2014 IN REVIEW

EPIC & FAIL

Robin van Persie’s diving-header goal for Netherlands in their 5-1 win against Spain has become one of the iconic images of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. -- PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES
Robin van Persie’s diving-header goal for Netherlands in their 5-1 win against Spain has become one of the iconic images of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. -- PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

It was an eventful year for sports. The World Cup united football fans for one glorious month, the Commonwealth and Asian Games brought countries together to celebrate their best athletes, and the Singapore Sports Hub saw new exciting events that whet the appetite for more. So which stories stood out in 2014? The Straits Times reviews this year for the hits and misses in sports.

EPIC:

1 An enthralling World Cup

MOST swear by Mexico 1970. Some, although majority English, argue that England 1966 ranks tops.

When it comes to the greatest World Cup Finals of all time, the debate can take a lifetime to conclude.

But few would doubt that Brazil 2014 ranks among the best in the history of the Beautiful Game.

Most number of goals scored since 1998, the unveiling of young stars such as Colombia's James Rodriguez, Germany's Mario Goetze and Brazil's Neymar (all just 22 years of age), this World Cup had everything - from unforgettable goals (Rodriguez's stunner and Robin van Persie's looping header) to drama (Neymar's injury and Brazil's subsequent 1-7 defeat by eventual champions Germany) to controversy (Who could forget that Luis Suarez bite?)

It was no wonder that the tournament broke television viewership records, especially in emerging markets like the United States and Asia.

Despite the hosts' embarrassing exit, the tournament was also a hit domestically, with crowds packing Rio's iconic Copacabana beach one of the lasting impressions of a wonderful tournament.

2 Wawrinka ends Big 4 dominance

IN THE beginning of January, he was almost a nobody. A guy with a strange name, Stanislas Wawrinka. A fellow with a stodgy build. Second-best Swiss.

By end of January, he was Stan The Man. Effervescent game. For a while, the higher-ranked Swiss. Known for pointing at his head, as if to say: "I got it."

Wawrinka did not just win the Australian Open. He did not just get to world No. 3 and then win the Davis Cup. He did not, by hitting with a new, assertive fury, change his game.

No, he changed the game. In November, US Open champion Marin Cilic, also a first-time Slam winner, admitted that Wawrinka's act had given him - and the dressing room - confidence.

When he won in Australia, Wawrinka broke a streak of 16 Slams won by either Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. When Cilic won in New York, it was the first time since 2004 that two of the year's four grand slam titles had been won by players not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray.

History might remember Stan as starting the end of an era. He'll only think of that dazzling Jan 26 night, which is best understood in words he said after the final: "I still think that I'm dreaming."

3 Many firsts for Schooling

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JOSEPH Schooling is in the first business. First to the wall. First to set a certain time. First is why you train and take the pain.

First is always hard. First requires genes, dedication, sacrifice. First comes with setbacks and he had them at the Commonwealth Games where he finished seventh in the 50m butterfly. First demands that you bounce back.

First is a pressure business. Your nation looks at you. Your nation judges you. Because you're their No. 1 swimmer. First is a series of steps and this year Schooling took those first steps.

It was the first time he took on some of the world's better swimmers and left them behind. First time he flourished in big events. First Singaporean to win a Commonwealth Games medal. First local man to win an Asian Games gold in 32 years.

First comes from desperation and as said after his 100m butterfly gold at the Incheon Asiad: "I'm overjoyed. At the end, I could see that I was ahead, and if someone wanted to overtake me, they'd have to die trying."

His firsts were important, they were proof of talent, they were evidence that - perhaps, possibly, who knows - one day he may get to where he wants.

First in the world.

4 Top events arrive as Sports Hub opens

IT WAS plagued by construction delays. Even after its opening, it was dogged by problems on the National Stadium's pitch.

Yet, the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub and its top-notch facilities brought in stellar sports events from the word go.

From a high-profile football friendly between Brazil and Japan, which saw the 55,000-seater main stadium's first full house, to the week-long WTA Finals which brought in record attendance for the prestigious women's tennis season-ending event, the Hub was indeed a centre for top-tier sports tournaments.

Next year's SEA Games will see the Hub being showcased all over the region, and once its initial teething problems are solved, Singaporeans can look forward to a vibrant sports scene at Kallang.

5 Rory & Caroline: Divided they thrive

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IN LOVE, they struggled as athletes. Alone, they soared.

Was there a lesson here on focus? Or was it mere coincidence?

We'll have to wait for their autobiographies.

Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki were a fun, lively couple. He turned up at tennis events. She walked golf courses. They spoke about each other. A wedding was planned.

Invitations had gone out, he got cold feet, he made a phone call. It was over.

Four days later he won the BMW PGA Championship. Golf was his refuge. Two months later she won the Istanbul Cup. Tennis was her sanctuary.

Amid sadness, especially for her, they surged. He won two Majors back to back, The Open and PGA Championship, and invited comparisons with Tiger. She, whose game had mummified, wrapped up her grief and had a glorious second half of the season. First grand slam final since 2009 at the US Open. Last year she didn't make the year-end WTA Championships. This year she won all her three round-robin matches.

Moral of the story: Maybe it's hard to be great at golf when you're attending tennis matches. And vice versa. As she said: "To play good tennis, your head has to be there."

Second moral of this tale: Rory, who is admired and short, deserved a parting shot from Caroline, who is tall and loved.

As she said of future paramours: "I would like a taller guy so I can wear my heels."

Ouch.

6 Li Na calls time on tennis career

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A TISSUE was handed to her. Then one to Petra Kvitova. There were not, it seemed, enough tissues in Beijing that day. Caroline Wozniakci cried. Jelena Jankovic cried. A bit of tennis cried.

Li Na was leaving.

Four surgeries to her knee. A hundred injections and more. Athletes can manage pain but not the inability to perform.

She was rebellious, tough and at times difficult. She hit the ball with a svelte smoothness. She made history by the month. First Chinese to win a WTA Tour title, first to break into the top 20, first Asian woman to win a grand slam title. But history so many make, charm so few possess.

Her legacy is her strokes yet also her speeches. The Asian athlete is often - and with reason - stereotyped as a stern, reticent robot, but Li dismantled them. A Chinese girl who spoke English without shyness, who won titles and audiences, who played and was playful. At this year's Australian Open, in her victory speech she looked at her husband and said that he had fixed her rackets and her drinks all year:

"Thanks a lot, you are a nice guy." He laughed. But she wasn't done. "Also you are so lucky, (you) find me." The audience roared. Now a little laughter has left tennis. Of course, they were passing out tissues.

7 San Antonio win 4th NBA title

IN THIS social media day and age, sports teams line-ups chop and change accordingly to the whims and fancies of coaches and fans. Which is why the reigning National Basketball Association champions San Antonio Spurs are a miraculous example of an exemplary franchise who found the recipe to success - and stuck to it for more than a decade.

By keeping their core trio Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (not to mention long-time coach Gregg Popovich), the Spurs turned familiarity into a huge advantage.

By filling the rest of roster with team-oriented players who specifically addressed the trio's weaknesses, the Spurs defied time: As the three stars age, their back-ups got better.

Three star players, 11 years, four NBA titles, never out of the play-offs - the Spurs are the symbol for durable success in American sports in the 21st Century.

8 Duel of an era: Ronaldo v Messi

THE first time round, the world never got to find out who was really better: The taller Portuguese-speaking man or the squat Argentinian, two footballers separated by a generation.

While the topic of Pele versus Diego Maradona remains moot, we have the pleasure of watching Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi elevate their personal duel to stratospheric levels.

The Real Madrid phenomenon has 32 goals in 24 games this season while the Barcelona superstar has 21 strikes in just as many matches. Since Ronaldo signed for Real in 2009, he scored 284 times in 270 appearances compared to Messi's 295 goals in 285 games.

This year is a happier one for CR7. He has scored more than his rival, won the Champions League and is the holder of the Ballon d'Or. But he had a miserable World Cup while Messi reached the Final. And that is how it stays - unresolved.

9 Peter Lim buys Valencia

UNDOUBTEDLY the Singaporean who made the biggest impact overseas, the billionaire was given a hero's welcome at the Mestalla Stadium after he completed his acquisition of Spanish La Liga club Valencia in October.

Thousands, of fans lined the streets outside the ground to await his black limousine, chanting his name vociferously when the new owner arrived for the home match against Elche shortly after his takeover.

The Valencia supporters are full of praise for the 61-year-old after he paid 420 million euros (S$720 million) in total for his prize, with 200 million euros to clear the club's debts and 170 million euros to complete construction of a new stadium.

He also spent another 45 million euros to sign two Benfica players - striker Rodrigo Moreno and midfielder Andre Gomes.

Perhaps, the Spaniards will call him "Pedro" Lim now.

10 Sailors win first YOG golds

FOR a nation which has not experienced the joy of winning an Olympic gold, Singapore can be forgiven for being excited about Byte CII sailors Bernie Chin and Samantha Yom clinching the Republic's first two Youth Olympic Games golds in Nanjing in August.

Yet, one should not downplay the qualities displayed by both the 15-year-olds en route to winning. Bernie showed tenacity to claw back from last place after two races, while Samantha's ice-cool composure was evident as she maintained her lead despite numerous weather delays.

The next step is to turn these YOG gold-medallists into contenders at the senior Olympics.

While the roads to success remain long and arduous, at least Bernie and Samantha have the golds to show them that, even at a precocious age, they have the talent and temperament to stay on these roads.

FAIL:

1 F1 drives some fans to sleep

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WITH only Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as the two genuine title challengers in this Formula One season, it was a monotonous bore barely a few races into the season.

Coming on the heels of last season's one-man race as Sebastian Vettel celebrated a fourth straight drivers' title, television viewership duly suffered.

Yet, more damaging news arrived just before the season ended in November, as F1's two smallest teams - Marussia and Caterham - went into administration, unable to stem their financial bleeding from spiralling operation costs.

2 Growing pains in Kallang

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GRASS thrives in the Garden City of Singapore and there was a certain irony when the spanking new $1.33 billion National Stadium in Kallang, featuring high-tech hybrid turf, quite literally laid bare its problems.

When a Singapore Selection football side took on Juventus in a friendly in August, fans and players were surprised to see sandy patches all over, hardly the best start to the new ground.

Things improved marginally when Brazil played Japan two months later as the field continued to be less than pitch-perfect.

In order to give the grass more breathing space, Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou's concert was postponed ahead of November's Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup - co-hosted by the Republic - and lights costing $1.5 million were wheeled in to accelerate the grass' growth.

The Sports Hub has since announced that a new natural surface will be grown in a nursery and then laid over the current surface in time for June's SEA Games.

Sports fans in Singapore will no doubt hope a solution can be found to this embarrassing problem.

3 Suarez leaves his mark, again

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FANS can forgive Luis Suarez for his play-acting, incessant complaints directed at referees and dipping into his bag of dirty tricks to gain even the smallest advantage behind the referee's back.

His swashbuckling brilliance in conjuring goals made it all the more palatable to ignore his "street urchin" mentality.

But bite a rival player and be caught for a third time, and all hell broke loose for the Uruguayan at the World Cup Finals in Brazil.

Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini might be the one bearing the brunt of Suarez's sharp incisors but everyone else battered the now-Barcelona striker as if they were the ones who had their flesh ripped away.

Suarez's eventual four-month ban was justified as he was a repeat offender of this barbaric act.

But the global hysteria that surrounded the act could have come from fans finally finding an unrepentant "villain" to love to hate.

They may be aghast by his nastiness, yet they are always eager to watch him play - and boo lustily at his wild antics.

4 Germany humiliate Brazil with 7-1 rout

IT IS bad enough to lose a final on home soil. But if Brazilians thought getting over the 1950 World Cup final defeat by Uruguay took a lifetime, it might take a few generations to rid the horror of the night of July 8, 2014.

In the city of Belo Horizonte, against in-form Germany, all that could go wrong went dreadfully awry for Brazil.

Already without star forward Neymar, who was missing through injury, Brazil fell a goal behind in the 11th minute. By half time they were four goals down.

By full-time, the scoreboard read 7-1, a nation was in mourning, a team in tears. It was Brazil's worst ever defeat, one which ended a 62-match unbeaten home streak dating back to 1975.

To make matters worse, one of the seven German strikes went to Miroslav Klose, allowing him to overtake Brazil's Ronaldo as the World Cup's all-time record scorer.

Perhaps Brazil made too much of Neymar's absence, when they really needed a team to win.

Whatever the case, they have a lifetime to debate the disaster of Belo Horizonte.

5 Not a booster shot for trust

IT IS never the news a sport, or a continent, wants. This year, badminton's Lee Chong Wei tested positive for the anti-inflammatory dexamethasone and swimmer Sun Yang tested positive for trimetazidine, a stimulant.

Lee was allowed to use the drug out of competition but is bewildered it stayed in his body till competition. His fate, as the year ended, was unknown.

Sun, who cited medical reasons for his action, was banned for three months. But the news was initially not revealed by China and he won three golds at the Asiad.

Both are Asian stars who believe they have made inadvertent mistakes.

Yet, it is a warning to Asian athletes as they rise. They must protect their sports and their reputations. They must know always what they ingest. They must be transparent in how testing is done and in what punishment is given.

Nothing raises the eyebrow like the positive drug test.

It's a stain, a scar, a whisper.

It makes us think of the past and think the worst and think of athletes differently.

6 NFL catches flak for players' family abuse

ALREADY, American football is suffering from a recent image problem - that the sport is violent and players are likely to end up with brain damage and dementia.

Then, Ray Rice caught the spotlight. A star running back for 2013 NFL champions Baltimore Ravens, he was banned indefinitely by the NFL but only after a video emerged of him assaulting his wife Janay. Rice was not the first NFL player in the docks for violent crime, yet the initial two-match suspension meted out by the league caused a national outcry. A Congressional hearing was called before the NFL admitted that it had failed to police domestic abuse by its players.

7 Stange loses the plot

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HE CAME, promising a football revolution but, in the end, many wanted the axe to fall on Singapore's national coach.

Former East Germany, Iraq and Belarus coach Bernd Stange, with more than 40 years of experience, advocates beautiful passing patterns to get the Lions to be a dominant Asean force and make the leap to the continental level.

But in November's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, his first real test, the team played without imagination, spirit and leadership.

Stories of his coaching and management style started to leak out from the camp, painting a picture of a team in discord.

More shockingly, Stange now says that other Asean countries are catching up on Singapore.

It is no wonder that after a tame AFF Cup exit, there are calls for him to be the first victim of this revolution he wants.

8 Drink-driving sinks Phelps

AT 29, a retired Michael Phelps heard the calling of the pool again. He put on his swimsuit. He swam, as he does, like a fish. Then, alas, he drank like one.

In water, he was in command, even winning the 100m butterfly at the Pan Pacific Championships; on dry land, he lost control.

In September he was stopped while driving at 84mph (135kmh) in a 45mph zone on Baltimore. Like 10 years ago, he failed a sobriety test and was arrested for driving under the influence.

It was dangerous and sad. It was a young man struggling with himself. It was untidy behaviour from an athlete of remarkable discipline. It was pressure, stress and just plain silliness.

Phelps is a non-gilled, un-finned genius. Mankind's finest representative in liquid matters. Now he was suspended, now he was embarrassed.

9 Fifa scores an own goal

IT HAS all the makings of a top-notch TV political drama, not unlike House Of Cards, Homeland or Scandal - chock-full of espionage, back-stabbing, manipulation and hidden truths.

Unfortunately, such unsavoury events were played out in football's world governing body Fifa, as it tries to convince everyone that it ran a corruption-free voting to select the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals.

For every accusation from nations whose bids failed, Fifa had a riposte - even as it hides the full truth from public view.

An exhaustive external probe came to nought and led to the resignation of ethics investigator Michael Garcia.

Russia and Qatar, the two winning bidders, were not deemed to have done anything improper.

Yet, such farcical drama served only to show the greed amid the football officialdom.

10 David (not a Goliath) Moyes

HE WAS the Chosen One, the man given the pitchfork to prod the Red Devils to more glory.

But it was all over after just nine months after a record 27 wins and 15 defeats in 51 games when his predecessor enjoyed 27 years.

Used to winning, Manchester United slumped under Moyes and, as the losses piled up, the fans turned on the ex-Everton boss.

While he has happily found employment in Spain with Real Sociedad, he will never be forgotten... by fans of rival English Premier League clubs.

This is best summed up by a Moyes statue, erected in jest outside Anfield with an inscription - For services rendered to Liverpool Football Club.