throwing for 286 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, as well as a single rushing touchdown. Running Back Damien Williams rushed for 104 yards and 1 touchdown. Tight End Travis Kelce had six receptions for 43 yards with 1 touchdown. Wide Receiver Tyreek Hill led the team in receptions with nine catches for 105 yards. Like I said, an explosive offensive unit.

Deiveson Figueiredo

It has been quite the year for the God of War. A little known fighter in 2019, to a dominant UFC Champion in 2020. His biggest adversary though has been himself. He should’ve been crowned flyweight champion in February after knocking out Joseph Benavidez, but he was precluded from doing so after failing to make the 125lb weight limit.

The Brazilian made amends in the rematch, choking out Benavidez in the first round to finally claim the vacant Flyweight Championship despite testing positive for Covid-19 a couple of weeks prior to the fight. In his first title defense, Figueiredo easily submitted Alex Perez via guillotine choke in the first round.

And then just three short weeks later, a UFC record for title defenses turnaround, Figueiredo fought to a majority draw against Brandon Moreno in a brutal fight of the year contender. A fight Figueiredo likely would’ve won if not for a point deduction for a low blow. Figueiredo was the only UFC champion to defend his belt more than once in 2020.

A rematch against Moreno is probably on the cards in 2021, but what MMA fans want is for former flyweight champion Henry Cejudo to come out of retirement and fight Deiveson Figueiredo.

Bayern Munich

German football coaches are currently in high demand! Hardly surprising considering the quality of football played by teams such as Liverpool, RB Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach. To name a few.

At the beginning of the year, the most famous German coaches were Klopp, Joachim Low, Thomas Tuchel, and Julian Nagelsmann. Hansi Flick was a name unfamiliar to the non-German football world. Which isn’t a surprise considering he’d never held a head coach position prior to November 2019.

Flick was hired as interim manager after Niko Kovac was fired following a 5-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt that left the Bavarian giants languishing in seventh place. The sacking of the Croat was harsh considering he won the league and cup double the previous season. But the change proved to be an inspired one as Flick led his charges to a treble of the Bundesliga, German Cup, and the club’s sixth UEFA Champions League. Hansi Flick has since been appointed on a permanent basis. Duh.

Bayern became the first club in UCL history to win every match of the campaign. With Polish striker Robert Lewandowski the star of the show, the highlight was undoubtedly the 8-2 dismantling of Messi’s Barcelona. I couldn’t help but feel as though that felt like a passing of the torch, from one dynasty to another. Time will be the judge of that.

Lewis Hamilton

Disclaimer: I’ve got serious reservations about Formula 1 or NASCAR drivers being referred to as athletes. How much is the car responsible for a drivers success? Or vice versa? Anyway, with that being said, you cannot discard Hamilton’s achievements.

In a season shortened F1 calendar, the Stevenage native won his seventh F1 World Championship. In the process tying Michael Schumacher’s record. But the record-breaking didn’t stop there for the Mercedes driver. Hamilton won eleven races this season, despite missing the Sakhir Grand Prix due to the Coronavirus, to take his overall tally to 95 wins, overtaking Schumacher’s record of 91 wins.

To top off an amazing year for Hamilton, he made the Queen’s New Year’s honours list as the announcement was made that he would be knighted. Arise, Sir Lewis.

Los Angeles Lakers

Eyebrows were raised when the Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and several future draft picks for New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Power Forward Anthony Davis. No pun intended. There’s no doubting AD’s talent. But the consensus was that Lakers GM Rob Pelinka gave up far too much to sign the big man.

AD put all that noise to one side, and let his numbers do the talking. Averaging 26.1 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game, and 2.4 blocks during the regular season, and 27.7 points per game, 9.7 rebounds in the playoffs to help lead the Lakers to their first NBA Championship in ten years.

However, AD didn’t win the championship on his own. There were other role players. Center Dwight Howard turned back the clock, averaging 4.6 rebounds per game in the playoffs, and allowing coach Frank Vogel to rest Davis.

Veteran Guard Rajon Rondo also played a significant role, totalling 105 assists during the playoffs. The most assists by a bench player since 1971. Rondo’s big moment came in Game 6 of the NBA Finals as he torched the Miami Heat for thirteen points in the first half, including six for six from the field, as the Lakers equalled the Boston Celtics record of seventeen NBA Championships. Ironically Rondo won a championship in 2008 with the Lakers heated rivals, against Kobe’s Lakers.

But the star of the show was the man from Akron, LeBron James. During the Lakers playoff run, James averaged 27.6 points per game, 10.8 rebounds per game, and 8.8 assists per game. At 35 years and 287 days old, James became the oldest player to receive the NBA Finals MVP Award. And the first player to win the award with three different franchises. As for the LeBron James/Michael Jordan debate, well let’s leave that discussion for another day.

In a year that saw Laker Nation lose one of their own in Kobe Bryant, there was no better homage to pay to the Bryant family, then honouring Kobe’s memory with a championship.

The city of LA had two championships to celebrate, with the Dodgers win, something that last happened in 1988. But due to the pandemic, there will be no parades going down the Miracle Mile.

But we’ll let LeBron James have the final word:

“We just want our respect, Rob wants his respect. Coach Vogel wants his respect. The organization wants their respect. Lakers Nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect, too.”

Marcus Rashford

Professional athletes are an easy target. Criticised for being detached from reality, living in a bubble, and being devoid of the ills that plague society. Whilst millions around the world lost their jobs due to the effects of the Coronavirus and fretted about paying rent at the end of the month, footballers continued to live a life of luxury.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find this criticism isn’t entirely accurate, or fair. Sport, like any other industry, is about supply and demand. Football, or more accurately top-level football, recoups billions every year. Whether us fans like it or not, athletes are paid market value. That’s not to say there aren’t any douchebags out there. But, money or no money, there are douchebags in every realm of society.

Against this backdrop, we tend to forget the amount of charity work that athletes are involved in. And in 2020 no athlete made bigger headlines for their charitable work than Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford.

Following the UK lockdown, imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Rashford teamed up with FareShare to raise over £20 million to feed school children, who, if not for schools closing, would’ve otherwise received free meals.

Rashford, himself received free school meals as a child, urged direct intervention from Johnson. Johnson was initially reluctant, but after public outrage agreed to grant nearly £300 million in food vouchers.

Rashford was included on the Queen’s birthday honours, receiving the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Let us know if there are any other sports stars or teams worth mentioning in the comments section below.

Till next time.

Sizwe Luthayi

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobe_Bryant?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_World_Series?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontay_Wilder_vs._Tyson_Fury_II?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_NFL_playoffs?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deiveson_Figueiredo?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_FC_Bayern_Munich_season?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Hamilton?wprov=sfti1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Los_Angeles_Lakers_season?wprov=sfti1

http://secure.nba.com/article/2020/10/12/rajon-rondo-first-championships-celtics-lakers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Rashford?wprov=sfti1