Friday, 1 January 2010

A Cynical New Year

Happy 2010! A new year is upon us, accompanied by the sounds of Big Ben striking twelve, popping champagne corks and, later, the 'plop-plop-fizz' of hangover remedies. After weeks of the sports media looking back - on the year 2009, on the first decade of the 21st century, even on whole careers - readers must be suffering from pretty sore necks. So allow The Cynical Challenge to administer a corrective treatment, as we look forward to a few names to watch in the world of sport in the coming year.

Detroit Lions
It’s not as if things can get much worse for the Lions. As of this week, with only one round of the NFL regular season left to go, the team’s win-loss record stands at 2-13, with only the St Louis Rams (1-14) preventing them from being given the dubious title of NFL’s worst-performing franchise in 2009. This is on top of the Lions’ 0-16 season last year, the first time in NFL history that a team has lost all of its regular season games.

It all neatly, though depressingly, ties in with the story of the city of Detroit’s apparent economic and social decline, a process emphasised in 2009 by the bankruptcy of two of the city’s major employers, Chrysler and GM.

Under the circumstances, perhaps citing the Lions as a team to watch might be interpreted as mockery. But it isn’t intended as an invitation for schadenfreude – there was a moment in 2009 when the team showed guts, fighting spirit and maybe, just maybe, a hint of the green shoots of recovery in 2010.

On 22nd November in a home game against the Cleveland Browns, Detroit recovered from a 24-3 first quarter deficit to trail 37-31, in possession going into the final minute of the game.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, a rookie who was starting only his eighth professional game, took an enormous hit and suffered a dislocated shoulder with only seconds remaining. Evading the doctors who had carried him groggily from the field, Stafford ran onto the field, left arm hanging limply by his side, to pass for the game-winning touchdown. Watch the video here, it’s truly spellbinding (from 3:22). And it might just point to grounds for optimism for Stafford and the Lions next season.

Aaron Ramsey
The Cynical Challenge knew it was getting old when a player appeared in the Premier League who was born in the 1990s. When Aaron Ramsey signed for Arsenal from Cardiff in the summer of 2008 it was assumed he would be another product of Arsène Wenger’s seemingly endless production-line of young talent.

Thus far, though, Ramsey hasn’t made the immediate impression made by the likes of Cesc Fabregas – himself still only 22 – or more recently Kieran Gibbs, having started only four Premier League games in his Gunners career.

Not that Ramsey has been out of the headlines. Coming off the bench, the Welshman has scored some outstanding goals, including a lovely individual goal against Stoke earlier this season; while his exploits for the Wales national side have rightly earned rave reviews, most notably for an absolute cracker he scored for Wales U21 against Italy in September 2009.

Over Christmas, with a hamstring injury ruling Arsenal talisman Fabregas out of the tie with Portsmouth, Ramsey grabbed his chance with another wonderful strike. After a slow start it looks, rather ominously for Arsenal’s rivals, that Wenger has found another starlet – one who will get more and more game time in the coming year.

Marcos Baghdatis
From an up-and-coming youngster to a relative old hand: 24-year-old Cypriot Baghdatis has already experienced the heights of world tennis, reaching the final of the 2006 Australian Open, and following that with a run to the semi-finals of Wimbledon in the same year. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Colin Farrell, and bringing with him a faithful (and vocal) band of Cypriot-Greek supporters wherever he plays, Baghdatis is a popular member of the tour.

However, a succession of injuries – to his ankle, back and knee – marred 2008-09 for Baghdatis, and he slipped from a high of number 8 in the world to number 151 in July 2009.

Returning to action, he won his first title for over two years in Vancouver in August, and followed that up with a year-ending victory in the Stockholm Open. On the way Baghdatis also managed to pick up the Tashkent Open title, an event most notable for forcing its winners to dress in traditional Uzbek style for the presentations. Credit to Baghdatis for doing his best to put on a brave face for the ensuing photo call.

Back inside the world’s top 50, and with an injury-free winter under his belt, the popular Cypriot could be on his way back into the world’s top 10 in 2010.


The US Winter Olympic Speedskating Team
Readers in the United States will know all about comedian Stephen Colbert. The presenter of satirical chat show The Colbert Report, Colbert brilliantly sent up George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006 and then attempted to run for the American Presidency in 2007.

But in late 2009 Colbert turned his attention from politics to winter sports, when he announced on The Colbert Report that he would be sponsoring the United States men’s speedskating team. The team had suffered a shortfall in funding after the collapse of Dutch bank DSB (whose liquidation, incidentally, has also ruined the season – and possibly the long-term future – of Dutch football league champions AZ Alkmaar), and Colbert stepped in with both cash and a superbly irreverent marketing ploy.

All eyes will surely be on the US speedskaters at the forthcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics, and not just to check out their lycra uniforms, emblazoned with Colbert’s signature “Colbert Nation” logo (modelled rather disturbingly by Colbert himself in Sports Illustrated last month).

The team broke a number of records at their World Cup meet in Berlin in November 2009, so they may just be good tips for a host of gold medals in Vancouver. Either way, though, the story is going to be good for a few laughs.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James