Stan Hey: Game for success? Then look to the Olympics

Our footballers won't be at the Euro 2008 finals, but there is plenty of other home-grown talent to cheer in the coming year
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The Independent Online

As the nation wallows in sloth and gluttony, and possibly an additional deadly sin or two, it is somewhat comforting to know that its athletes are embarking on their respective fitness campaigns for 2008 like true Spartans.

When they're not indulging in Roman orgies, our footballers are already cruising up and down the motorways as they pack games in like Harrods shoppers, but, for the small percentage of Englishmen and Scots in the Premier League teams, all their horizons are aligned with their clubs.

The failure of the home nations to qualify for next summer's European Championship in Austria and Switzerland will leave a huge emotional yearning in the hearts of fans come June. The bookies and travel agents will be in mourning too, knowing that supporters will neither bet on the tournament nor travel to its host countries.

Followers of England will at least have some entertainment ahead as Italian master-coach Fabio Capello presents himself to an under-achieving, blinged-up squad of millionaires and attempts to instil technique and team co-ordination, as well as sifting the wheat from the naff. He could also remind several squad members that membership is not the equivalent of entry to a nightclub VIP room.

The 61-year-old Capello may be inclined, with the 2010 World Cup as his goal, to season some of the next generation for combat. David Beckham can expect to receive his ceremonial 100th cap for the friendly game against Switzerland in February, but a P45 must follow to allow the likes of Ashley Young, Aaron Lennon, Tom Huddlestone and David Bentley the chance to blossom.

England's cricketers are on an even sterner recovery mission, having ended 2007 as they began it, in abject defeat. Now fifth in the Test rankings, even lower in the esteem of their suffering fans, the English international team has to find a batting attack that doesn't invite the noun "collapse" and bowlers shorn of the adjective "expensive".

Fortunately, opening batsman Alastair Cook looks to be the real deal, while middle-order batsman Ian Bell is usually reliable. Kevin Pietersen, however, looks vulnerable and may need the fillip of facing his native South Africa over four Tests in July and August to get his mojo working.

The real highlight for British sport will come in the major event of 2008, the Olympic Games in Beijing. Apart from giving most of us a first glimpse of modern China, the games will mostly be a scouting mission for talent that can flower in the London Olympics of 2012. The men's sprint relay teams, and the runners Paula Radcliffe and 400m world champion Christine Ohuruogo may be the best chances of track-and-field medals, but our strengths in rowing, sailing and shooting may yield results. Youthful promise and no failed drugs tests will be other achievements.

Elsewhere, attention falls on a quartet of individuals in highly specialised sports. Lewis Hamilton's debut season in Formula One brought delight and despair as he soared to the head of the championship and then found his nerve, and that of his troubled McLaren team, failing, leaving him a point short of the title.

Now that the disruptive Fernando Alonso has returned to Renault, Hamilton can expect unambiguous support as his team's No 1 driver, but he starts from scratch again at the Australian Grand Prix in March. Meanwhile, our "forgotten" motor racing star, Jenson Button, can hope that the arrival of tactical master Ross Brawn will improve his fortunes at Honda.

The least-publicised of our boxers, David Haye, should have an exciting year. Almost unnoticed, he claimed the WBA and WBC cruiserweight titles in November and fights Enzo Maccarinelli in March. He should then launch himself as a heavyweight, a natural move for a boxer of 16 stone. The 27-year-old has the glamour and punching power to become as much a name as Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe and Amir Khan.

Justin Rose first appeared on the golf scene as a 17-year-old in 1998 when he finished fourth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, signing off his silver-medal winning performance for top amateur with a delightful chip from rough to flag. He goes into 2008 as the winner of the European Order of Merit and is currently ranked as the sixth-best golfer in the world. In 2007, Rose finished inside the top 12 of all four majors, and we can only wonder what a return to Royal Birkdale for the Open in July might conjure up.

Our final individual talent is tennis player Andy Murray, the stroppy Scot with every tennis shot in the game in his armoury. The 20-year-old marched up the rankings again last year and would have finished in the top 10 but for a wrist injury that kept him off court for three months, leaving Tim Henman to bow out alone at Wimbledon.

Murray is his own man, though, as he proved when dumping coach Brad "Winning Ugly" Gilbert. The American had been credited with transforming the temperamental side of Murray's game into a cocoon of concentration. Now, Murray will rotate coaches to accompany him on tour.

It is probably still too early for Murray to win a Grand Slam tournament seven matches in a fortnight puts even the best in the pressure cooker. But the intriguing possibility of a medal in the Beijing Olympics remains, either in the singles or in the doubles with his brother, Jamie.

Both Rose and Murray are standard-bearers for British sport but two titans block their way to ultimate success: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The narrative that these two devotees of Nike spin each year provides world sport with its best action. Woods has 13 Majors to his name and is closing in on the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus. Similarly, Federer is just two Grand Slams behind Pete Sampras' total of 14, and will probably draw level by winning the Australian Open next month and Wimbledon in July.

So as you lever yourself off the couch, finish the Christmas leftovers and trudge off to the sales, remember there's a fitter, more sporty and successful future out there it's just not yours, that's all.

Top five bets for 2008

7/4 Lewis Hamilton to win the Formula One world title

9/4 David Beckham to captain England for his 100th cap

11/4 England not to qualify for the 2010 World Cup

4/1 A non-British winner of the Snooker World Championship

5/1 All managers in the Premiership to retain their jobs