Time to bring on the Italians
Another 20 Italians will be heading for these shores in 1997, but most will be seeking points not pounds. After a year dominated by a summer tournament, English football returns to its winter roots, with the two most significant dates in February and October. That is when England meet Italy, home and away, in the quest for a place in the 1998 World Cup.
The February tie, at Wembley, will be Italy's first under new management. Cesare Maldini will need all of his son Paulo's defensive virtues if Italy are to end Glenn Hoddle's impressive start. He will also need good minders off the pitch as the hotel could be overrun by English agents and managers.
An English victory then, and a point or more in Poland in May, will virtually ensure England finish in the top two. A further point in Italy on 11 October would clinch first place and avoid the trauma of a play-off.
Bizarrely, there will be one other Anglo-Italian meeting, in France in the summer. Brazil will also feature in a pre-World Cup tournament which will be as much a test of security as football.
Scotland's key matches are in April, when they host Austria and visit Sweden. The Irish Republic's fate is likely to be decided in October, when Romania visit Dublin. The North wind up their campaign in Portugal the same night but, by then, the result may be academic. As for Wales, the big question is whether Bobby Gould will still be in a job by then.
The internationals are important, but they will relegated to the back burner while the Premiership builds up to what could be a third successive last-day finish. Manchester United are looking ominously good and supporters of their rivals may, for once, want them to defeat Porto in March in the hope that the European Cup will distract them. If Newcastle and Liverpool are similarly affected, Arsenal may sneak in. In the autumn there may be the delightful prospect of Wimbledon taking on Europe.
Two important posts have to be filled. With the refusals piling up, it seems the Football Association may have favourably reconsidered Howard Wilkinson's credentials to be technical director. He may be associated with unimaginative football but, after two years of futile searching, a compromise is required.
It will be equally difficult to find a replacement for Rick Parry as chief executive of the Premier League. With pay-per-view approaching, Parry's calm and even-handed negotiating will be missed.
So, too, will his concept of a game beyond the Premier League. While the big clubs look to more television loot, the likes of Brighton and Darlington are merely seeking to survive. Not for them the share issues of the fat cats. Nor will they be on Roberto Baggio's viewing list as he ponders a move from Serie A.
The year will end with the World Cup draw - what price England to be paired with Terry Venables' Australia?
Predictions (in descending order of probability): Champions: Manchester United. England and Scotland to qualify for the World Cup. Liverpool to win European Cup-Winners' Cup. Kidderminster to replace Darlington. Ravanelli to join Manchester United. Kinnear to be offered Tottenham job. Chelsea to win FA Cup. Baggio to join Newcastle while Ferdinand goes to Aston Villa.
McGrath can upstage Warne
With just a single Test win in 1996, it has been a less than exhilarating year for England's Test cricketers, whose latest 0-0 draw against Zimbabwe has merely served to confirm a deep-rooted stagnation, which has been ignored as long as it has been suspected.
There is no doubt then that English cricket is in flux, both on and off the field, the latter due mainly to the formation of the new England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) under the chairmanship of Lord MacLaurin. He is charged with the task of rationalising an ailing and docile domestic system to the betterment of the national side. After their forthcoming tour of New Zealand, England meet Australia, their oldest of foes, for an Ashes summer.
Australia should win the Ashes, though England can be expected to take one of the Tests after the series has been settled. Michael Atherton is likely to be appointed for the first two Tests of the summer following what I predict will be an unconvincing 1-0 series win in New Zealand. If his side lose both those matches, he will surely not see the summer out as England's leader.
Over the six summer Tests, Glenn McGrath, Australia's opening bowler, can be expected to take more Ashes wickets than Shane Warne, who just might be partly tamed by John Crawley and Nasser Hussain. Expect the latter to be Atherton's successor should England capitulate early on.
In county cricket, Warwickshire, with Allan Donald returned, should contest the head of the County Championship with Surrey and Leicestershire. I expect Durham will win a first-class game, while two from Owais Shah (Middlesex), Ashley Cowan (Essex) and James Kirtley (Sussex) will play for England in the final Test at The Oval.
If that sounds improbable, on the same day as David Gower celebrates his 40th birthday, a branch of Tesco's will open in Calcutta, as Lord MacLaurin strikes up an unlikely alliance with Jagmohan Dalmiya, India's cricketing power broker and self-styled saviour of world cricket.
Yet as other temples fall and MCC at last becomes bisexual, I expect one institution to remain intact, at least for another year, with Graham Gooch spurning the job as chairman of selectors - which I predict will fall to Mike Gatting instead - and playing out his valedictory season with Essex. Expect him to finish again as the country's leading run-scorer.
Prediction: Australia to win Test series 4-1. Chris Lewis to model for Jean-Paul Gaultier in Milan.
ATHLETICS Mike Rowbottom
Athens the target
The season's main event, the World Championships in Athens (1- 10 August), is likely to attract a greater proportion of leading athletes than did the 1995 version.
For the first time, the International Amateur Athletic Federation is making prize-money available in the competition, which will take a share of the $20m (pounds 12.1m) available for the 1997 IAAF programme.
The first IAAF championship to pay prize-money will be the world indoor event at Paris from 7-9 March.
Britain has no defending champions in that competition, but Jonathan Edwards is one outdoor title-holder who will be seeking to hang on to that distinction in Athens, where he would no doubt relish a re-match with the American who beat him to the Olympic triple-jump gold, Kenny Harrison.
Greece could also be where Kelly Holmes earns some of the greater success at 800 metres and 1500m which injury denied her at the Olympics. Britain's other Atlanta medallists apart from Edwards - Roger Black and the 400m relay team, Steve Backley, Denise Lewis and Steve Smith - all look capable of earning further success.
The efficacy of Britain's newly established forum for its athletes, the British Athletes' Association, will be put to an early test when selections are announced for the 1997 European Cup competition, which will be in Turin from 21-22 June.
The same city will host the world cross-country championships on 23 March, where Britain's Jon Brown, who took the European cross-country title last Saturday, will seek a place in the top six against strong African opposition.
A challenge of a different kind looms in Lievin, France, on 16 February, when Linford Christie, supposedly retired, is considering a run-out on the indoor track where he broke the 200m record in 1995.
Another less orthodox challenge is planned for the Toronto Skydome, where Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100m champion, and Michael Johnson, Olympic 200m and 400m champion, will race head-to-head over 300 metres.
Predictions: The rise and rise of Kenya's young middle-distance marvel Daniel Komen; gold for Kelly Holmes; Linford Christie to run a 100m in under 10sec.
RUGBY UNION Chris Hewett
Lions offer optimism
Champagne cocktails all round or another depressing pile of sackcloth and ashes? British rugby will happily forget all about the committee room traumas of 1996 if the Lions, managed by Fran Cotton and coached by Ian McGeechan, turn over the Springboks in South Africa this summer. But even if they succeed in a country where they have triumphed only once in 11 visits since 1891, the jubilation is likely to be little more than a momentary phenomenon.
When the Lions disband and the individual nations resume their masochistic battles with the superpowers from south of the equator, this year's story will be much the same as last year's. England play all three world leaders in the space of a month during the winter - indeed, they face New Zealand twice in three weeks - and at this stage it is hard to see them winning a single Test. And if they are doomed to failure, where does that leave Scotland, Ireland and Wales?
At least the Lions tour will put rugby on a pedestal during the summer months - a nice change from last year, when men in smart suits rather than grubby jerseys contrived to put the game in the stocks. The Lions always generate more hard cash, more television coverage and more pure drama than any other team and, win or lose, the three-Test series against the Boks should be utterly compelling.
Domestically, the club game in England will inherit a new controlling body made up of representatives from the Rugby Football Union and the leading professional teams. Up until now the two sides would have been happier slithering around in a mud wrestling pit than sitting at a table, but they are going to have to learn to love each other. Go on, Sir John, give Cliff a kiss.
Perhaps the most intriguing issue surrounds the long-term successor to Jack Rowell as England coach. Not that Jack is likely to jump ship in the foreseeable future, but one of the disturbing aspects of the national set-up is that there is a complete lack of any realistic pretender to his throne. Ian McGeechan, a Scot from tip to toe, may emerge as a rival if the Lions make a decent fist of it. We shall see.
Predictions: The Lions to lose by the odd Test in South Africa; England to pinch the Five Nations; and Leicester to win any two of the three major club trophies.
MOTOR RACING Derick Allsop
Germans set to rule
The appetite for the 1997 world championship has already been sharpened by the unveiling of new teams, new cars and new drivers, but come the opening race, in Australia on 9 March, the likelihood is we shall have a familiar scenario at the front: Williams versus Schumacher.
Winter's dark months have been illuminated by the starry eyes of Stewart, Lola and a revamped Arrows, and by the blaze of publicity surrounding Nigel Mansell's latest, ill-fated coming.
A close season scarcely exists in modern Formula One and ITV, new guardians of mechanical combat's top show on these shores, will be grateful for all the hype that can be mustered. When the racing begins, British drivers are going to be out of the picture.
Williams should again be the team to beat, and Jacques Villeneuve's experience of the title contest last season ought to arm him with a crucial advantage over his new team-mate, Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
However, Frentzen's admirers will tell you he was once quicker than his compatriot, Michael Schumacher, and that he might still be. Even if he is nearly as quick as Schumacher, he may be too hot for the Canadian.
Frentzen has had a tendency to push his car over the limit, but that should not be necessary in a Williams. The critical factor could be how he copes with the expectations of his team, who demonstrably signed him to beat Schumacher.
Ferrari are optimistic their latest creation will give Schumacher more muscle this year and, although the champion of 1994 and 1995 is characteristically cautious, a car remotely close to the capability of the Williams should be enough to return the title to its rightful owner.
Prediction: A supercharged contest for the title between Schumacher and Frentzen.
RACING Greg Wood
Imperial reign at Cheltenham
You did not need to be Irish to appreciate either the victory of Imperial Call in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham last March, or the jubilation which ensued in the winners' enclosure afterwards. More exciting still, though, was the possibility that Imperial Call, eight years old today, still has his best seasons ahead of him. After no end of false dawns, the country where jump racing is a national obsession may have found an heir to Arkle, a prospect which will warm hearts on both sides of the sea on the run-in to the Festival.
When the Flat season kicks in shortly afterwards, the Godolphin stable which claimed its first trainers' title in 1996 will set out for the first time with a healthy contingent of juveniles. That Godolphin no longer relies simply on Sheikh Mohammed's cheque-book to build up its strength indicates that its growth curve has yet to peak, and once again their next campaign should be the best so far.
Which will be good news for Lanfranco Dettori, as he sets out to recapture from Pat Eddery the jockeys' championship which everyone but turf aficionados seems to assume is still his. Dettori's impact on the national consciousness was a major boost in a difficult year for racing, and will no doubt be consolidated.
So too, though, will the influence of the National Lottery on the betting public, with the launch of a midweek draw next month. Britain's bookmakers are mounting a spirited rearguard action against the forces of Camelot, with the recent launch of their own numbers bet just the latest skirmish, but it offers no direct benefit to racing and Levy yield seems sure to decline once again this year. It is just another difficult problem for Lord Wakeham, British Horseracing Board chairman and former arch Tory chief whip, in a year which may well bring his political enemies to power.
Predictions: Imperial Call to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Space Trucker to win Champion Hurdle.
RUGBY LEAGUE Dave Hadfield
Make or break for new order
This is the year in which rugby league must sort itself out, both at home and abroad, if it is to have a future worth the name.
Domestically, this year the excuses run out. If we are still debating next winter whether Super League and summer rugby are a success then the answer will be that they are not and never will be. It is, therefore, a season that demands positive thinking, a healing of fault lines between traditionalists and innovators, amateurs and professionals, idealists and pragmatists in the cause of mutual survival.
It will be, by design, an even longer season than the old winter one, which was generally agreed to be too long. And much of its success hinges on whether the World Club Challenge captures the imagination. Unwieldy and almost certainly temporary as it is, the criss-crossing of the globe by club sides is capable of doing so. The same goes for next autumn's Australian tour, although it cannot truly be called an Ashes tour until both sides can select from all players in their countries. That happy day is as far away as ever, because the battle between Super League and the Australian Rugby League will continue - at the turnstile and the TV remote control rather than in court - throughout the year.
Of equal significance is the relationship between the two codes of rugby and how that will develop now that union is openly professional and league - or at least parts of it - is nervous.
In the short-term, there will be a trickle of players lost; will Va'aiga Tuigamala ever be primarily a Wigan player again, for instance? Over the longer run, league needs to be strong and unified if some clubs are not to start thinking of moving in the same direction. There are those who already see re-absorption as a historical inevitability. That would be a tragedy, because the reasons that some of us infinitely prefer league remain as valid as ever.
Prediction: St Helens to show that they have the necessary resilience to retain the Stones Super League Championship.
Woods to come of age
The scary part about Tiger Woods being elected Sport Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year is how often he will win it in the future. He may have won an unprecedented third successive US Amateur title, picked up rookie endorsements of $60m (pounds 36m) and won two of his first seven pro events, but what about when he wins a major championship, several majors, the Grand Slam?
The even scarier part is that one of those wins came when he was suffering from a groin strain, the other a heavy cold. As Woods said: "I haven't played my best golf yet."
Woods' first professional major will be the US Masters in April. He has already played Augusta National twice and his long-hitting game is made for the place. Last year, Jack Nicklaus said Woods would surpass his and Arnold Palmer's tally of 10 Green Jackets.
But Woods, 21 last Monday, will not steal the whole show. The US Open, at Congressional in June, will spotlight Nick Faldo's desire to win that elusive title.
The Open will put Colin Montgomerie centre stage. It takes place in July at Royal Troon, where Monty's father is the club secretary. A major for the Scot is a far higher priority than a fifth Order of Merit.
And make no mistake, the Ryder Cup will be the Seve Ballesteros show, whether just captaining or playing, too. The Americans are once again dominating the world rankings while the Europeans are in transition. Anything could happen.
It can only be hoped that Jose Maria Olazabal's rheumatoid arthritis will allow him to return after not playing a tournament in over a year. But Canadian Randi Wilson, 9, will not touch a golf club. She holed in one with her first shot on a golf course but gave up after nine holes. "The first hole was great," she said, "but the rest of it sucked."
Prediction: Majors for Woods, Faldo, Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson, but not necessarily in that order.
TENNIS: Simon O'Hagan Consolidation for Henman
Last year was the first since 1991 that there had been two first- time winners in Grand Slams - Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the French Open and Richard Krajicek at Wimbledon - and relatively youthful they were too. But to take this as an indication that tennis's world order was changing would have been premature.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game as we go into the new year is the way the positions of the older guard - in the form of Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Michael Chang - have become entrenched. At 29, Becker's defiance of the years is the most remarkable. Later this month he defends his Australian Open title on the back of his demolition of the opposition in the Grand Slam Cup at the beginning of December. Sampras, aged 25, followed his victory in the 1996 US Open by beating Becker to the ATP Championship title in a match that produced some of the best tennis seen for years. And Chang, although still only 24, seemed to have been drifting until he reached two Grand Slam finals last year.
Who can stop them this year? Not, on the face of it, Andre Agassi, who misses the Australian Open while his thoughts are elsewhere. But Goran Ivanisevic had a tremendous end to '96, and Kafelnikov appears to have a better chance of avoiding the one-hit wonder tag than the troubled Krajicek. It would be fanciful to expect Grand Slam victories of Tim Henman. A year of consolidation may be a more realistic aim. But he is one of the younger men to look out for, along with Thomas Enqvist of Sweden and Mark Philippoussis of Australia.
As Monica Seles continues to struggle with injury, the big question on the women's side is whether Martina Hingis can beat the burn-out and give Steffi Graf a run for her money. The game needs that.
Prediction: Hingis to win a Grand Slam.Reuse content