FC Barcelona continued to show the world just why football is called the “Beautiful Game”, casting the spell of their rapid chess-like passing game and individual brilliance over hapless opponents. The 2011 UEFA Champions League final in May, where the Catalan club defeated Manchester United 3-1 at the Wembley stadium, was their crowning glory of the year. Barcelona’s talismanic forward Lionel Messi scored the second goal in that final, and like his club, continued the dazzling personal form that had seen him become Fifa world player of the year in 2009 and 2010. Messi became Barcelona’s all-time highest goalscorer in a season in 2010-11 with 53 goals, and perched himself as the club’s second highest goalscorer ever with more than 200 goals in all competitions and counting. In the middle of all this, he even found the time to come to Kolkata and play a friendly for Argentina against Venezuela in front of delirious crowds.
Lionel Messi. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
• Upswing downhill
Thirty-year-old Shiva Kesavan from Manali quietly became a part of Indian sports history when he got India’s first gold in an international winter sports event at the Asia Cup in Japan in December. Kesavan, who won the luge event, also set an Asian speed record (134.3 kmph) at the tournament—again a first by an Indian in winter sport. The Winter Olympics beckon.
Shiva Kesavan.Hindustan Times
• Double delight
It was always expected, but when it did come, it was stunning in its breathtaking ferocity. Virender Sehwag set the record for the highest individual One Day International (ODI) score with a dazzling 219 off 149 balls in December against the West Indies in Indore, breaking the record of 200 set by his opening partner, Sachin Tendulkar, in 2010. He scored 142 of those runs from boundaries, and he tied with Tendulkar for the maximum number of boundaries (25) in an ODI innings. Meanwhile, fans spent the year waiting for Tendulkar’s 100th century, after he reached the 99th century mark in March in a World Cup match where he scored 111 against South Africa. The wait continues.
Virender Sehwag. Hindustan Times
• Golf’s new cub
In some ways, this was the year of the young sports star. Just like racing’s Sebastian Vettel, 22-year-old golfer Rory Mcllroy from Northern Ireland broke a slew of records en route his historic US Open win. He had the lowest under-par finish (16 under) in the 111-year history of the tournament, broke Tiger Woods’ record for the aggregate score (268), and became the youngest golfer to win the Open since 1923. He needed a month off from golf after that, but the curly-haired, baby-face Mcllroy may be the next Woods.
Rory Mcilroy. David Cannon/Getty Images
• Cup encore
A towering six over long on from India’s cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni on 2 April at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, and a 28-year wait came to an end. For the first time since Kapil Dev led India to an unlikely World Cup victory in 1983, Dhoni had repeated the feat for a cricket-mad country. India became the first host nation to win the cup, and only the third team after Australia and West Indies to win it more than once. En route, they had even beaten arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-final. The team graciously dedicated the victory to the talismanic Sachin Tendulkar, who finally got his hands on the coveted trophy after missing out in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2007.
Sachin Tendulkar. Hamish Blair/Getty Images
• The right formula
If 2010 was the year of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, 2011 belonged to the inaugural Formula 1 Airtel Grand Prix of India, heralding India’s entry into that rarefied and elite sphere of countries that host Formula One races. The crowds lapped up the roar and whiz of the world’s fastest racing cars at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida, the Bollywood fraternity came out in droves, and yet again, Red Bull Racing’s German driver Sebastian Vettel walked away with a win. The year saw Vettel emerge as an unstoppable force—not only did he become the youngest double world champion winner when he successfully defended his 2010 title this year, the 24-year-old also set a host of records. He set the mark for the most championship points in a season, most pole positions in a season (a record that was held for 19 years by the British racer Nigel Mansell), and the most number of wins in a season from pole position. The legacy of Michael Schumacher could not be in better hands.
Sebastian Vettel. Mark Thompson/Getty Images
• Beginning of the end?
The vice-like grip of the Australian cricket team over both One Day Internationals (ODIs) and Tests had been loosening since 2009, when they lost the No. 1 ranking in Tests for the first time since 2003, but 2011 was the year they really fell from grace. They lost the Ashes to England 3-1 in January and all three defeats were by an innings; narrowly avoided scoring the lowest ever Test total as the team folded for 47 in a Test match against South Africa in November, and lost a Test to traditional trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand for the first time in over 25 years in December. After the Ashes loss, a headline in an Australian newspaper summed it up: ”After 135 years, 730 matches and 417 players, Australia have finally fielded . . . OUR WORST XI.”
Crying shame: England fans taking a dig at Australia’s Ricky Ponting. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
• Djoker’s last laugh
It was unthinkable before 2011 that anyone could break the dominance of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in tennis. Then came Novak Djokovic. A 41-match winning streak, 10 tournament wins, including three Grand Slams (Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open), and victories over both Nadal and Federer make Djokovic’s season, in the words of former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, “one of the best years in tennis of all time”. Not only did he beat Federer and Nadal multiple times on multiple surfaces (he defeated Nadal in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open, in 2011), he can also do excellent imitations of his top rivals at the drop of a hat. Yes, the 24-year-old, nicknamed Djoker, has been the World No. 1 since July.
Novak Djokovic. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
• A new ringmaster
The boys from Bhiwani marched on in the ring, with 19-year-old Vikas Krishan, who began his career at the Bhiwani Boxing Club in Haryana, becoming only the second Indian after Vijender Singh in 2009 to win a medal at the World Championship. His bronze also meant an early qualification for the 2012 Olympics, and reinforced the 2010 Asian Games gold medallist’s image as the fastest rising boxer in the country. Shooter Ronjan Sodhi had a fantastic year as well, becoming the first Indian to defend a World Cup title in shooting, and briefly holding the world No. 1 ranking in the Double Trap, which marks him out as the Indian athlete to watch at the Olympics.
Vikas Krishan. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
• Farewell blues
Finally, a requiem for the great athletes who died this year: Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, 70, better known by the epithet “Tiger”, who became the Indian cricket team’s captain at 21, and led them to their first overseas victory (1968, against New Zealand); “Smokin”Joe Frazier, 67, former heavyweight champion of the world, whose rivalry with Muhammad Ali lit up rings for over a decade with such legendary bouts as the “Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manila”; Italian MotoGP racer Marco Simoncelli, 24, and British racing driver Dan Wheldon, 33, both tragically died in two separate crashes while racing; Sócrates, 57, one of the greatest footballers to come out of Brazil, and known as much for his flair on the field as for his political and social activism off it; and Peter Roebuck, 55, one of cricket’s most insightful and hard-hitting writers, who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.