Fury vs Wilder, Abu Dhabi GP and the Olympics - The National's sports highlights of 2021

We pick out the best moments of the past 12 months - and what to look forward to in 2022

After all the cancellations and postponements caused by the pandemic in 2020, it was a bumper year of sport in 2021. The stagings of the Olympic Games, European Championship, Copa America, and Ryder Cup - all delayed from 2020 - meant this past 12 months had even more memorable moments beyond the annual leagues, events, and competitions across the world of sport.

With 2021 set to make way for 2022 - which also promises to be a massive year - The National's sports desk have selected their favourite moments from the past 12 months.

Jon Turner, Assistant Sports Editor

Favourite moment

Anna Kiesenhofer celebrates stunning gold: The final few minutes of the women's road race at the Tokyo Olympics was absolutely remarkable. Austria's Kiesenhofer, an amateur cyclist and full-time mathematics professor, had collapsed to the ground, overcome with emotion and exhaustion after stunning the field to win gold. Such was the shock of Kiesenhofer's triumph that while she was on the ground, the Netherlands' Annemiek van Vleuten - one of the most decorated cyclists in the world - crossed the finish line arms aloft thinking she had won gold, only to be told she had taken silver, more than a minute behind the champion.

Best performance

Tadej Pogacar, Tour de France: Such was the fear Pogacar struck into his rivals ahead of the Tour de France, opposition teams assembled superstar line-ups designed specifically to prevent the Slovenian from retaining the yellow jersey he won in 2020. There was no stopping the UAE Team Emirates star, though, as Pogacar once again destroyed the field and tamed the course to solidify his status as the best road cyclist on the planet.

Best event

Tokyo Olympics: Delayed by 12 months and staged behind closed doors amid strict health and safety measures, the Tokyo Olympics was given every reason to be a disastrous failure. It had its hiccups, but it was a wonderful spectacle, with new events climbing, skateboarding, and surfing proving popular, fairytale gold medal triumphs, and Simone Biles bringing the mental health conversation into even sharper focus.

Biggest shock

Lionel Messi leaves Barcelona: Even with Barcelona's crippling financial problems, no one actually expected their greatest ever player to leave the club. But on the evening of August 5, Barca released a statement to announce Messi was leaving after a new deal collapsed "due to economic obstacles". It brought to an end Messi's 23-year association with Barca, for whom he scored a record 672 goals in 778 games, winning 10 La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, seven Copa del Reys, and three Fifa Club World Cups.

Biggest controversy

Euro 2020 final fan chaos: It should have been a moment to celebrate for English football - their national team competing in a major final for the first time since 1966. Instead, the occasion - before, during and after - was tarnished by acts of vandalism, ticketless fans attempting to rush Wembley Stadium, and racist abuse aimed at the three players to miss penalties in the shootout. Football still has a long way to come.

Favourite comeback

Tiger Woods back on the range: In February, Woods was involved in a dangerous car crash from which he was lucky to escape alive. Speaking recently, the 15-time major winner revealed it was touch and go whether he would need his leg amputated. So when a short clip was posted to his Twitter account of Woods striping balls on the range again, the golf world went into meltdown. Woods is still some way short of returning to the tour but the sight of golf's most influential player back.

Looking forward to most in 2022

The next instalment of Verstappen v Hamilton: Formula One witnessed one of the greatest title battles in history last season, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen essentially clinching the trophy on the last lap of the last race at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Given the way the season unfolded and ultimately ended, there is huge fascination about how the next instalment will play out.

Dominic Hart, Sports Editor

Favourite moment

Emma Raducanu wins US Open: It was a story good enough for a Hollywood script as the British teenager cruised through qualifying and into the main draw - and then won the tournament without dropping a set. It was breathtaking stuff, all performed with such joy and excitement.

Best performance

England beat Germany 2-0, Euro 2020: A historic night at Wembley. The Three Lions struck twice late on to end a 55-year wait for a knockout tie victory over Germany and reach the tournament quarter-finals. Just edges out Rachael Blackmore becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National.

Best event

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: It might have been controversial, and it might have been unfair, but what a day! At last the whole Formula One season came down to the last race, and eventually the last lap. It wasn't Max Verstappen's fault that he was allowed one shot at Lewis Hamilton, and his manoeuvre to take the title was thrilling.

Biggest shock

Novak Djokovic losing the US Open final: The Serb appeared invincible at times, and was heading for his fourth Grand Slam title of the season until Russia's Daniil Medvedev won his first in a one-sided US Open final. Maybe, just maybe, the old guard are moving on.

Biggest controversy

German coach thrown out of the Olympics for punching a horse: It was during the modern pentathlon and the horse, Saint Boy, was playing up for coach Kim Raisner's tearful athlete Annika Schleu. Pictures went global of Raisner striking the horse with her fist and she was sent home in disgrace. Quite right too.

Favourite comeback

Mark Cavendish: He came back from almost retiring from cycling to win four stages at the Tour de France and the green jersey and become, with Eddy Merckx, the winner of the most stages at the biggest event in the sport.

Looking forward to most in 2022

The World Cup in the winter. A different time of year because of the heat means the European sides should be full of energy in Qatar rather than competing at the end of a mammoth season. Could England finally end 56 years of hurt?

Gareth Cox, Assistant Sports Editor

Favourite moment

Denmark reach Euro 2020 knockout stage: Just nine days after the horror of seeing teammate Christian Eriksen collapse on the pitch after a suffering cardiac arrest in their opening game against Finland, Denmark thrashed Russia 4-1 on the same pitch in Copenhagen to seal their place in the Euros' knockout stage. An emotional night for Danish players and fans alike.

Best performance

Djokovic beats king of clay Nadal at French Open: It has been some year for the Serb, winning three out of four Grand Slams, but his four-set French Open semi-final victory over Nadal was particularly spectacular. Nadal, aiming for a record-extending 14th title in Paris, lost at Roland Garros for only the third time in 108 matches in a classic battle. "It was one of the top three matches in my life," said Djokovic afterwards.

Best event

Euro 2020: Questions were rightly asked about how sensible it was to play the delayed tournament across 11 countries with a pandemic still ongoing. But the extended competition felt like the lift football fans across the continent needed after the Covid-ravaged previous months.

Biggest shock

Raducanu wins US Open: The idea that an 18-year-old qualifier from the UK could win a Grand Slam final without dropping a set simply did not compute ... until Emma Raducanu's frankly ludicrous US Open run in September. A mind-blowing performance from a player who only made her WTA main-draw debut in June.

Biggest controversy

Final lap of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: In a bitter rollercoaster battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton for the world title, it was fitting that the final race should end in such dramatic fashion. Hamilton was set to be champion for a record eighth time until a late crash brought on a safety car that would allow Verstappen the chance to snatch the title in a one-lap race-off. A bonkers end to a barmy season.

Favourite comeback

Fury back from brink against Wilder ... again: Deontay Wilder must surely now be wondering what he has to do to beat Tyson Fury. In their superb trilogy bout, Fury was down twice in Round 4 only for the Brit to twice drag himself off the canvas before going on to bash the American around the ring until securing victory in the 11th.

Looking forward to most in 2022

The unstoppable rise of Newcastle United: OK, I have my black and white sunglasses firmly fitted on face for this one. And there is a distinct possibility that Newcastle could be relegated this season, despite the backing of their new Saudi owners. But after the wasted years of the Mike Ashley era, it feels like us Magpie fans can finally dare to dream again.

Ajit Vijaykumar, Assistant Sports Editor

Favourite moment

Neeraj Chopra winning gold: For a country the size of India, their record at the Olympic Games is shockingly poor. But this year, they achieved the seemingly impossible – an individual gold in track and field. Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold at the Tokyo Games erased years of pain for the country, and started a javelin revolution in every corner of India.

Best performance

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Euro 2020: The Italy goalkeeper played a decisive role in taking his team to the Euro 2020 final, starring in a penalty shootout win over Spain. Then at the Wembley final, he saved three successive England spot kicks in another shootout to seal the title. The player of the tournament and the star of Italian renaissance.

Best event

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: For the sheer drama before, during and right at the end of the F1 season finale, the Abu Dhabi GP was brilliant. A shocking call at the final lap turned the championship into a one-lap contest, with favourite Lewis Hamilton looking on as the title slipped away from his grasp for no fault of his. It was controversial, but spectacular.

Biggest shock

Kohli ouster: A couple of years ago, the mere suggestion of Virat Kohli losing his position as India captain, or having it taken away, would have met with a shrug of the shoulders. But not only did he relinquish his India T20 and IPL leadership, he was unceremoniously dumped as ODI captain – through one line at the end of a media release.

Biggest controversy

Football violence: Unfortunately, French football was littered with fan violence throughout the year, with players finding themselves in dangerous situations. With the pandemic, many thought supporters would appreciate the spectacle of football from the stands more than ever, especially with the biggest star – Lionel Messi – playing. Big mistake.

Favourite comeback

Ben Stokes: The England all-rounder had taken an indefinite break from cricket “to prioritise mental wellbeing” and mend his injured finger. His return to the England setup showed that it is perfectly fine to walk away from the limelight to focus on yourself, and then come back only when comfortable to do so.

Looking forward to most in 2022

What happens to the Big Three? Rafael Nadal is slowly making his way back to fitness. Roger Federer is likely to make his comeback from surgery only by the middle of 2022. Novak Djokovic is the only fit member of the ‘Big Three’ of tennis. We will now know if the veteran stars have it in them to get back on top, or whether the next generation will finally take over.

Steve Luckings, Deputy Sports Editor

Favourite moment

Watching Beth Shriever win BMX Olympic gold: Full disclosure: when BMX racing and skateboarding were added to the Olympics programme, I barely batted an eyelid. If anything, eyes were rolled at a lame attempt by the International Olympic Committee to appeal to a younger generation. By the end of the Games, though, I was a convert. Beth Shriever won BMX racing Olympic gold minutes after her Great Britain teammate Kye Whyte secured silver in the men’s event. Shriever's story emboldened the Olympic spirit like few others. The 22-year-old needed crowdfunding just to make it to Tokyo, and pulled off a stunning win in the final to hold off defending champion Mariana Pajon of Colombia.

Best performance

Fury signing off epic Wilder trilogy: If there was any doubt who the undisputed champ of boxing's traditional blue ribband division was heading into their third fight, Tyson Fury quashed it on October 9. Fury arguably already held the title for best performance by an English boxer overseas with his seven-round destruction of Wilder in their second fight in February 2020. But his performance in their trilogy fight fortified his position as the best in the heavyweight division. Fury's tactics were spot on, coming in at the heaviest weight of his career to nullify the 'Bronze Bomber's' fearsome one-punch power.

Best event

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Even by Hollywood standards the scenario seemed far fetched. A showdown between title rivals in the final race of the season, winner takes all. Belief was asked to be further suspended when a crash towards the end brought out the safety car resulting in a straight shootout between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen on the final lap. The Dutchman took the chequered flag in front of a sea of Oranje-clad fans. I'm still kicking myself that I had to pass up a ticket to Yas Marina Circuit.

Biggest shock

England fans at Euro 2020 final: What should have been a day of celebration turned into a national embarrassment even before kick off. The sight of fans storming barriers and involved in violent clashes with police, stewards and each other shone a spotlight on a issue that, contrary to what some believe, is a problem getting worse in English football. The racist abuse aimed at England's black players after the penalty shootout defeat to Italy was just as sickening but no less surprising. It also highlighted the irony of the English FA complaining about the vile chants aimed at their players in countries like Bulgaria when they face the same abuse on an almost weekly basis at home.

Favourite comeback

Antonio Conte to the Premier League: After parting ways with Inter Milan after guiding the Nerazzuri to the 2021 Serie A title, Conte held talks with Tottenham regarding the vacant manager's job. After the death-by-a-thousand cuts reign of Jose Mourinho, Spurs signalled genuine ambition in their attempts to lure Conte back to the Premier League. When talks with the Italian broke down, so it seemed did Spurs' aspirations. Nuno Espirito Santo was installed but was sacked 48 hours after an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United. Spurs returned to the negotiating table and on November 2 appointed Conte as their new head coach on a contract until 2023. Cue an immediate uptick in results and performances as well as a 'Conte Cam' on the club's social media channels dedicated to the coach's touchline antics.

Looking forward to most in 2022

The Qatar World Cup: The first global finals to be held in the Middle East will take place closer to the start of most domestic seasons, instead of at the end when most players are knackered. Hard to say who that will benefit, but it should raise the standard significantly.

Updated: December 30th 2021, 8:09 AM