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Year in Review 2021: writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Time sure does fly, and just like that, another year draws to a close. But before we begin the celebrations on New Year’s Eve, it’s time to look back at all the extraordinary things that have taken place across the 12 months.

The year 2021 sure does occupy a unique place in the sporting landscape. The second year of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which spread across the globe from China in early 2020, saw athletes and organisations a lot more used to the idea of playing and hosting tournaments during a global health crisis.

While sport came to a screeching halt for a few months before slowly crawling back to life, athletes became a lot more used to the idea of bio-secure bubbles this year, as a result of which 2021 saw a lot more sporting action than its predecessor. And it was because of the idea of bio-secure bubbles that mega events such as the Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020 — both of which had been postponed last year — took place with little issues, the prospect of which seemed impossible at one point.

As the year draws to a close, the sports desk at Firstpost picks some of their favourite moments from 2021:

Indian men’s hockey team end 41-year wait for Olympics medal

It was tense and thrilling, but when the hockey game between India and Germany ended on 5 August 2021, it brought a sweet end to the once hockey giants’ agonising wait of 41 years for an Olympic medal. The eight-time former gold medallists last won a medal at the 1980 Moscow Games. In Tokyo, they wrote a new chapter of glory in the books of India hockey with a 5-4 win in the bronze medal play-offs match and left the hockey-loving Indian fans with happy tears. Afterall, 41 years is but a long time. The medal win was almost unprecedented for the new generation of hockey fans, for the old ones it was nostalgic. For Indian hockey, it was a giant leap. (Ujwal Singh)

‘It’s coming to Rome’

‘Football’s coming home’ became the theme of Euro 2020 as co-host England romped to the final of the continental mega event, hoping to bring an end to the 55-year trophy drought. But football, and sports, in general, can be cruel. England had talent, and home support during the final at the Wembley stadium in London, but they didn’t have what it took to get past Italy.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Italian team celebrates with the trophy after the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy. AP

The European giants scripted a 3-2 win in the final on penalties to clinch their second European crown, the first since 1968. After the 2018 World Cup qualifying shock, the return of Italy to the podium felt like old normal amid the new normal. (Ujwal Singh)

Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch

Tokyo Olympics organisers’ surprise revelation for the torch bearer came in the form of Naomi Osaka. The moment was huge for multiple reasons. Osaka, a former World No 1, became tennis’ first Olympic torch bearer. Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Naomi moved to the United States as a youngster. At a broader level, Osaka had become a flagbearer for human rights causes by protesting against police brutality in the US in 2020 and been a strong advocate for mental health awareness in athletes.

In Paris this season, before the Olympics, she decided against coming for mandatory press conferences which was rebuked by many. Later, she pulled out of the major to take a break from the game. By carrying the Olympic torch, she represented much more than being just another Japanese athlete. (Tanuj Lakhina)

Tearful Messi says goodbye to Barcelona

In last year’s look back, we had Lionel Messi expressing his desire to leave Barcelona. In 2021 it became a reality and in very complicated circumstances. From what could have, or should have, been the biggest transfer became a free switch from the Catalan giants to Ligue 1 club Paris Saint-Germain.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Lionel Messi broke down at his press conference to announce he was leaving FC Barcelona. AP

In 2020, Messi stated his desire to leave but was convinced to stay. By 2021, Barcelona’s finances meant the club had to bite the bullet and let their biggest star, their lifelong member, the team captain, go.

At the press conference to announce his exit, a tearful Messi said, “My family and I were convinced I wanted to stay here, that’s what we all wanted more than anything. We thought we’d be staying here in Barcelona, today I have to say goodbye to all of this.”

Messi, 34, had been at Barcelona for 21 years and became their all-time top goal scorer with 682 goals.

The Argentine’s forced move out of Camp Nou became a defining moment for him and for the club. (Tanuj Lakhina)

“Too fast, too furious”

“You are the world champion! The world champion!” screamed back Red Bull boss Christian Horner when Dutchman Max Verstappen realised he had crossed the chequered line before racing legend Sir Lewis Hamilton during the epic final showdown at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This moment, for some, was an eternity squeezed in a few seconds.

The radio chatter between Verstappen and Horner is something worth treasuring because of the sheer proportion of what went down, almost in the the blink of an eye.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Max Verstappen celebrates with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and the rest of the team after winning the 2021 Formula One Drivers’ Championship. AP

Cruising head-to-head in his Red Bull against racing royalty Mercedes, the last lap was a showdown of epic proportions where Verstappen’s newly changed soft tyres and the intervention of a service car four laps from the end gave him a critical edge, that many claim, is the real reason behind the Dutchman snatching a record eighth title from Hamilton. (Nandini Paul)

Twist in the Tale with the ‘Twisties’

Hailed by many as the greatest gymnast of all time, Simon Biles changed the narrative connected to mental health stigma during the Tokyo Olympics with one comment.

It was a case of “a little bit of the twisties” she claimed, saying “she felt a little bit lost in the air” when a mid-air two-and-a-half rotation ended up being a one-and-a-half twist.

Twisties account for a mental block of sorts that tamper with a body’s momentum and movement mid-air, which can be catastrophic if not handled properly.

Even the greatest need a break — and Biles proved it by pulling out of several events post this incident to tend to her mental health, much to the surprise of the world. (Nandini Paul)

Ajaz wields magic at Wankhede

Scripting history is always special. But doing it on return to your home ground, playing in front of your family for the first time, makes it extra special. New Zealand spinner Ajaz had a dream couple of days in Mumbai, on the return to his homeland. He became just the third bowler in the history of cricket to pick up all ten wickets in an innings. Born in India, Ajaz migrated from Mumbai to New Zealand at the age of eight. And this was the first time he was playing in his home ground. It was a special Test for him. He was cheered on by the crowd, was requested for selfies and then got a standing ovation. It was surreal. He was by far the best Kiwi bowler in a match where every other New Zealand bowler struggled. He got the ball to turn and bounce and bowled in right areas relentlessly.

As Mohammed Siraj swung across the line, and got a top edge in the air, the entire New Zealand camp along with the fans at the Wankhede and all over the world held their breath. And as soon as Rachin Ravindra held the catch, history was scripted. The smile on an unassuming Ajaz had brought smiles to millions of fans.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

New Zealand left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel gestures after becoming only the third bowler in Test history to collect all 10 wickets in an innings. Sportzpics

He was relentless as he bowled 73.5 overs and constantly troubled the Indian batsmen. Every time he made it to the field, he was greeted with cheers. He obliged the kids with selfies and acknowledge their support by constantly waving at the stands. It was a mixed Test in the end for Ajaz as New Zealand lost inside four days but he had scalped 14 of the 17 Indian wickets that fell. Not many bowlers come to India and trouble the Indian batsmen, homeboy Ajaz did that and entered the cricketing folklore. It’s a moment that will stay with him forever and with the fans as well. (Jigar Mehta)

Sundar’s nonchalant six off Cummins at Gabba

A youngster, on his Test debut, walking in at 265/5 in chase of 328 against a formidable side like Australia in their own backyard and stitching a crucial seventh-wicket stand under pressure on a fifth-day pitch to help breach the Gabba fortress, is the stuff dreams are made of. Washington Sundar announced his arrival in Test arena with fifty in his debut innings (62 in the first innings), forging a match-turning partnership with Shardul Thakur to take India from a precarious 186/6 to 309/7.

He had earlier claimed the wickets of Steve Smith, Cameron Green and Nathan Lyon to open his wickets account in Test cricket and later a set David Warner in the second innings. However, there was more to come. The Tamil Nadu all-rounder walked in in a tricky situation with 60 more needed for a win. He steadied the ship with the set Rishabh Pant and then attacked to take India closer, 22 off 29 balls, adding 53 for the sixth wicket for Pant.

What stood out was the confidence with which he tackled one of the best pace attacks in the world. And the moment that made us go WOW was the nonchalant pull off the world’s No 1 bowler Pat Cummins. It wasn’t just about the wickets, the timing was a crucial factor as well. India needed over 6 an over to win the match. With 49 needed off 45 balls, Cummins dropped one short on Sundar’s body, Sundar just swivelled and pulled it over deep backward square leg for a six.

It injected the momentum back into the match. He went hard at the next one and got an outside edge over the slip cordon for a four. He couldn’t stay there till the finish as he was cleaned up by Lyon but he had done his job and India needed just 10. That six was a testament to his talent and the fearless attitude the Indian youngsters have ingrained in the last few years. Pant finished off the match, finising on 89 not out as fortress Gabba was finally breached after 33 long years, with India clinching a series which they started off with 36 all out at Adelaide, 2-1. (Jigar Mehta)

Bumrah seals the deal with dream spell at Oval

Watching a fast bowler make batters dance to his/her tunes and dominate a session of play is one of the most exciting sights in Test cricket. And to watch Jasprit Bumrah snuff out England’s hopes of salvaging a draw and keeping the series level with a sensational spell — one of the many that he has produced so far — certainly was one of the highlights of the suspended England-India Test series.

India produced a dramatic second innings turnaround after conceding a 99-run lead in the fourth Test at the Oval, thanks to Rohit Sharma’s 127 along with a fighting seventh-wicket stand, setting England an improbable 368 to win. The hosts’ however, got off to a solid start with a 100-run opening stand, and their batters would have backed themselves to save the day. While Shardul Thakur and Ravindra Jadeja managed to make inroads into the English batting order, it was Bumrah’s six-over post-lunch spell, which can be considered a spiritual successor to the one he delivered at the MCG three years ago, which ultimately sealed the deal.

On paper, figures of 22-9-27-2 may not seem extraordinary. But those who watched those six overs, in which he gave away just six runs while accounting for Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow’s dismissals, would agree with the idea that it was fast bowling at its very best. His dismissal of Bairstow, a vicious inswinging yorker that snuck through the gap between bat and foot, could be a worthy contender for ‘Ball of the Year’, if there was such an award. (Amit Banerjee)

Eriksen’s on-field health scare is met with a show of unity

The year 2021 bore witness to players and their health, with focus on a number of unsettling on-field incidents that have since led to discussions around player workloads and schedules as well as the preparedness of organisers to deal with life-threatening emergencies.

One such incident was Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse during their Euro 2020 meeting with Finland at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen earlier this year. It was a moment that sent everyone involved, from teammates and rivals to the spectators at the stadium and those sitting in front of television sets back home, into a state of shock.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Denmark players formed a wall around Christian Eriksen after he collapsed in a game against Finland. AP

While everyone prayed for the athlete’s safety, it was the response to the incident that was indeed heart-warming and highlighted how humanity can come together in times of crisis. Eriksen’s teammates immediately formed a huddle around him, making a human shield to give the player as well as the medical staff some privacy from the cameras.

Eriksen, who had left Italian club Inter Milan recently, was immediately rushed to a hospital in the Danish capital after being administered CPR on field. The world prayed for his safety, and there was palpable relief after the doctors announced Eriksen was out of danger.

The match resumed after nearly two hours, and was followed by one of the most defining moments of the tournament — one set of fans at the Parken chanting “Christian!”, with the other following it up with “Eriksen!”. The following day, Romelu Lukaku would look into the camera “Chris, Chris, stay strong – I love you” while celebrating his goal against Russia. (Amit Banerjee)

Neeraj Chopra winning Olympic gold

On 7 August, 2021, Neeraj Chopra finally achieved what every track and field athlete from India would have dreamt of achieving at the Olympic platform, win the country’s elusive gold in that respective category.

Javelin thrower Neeraj, who celebrated his 24th birthday on Friday, heralded a new era in Indian athletics with his throw of 87.58m at the Tokyo Olympics in August, that won him a historic gold medal, joining former sport shooter Abhinav Bindra as only one of the two Indians to win an Olympic gold medal.

It is only fair to say that Neeraj defied all odds to achieve the feat, as he beat the likes of Germany’s Johannes Vetter and Julian Weber en route to victory.

Year in Review 2021 Firstpost writers pick their favourite sporting moments from the bygone year

Neeraj Chopra won India’s first gold in track and field at Tokyo Olympics. AP

What made it even more special is that Neeraj dedicated his victory to the late Milkha Singh, the legendary ‘Flying Sikh’who had passed away in June this year, aged 91.

Neeraj’s achievement has only given new hopes and dreams to the up and coming Indian athletes to give it their best at a stage like the Olympics. (PN Vishnu)

Indian hockey team clinches Olympic bronze

Forty-one years since their last Olympic medal, the Indian men’s hockey team, coached by Graham Reid, inspired their country to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

It was at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, when India had defeated Spain in the final to clinch a gold in the men’s hockey, and result-wise, it was almost a walk in the park for the Indian team in Tokyo, more than four decades later.

Having beaten the likes of Japan (5-3), Argentina (3-1), Spain (3-0) and New Zealand (3-2), India’s only defeat in the pool stage came against Australia in a humiliating 7-1 loss.

In the quarter-finals, they met Great Britain, whom they comfortably eased past with a 3-1 scoreline on the back of goals from Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh and Hardik Singh, while Sam Ward scored the lone goal for Great Britain.

They were pitted against Belgium in the semi-finals, but that was not meant to be for India. It was a poor fourth quarter from India that largely cost them a spot in the gold medal match, as an Alexander Hendrickx’ brilliance (hat-trick of goals) dashed India’s hopes of a first hockey Olympic gold since 1980.

India faced Germany in the bronze medal match, but things did not appear to be quite easy. Yet, India were at their resolute best.
India were finding themselves 3-1 down by the 25th minute, with Simranjeet Singh having scored in the 17th minute, but an inspired comeback would not have been possible without some top teamwork.

Simranjeet added another in the 34th, and India’s other goalscorers were Hardik Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh, who scored a goal each as India clinched an edge-of-the-seat thriller with a 5-4 scoreline. (PN Vishnu)

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