From Africa to Australia a year of drama awaits

The Ashes, a British title tussle in Formula One, the World Cup: 2010 promises to be enthralling for sport-lovers. Our correspondents pick out the big events that you really can't afford to miss
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The Independent Online

Football: The greatest show on earth, and England have a chance - Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

The 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa in June promise to be the most exciting, absorbing World Cup at which England have a great chance of progressing since, well, since the last one in 2006.

This is a World Cup season and gradually all thoughts lead towards it. Carlton Cole's knee injury is ultimately regarded not in terms of its effect on West Ham's season but on his chances of making the squad in May. Wayne Rooney's form is great for Manchester United, but can he please make sure he's on it come June?

There are some club partisans would adopt the Arsène "for fuck's sake" Wenger approach to the World Cup: he lost it when he was asked about the risk for England of bringing Theo Walcott back too early. Those fans – mainly among the big four clubs – who claim loyalty only to their own club do it because they think it's uncool to be seen to want England to do well. They're wrong, wrong, wrong.

A World Cup finals remains the pinnacle of football. Historically it was a mesmerising event because, in the days before blanket Sky Sports football coverage, it gave an insight into exotic foreign football nations and players we knew so little about. But even now, when you can watch foreign leagues on television all week, it retains that ability to captivate.

Unlike the Premier League and the Champions League, the chances of a shock at the World Cup are so much higher. That this tournament is being played in Africa for the first time just adds to the sense of adventure. Seeing the likes of Chile and Ghana up against England is such a thrilling alternative to another over-hyped Uefa matchday six dead rubber from Stade Gerland.

As for the players, those superstars of the Champions League and beyond, there is something about the purity of international football that has an eternal appeal. They can always leave their clubs for a better option. But their nationality is part of them and their identity. It just gives the football that extra edge.

and by James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer

We all know, surely, what will be the most riveting moment of the new sports year. It will come in Johannesburg when the World Cup finalists walk out into the superb stadium which is fashioned so spectacularly in the shape and colours of a great cooking pot, and which sits on the borders of Soweto like some exotic invitation to another planet.

There will of course be an inevitable sadness in that almost all the inhabitants of the township, who to each man and boy adore the world's most popular game, will be obliged to watch the most important football game played in any four-year cycle on the big screens. However, there could be an extraordinary bonus – and certainly it is at the top of the wishlist compiled here.

It is that an African team will take on one of the giants of Europe or South America, Spain, France, Italy, Brazil, Argentina or, who knows, Fabio Capello's England.

Bafana Bafana, the team of South Africa, have perhaps more than enough to do fighting out of their group, but maybe the Ivory Coast of Didier Drogba or the Ghana of Michael Essien can generate enough momentum on the soil of their native continent.

Such a prospect would carry football on to a new dimension, something separate from the accumulations of power most easily attributed to financial strength. It would be a drumbeat of passion, a massive statement about the magical properties of the game that has so long held the world in thrall.

Formula One: Britons do battle for supremacy - By Robin Scott-Elliot, Sports News Correspondent

If last season was dominated by events off-track, the coming campaign for once promises to keep attention focused firmly on the sport's raison d'etre. Back comes Michael Schumacher, who turned 41 yesterday, while not since Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost came together at McLaren in the late Eighties has a new-look team been so eagerly awaited.

When Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button line up on the starting grid at the Bahrain Grand Prix in March it will signal the competitive beginning of a sporting relationship that will be examined in intricate detail. While it seems improbable that it will go the same way as Senna and Prost and end in bitterness, accusation and rancour, it nevertheless makes the forthcoming season one to potentially savour, especially if you hail from these isles.

Button may be the world champion and have seven years more experience in F1 than his new team-mate, but it will be Hamilton who, to begin with, is the main man in the first team to feature two British world champions since Graham Hill and Jim Clark drove for Lotus in 1968. It is not a move that has met with universal acclaim. Jackie Stewart described the 29-year-old's switch as "walking into the lion's den".

After a four-year sabbatical, what is Schumacher walking into at Mercedes? His fitness is up to scratch and with his enduring competitive nature and Ross Brawn the brains behind the team it would be no surprise to see him on top of a podium for the 92nd time. "Nobody knows what will happen in 2010," sums up Button, "which is why it is so exciting."

Tennis: A great rivalry to be renewed - by Paul Newman, Tennis Correspondent

For some, the first signs of spring are daffodils and snowdrops. For others, it is the sound of a cuckoo. For tennis watchers, it is the Monte Carlo Masters. The traditional start to the European outdoor season takes place in early April at a club with the most spectacular location in tennis, perched on a hillside above the Mediterranean with views across to one of the world's most famous harbours. When the spring sun is shining, there is no more joyous place to watch tennis.

While the setting is enough to take your breath away, the tournament is also the perfect moment to look ahead to the most exciting three months of the tennis season. The Australian Open in January is the year's first Grand Slam competition and outdoor Masters Series tournaments will already have been held in Indian Wells and Miami, but this is the first event of real consequence in Europe, the sport's historic heartland. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, the clay and grass court seasons are still the core of the tennis year.

An added attraction this year will be the chance to assess whether Rafael Nadal can dominate again on clay courts in the way he had until that extraordinary day last May when he was beaten at the French Open for the first time. Robin Soderling's victory prompted the Spaniard to take more than two months off nursing his injured knees and after his return he failed to win another tournament.

The clay court season should be an intriguing one. Until last year, Nadal had consistently got the better of Federer on the Spaniard's favourite surface, but after finally succeeding in his quest to win the French Open title, the six-times Wimbledon champion will fancy his chances of toppling the king of clay.

Cricket: Ponting plots Ashes revenge - by Stephen Brenkley, Cricket Correspondent

Last time England won the Ashes they held them for 462 days. They surrendered them in the most inauspicious of circumstances by losing the return series 5-0. It was as grotesque a defence as could be imagined and Australia in general and Ricky Ponting in particular extracted full vengeance for what had been inflicted on them in England the previous year.

Ponting (below) is plotting something similar this time. Every day's cricket that he and his team play is aimed at one target. Australia want back what they think rightfully belongs to them and on 25 November in Brisbane they intend to have peaked.

From that morning on until the end of the series on 7 January – five Test matches in six weeks – they will not rest, they will attempt every trick in a well-stocked book, they will cajole, intimidate and beguile. They will play tough, attractive Test cricket designed to pummel the Poms. It is what they were put on earth do.

The prospect is delightful. England, however, will not be so easily bullied in this re-match. Back in 2005 they allowed themselves to become flabby on their success. That will not happen again. England will be ready this time.

All the evidence suggests that Australia are not as powerful as they once were. Determination and cussedness cannot by themselves make up for class and talent. As was shown in the summer, there are frailties that did not exist in recent incarnations, and England have that irreplaceable commodity, self-belief.

It may easily be a rematch between the sides ranked fourth and fifth in the world, but that will not matter. What matters is that Australia are playing England for the Ashes once more, and England can win a series Down Under for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Rugby Union: The Murrayfield mire - by Chris Hewett, Rugby Union Correspondent

It is an odd choice for a prospective highlight: grim, macabre, full of fear and loathing. But the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield in the middle of March will be required viewing for all sorts of reasons, most of them entirely negative but nonetheless compelling.

If the Autumn internationals confirmed anything, it was the poverty of the attacking game on either side of the border. It is so long since either country moved the ball with anything resembling style that the Emperor Hadrian and his unusually long wall seem recent by comparison. Yet there can be a quirky fascination about a contest between two sides incapable of scoring tries, especially when one of the coaches finds himself plotting against his own.

Andy Robinson was the best forwards strategist England ever had, helped, it has to be said, by the presence of Martin Johnson in the boilerhouse of his pack. Robinson is now head coach of Scotland, while Johnson (right) manages England. Both men are fiercely patriotic, but in a John Bull competition, the man based in Edinburgh would still shade the man with an office at Twickenham. In a fixture awash with psychological peculiarities, this might be the strangest one of all.

England have no love for the Murrayfield experience: when they lose there, as they have done on four occasions since 1990, it is always by six points, in a fog of confusion and frustration. Some of their very worst performances have been saved for Calcutta Cup day and the way things have been going just recently, we are probably due another dog's breakfast. If Robinson will be on edge, Johnson will be edgier still. Bring it on.

Golf: How will Woods fare on comeback trail? By James Corrigan, Golf Correspondent

This is golf's Waiting For Godot year. Hanging around, fretting about the sport's existence while they wait for this stranger to appear. That stranger is, of course, Tiger Woods – unrecognisable from the Tiger Woods who came before. This new, imperfect incarnation has so many questions to answer.

Obviously, the first is when and where he will reappear. Many take it that he will be at Augusta but I cannot believe he will not miss at least one Major. If he doesn't, few will take his period of supposed penance seriously. If I am right and if, for the first time in 16 years, the Masters finds itself Tigerless then expect any number of features asking "Who will fill the Tiger void?" Also anticipate Rory McIlroy being the protagonist in these musings.

The brilliant Ulsterman's time is still a few years away. Nobody is yet equipped to fill the hole, certainly in America. The effect will be quickly measured in dollars, with Bloomberg putting the estimated loss at $100m-plus as the casual fan turns off and the advertisers go with him. As the PGA Tour desperately tries to convince sponsors that the fairway is still better than the highway, the waiting for Woods will reach frenzied levels. Whatever the rest of they world may feel, his sport will be ready to forgive him anything and anyone. Just come back. Please.

Except here's the thing. Will Woods still be Woods? Naturally his image will be radically different and thus, by necessity, so will the sales-pitch. But what about the way Woods sees Woods? Will he fight his way through the inevitable circus to that first tee and still be able to regard the rest as a bunch of unworthy mortals? Or is he now one of them? Fallible, flawed, vulnerable. Essentially this will be the query which frames the rest of Woods' career. 2010 could be the most important year in modern golf.

Racing: St Nicholas Abbey's future is written in the Stars - by Chris McGrath Racing Correspondent

Champion thoroughbreds do not always announce themselves with full brass and percussion. This time last year Sea The Stars could not have been named as a more obviously superior prospect for the Classics than maybe a dozen others. And there have been many occasions when horses have shown eye-watering talent in their first season only to be overtaken by less precocious rivals as three-year-olds.

Experience teaches us a certain wariness, then, in identifying St Nicholas Abbey as a colt with the world at his feet in 2010. As it stands, however, his record – comprising three increasingly brilliant wins from three starts – warrants terrific excitement both for its style and substance.

Having cruised past a top-class field for the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster on his final start, St Nicholas Abbey is hot favourite for both the 2,000 Guineas and Derby. That double had not been achieved for two decades until Sea The Stars, but everything about this colt suggests it to be a legitimate aspiration.

A son of the mighty Montjeu, he is trained by the record-breaking Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle, Co Tipperary. And while his pedigree is replete with the stamina required for a mile and a half at Epsom, he has also shown such coruscating speed that he can surely prove a Guineas colt as well.

That is why the first red-letter day in the 2010 Turf calendar is May Day. Assuming all goes well for O'Brien in the spring, Saturday 1 May is when St Nicholas Abbey will line up for the first Classic of the season, over a mile at Newmarket. Less than 100 seconds after the stalls open we will know whether he can sustain this audacious impersonation of Sea The Stars. In the meantime, that prospect will be keeping plenty of us warm during the worst nights of winter.

Athletics: Time to conquer Europe - Simon Turnbull, Athletics Correspondent

Barcelona: such a beautiful horizon. The spine still tingles at the memory of the Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe collaboration ringing out over the Montjuic Stadium as the track and field events of the 1992 Olympic Games unfolded on the giant hill in the heart of the Catalan capital. We are likely to hear an awful lot more of it when Barcelona's Olympic Stadium plays host to the European Championships from 27 July to 1 August.

Happily, from a parochial point of view, we are likely to hear quite a bit of the British national anthem too. At the last European Championships, in Gothenburg in 2006, for the first time in the history of the event there were no British winners in any of the individual events – just one gold medal success courtesy of the combined efforts of the men's 4 x 100m relay team. In Barcelona it promises to be very different.

Had the World Championships in Berlin last August incorporated a continental championship, there would have been a staggering eleven European golds for Britain's runners, jumpers and throwers. In addition to Phillips Idowu (triple jump) and Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), who both took world titles, the following also finished on top of the pile among the European athletes: Dwain Chambers (100m), Mo Farah (5,000m), William Sharman (110m hurdles), Greg Rutherford (long jump), Emily Freeman (200m), Jenny Meadows (800m), Lisa Dobriskey (1500m) and the men's 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m relay teams.

Such has been the transformation in Britain's track and field fortunes since the appointment of Dutchman Charles van Commenee as head coach of UK Athletics, the horizon is looking distinctly rosy not just for Barcelona in 2010 but for London in 2012 too.

Rugby League: Good things come in threes - by Dave Hadfield, Rugby League Correspondent

If sport thrives on concentrations of talent, 2010 should be a very good season to be watching rugby league. Within a few miles of each other, three young half-backs of similarly glittering potential will be continuing what should be their exciting development.

Richie Myler, Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond all played for England in last season's Four Nations.

Myler, the youngest of the trio at 19, started as the man in possession, but lost his place, so he will be under particular scrutiny as he resumes his career at his new club, Warrington. He is the most classically orthodox half-back of the three and only needs to repair his slightly dented confidence to have a memorable season.

For Tomkins, 2009 was an unforgettable campaign. He admits that he expected to play only a handful of first-team games at Wigan; instead, he held his place through the second half of the season and finished the year as England's stand-off. His qualities hit you in the face as soon as you see him play. He is a devastating broken-field runner, with a wonderful eye for a gap and freakish balance.

What he needs is to develop the play-making side of his game, but he appears to have the rugby intelligence to do exactly that.

Much the same can be said of Eastmond, who played much of the season in the centres for Saints, but whose future surely lies in the halves. He is sometimes compared to a young Jason Robinson – and he has the strength and speed that comparison suggests.

Which of the three will make the most rapid progress is anyone's bet, but we are spoilt for choice like rarely before.