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Three World Cups, Ronaldo envy and a battle of the wallets

Simon BarnesDecember 30, 2014
Chris Robshaw's England lack imagination and will find their group tough despite being hosts for the World Cup © Getty Images

It's going to be an odd year in sport. Well, no sporting year is without its oddities, but I mean odd as opposed to even: no odd-numbered year has an Olympic Games, a men's football World Cup, a Winter Olympic Games, a Commonwealth Games or a European Football Championship. So it tends to be regarded by some who work in sport - at least in the December of the preceding year - as a soft option.

But old hands learn to be suspicious of such thinking. The year 2005 looked like a doddle in January and before September was out it had brought us Liverpool and the miracle of Istanbul, the closest Ashes series in history - with an England victory to boot - and the decision to give the 2012 Olympic Games to London.

So as we approach the sporting year of 2015, we must acknowledge that it might - and probably will - kick off in some unpredictable direction at any moment. That's sport for you. Sport is at the same time comfortably predictable - at least you know roughly what's planned - and thrillingly unpredictable. You know what's coming but you never know what will happen next.

The real 21st century football centre of a power will be revealed: a show-us-yer-wallet club competition

There are three World Cups next year, two of which claim mendaciously to be the third biggest sporting event in the world. The rugby and cricket events will do all they can to last as long as possible and to include as many no-hopers and mismatches, while the women's football tournament may have to battle to get the attention it deserves.

In cricket and rugby you know it will come down to the same few nations as always. For four weeks of interminable messing about in Australia, the cricket competition will eventually reduce 14 teams to eight. This process, if it ever ends, will be followed by a straight knockout and that - if the players aren't completely exhausted - should provide some seriously excellent sport.

England have prepared for the event by tearing themselves apart, sacking their best batsman, firing the captain and replacing him with a player who can't buy a run. They'll be losing quarter-finalists, if they keep their heads. Australia have home advantage; South Africa probably have the best squad but are hag-ridden by their history of choking. In white-ball cricket I cheer for the eccentric Sri Lankans, who always punch above their weight.

The rugby World Cup has a different but equally protracted format: a long, long series of predictable league matches (four groups of five) to produce - eventually - a proper knock-out tournament for eight nations. There's one exception. England, the hosts, are in the same group as Wales and Australia: all three are natural quarter-finalists and two into the three won't go. Australia have a traditional weaknesses in the scrum, Wales are traditionally preoccupied by beating England and forget the big picture, England are a deeply worthy side with scarcely a spark of imagination. It'll be tight.

England have prepared for the cricket World cup by sacking captain Alastair Cook © Getty Images

We can expect the sharp end of the tournament to be contested by New Zealand and South Africa, but - dieu merci - we have France as a complicating factor. In rugby, even more than any other sphere, the French overplay the part of Frenchmen: trying to turn sport into art, mixing magnificent victories with grovelling defeats and always prepared to alternate lounging insouciance with civil war.

Both World Cups will be great tournaments when they finally reach a meaningful stage, leaving you wondering why administrators come up with such ridiculous formats. Thus conflict continues between sporting administrators (priorities: money and power) and the pursuit of sporting excellence.

Football, without one of the men's biennial international showpieces, will stage the highlight event for the growing women's game with the World Cup in Canada. The US, despite their tough group draw, are the favourites along with Germany and Canada. Here lies the game's future, in the revolutionary acceptance of the fact that humankind comes in two genders, both with a taste for sporting excellence and drama. This might just be the year when the women's game reaches critical mass.

Elsewhere in the sport, it's real 21st century centre of a power will be revealed: a competition between clubs, which is at heart a show-us-yer-wallet contest between people who have a great deal of money and not a lot else to distinguish them.

The prize of prizes in world football is now the Champions League, and as the knockout stage begins in February with 16 clubs to contest, there is every chance of some top-quality sport. Carlo Ancelotti has taken on Real Madrid as a kind of leaderless leader, avoiding confrontations and controversies - his I-am-not-Mourinho ploy suits the club and its galactico culture.

In particular it suits Cristiano Ronaldo, and under Ancelotti he is probably the best player in the world. How wonderfully annoying that is for so many people, particularly in England, who feel that a person so clearly aware of his own good qualities should be punished for possessing them.

Last year every grand slam singles tennis title was won by a different player. Perhaps 2015 will bring us the dominant figure to seize control of a vacant niche

An odd year brings the World Athletics Championships, an event that is compelling almost against the will of the people who watch it. Top-level track and field provides more peak moments than any other sport but it has also brought more shame and embarrassment than any other discipline.

It is the most basic of all sports - running, jumping, throwing - and therefore the most vulnerable to doping. The recent allegations of institutionalised drug use in Russia add another layer of horror and disgust - and yet when the sport begins and we watch the great quest for explosive power or for the ability to carry on forever, it is impossible not to respond. Track and field is a sport that can touch you marrow-deep, and yet no sport is more capable of making you fed up with the whole business.

Last year was one of the weirdest years in tennis history: every one of the grand slam singles titles was won by a different player. It was the year of the eight champions and when everyone is a champion, no one is. Perhaps 2015 will bring us the dominant figure to seize control of a vacant niche. On the men's side, my money's on Novak Djokovic to bring about a little order; on the women's it may be time for Eugenie Bouchard of Canada to come into her own. And as a personal treat, I'd like to see Caroline Wozniaki win a slam at long last, to console her for being dumped by the self-satisfied Rory McIlrory.

My prediction, then, is that 2015 will be a year of great sport. Like all other years. Sport is great. It has to be - out there the administrators, billionaires, promoters, advertisers, sponsors and the marketing people are doing all they can to misunderstand it, misdirect it, appropriate it and destroy its essence. But sport marches on despite them because those who do it - the athletes themselves - are fabulous, flawed and fantastic people whose deeds compel us to stand up and cheer for their skill and, above all, their courage.

Ernest Hemingway defined courage as "grace under pressure" and could anyone have summed up sport more incisively? Bring on the next 12 months, however odd that may sound.

It would be nice to see Caroline Wozniacki finally win a grand slam after being dumped by Rory McIlroy © Getty Images

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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