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Look back 2018: 11 words to mark the sporting year

France defender Benjamin Mendy could not contain his joy in the rain as he lifts the World Cup trophy after Les Bleus beat Croatia 4-2 in the final on July 15.
France defender Benjamin Mendy could not contain his joy in the rain as he lifts the World Cup trophy after Les Bleus beat Croatia 4-2 in the final on July 15.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ST FILE
Singapore's top women's paddler Feng Tianwei looking dejected in one of her matches at April's Commonwealth Games, where she failed to retain the singles title she won in 2014.
Singapore's top women's paddler Feng Tianwei looking dejected in one of her matches at April's Commonwealth Games, where she failed to retain the singles title she won in 2014.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ST FILE
Lions forward Ikhsan Fandi celebrating after his brilliant bicycle-kick goal against Timor-Leste in the AFF Suzuki Cup Group B match on Nov 21.
Lions forward Ikhsan Fandi celebrating after his brilliant bicycle-kick goal against Timor-Leste in the AFF Suzuki Cup Group B match on Nov 21.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ST FILE
Former world No. 1 Tiger Woods raises his arms in triumph after winning the Tour Championship in September - his first PGA Tour victory in 1,876 days.
Former world No. 1 Tiger Woods raises his arms in triumph after winning the Tour Championship in September - his first PGA Tour victory in 1,876 days.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ST FILE

Heartened. Angered. Baffled. The Straits Times' sport reporters look back at moments over the year, from Simona Halep's maiden Grand Slam title to the Unified Korea team's silver in the women's basketball competition at the Asian Games.

Lee Yulin is HEARTENED

It was only a silver medal but, in many people's eyes, what the Unified Korea team who finished second in the women's basketball competition at the Asian Games stood for could not be defeated.

A small number of fans might have been disappointed that they were unable to pull off the ultimate fairy tale by beating China in the final, but the story of the Asian Games and even the Winter Olympics was never about the medals but the moments.

The moment when North and South Korea, two nations technically still at war, marched as one not once but twice.

In freezing conditions at the opening of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February and in steamy conditions in tropical Jakarta in August.

The moment when athletes from North and South Korea shared the top step of the podium in the women's dragon boating competition at the Asian Games, the first time they had combined to win a top prize in a major multi-sport competition.

The gold was not just symbolic of their attempt at unity, it was also hard proof that two is, indeed, better than one.

And I was heartened that at a time when sport's biggest headlines are increasingly generated by stories about racism, sexism and bullying, that the world had these small but significant moments to celebrate.

Lim Han Ming is ANGERED

A sixth European Cup was well within reach. Liverpool went into the 2018 Champions League final against Real Madrid brimming with confidence after seeing off Manchester City in the quarter-finals.

And they boasted arguably Europe's most-vaunted attack of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who had plundered 90 goals in all competitions. But, alas, it took only 30 minutes for the Reds' hopes to go up in smoke.

 
 

As Salah and Sergio Ramos went for the ball, the Real defender locked the Egyptian's right arm and turned him, judo-style. Salah collapsed with a loud thud and subsequently left the pitch in tears.

Television replays showed that it could have been a calculated move on the Spaniard's part.

The Reds never really recovered from the shock of losing their 44-goal talisman. But what angered me most was the Loris Karius horror show that followed.

Six minutes after half-time, the Reds goalkeeper inexplicably threw the ball to Karim Benzema, whose out-stretched foot diverted the ball into the empty net. Karius' misery was complete in the 83rd minute when he let Gareth Bale's hopeful 30-metre shot slip through his fingers to seal Real's 3-1 win.

What had promised to be a night of celebration turned out to be a nightmare for the Reds, no thanks to Ramos' sinister act and Karius' howlers.

Rohit Brijnath is ENLIGHTENED

All summer the picture stayed with me. Manuel Akanji of Switzerland bent over in dismay as two victorious Swedish players comfort him. It is like a painting that is melancholic, hopeful and enlightening.

Sweden had won this World Cup match because Emil Forsberg struck a ball from outside the box which collided with Akanji's right foot and looped into the goal. There is no private hell like the own goal.

And yet the Swedes came to put an arm around Akanji later because everyone who plays sport understands the callousness of bad luck.

They know this is the worst way to lose. They know that some days a badminton shuttle hits the net cord and dribbles over and it hurts beyond belief. They know that in tennis a shot from the racket frame becomes a winning lob and you can't do a thing except swear. And that's why tennis players hold up their hand after such a point: They're grateful to win the point but signalling they know they were lucky.

It's why the Swedes go to the Swiss. It's their way of reassuring him that this wasn't his fault, that this was just chance, just unfortunate timing, just some hateful fluke. They're telling him they understand that today was their day but tomorrow their luck could change.

It's a valuable reminder that for all their love for winning, many athletes don't forget the humanity of sport. They wear shirts of different colours yet they are one vast tribe.

Jonathan Wong is BAFFLED

This wasn't supposed to happen. Not like this anyway.

He was a 42-year-old man with four operations on his back and struggling to get out of bed unaided, ranked as low as world No. 1,199 in December last year and without a win for 1,876 days.

No one wanted to use the words "washed up" but that was probably how the sporting world saw Tiger Woods.

He had finally returned to golf but the game and a new generation - inspired by him - had seemingly moved on.

But there he was, beating guys a decade or more younger to lift the Tour Championship in September.

That scene on the 18th fairway at East Lake is impossible to forget. Thousands were swarming around Woods as he walked to the green.

It resembled a rock concert with the balding American producing some of his greatest hits.

At the start of the year, we had assumed this latest comeback would be the farewell tour for Woods.

His legacy, 14 Majors and 79 Tour titles - both second on the all-time list - is assured.

In the end, it took Woods until his 18th and final PGA Tour start of 2018 to get that improbable victory.

The red shirt, the broad smile, trophy cradled in his arms on a triumphant Sunday. It was both familiar and foreign.

But perhaps that is what greatness is. It leaves us baffled.

Lim Say Heng is DISAPPOINTED

It was a series of unwanted firsts for the once-mighty paddlers at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April this year.

The Australian outing was the first time Singapore failed to top the sport's medal table since it was introduced at the Games in 2002, the first time the women's team failed to win the gold, and the first time since the 2002 edition that they failed to win the women's singles title.

Of the team of Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu, Lin Ye, Zhou Yihan and Zhang Wanling, only Zhang was making her Games debut Down Under.

Medals are never guaranteed in sports, no matter what your target is. And it is inevitable that the older players get beaten, as age creeps up on them.

But, when the older ones falter, the young ones must step up, especially those with the pedigree of Lin, 22, and Zhou, 24.

In particular, Lin - the winner of the World Tour Grand Finals Under-21 title in 2013 and 2015, and the Commonwealth Games women's singles bronze medallist in 2014 - underperformed, and acknowledged so.

With Feng and Yu already in the final stretches of their careers, Lin and Zhou need to step up to take over the mantle, even as the Singapore Table Tennis Association changes course to focus on developing local-born talent. 

Nicole Chia is DELIGHTED

Simona Halep's maiden Grand Slam title delighted this reporter and many others both inside and out of the professional tennis fraternity.

Before this year's French Open, the Romanian's quest for a maiden Grand Slam title had been frustrating and heartbreaking for both herself and tennis fans.

Each three-set loss - to Maria Sharapova at the 2014 Australian Open, then to Jelena Ostapenko at last year's French Open, and subsequently to Caroline Wozniacki at this year's Australian Open - was progressively more devastating for the 26-year-old.

After losing to Ostapenko in Paris last year despite being up a set and a break, Halep said she was "sick in the stomach with emotions".

It looked like Halep's time would finally arrive at January's Australian Open but, again, she fell short.

At this year's French Open final, she was down a set and a break to Sloane Stephens. One could be forgiven for thinking Halep was doomed to remain the best player to never win a Grand Slam. But it was not.

It is difficult not to feel for an athlete who has been unashamed and honest in speaking of the pain that comes after suffering multiple close losses.

It is difficult not to feel for an athlete who has never stopped persisting in her relentless quest for a Major.

And it is difficult not to feel delighted that Simona Halep's moment finally arrived.

David Lee is IMPRESSED

Long before this year's World Cup, my knowledge of Russia was limited to research on Anna Kournikova.

Those sweet memories of Russia were tainted when I started reading up more after I was assigned to cover the football extravaganza. According to various western media reports, the Russians were hooligans, Isis threatened terrorist attacks, and the biggest country in the world is just a miserable place to be in.

Well, they couldn't be further from the truth.

The country, or what I saw in the six host cities, was full of beautiful architecture complemented by an efficient transport system.

But what impressed me most was the warm and friendly Russians.

I saw MMA-built Russians with tattooed and well-worn knuckles get off their seats for the elderly and women, I had locals buy me drinks and invite me to their houses (not the same ones, that would be dodgy), and very few, if any, would not return a smile.

The tournament itself was largely trouble-free and the football action was incredible with 169 goals in 64 matches topped by France's free-flowing 4-2 final win over surprise finalists Croatia. It was truly hard not to be impressed by this much-maligned country.

Sazali Abdul Aziz is THRILLED

Few could have envisioned Singapore-based mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation One Championship ending 2018 with Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson, Eddie Alvarez and Sage Northcutt as part of its roster.

The thought of any one of the three strutting their stuff inside a cage at the Singapore Indoor Stadium will no doubt whet the appetite of local MMA fans.

In fact, the 22-year-old Northcutt, once heralded as the future of the UFC, has already said he would like to make his bow at the "Call to Greatness" event at the Singapore Sports Hub on Feb 22.

Former UFC world champions Johnson and Alvarez will make their debuts in the flyweight and lightweight classes, respectively, at One's first show in Japan, the "A New Era" event in Tokyo on March 31.

One has had high-calibre fighters on its roster before - Ben Askren, Shinya Aoki, Bibiano Fernandes, to name a few - but they are not as well-known to the casual fan as its new arrivals from North America.

Credit has to be given to One chief executive officer Chatri Sityodtong for his ambition, and taking the plunge to pay top dollar to lure some of the sport's biggest names to this side of the world.

Shamir Osman is APPALLED

It was supposed to be different. Rules were tightened in the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) National Football League (NFL), with clubs getting new perks like match medical support, live streaming of some fixtures and even an $8,500 annual subsidy.

But it appears little has changed.

There were three cases of violence in NFL matches in the last 12 months or so, with police reports made each time.

One player - Sharil Jupri - has already been fined by the District Court for his part in an on-field brawl.

Worse, a player hit a referee after being shown a red card in another match and the official had to be taken to hospital. Fortunately, he was not seriously hurt.

Ironically, this is all taking place at the amateur level, where there is far less at stake than in the Singapore Premier League for professionals.

The possibility of more footballers being hauled up by the courts or players being fined and banned is not something to be proud of.

There is no place for thuggery in football and the consistent failure of clubs and the league to shake off the spectre of violence suggests a need to get even tougher.

The hope is that things will get better, but, for a country that used to embrace its amateur football competitions, this sorry state of affairs just leaves me appalled.

Wang Meng Meng is INSPIRED

Even though Singapore's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup mission ended in failure, there are still reasons to be optimistic.

In the six short months in charge of the Lions, Fandi Ahmad's brief spell as interim national coach brought the team, the fans and the media together through his leadership qualities and charisma.

While the 56-year-old could not improve the players' technique or drill them to play slick and sophisticated football, he sensibly awakened the Lions, getting them to give their heart and soul on the pitch.

And that was what the fans saw. The two home games at the National Stadium, which had a combined attendance of 49,000, saw Singapore fight hard for a 1-0 win over Indonesia before all the party tricks, including an Ikhsan Fandi bicycle kick, came out in the 6-1 hammering of Timor-Leste.

But the Lions were eliminated after carelessly giving away a goal in the 1-0 loss to the Philippines and getting outclassed 3-0 by Thailand. Those losses showed just how much more work needs to be done.

However, Fandi has done much to bring some hope back as he helped the Lions rediscover their fighting spirit. Their first step back to recovery has been taken, now the rest of Singapore waits to see if more progress can be made.

Lester Wong is SADDENED

Lots of things in professional sport cannot exactly be described as sporting - footballers dive, boxers hit below the belt, basketball players flop.

We are used, or resigned, to these things.

Still, I was shaken by the cynicism displayed by Manchester City and their Abu Dhabi-based owners in their flouting of Uefa's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.

The rules are Uefa's attempt to prevent club owners with bottomless pockets from buying success.

City supremos Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al-Mubarak have done so anyway, through a web of financial foul play uncovered by Der Spiegel last month.

Fans usually react with anger towards dirty players or cheats (think Liverpool fans and Sergio Ramos).

Pep Guardiola's team are playing some of the most captivating football ever seen.

But it is a struggle to see lasting joy or glory in winning with a stacked deck.

It is not a football contest when what wins the day is not superior skill and tactics but superior wealth and rule-breaking.

City have made a mockery of football.

One of the first things Guardiola came out to say, after the news broke, was that last season's title triumph should not be tainted by the claims.

Sad to say, it already has.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2018, with the headline '11 Words to mark the year'. Print Edition | Subscribe