Sunday, March 7

Annus horribilis fails to curb sporting expectations for 2021 | Australia sport

TThe Belarusian Premier League had its moment in the sun in 2020. As Covid-19 traveled the world, crippling the sport as it progressed, a small Eastern European nation remained, one might stupidly argue, defiantly: the Vysheyshaya League I would keep playing. And so a 16-team league with an average attendance of less than 1,000 became the most-watched top-notch soccer competition on the continent.

At the end of March, after the Australian A-League was suspended, it was the only one in the world that still persisted, apart from those of Tajikistan and Nicaragua. Sports networks in a multitude of countries signed streaming deals to feed their respective citizens the best of what Dinamo Minsk and Shakhtyor Soligorsk had to offer.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko casually ignored FIFPro’s condemnation of the measure as “frankly incomprehensible” and instead declared that sport was “the best anti-virus remedy available.” While he is wildly irresponsible, Lukashenko also ventured that vodka and saunas and, well God may deter the coronavirus, there may be something to those words in an abstract sense.

If something has stood out this last year about the sport, it is its ability to alleviate difficult moments. The past 12 months have also underscored its overall value. Not the industry, which depends on the billions of dollars it brings in, but the human being, whose livelihood could be wrapped up in Aston Villa, Sydney Swift, Collingwood or LA Lakers.

That’s why some soccer hungry Adelaide boys created an online fan group in honor of FC Slutsk. The Belarusian city has a population of just over 60,000; the facebook group has almost 7,000 members. And why, in a sporting sense, at least, 2020 hasn’t been totally wasted.

This was a year when Nick Kyrgios became the voice of reason and Novak Djokovic a symbol of bloodlessness, when Eddie Everywhere became Eddie Nowhere and when Australia won the right, in association with New Zealand, to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Fundamentally, it was also a year in which the sport did not die. In March, Australian cricketers delighted a MCG to near capacity in the Twenty20 Women’s World Cup final and the W-League was the last professional soccer league in the world to complete a full schedule that was unaffected. for the closure of the coronavirus.

But even after the AFLW season was canceled midway through the final series, the Olympics postponed, the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cups postponed and Wimbledon canceled entirely, the sport was not discussed posthumously. Tokyo 2020 has become Tokyo 2021, cricket’s governing bodies are battling for precious spots on an increasingly crowded schedule, and the Australian Open will kick off in six weeks (albeit without Roger Federer).

A packed Suncorp stadium during the final game of the 2020 State of Origin series.
A packed Suncorp stadium during the final game of the 2020 State of Origin series. Photograph: Darren England / AAP

Some of the bells and whistles will be absent, but even without chants and beer snakes, the narratives of an athlete or team endure.

As we know? Because the AFL pushed away the MCG grand finale and didn’t stop Dustin Martin from putting on a show in Brisbane. Because the NRL still offered its fair share of quality on the field, drama off the field, and a home state atmosphere that was the envy of the closed world. Because Super Netball produced a new champion and was rarely out of the headlines, and the A-League thrived in cooler conditions.

Because the Twitterati have not stopped giving inflated opinions and their recipients have not stopped retaliating. Because even those who are not predisposed to preach from a social media lectern continue to show signs of engagement through television audiences, fantasy football, and elite virtual sporting events. And because people still care that Australia lost Test 2 to India, and that the Wallabies can’t seem to do it when it matters.

However, the Wallabies players managed to produce one of the year’s highlights when they sang the Australian anthem in an indigenous language for the first time at a national sporting event, a powerful gesture given the failure to recognize the identity and suffering of Indigenous peoples in other neighborhoods.

It occurred in a context of the Black Lives Matter movement, as the conversation about racism in sport did not fade over the course of the year. Meanwhile, the VAR remains the object of collective dread. And we collectively mourn the deaths of several greats of the sport, including Diego Maradona, Dean Jones and Kobe Bryant.

And we will continue to worry until 2021, when the disruptions will continue but no one will stop paying attention. The Socceroos will restart their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Matildas will seek Olympic glory in Tokyo, the NRL and AFL will begin their men’s and women’s competitions and the Australian Grand Prix has been confirmed.

Yes, it could take a decade to fully recover from a pandemic that has reshaped world sport in unrecognizable ways, and the financial consequences of this pandemic are hardly understandable. But while the resumption of normalcy may be a point in the distance, that does not render all events in between meaningless.

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