No shortage of colourful twists to light up 2010's blank canvas
W ITH time to kill and live sport thin on the ground, an extended interview with Europe's Ryder Cup captain, Colin Montgomerie, on Sky Sports last week assumed an unlikely appeal. It was one of those cosy affairs to which the often irascible Scot seems occasionally predisposed. He fielded questions with an impressive candour, flashed a wide grin and an easy charm that he could never quite manage on the golf course where it truly mattered.
Just when you were wondering why the Ryder Cup should engage the imagination so early in the year, the answer was sitting there in front of you in a television studio in west London. Think of that ruddy-cheeked face, minus the smile, zipping round the Celtic Manor in his buggy in early October, his charmless, me-against-the-world scowl dominating your screen for the guts of a week. What better incentive to hope the Americans cross the Atlantic and retain the trophy they won in Kentucky two years ago?
Outside of the World Cup, the Ryder Cup will be the most hyped sporting event of the year. The build-up effectively lasts for two years and becomes so relentless as the week approaches, the entire jingoistic nonsense cannot pass quickly enough. Then you hear the first thwacks on the opening Friday, the roars reverberating around the course and, almost against your will, you find yourself inexorably and helplessly sucked in. The Ryder Cup gets you every time.
Some years it lives up to the hype. Most years it simply can't. And that is the foreboding thought about 2010. An Olympics, like the Cheltenham Festival, will rarely disappoint because it will throw up lots of winners, each with an accompanying narrative that leaves a satisfying taste long after the final curtain has been drawn. A World Cup, however, needs more than that.
Remember that time before the advent of satellite tv and mass sporting digestion when we could scour our World Cup history and pronounce almost instantaneously on great matches and memorable tournaments. Now we scramble to muster fragments from the most recent renewals. Zidane's head-butt and, er, what else about 2006? An ordinary tournament that produced ordinary champions. 2002 had Saipan and a lot of cheating; 1998 had a happy ending; 1994 was decent but great? No, you wouldn't say that.
It isn't that we desperately need a great World Cup. But we could do with one. And you wonder how primed South Africa is to deliver. For a start the eight four-team groups smack of uncompetitiveness. There is simply too much mediocrity in international football to sustain a vibrant tournament with 32 teams and God knows why anyone would have wished that extended to 33.
So not being there we'll hope for the blessing of a surprise package, an Algeria or a Slovenia (wink, wink), and amuse ourselves by trying to guess when the house of cards comes tumbling down for England as, assuredly, it will. You watched Frank Lampard convert three penalties under torrid pressure at West Ham last month and were impressed until you remembered Jermaine Defoe's horrible miss against Everton two weeks before. With England on the biggest stage these things matter.
In the end it's hard to get away from Spain and the warm memory of the sumptuous football they played in Austria and Switzerland two years ago. Forget the bloated Premier League. The top tier of English football is exciting this season because the quality at the top has nose-dived. Compelling almost by default. Right now, though, the best football on the planet is to be found at the Nou Camp and Bernabeu Stadiums.
It isn't inconceivable that the Champions League final in May could see an El Clasico re-run between Barca and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and what could set the stage more deliciously for Spain's voyage to South Africa? Think of the mesmerising brand of football they play and the oppressive burden they carry as tournament favourites and it is enough to make you giddy with anticipation.
Long before then we'll know if there has been a public sighting of Tiger Woods, let alone his reappearance on a golf course. The Masters is a mere 12 weeks away and Woods has dominated those lush, wide fairways and lightning-quick greens more than any golfer since Jack Nicklaus. It seems hard to countenance the game's most eagerly anticipated tournament getting under way in his absence, but who can guess Woods' outlook on life at the moment?
His total withdrawal from ordinary life is an astonishing story in itself though, in many ways, detachment is the way of the sporting world these days. It has been the way of professional football for a decade or more now and, ever so gradually, you see it seeping into the world of rugby and even the GAA. Could you imagine Roger Kahn writing The Boys of Summer, his defining baseball memoir, if he had been three decades older?
So it feels cathartic sometimes to think of those who remain grittily human and accessible to the last. While most of us have been cursing the slippery roads and even slippier bankers this past while, it's a fair bet that the likes of Derval O'Rourke and Olive Loughnane have been out pounding the roads, making the best of what they have. Financially, the last few years have been grim for Irish athletes. Yet they keep plugging away.
In July, Ireland will probably send its strongest ever team to a European Athletics Championship. The sultry Barcelona air will be hot with anticipation. In 2009, O'Rourke was the fastest European female in the 100m hurdles. David Gillick was ranked second in the men's 400m, Paul Hession fourth in the 200m. Olive Loughnane and Rob Heffernan will be contenders. Alastair Cragg, Thomas Chamney and Martin Fagan will be on the margins. This is their time and they will know it.
Whatever happens, there will be Irish athletes out there somewhere, pushing themselves through the gloom for nothing more than personal pride and the instinct to compete.
One of them, the Olympic rower Paul Griffin, was interviewed on RTE radio last week from Alaska where he was seeking to qualify for next month's Winter Olympics. Griffin was asked if Ireland could one day compete for a medal at the Winter Games and he offered a typically illuminating response.
Griffin explained how he had encountered several athletes from warm African countries on his travels around the snowy peaks of Lapland and Alaska, but they hadn't arrived there by chance. They had been sent there at a young age to see how they might fare in a sport and a climate that was utterly alien to their genetic make-up. Ireland could be competitive, he reasoned, if we had enlightened sporting officials brave enough to devise a similar plan.
Of course it is true that, as a sporting nation, we punch far above our weight and, somewhere along the way, 2010 will remind us of that fact again. Maybe the Ireland rugby team will deliver a second Grand Slam in March. It is more likely than not that a pair of Irish hands will lift the Heineken Cup trophy in Paris in May. Kilkenny may well push the hurling boundaries further by claiming their fifth All-Ireland title in as many years in September. Pádraig Harrington, you feel, is due a fourth Major. Or perhaps it is already Rory McIlroy's time.
And all, in their own way, are thrilling prospects to behold but, like Griffin, we pine for a dollop of imagination, a bit of left-field thinking. The beauty about an impending year is that it is a blank canvas. Some sporting deed will emerge from somewhere and restore your faith, for a time at least, in troubled humanity. All the better if you hadn't seen it coming.