The saga over Mohamed Salah’s injured shoulder, international cricket’s Sandpaper Gate, Tiger Woods’ comeback — the past 12 months brought a wealth of sporting stories that dominated the news on both the front and back pages.
The year proved once again that sport creates debate like no other sphere, and highlighted the passions stirred by what happens on the pitches and courts around the globe.
For many, this is the time of year to stop, ponder, and take stock of the past 12 months. We are no different, so here is our take on the sporting year: Who deserves praise, who should be shown the red card, and who shocked us with displays of brilliance?
ARAB STARS —
There are two ways of looking at the Egyptian ace’s year. First, the goals, records and his willingness to carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Second, the impact he has had on the wider public, both in the Arab world and across the globe. Taken individually, Salah is worthy of any accolade. Taken together, the Liverpool star deserves the highest praise. He arrived at the club with a question mark over his name — was he worth the $48 million the Reds shelled out for him? However, a few touches of the ball, a dash of bare-faced cheek and yet another memorable goal, and the doubts were brushed aside. For his club Salah was nothing short of glorious, scoring a record 32 goals in the 2017-18 campaign and taking the side to the Champions League final. This season he has continued as he left off, becoming the quickest player to reach 50 goals for the Anfield club.
At the World Cup, he turned up injured, yet still scored the only goals the Pharaohs managed during their first-round exit, having single-handedly got them to Russia in the first place.
Statistics can only reveal so much, however, and it is Salah’s impact off the pitch that explains as much as anything why he is the first Arab footballer of global significance. At a time when Islamophobic attacks are on the rise in Britain, you will hear Liverpool fans chant: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too.” They see Salah for what he is — one of the best footballers of the past decade — and have welcomed him in a way that has been both unexpected and heart-warming. Long may it continue.
The London-based Saudi boxer (right) refused to let a late change of opponent ruin his history-making bout in the Kingdom in September. He became the first professional Saudi boxer to fight in the country, as part of the undercard of the World Super Series final in Jeddah between George Groves and Callum Smith. And the “Arabian Warrior” did not disappoint the legion of new fans as he beat fellow UK-based opponent Mohammed Mahmoud. Not only did Al-Qahtani win, but in a year of such transformation for Saudi Arabia, he was at the forefront of opening up the Kingdom to sporting participation and showing the world it can host large-scale sport events.
GLOBAL STARS —
This year brought the return of two high-profile female, American athletes who could both claim to be the “GOAT” (Greatest Of All Time) in their respective sports: Serena Williams and Simone Biles. Of the two only Biles ended the year with her reputation enhanced.
The gymnast returned after a two-year break, but still dominated her sport. At the worlds in Doha she became the first gymnast in 30 years to win a medal in all six events at the same championships — four of those gold. That took her to 20 world championships medals, tying the women’s record held by Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina. Biles’ success came in the aftermath of her revealing that she was one of an estimated 250 gymnasts sexually assaulted by USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar — a revelation that offered further proof of her determination.
By the end of the year all doubts as to whether Biles is the GOAT have been dispelled. Williams, meanwhile, has much to prove in 2019. Her meltdown at the US Open will not go down as a career highlight. But expect the American ace to prove her critics wrong in 2019 and confirm her GOAT status.
It has been a remarkable year for the Indian captain. A quick glance at his one-day statistics over the past 12 months makes for staggering reading. His blistering form with the bat drove India to victories over Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the West Indies — not to mention winning the Asia Cup in the UAE.
Kohli had less success in the Test arena, with defeats to the Proteas and England tarnishing his captaincy. But he has been a magician all year, and it has been superb to watch such a master at work each time he steps up to the crease and bats.
COMEBACK OF THE
YEAR – TIGER WOODS
In the summer of 2017, a picture of Tiger Woods was seen across the world. It was of the 14-time Major winner looking dishevelled, about to be charged for driving under the influence. Nobody knew what inner demons the sporting superstar was going through, but everyone agreed the chances of him returning to the fairways were slim to nonexistent.
This year has seen the Big Beast not only return but also look like his former dominant self, leaving many to predict that a 15th Major title is more than a possibility in 2019. Woods started this year at 656 in the world rankings and ended it in 13th place, having been in the mix for Major No. 15 on the final days of The Open and US PGA. His five-year title drought came to end with victory at the Tour Championship. Golf is all the better for what has been one of the greatest sporting comebacks in living memory.
VILLAIN OF THE YEAR –
The Baggy Greens have never been shy about playing the game on the limits — they play hard and they play to win. Anyone doubting that will be hit for six as soon as the side starts to sledge the poor batsmen out in the middle — a practice described by former skipper Steve Waugh as “mental disintegration.” But this year, during the third Test against South Africa in March, the Australians’ approach to the game was seen in a darker light when Australia’s Cameron Bancroft was shown on TV coverage and on screens at the ground appearing to rub the ball with a piece of sandpaper. It emerged that the ball-tampering was part of a plan that involved Bancroft, his fellow opener David Warner and the captain Steve Smith. All three have received various bans. But at a time when the five-day format is struggling to make itself relevant in the era of T20, the damage to the sport could last a lot longer.
SPORTING TALE OF THE
YEAR — FOUR ARAB TEAMS
AT THE WORLD CUP
Anyone who spends just a few days in the Middle East soon realizes that football dominates sporting passions like no other. Domestic rivalries such as Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Ahly and Zamalek in Egypt, take center place in the sporting conversation. In the past, however, when it came to the game’s biggest competition, the World Cup, fans across the region have been forced to pick another country to support, with many Arabs becoming Brazilian for as long as the samba stars have been in the hunt for the trophy. In 2014, Algeria were the only Arab nation to make it to the tournament.
This summer, history was made when four Arab teams went to Russia. It was the first time many had made it to the showpiece, and while the quartet all failed to make it to the second round they all had their moments, proving that football in the region is on the up and up. With much more investment promised, expect bigger things in the coming years.