2009: Sporting Year of the Cheat

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2009: Sporting Year of the Cheat
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For sports lovers the world over, 2009 had to be the biggest disappointment ever. Rarely did a month go by where we weren't let down by our idols, and when all is said and done, one word describes the year perfectly: deceit.

As 2009 gets consigned to the history books, we should be able to look back and regale each other with tales of splendour and miraculous events, of beating the odds when all else would have taken defeat as a bedfellow, and of the times when giving everything just was not enough.

We will have to content ourselves with the knowledge that the last year just was not a good one for sport.

It was dominated by cheats, frauds, and charlatans, and for those of us who were raised on believing that sport could somehow rise above the detritus of society, it was a real kick in the balls.

The sporting year got off to a spectacular start as the Pittsburgh Steelers won the 43rd Super Bowl. It was the most watched American Football event of all time, almost 99 million people tuned in to see the Steelers beat the Cardinals 27-23 in a great matchup, and a particularly brilliant fourth quarter.

While all that was going down in Florida, the FBI was coming to a close on a 15-year investigation...

As Christmas rolled by and the New Year was welcomed by all, Texan Allen Stanford was hailed as the future impresario of cricket.

The sport may not have found purchase in America, or even found a way to penetrate the consciousness of the British public, who are becoming increasingly obsessed with all things Premier League. However, it is, in world terms, a giant of a sport.

It is played in 104 countries across every continent. Even the USA has a cricket team. The potential for the sport is vast, but with traditionalists in charge of the game it has struggled to gain popularity.

Enter Allen Stanford. The Texan billionaire and philanthropist was/is a massive cricket enthusiast. Over the last couple of years he has sponsored the growing sport of Twenty20, a shorter version of traditional cricket.

When he came up with the idea of having five Twenty20 matches spread over five years with $100 million to be divided between the five winners, the cricket world stood up and took notice.

The first of which was in June 2008 where the Stanford Superstars hammered England; the $20 million was the largest prize ever offered for a single match of any sport.

Here was the man who would make the great sport great again.

Just think back to the Super Bowl viewing figures for a moment. Stanford's second Twenty 20 tournament in early 2008 (before the $20 million match) was watched by a worldwide audience of over 300 million...

Unfortunately, Mr Stanford barely had a bean to spend himself. After a massive fraud investigation by the FBI, culminating after 15 years hard work, it was found that Stanford was involved with a $9.2 billion fraud involving certificates of deposits.

On February 17, the great hope for cricket died when the FBI raided Stanford's businesses, and with this news the world cricket board wisely pulled out of sponsorship negotiations with the Texan, who currently resides in the Joe Corley Detention Centre awaiting trial.

In March, the greatest rugby player of the last decade, Brian O'Driscoll, lifted the Six Nations trophy after Ireland won the Grand Slam, beating all five opponents for only the second time.

It was one of the few bright spots for the Irish public in what turned out to be a very challenging year.

But the moment of truth was pure joy.

O'Driscoll's performances during the brutal tournament were majestic to say the least as he led Ireland from the front, putting body, mind, and soul, on the line with every inch gained.

Less than one month later, O'Driscoll led Leinster to the infamous "Stoop" to take on Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter finals. The match was a ferocious affair in which Leinster overcame 'Quins 6-5 after Filipe Contepomi kicked two first half penalties.

But the game will always be remembered for the controversial way it ended and how the story rumbled on until the following season.

A blood substitution is allowed in rugby. If a player is bleeding, the standard amount of substitutions can be added to.

With that in mind, Harlequins instructed their substitute Tom Williams to go down injured with a blood injury if the moment arose, which would allow 'Quins penalty taker, Nick Evans, return to the game.

Williams took to the pitch in the 69th minute armed with a blood capsule in his mouth, and duly went down in the 75th minute to allow Evans back onto the pitch. As Williams left the field he winked at the Harlequins bench and spat red liquid...

Justice was served in the final minute of the game when Evans missed his drop kick attempt that would have won the match for Harlequins.

The controversy did not end on the pitch though. Williams was hauled in front of the International Rugby Board to explain his actions and it then became clear that Harlequins management team was involved and had offered Williams bribes to say nothing.

It was even revealed that Harlequins had cut Williams after the match after Leinster's doctor had demanded to see the injury. Dr. Wendy Chapman was then suspended from acting as a doctor by the General Medical Council for her part in the affair.

In the end, Williams was suspended for one year, but reduced to four months on appeal, and fined £215,000 for being the whistle blower on the unsavoury incident. Dr. Chapman was suspended, the team's physio Steph Brennan was given a two-year suspended sentence, and the Director of Rugby at 'Quins, Dean Richards, was suspended for three years for masterminding the whole affair.

Harlequins were fined €300,000, and the club chairman, Charles Jillings, was forced to quit after the scandal.

All of that took until September to be revealed, so God only knows what would have happened if Evans' kick had sailed through and Leinster had gone out...

Leinster eventually won the Heineken Cup after destroying their Irish rivals, Munster, 28-6 at Croke Park in front of 84,000 fans in the semifinal. They then beat Leicester 19-16 in the final in Murrayfield to claim another trophy in a memorable year for O'Driscoll and all associated with Irish rugby.

As we moved into May the one thing on every sports fan's lips was the Champions League.

Manchester United were bidding to become the first team to defend the trophy, and they faced Barcelona in the final in Rome.

As it was, Barca taught United a real lesson in football. Lionel Messi was simply mesmeric on the night. Every touch was beauty, precise, and ruthless as Manchester United were simply cut to pieces by the football played by the Catalans.

It was the closest example of Total Football seen since Ajax in the '70s. 

Heading into the final, one of the chief architects of Barcelona's sublime trek to the final was Thierry Henry.

The ex-Arsenal player had been in phenomenal form as Barca won a league and cup double and had picked up an injury prior to the Rome final.

It would have been one of the great injustices of the game had Henry not been able to take his rightful place on the pitch.

In the end Henry made the game, but was relatively quiet by his own supreme standards, and deservedly won that elusive Champions League medal playing for one of the greatest club sides of all time.

On the international front, life was tough for Henry and France. Hailed as one of the favourites for the World Cup, they struggled through their qualifying group and finished second to Serbia. It meant that France was in the November playoffs.

Faced with big teams having to play each other and thus one be eliminated, reducing the television money for the World Cup in South Africa. FIFA decided to seed the playoffs at the last minute...

France was paired with Ireland.

Les Bleus beat Ireland in the first leg at Croke Park and went into the return leg in Paris as red hot favourites.

But Ireland did not read the script and tore into the French with a display of guts, ingenuity, and character, as the would either go out fighting with every being of their spirit or die trying.

Ireland took a deserved lead through captain Robbie Keane and with the score at 1-1 the game entered extra time.

Which actually raised the issue, why should the second leg go into extra time? Is it not immediately unfair on the away team in the second leg?

But I digress...

With Ireland beginning to fade after a heroic effort, France began to eke its way into the match.

A seemingly harmless free kick was floated into the Irish box from the halfway line...

Two French players were clearly offside, Richard Dunne was clearly pulled over, and as the ball was going wide, the most celebrated player on the pitch caught it with his hand, twice, to control it and passed in to William Gallas to score the goal that sent France to the World Cup and Ireland home.

It was a horrendous end after a phenomenal performance by Ireland.

It is one of the great injustices of the game that Henry will be able to take his place on the pitch in South Africa after blatantly cheating.

For Ireland there was/is no way back, and they will simply have to enjoy the footballing tournament as spectators instead of players.

As we moved into the summer, the football transfer market dominated matters. With thousands upon thousands of column inches dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo's £80 million transfer to Real Madrid from Manchester United.

And rightly so. It was one of the biggest stories around, involving two of the biggest teams in the world, and one of the most famous players in the world.

The fee was mad, but so is the world we live in.

A couple of weeks later and Schalk Burger was trying to redefine the face of the British and Irish Lions player Luke Fitzgerald. In a pretty disgusting incident that only merited a yellow card from the referee, Burger gouged Fitzgerald's eye, leaving the Irishman with a pretty bad injury.

It was made all the worse because the incident was clearly seen by the touch judge who did not act on the matter.

After the match South Africa coach Peter De Villiers defended Burger, claiming he did not even deserve a yellow card and that gouging was a "part of sport."

A huge war of words broke out across the world of rugby. Ninety-nine percent of those involved villified De Villiers and Burger. In the end, the South African player received an eight-week ban. A somewhat restrained suspension.

In November, Burger led South Africa to Croke Park as the World Champions faced the Six Nations champions. Burger opened the try scoring in the 14th minute to give the Springboks a 7-3 lead and then sprung up and kicked the ball into the crowd goading the Irish fans over the Fitzgerald incident.

It was to be his last meaningful part of the game as Ireland went on to win the game 15-10 with a great performance, led again by Brian O'Driscoll.

In August, Caster Semenya won gold in the 800m at the World Championships.

But that was only the start...

Semenya was a victim of South African Athletics desires to win a medal. There had always been questions regarding Semenya, especially after her dramatic time improvement.

Following the IAAF's decision to reveal questions regarding Semenya's gender, many South African commentators and politicians claimed the IAAF was racist.

But their statements were to prove unfounded after it was discovered that the South African Athletics Association had knowledge of Semanya's gender complications all along.

While Semenya was allowed to keep her medal, it remains unclear if she will ever race in the women's division again.

With the start of the new Premiership season, diving once again came to the fore.

David Ngog blatantly dived to earn Liverpool a point at Birmingham, but all the furore over that incident was like ripples on a pond when compared to the infamous Eduardo dive against Celtic in the Champions League.

Diving has seeped into the game of football. It has become a part of the very fabric of the sport. Accepted by all who choose to play the game, but not as cheating, because that only counts when the referee sees the incident...

The game was all but over at 2-0 when Eduardo dived over Artur Boruc to earn Arsenal a penalty that well and truly killed the game off. For Celtic it was a denial of some £20 million from gate receipts and television revenue and a dramatic downsizing of the club's ambitions for the following year.

For Arsenal, entrance into the group stages meant all the glory and gold that Celtic had missed out on, but also being seeded in a very easy group.

There is little question that Eduardo dived. But when UEFA chose to finally make an example of a player who had cheated, Arsenal fought with all their might.

Lawyers were brought in to use video evidence and Arsenal's much distinguished manager, Arsene Wenger, spoke at length defending his player for cheating.

This was probably one of the lowest points in football over the last number of years. Arsenal were well within their rights to try and change UEFA's decision. But when a football person of the magnitude of Wenger speaks out to defend the actions of a cheat it can only be bad for the sport.

On the Formula One race track life was not much better...

In April, Lewis Hamilton had his third place finish in the Australian expunged after he was found to have lied about Jarno Trulli's overtaking move earlier in the race. But that was of small importance when compared to "crashgate."

Nelson Piquet Jr. was dropped by the Renault team after a poor showing at the Hungarian Grand Prix. It prompted the driver to release a voluntary statement:

"During the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore, I was asked by Mr. Flavio Briatore, who is both my manager and the Team Principal of the ING Renault F1 Team, and by Mr. Pat Symonds, the Technical Director of the Renault F1 Team, to deliberately crash my car."

It was the first time that deliberate crashing of cars had been brought to the attention of the world.

The pre-planned crash allowed Alonso, who had pitted earlier, to go on with new tires and a lighter load while the race lead was diminished because of the crash. Alonso went on to win the race.

The fallout of the incident was extraordinary. Renault was charged by the FIA for a breach of its sporting code. Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds were both forced to resign with Briatore earning a ban for life.

One of the chief sportswriters of The Times, Simon Barnes, called the incident "the worst case of cheating in the entire history of sport," and it almost never came to light. What if Piquet had been killed?

Renault has since been hit where it hurts most in motor sports, in the pocket. Their two main sponsors pulled back their monies.

The case rolls on though, Flavio Briatore still proclaims his innocence, and as early as this week he won a court injunction against the FIA's life time ban.

Crashgate is not over yet.

One of the funniest incidents of the year happened in September when Danish goalkeeper, Kim Christensen during a match between IFK Gothenburg and Orebro, actually moved the goalposts.

He was caught on camera, much to the delight of YouTubers everywhere, lifting the posts and moving them slightly inwards, in effect making his goal smaller! He went on to keep a clean sheet.

Even the world of MMA resorted to cheating in 2009.

Georges St. Pierre was rubbed down with vaseline during a break in his match against BJ Penn in January. In defeat, Penn's trainer insisted that the petroleum jelly constituted cheating, since St. Pierre was harder to hold on to while they grappled.

The controversy culminated in a hearing at the NSAC, and following its conclusion, NSAC's Executive Director Keith Kizer stated that there would be no penalties given to St. Pierre. However, the decision was very ambiguous, and was left open to interpretation.

The year ended with all talk Tiger, and it for once it had nothing to do with his exploits on the golf course.

Woods has built a reputation as the most focused golfer of all time. Probably even the greatest golfer of all time, if not the greatest sportsman.

But his off-course reputation took a severe battering when the world and his mother found out about Tiger's "transgressions."

It is incredibly ironic that perhaps the greatest sportsman of the decade and the world's first billionaire sportsman should end the year as its greatest cheat.

2009 is dead and gone. Long may 2010 live in our sporting memories. We have the 44th Super Bowl to look forward to, the World Cup in South Africa, Roger Federer's continued dominance on the tennis scene, Tony McCoy's status as a living legend to grow, all the heartache, all the pain, all the tears, and all the joy that sport brings.

Maybe, just maybe, 2010 will be a better year for sport than the previous 12 months.

We might even see Tiger's return in the Ryder Cup in September.

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