The Olympic Games in Beijing in October may be the centrepiece of the sporting year, but if you’re an aficionado of the many beautiful games, then western Europe is the place to be this summer. While you hunt for the passport, here’s the essential list of what to do once you cross the Bosphorus in May.
Turkish Grand Prix
Istanbul, 11 May
Turkey first hosted a Formula One (F1) race in 2005, with Kimi Räikkönen emerging victorious, and the circuit at Istanbul Park, designed by Hermann Tilke, is one of the most challenging on the calendar. There were doubts about how Istanbul, a picture-perfect city that’s fanatical about its football, would embrace the high-octane sport, but those have been swept away by the enthusiastic response to the first three races, with Brazil’s Felipe Massa climbing the top step of the podium in both 2006 and 2007. Away from the undulating race track, you can take in the wonders of Ayasofia, the Blue Mosque and the Dolmabahçe Palace. The trip across to the Asian side is also an essential one, though you’d better be prepared for pandemonium if Fenerbahçe, the team coached by Brazilian legend Zico, has managed to qualify for the Champions League final.
England vs New Zealand, TestS and ODIs
England, 15 May-28 June
If you’re one of those who likes to be far from the madding crowd, you could try the Test matches between England and New Zealand at Lord’s (15-19 May), Old Trafford (23-27 May) and Trent Bridge (5-9 June). There are also five One Day Internationals (ODIs) between 15 June and 28 June, as the rest of the world recovers from its first dose of the Indian Premier League.
England came from behind to beat New Zealand last month, and it remains to be seen how the Black Caps cope after the retirement of Stephen Fleming, who was so much more than a captain and talisman.
But, while Daniel Vettori’s side will no doubt be competitive, all English eyes will be on the returning Andrew Flintoff. Will he ever recapture the form that made him the key performer in the 2005 Ashes win, and can England build again towards another tilt at Australia in 2009? First, though, they have to get past New Zealand and high-flying South Africa, who play Tests at Lord’s (10-14 July), Headingley (18-22 July), Edgbaston (30 July-3 August) and the Oval (7-11 August). After a Twenty20 game at Chester-le-Street, there are also five ODIs between 22 August and 3 September.
FA Cup final
Wembley, 17 May
From Istanbul, you should wing it to London and a cup final that features not one, but two Cinderella stories. Portsmouth, Pompey to their fans, won the competition for the only time in their history back in 1939, while Cardiff’s Bluebirds triumphed over Arsenal in 1927, the only occasion that the cup has gone outside of England. With Portsmouth knocking out Manchester United and Cardiff accounting for Barnsley, conquerors of Liverpool and Chelsea, the stage is set for a magical occasion in a year when the oldest trophy in the game has regained much of its lustre.
Champions League final
Moscow, 21 May
From one famous old competition to another, that’s the toughest to win in all of sport. With all apologies to the Olympics, no single event will attract as much attention this year as the game at the Luzhniki Stadium. Should it be an all-English affair—four English sides have made the quarter finals—the atmosphere will be unbelievable, reminiscent of 1977 and 1996, when Manchester United took on Liverpool in the FA Cup finals at Wembley. With traditional giants of the European game such as Real Madrid and AC Milan already eliminated, the two clubs from England’s north-west have the best pedigree to go all the way, though Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal certainly won’t make things easy for them.
Grand Prix de Monaco
Monte Carlo, 25 May
Once you’ve got your breath back after the football and the walks around Red Square and Gorky Park, then it’s time to swap vodka for champagne. Monaco is home to the rich and famous, but it’s also the venue for F1’s most celebrated race. And, if your memories of F1 stretch back further than the Schumacher years, you might remember one of the greatest contests in history, on a winding street circuit that tests the drivers’skill unlike any other. Alain Prost was the master back in 1984, but on a track soaked with rain, a young Brazilian answering to the name of Ayrton Senna da Silva gave him an almighty fright with the fierce and committed driving style that was to become his leitmotif till his tragic death at Imola a decade later. There have been great races since but, for many, that was as good as racing ever got.
Paris, 25 May-8 June
The TGV Méditerranée line will get you from Monaco to Paris in just 6 hours and 5 minutes, ensuring that you miss very little of the action from Stade Roland Garros, named after a French World War I aviator. The reigning king of the red clay is Spain’s Rafael Nadal, with three consecutive wins since 2005, but the cynosure of most eyes will be Roger Federer, who will once again endeavour to win the only championship missing from an otherwise awesome résumé. Federer has had a rocky start to the year, and in addition to Nadal, he’ll have to contend with other pretenders to the throne. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, as quick with a wisecrack as he is with his forehand, is certainly one to watch after his triumph in Australia.
Justine Henin has reigned supreme on the women’s side for three years now, and another victory in June will make her the first woman since the legendary Suzanne Lenglen to win four on the trot. The crowds, though, are likely to get behind Ana Ivanovic, the Serb with the power-packed game and a smile that can melt the coldest heart.
Austria and Switzerland, 7-29 June
It’s now that the tough choices will need to be made. Do you stay in Paris, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or do you skip the final weekend and head to Switzerland for the opening game of Euro 2008, the continental competition that’s perhaps even more difficult to win than the World Cup? Basel’s St Jakob Park hosts the opening game, between the home team and one of the tournament favourites, the Czech Republic.
If you’d like to combine your football with a few Alpine adventures, then Innsbruck, immortalized by skiing legends such as Franz Klammer, is the place to be. The Tivoli Neu there will host games involving Sweden, Russia and Spain, whose talented squad must surely one day end their big tournament jinx.
If you prefer life on the edge and nerves torn to shreds, head instead to the Stade de Suisse in Berne and the Letzigrund in Zurich, the two venues that host what really is the Group of Death. France and Italy, World Cup finalists in 2006, clash again, though both could be upstaged by the mercurial talents of the men from the Netherlands and Romania.
Austria gave the world one of the game’s greatest players, Mattias Sindelar, “The Mozart of Football”, and it’s only fitting that Vienna’s old Prater Stadium hosts the final. What’s even more special is the fact that it’s been renamed after Ernst Happel, the Austrian coach who led the Netherlands to the brink of World Cup glory in 1978, in between coaching both Feyenoord and SV Hamburg to European Cup success.
With second choice Steve McLaren’s England having failed to qualify, you won’t even need to worry about an influx of lager louts.
London, 9-15 June
For those who prefer their flannelled fools to wield racquets, the Queen’s Club in London is the place to be between 9 June and 15 June. Stella Artois, the famous Belgian beer, has sponsored this Wimbledon warm-up for 30 years, but its association with the Artois Championships ends this summer. Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Roddick played last year, and a similar high-quality field can be expected in 2008.
England and France, 22 June
For those who want to end their European adventure with the whiff of gasoline, champagne showers and a chequered flag, there are Grand Prix races at Magny Cours (France) and Silverstone (Britain) as the F1 circus returns from Montreal. The French race on 22 June clashes with the climactic stages of Euro 2008, while the famous circuit at the old World War II bomber base in Northamptonshire might be eclipsed by the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Then again, the truly ingenious sports fanatic might just find a way to watch both.
London, 23 June-6 July
Once you’ve seen Europe’s finest being crowned underneath the Viennese night, you can tuck away the last of the strudel and make space for some strawberries and cream. The second week at Wimbledon should see the action hotting up under what will hopefully be blue skies and powder-puff clouds. If Federer wins, as he has every year since 2003, he’ll equal a record that William Renshaw set back in 1886. On the centre court turf, where he seems to elevate himself to another plane, he’ll take some stopping.
The Williams sisters have won six of the last eight titles in SW19, and it’s hard to see both slipping up this year. If they do, Maria Sharapova or Henin could be on hand to steal away the biggest trophy in the game.
Tour de France,
France, 5-27 July
What better way to burn off those Wimbledon calories than to ride along with the peloton in the 95th edition of the world’s most famous bicycle race? This year’s tour will cover 3,500km over 21 stages, with Spain’s Alberto Contador bidding to retain the yellow jersey that he won in a controversy-ridden race. With Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich having retired, there are no obvious favourites, and the race faces a battle to regain credibility after a multitude of drugs scandals over the past decade.
If you fancy panoramic views and the ultimate test of human endurance, though, make your way up from Pau to Hautacam for the 10th stage. It was here that legendary five-time winner, Miguel Indurain, famously cracked in 1996, and the man who makes the decisive move on the ride up the steep incline will be set fair for the rest of the race.
An even more famous climb follows just over a week later, from Embrun to L’Alpe-d’Huez in the 17th stage. Fausto Coppi, the first of the post-war greats, won here in 1952, and Armstrong’s reputation was enhanced by storming rides up the slope in 2001 and 2004. The scenery is breathtaking, and the serenity that the winner feels will be in sharp contrast to the mayhem on the Champs-Élysées when the race ends four days later.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo.com
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