2019 was, for better or worse, another unforgettable year in the world of sports.
Lewis Hamilton claimed another F1 World Championship and is well on his way to becoming the most decorated driver in the history of the sport. Naomi Osaka seems to be the heir apparent to Serena Williams, though Cori Gauff is an exciting prospect for the future.
Portugal made history by winning the inaugural UEFA Nations League, and Brazil reestablished their supremacy in South America after triumphing on home soil in the Copa America, thereby denying Lionel Messi his first international trophy. We also lost some icons including ’95 Rugby World Cup winners James Small and Chester Williams.
2020 should be another year full of drama and intrigue, and not just because it’s a leap year, there’s the Tokyo Olympics and the 16th edition of the UEFA European Championships. But that’s all in the future. Right now we take a look back at some of 2019’s unforgettable moments.
United States Women’s National Team
Before the FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by France, the Americans were considered the overwhelming favourites to retain the World Cup. Added to the pressure of being favourites was the team’s battle with their own federation to receive equal financial compensation to the male counterparts. And incredibly team captain, Megan Rapinoe, got involved in a war of words with United States President Donald Trump.
No doubt a siege mentality had seeped into the squad. The World Champions were also seen as the villain of the piece, as the majority of the neutrals wanted to see anyone but the Americans lift the trophy, particularly after brutally beating Thailand 13-0 in their opening fixture. Confirming their bully moniker in many people’s eyes.
But the 3-time champions would not be denied a 4th World Cup triumph as hosts France, England, and European Champions The Netherlands were dispatched in impressive fashion to once again see the USWNT as the dominant force in the women’s game.
It seems like every year the International Cricket Council (ICC) holds an international cricket tournament. Whether it’s the Cricket World Cup, or the T20 World Cup, or the Champions Trophy. With so many major tournaments fans got confused and the importance of each tournament has been diluted. The ICC has, unsurprisingly, since scrapped the Champions Trophy.
Whilst the 2019 Cricket World Cup was largely forgettable for the Proteas, it did provide one of the greatest finals of all time, if not the greatest. The showpiece final was contested by hosts England and New Zealand at Lords Cricket Ground. The Final was scheduled on a Sunday which became known as Golden Sunday due to the Wimbledon Men’s Final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and the British Grand Prix all on the same day.
The Black Caps batted first and posted a modest total of 241/8. But The 3 Lions made a hash of their chase and found themselves needing 15 runs off the final over. But the drama was only just beginning. After Ben Stokes hit a 6 off the 3rd ball of the over, the next delivery also went for 6 runs thanks to 4 overthrows. But according to the Laws of Cricket, only 5 runs should’ve been awarded to England, not 6. That 1 run would make a world of difference, as the host nation managed to tie the scores resulting in a Super Over.
Amazingly the scores were tied once again after the Super Over, but England were declared the winners after having a superior boundary count to The Kiwis. This was a highly unsatisfactory conclusion to the final and tournament to many observers. A World Cup Final surely cannot be decided on a technicality. And one would think a serious rethink of the rules is needed by the game’s lawmakers. Not that the English cared.
There have been many groundbreaking moments in the history of Athletics. Moments when an athlete achieves that which many had dubbed physically impossible. As the popular saying goes, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Bob Hayes running the first sub-10 second 100m, Roger Bannister memorably breaking the 4-minute barrier for the mile, or Sergey Bubka being the first person to clear 6metres in the Pole Vault.
There are many barriers that remain, waiting for an athlete to write their name in the history books. One of the biggest milestones fell in 2019. The seemingly impossible sub 2 hour Marathon. Eliud Kipchoge had come closest in an official Marathon, clocking a time of 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, in the process breaking the Marathon World Record by 78 seconds.
In 2017 in an event organised by Nike, Kipchoge ran a time of 2:00:25. In October 2019, the Kenyan machine would not be denied, however, breaking the 2-hour barrier with 20 seconds to spare at the Ineos Challenge in Austria. Kipchoge’s time of 1:59:40 is not recognised by the IAAF however, due to his use of a pace car, a massive group of pacemakers, and the fact that this was a closed race. Nonetheless, Eliud Kipchoge has shown the limitless bounds of what is possible by the human body.
The 2018/19 UEFA Champions League season will go down in history as one of the most drama-filled in years. Going all the way back to Alison Becker’s phenomenal save against Napoli to keep Liverpool in the competition, to Lucas’ late equaliser against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, also preventing Spurs exit in the group stage.
But the real drama was reserved for the knockout phases. The majority of which involved English clubs. The Parc des Princes was the setting for an astonishing night that bore witness to Paris St Germain (PSG) blowing a 2 goal lead from the first leg to be dumped out by Manchester United thanks to the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
VAR also played a crucial role in the quarterfinal clash between Tottenham and Manchester City, firstly by allowing Llorente’s goal to stand, and then disallowing Raheem Sterling’s winner in injury time. Talk about drama. Spurs found themselves in the middle of another thriller against Ajax in the semifinals, Brazilian Forward Lucas completing a hattrick including a 96th-minute winner. And to think there are people who don’t watch football.
But the 2018/19 season belongs to Liverpool. After surviving the scare in the group stage, the team from Merseyside cruised past Bayern Munich and FC Porto before blowing Barcelona away in the second leg 4-0 at Anfield. Yes that Barcelona, Messi et al. After such theatre, and a few weeks between matches, it was no surprise the final did not live up to expectations. But all that matters is winning, and for the 6th time, Liverpool were champions of Europe.
After the debacle that was the 2018 Copa Libertadores Final (http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/25391799/boca-juniors-vs-river-plate-greatest-game-never-played)
CONMEBOL were hoping for their club showpiece to make headlines for the right reasons. CONMEBOL had also changed the format for the final, which was previously a 2 legged affair, to a one-off match to be played at a neutral venue.
The Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile was initially awarded the final but due to the protests in Chile, the final was switched to the Estadio Monumental in Lima, Peru. Brazilian club Flamengo would take on the defending champions River Plate from Argentina.
Colombian Forward Rafael Borre opened the scoring with an early goal for the men from Buenos Aires. With the match approaching injury time, there were memories of the 1999 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, as Inter Milan loanee Gabriel Barbosa popped up with 2 goals in the 89th and 92nd minute to hand Flamengo their second ever Copa Libertadores in the clubs history.
Tiger Woods has endured a difficult decade. Some of it has been self-inflicted. Woods’s personal life has been covered in the media in great detail, so there’s no need to get into specifics. Tiger also had to battle through various injuries, which saw him slide down the PGA rankings.
Whatever your personal feelings about Tiger Woods, there’s no doubting that he’s box office. Golf tv ratings are higher with Woods, the red shirts, the fist pumps, and especially when Tiger is winning, as evidenced by his win at the 2019 US Masters which sent the sports world into meltdown. This was Woods’s first Major in 11 years. Shortly afterwards Tiger Woods received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Trump, the highest civilian honour for Americans. Time will tell whether Woods is truly back or if this was a one-off.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was desperate for some positive press after their marquee fight of the year in 2018 at UFC 229 between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor descended into chaos as both fighters corners clashed in a massive post-fight brawl. Both fighters received heavy fines and suspensions.
At UFC 234 in The Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was scheduled to defend his belt against American contender Kelvin Gastelum but pulled out a few hours before the fight due to a twisted and collapsed bowel which required emergency surgery. The co-main event between Israel Adesanya and future Hall of Famer Anderson Silva was then bumped up to the main event as a result. Adesanya won via unanimous decision in an impressive display. In his post-fight interview Adesanya took shots at both Whittaker and Gastelum.
The Nigerian-born Adesanya would defeat Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 in a memorable 5 round war, again winning by unanimous decision to become the Middleweight interim champion. This setup a fight between Australian Robert Whittaker and New Zealand native Adesanya at UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne to determine the undisputed Middleweight champion of the UFC.
The fight would set a new UFC attendance record of 57 127, breaking the previous record set at the same venue in November 2015 at UFC 193 between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. The fight itself was a one-sided affair with Adesanya knocking down Whittaker at the end of the first round, and then finishing the fight by knockout in the second round to confirm The Last Stylebender as the undisputed Middleweight champion.
The Golden State Warriors have been the dominant force in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the last decade. Running roughshod over the competition and wrecking LeBron James dreams of equaling Michael Jordan’s record of 6 NBA championships.
Coach Steve Kerr had assembled a team full of all-stars akin to having Manual Neuer, Messi, Virgil van Dijk, Neymar, and Kevin de Bruyne in the same team. The Dubs won the NBA championship in 2015, 2017, 2018. And were looking to complete a three-peat in 2019.
So when the Warriors met the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Finals, many including myself, thought normal service would resume. But 2 adversaries remain undefeated in the history of the sport, father time and injuries. The defending champions fell victim to the latter, first former MVP (Most Valuable Player) Kevin Durant, and then sharpshooter and fellow splash brother Klay Thompson were ruled out through serious injuries. All-Star Center DeMarcus Cousins had struggled throughout the season with niggling injuries.
This left the door open for Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors to win the NBA Championship in 6 games and deliver Canada’s first ever NBA title.
Andy Ruiz Jr
There is currently a triumvirate of Heavyweight boxers who are viewed as the best in the division. Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, and Anthony Joshua. Fans have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of a series of fights, harking back to the days of Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier. Or Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and Mike Tyson.
All 3 fighters were undefeated and possessed devastating knockout power. The first fight between Fury and Wilder produced a 12 round epic that resulted in a draw. Anthony Joshua was booked in a “tune-up” fight by his promoter Eddie Hearn against Jarrell Miller. But Miller failed a drug test and was replaced by Andy Ruiz Jr.
Ruiz Jr was supposed to be an easy win for AJ, in preparation for a fight against either Wilder or Fury. But someone didn’t send the script to the Mexican Destroyer. After being felled in the third round, Ruiz rose up to return the favour, twice.
In the seventh round, Joshua was sent crashing down to the canvas twice again before the referee finally put Joshua out of his misery. A stunned Ruiz raised his hands to the equally stunned crowed. This wasn’t quite on the same level as Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson or Hasim Rahman over Lennox Lewis, but it definitely sent shockwaves throughout the boxing fraternity.
Anthony Joshua regained his championship from Andy Ruiz Jr in December in Saudi Arabia via a points decision, but that night in June at Madison Square Garden in New York City will live long in the memory.
Sleb has had plenty to say about the Springboks victory at the Rugby World Cup (https://www.sleb.co.za/2019-rugby-world-cup-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/)
And why wouldn’t we, The Proteas and Bafana Bafana more often than not are a disappointment. And we didn’t really believe before the tournament the Springboks would come out on top. But Rassie Erasmus and his team, brilliantly led by Siya Kolisi, had a clear game plan to which the players stuck to throughout the competition.
There were some tense moments, the first half vs host nation Japan, the semifinal against Wales, and of course the final against England. Just like the class of ’95, and the class of 2007, this group of players will be immortalised in South African folklore.
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