Review of the year: Sport

One must always keep the faith. But Zizou made it so much harder
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Sometimes you are bound to ask if sport is worth all the trouble, the crippling sense that it has been besieged too long, too damagingly, by the forces of money and celebrity. Is it, because of the nature of the world in which it operates, essentially doomed? There are times when the answer can be elusive. It was so, no doubt, in the pagan temple of Hitlerism in Berlin when Zinedine Zidane destroyed so much of the meaning of both his own life in football and the World Cup final that had riveted large tracts of the planet.

The temptation was to say yes, the candle had been snuffed out. But then you knew, even as you walked into the dismal night, that it could have been said so many times before. Better to reply: maybe we should wait and see.

Was it not true that Muhammad Ali came a good decade after his most basic of sports was said to be moribund? If you remembered that time he closed down 8th Avenue in New York simply by taking a stroll, or enchanted his "kinfolk" in Zaire, you might understand better the folly of accepting too quickly the weight of unpromising evidence.

If we defended sport, we could say that we were still maybe protective of something of the best of life, which, after all, would probably not rate 2006 as one of its vintage years. If we kept hold of the candle we carry for the games we play, who knows, there might again be that old timeless reward.

You might, for example, find yourself in the WACA cricket stadium on the day Monty Panesar laid claim to the affection of a nation supposedly going down under the malignant force of racial and religious division.

Panesar's claim to be a great cricketer, someone remotely in the class of Shane Warne, might scarcely have been in any formative stage on the day he emerged, in the warm wind of the "Fremantle Doctor" that blows up the Swan River, as one of only two visiting spin bowlers to claim five Australian wickets in a single innings in Perth. Even the old Test hand Angus Fraser was quick to say that the impact of his spirit was rather greater than the performance.

But then what spirit, what joy, what a reminder that for some men and women, sport will always be just one moment away from some unforgettable fulfilment.

The point about Panesar was that for several weeks he had carried the most crushing of disappointment with extraordinary dignity. It is the habit in modern sport to talk up your own case. When the superb world boxing champion Joe Calzaghe lost to the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips, the brave horsewoman who had won European and world equestrian titles, in the popular vote for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, he complained bitterly. While selling his next fight, Calzaghe confided that another contender, the Ryder Cup golfer Darren Clarke, who had played brilliantly for the European team amid a tide of mawkish reaction to the recent death of his wife, had told him that he had been embarrassed by the result. When England's former football captain David Beckham was withdrawn, inevitably it seemed, from the losing battle against Portugal in the World Cup, he wept in the touchline dugout. But for whom? His country or himself? It was hard to dispute the cynical view; as difficult, indeed, as it was not to marvel at the image of Panesar when he claimed his first Ashes wicket with a delivery that smacked into the stumps of one of the most combative of Australian batsmen, Justin Langer.

Panesar's pleasure touched every corner of the WACA - and almost every witness. He ran and he whooped into the arms of his teammates. Suddenly, he was a star of sport, but also, for this shining moment at least, its most innocent child.

Innocence in sport? It was a prize beyond dreams in the World Cup of football long before Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi after the Italian defender had insulted his sister in a way that had become utterly commonplace in the higher levels of professional sport. It was no ordinary headbutt. It was as atavistic as a rhino charge and if you didn't know that football was operating in a moral vacuum, it was confirmed quickly enough when the President of France wrapped Zidane in his arms and announced that he was a hero, not for who he was and what he had achieved but for what he did. Zidane's apologists said that he had merely done what anyone in the street might do under similar provocation. But then Zidane wasn't in the street. He was operating before one of the biggest TV audiences the world had seen. He was a few minutes away from what might have been the most extraordinary, and glorious, achievement of a wonderfully distinguished career. Zidane was more than a football star. He was a vision of what could be achieved by a North African boy reared in a high-rise Marseilles slum.

He was a rebuke to those who sought to provoke divisions in France, who gleefully fanned the rebellion of the poor Arab quarters of the great cities. But then, a few moments after coming so close to a moment of triumph with a beautifully timed run and header, he was gone. It was a development so shocking there could have been no adequate preparation, not even the the relentless diving and cheating and acrimony that progressively disfigured a tournament that had started so brilliantly, which promised the best of the world game one sultry afternoon when Argentina played football of sumptuous artistry and control.

The Argentines had made a myth. The Brazilians were a sore disappointment. And France, the potential redeemers, were flawed before Zidane's breakdown by, of all people, the legend of Arsenal, Thierry Henry. He dived and faked a head injury so outrageously that his admirers watched the re-runs with open-mouthed dismay. But Henry, who had earlier complained bitterly of the cheating of the referee and his Barcelona opponents after a losing Champions League final in Paris, displayed no contrition.

Nor did the failed "golden generation" of English football. Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, refused to acknowledge the disaster of the campaign as he went off to an exile funded by the Football Association at the staggering rate of £13,000 a day. Nearly half the team rushed into print with their autobiographies. Frank Lampard, one of the storytellers, railed against criticism. He said that he and his team-mates warranted more respect. English fans made a target of Cristiano Ronaldo for his alleged involvement in Wayne Rooney's sending-off - the Rooney who had trampled on the testicles of Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho and who, under the pressure of injury and high expectation, veered from one temper tantrum to another.

The culture of English football was given chilling exposure in the spa town of Baden-Baden. The wives and girlfriends of the players put on a show for the paparazzi that was as lurid as it was inappropriate in the environs of a training camp supposedly dedicated to the supreme challenge facing the hugely rewarded professionals.

Until some competitive stirrings largely inspired by Panesar occurred in Perth, the image of English cricket, so impressive in the Ashes triumph at the Oval, was hardly much better. The Australians rose up vengefully, ambushing the team that had been fêted for a victory that the vanquished would - they sought to point out by the power of their performance, and their indignation - have taken as something rather more routine.

The England rugby team which captured the World Cup in Sydney in 2003 threshed its way towards rock bottom amid talk of a breakdown in the system, an argument most strenuously prosecuted by Sir Clive Woodward, the winning coach who, embarrassingly, had gone into professional football with Southampton in the belief that one game is pretty much like another. Now he is in charge of Britain's elite Olympic performers, who after the political bonanza of London's winning bid for 2012, waited in vain for some clearly stated financial support from the Government who, after years of neglect, had announced that London's triumph was a gift to youth. By year's end, cost overruns were beginning to make the fiasco of Wembley Stadium seem like an economic miracle.

If there was any solace, it came in the reminders that the challenge of sport could still inspire consummate performances and no one brought such reassurance to these shores more compellingly than the new friends, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

Federer overcame the young Spanish pretender Rafael Nadal with exquisite skill and a late-flowering resolve at Wimbledon. Soon after, Tiger Woods beat everyone into early submission at Hoylake in the Open.

Here, at last, we were able to contemplate a brilliant rigour unsullied by either sharp practice or sloppy discipline. It was once said of Woods, at the time of his first overwhelming annexation of the Open, that he was too relentless, too preoccupied to capture the imagination of modern youth. It was boring to be so good, so controlled in your talent and your examination. It made Woods sound like an automaton.

At Hoylake, the guard slipped. He wept for the absence of his father Earl, who had finally succumbed to a long illness. The poignancy for the Tiger, he explained, was that his father, the old jungle fighter, would have particularly approved of this victory, which had been accomplished not so much by blazing strokeplay but by superlative course management. "I figured out how to win here and I stuck to the plan," he confided. "It meant that I had to gut it out at times and my Dad liked that best. He taught me so much." Woods, who also won the US PGA , is now just six major titles short of the 18 won by Jack Nicklaus, a record that a generation of golf aficionados insisted could never be bettered. Woods will be just 31 at the end of this month - 15 years younger than Nicklaus was when he won his last major at Augusta. It is not a pursuit but an engulfing of the man once believed to be the greatest golfer the world would ever see.

Nicklaus yielded such a mythic title some years ago when he said, "Looking at the Tiger I see so much more than a remarkable young man. I see a sportsman who is capable of doing anything he wants. He is that good." As if to confirm the view, Woods finished a troubled sporting year as though he had forgotten how to lose. He offered a point of relief, a powerful suggestion that somewhere sport, indeed, had a champion who could make his own world of excellence.

If you explored the byways it was possible to find other examples of outstandingly dedicated young men and women, notably the British world champion gymnast Beth Tweddle, who had plainly seen in sport a destiny that could never be entirely governed by the rewards of celebrity and money - something that ran deeper, and something that the world still wanted to touch and to enjoy.

It was certainly not the preserve of genius. You could see that in the uninhibited - and exuberantly shared - celebration of Monty Panesar. It was as warm as the sun on his back. It was that light banished, temporarily we had to hope, on that bad night in Berlin.