x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Looking back at 2011, they were simply the best

A remarkable year for Maradona, men in marmalade and McLaren-Mercedes, as Paul Radley looks back on 12 months in UAE sport.

As Paul Radley sees it, Al Wasl's signing of Diego Maradona to patrol their sideline is the biggest story of 2011 out of the UAE.
As Paul Radley sees it, Al Wasl's signing of Diego Maradona to patrol their sideline is the biggest story of 2011 out of the UAE.

 

1 Al Wasl appoint a new manager, someone called Maradona

Many found it surprising, but superficially at least, this was a perfect fit: the player of the century joining the club of the century. However, a little qualification is needed.

Diego Maradona was voted the 20th century's joint-best player by a Fifa poll - alongside Pele - for his extraordinary feats on the world stage. Dubai's Al Wasl were agreed by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics to be the leading club in the UAE over the same period. With all due respect, football here was still some years away from turning professional by the time that particular poll was over. Despite the unlikely match, love has bloomed since the Argentine accepted a two-year contract at Wasl in May. Six months on, he is still standing; his term here has already been longer than his two previous efforts at club management combined. And it is never, ever dull.

 

2 Quiros takes the trophies, Donald makes history

When Alvaro Quiros added the Dubai World Championship title at the start of December to the Desert Classic crown he won a few miles away 10 months earlier, it was some achievement. It was not the best double of the week, though.

By finishing third in "golf's ultimate finale" Luke Donald confirmed he would end the year at the top of Europe's money list.

In turn, that meant the understated yet unrelenting Englishman had become the first man in history to finish at the top of both the European and US tours in the same year. Quite a feat, given that most people would not know him if he budged past them in Dubai Mall wearing a sign saying: "I'm the world's best golfer."

 

3 Afridi relaunches the UAE's oldest international cricket stadium

Opening nights - or, in this case, reopening nights - always benefit from having a stellar headline act.

Cue Shahid Afridi.

Sharjah Cricket Association could not have hoped for better when top-flight one-day international cricket returned to their ground for the first time in nine years. Few of the world record 201 ODIs played at the UAE's oldest cricket venue have been as memorable as Pakistan's Afridi-inspired victory over Sri Lanka.

The narrative was not as simple as "brutal half-century followed by five wicket haul by star all-rounder settles come-from-behind victory for Pakistan". Afridi, one of the toughest men in cricket, looked to have been knocked-out by a serious knee injury while fielding, and his side were behind in both innings. His comeback was one for the highlights reel.

"It was a boom-boom day," said Misbah-ul-Haq, Afridi's captain.

 

4 Hamilton ends Vettel's Yas monopoly

Given that he had been almost invincible in the World Championship until then, and was the only person ever to have won a grand prix around Yas Marina before, Sebastian Vettel was a shoo-in to win November's race. By contrast, Lewis Hamilton, who was struggling to cope with problems on and off the track, was meant to be an also ran.

Neither read the script properly.

The German champion suffered a puncture on the first corner and was forced to pull out. His absence left Hamilton clear to drive his McLaren-Mercedes to a 17th career win.

"I want to dedicate this one to my mum [Carmen] on her birthday, and it is great having her here this weekend," he said over the team radio after taking the chequered flag.

5 England's tangerine dream, Part Two

A variety of innovations have taken root in Dubai life in recent years, such as Salik, the metro and the Dubai92 Secret Sound.

Unfortunately for those who nauseate easily, the minging tangerine shirts which England's sevens side wear as their change strip are threatening to do the same. In excess of 90,000 people attended December's Sevens weekend, and thus saw England win for the second year running wearing their marmalade outfit.

A UAE national team played for the first time in the annual showpiece, which is older than the country in which it is played.

However, they may not be glimpsed there again for a while. After being given special dispensation to play, they lost all their matches in their home competition, and will have to qualify to play in it from next year.

 

6 Al Jazira end 37 years of hurt

As football was getting to grips with the idea of Maradona in the UAE, Al Jazira were finally ending their title hex.

The Abu Dhabi club have never been averse to a celebrity import of their own, but it has rarely done them much good. The likes of George Weah and Phillip Cocu had brought attention to Jazira, but they had failed to provide the one trophy the club craved.

Jazira fans had to wait 37 years for their first UAE league triumph, and had been runners-up for the previous two seasons. When victory eventually came, it was one to be savoured.

"I am proud to say that I am leaving a champion team," Abel Braga, the manager, said after returning to Brazil following a job well done.

 

7 Victoire Pisa wins the Dubai World Cup for Japan

Perhaps the most affecting of all the successes that were earned on the playing fields of the Emirates this year was that of Victoire Pisa at Meydan in March.

When the horse was followed home by Transcend to provide a Japanese one-two in the Dubai World Cup, it prompted a rare outpouring of emotion. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid led the celebration. His own horse had been beaten into third, but the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai still seemed delighted.

His response was indicative of the strength of feeling towards the Japan camp, who were representing a country ravaged by earthquakes and a tsunami earlier that month.

Sport is only ever a glorious triviality when set against life's harsher realities, but this result still provided a dose of good cheer for people that needed it.

 

8 Kaymer plays keepsies with the Falcon Trophy

The flowering of new courses in the capital might be good for golf tourism, as well as local players. However, not everyone is a fan of progress.

Martin Kaymer was handed the Falcon Trophy to keep after he won the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship for the third time in four years.

Clearly he has a strong affinity with the National Course and was quick to try to extinguish the idea of the tournament being moved away to one of the capital's new courses in future.

"Don't do that," said the German, who won in his 100th European Tour tournamen. "Let them have two tournaments in Abu Dhabi but please keep the first one here."

 

9 Novak Djokovic completes a Dubai hat-trick

Djokovic was as much of a sure thing as is possible in sport when he defended his Dubai Tennis Championship title in February. He arrived in the UAE undefeated and with the Australian Open already secured. He left here with a similarly blemish-free record and another trophy, too, making it three successive wins in Dubai.

That was still the early stages of what became an annus mirabilis for the Serbian player. He ended the year as world No 1, with 70 wins and just six defeats.

In the Dubai final, he breezed past Roger Federer, who used to regard the Aviation Club as unequivocally his patch, 6-3, 6-3. The changing of the guard at the top of world tennis had already started, but this was further confirmation Djokovic's star was rapidly in the ascendant.

10 UAE open their rugby account with a victory

Rugby has been entrenched in the Middle East sports scene for more than 40 years, but the UAE never had a team bearing its own name until 2011.

The new team, morphed from the disbanded Arabian Gulf, suffered growing pains in its opening campaign, but still managed to notch a win in its first home international.

The quantity surveyors, financial advisers, aircraft engineers and physiotherapists who made up the inaugural national team beat Kazakhstan in their Asian Five Nations meeting in Abu Dhabi. That victory, earned with two Emiratis as part of the playing squad, went a long way to safeguarding the UAE's place in Asian rugby's top tier for another season.

"We have talked about a brotherhood in rugby here in the past, but now we can really talk about a UAE brotherhood in rugby," Bruce Birtwistle, the then UAE coach, said after the win over the Kazaks.

 

pradley@thenational.ae