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December 30, 2005 7:35 pm

A year for fans to take flight

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The coming year is one in which many sports fans will opt to spend their holidays in stadiums rather than on beaches, given the array of major events taking place around the world.

The biggest of these, of course, is football’s World Cup in Germany from
June 9 to July 9.

Although Brazil are the tournament’s hot favourites, Argentina look dangerous, and consistent World Cup performers Germany enjoy home advantage, England supporters have reason to dream if the team can achieve their often elusive best form. Furthermore, the recent club performances of Chelsea’s Joe Cole provide optimism that he can fill the problematic left-flank position, and Ledley King’s promise in the holding midfield role also offers a more secure option against teams with incisive and subtle attackers.

The Tour de France is another jewel of the early summer, wheeling away from July 1 to 23. This time the invincible Lance Armstrong will not be there, the winner of the past seven years having retired, which should produce a more open and exciting contest than 2005’s procession.

Wimbledon (June 26-July 9) clashes even more directly with the football than the Tour, so the racket from SW19 will be more muted than usual. The All England Club can only hope a certain young Scot ensures “Murray Mania” lasts well into the second week or that Tim Henman confounds the sceptics and regains top form after a year of injury.

Golf rounds off a two-month sporting purple patch with The Open at the Royal Liverpool course (July 20-23), but the game’s followers will also be booking their passage to The K Club, County Kildare, when the Ryder Cup is staged on Irish soil for the first time
(Sep tember 22-24). The US team will be eager to avenge their heaviest defeat ever by Europe, last time out at Oakland Hills, Detroit, in 2004.

The opportunities for sporting foreign trips begin much earlier, however, with the Winter Olympics (February 10-26) in Turin, and the Commonwealth Games a month later (March 15-26) in Melbourne.

The coming year is a crucial one for athletics, which reached a low ebb in 2005 thanks to the Balco drugs scandal, weak leadership, poor marketing of the sport and a world championships in Helsinki that failed to catch fire. The Commonwealth Games and the European Athletics Championships in Gothenburg (August 6-13) thus provide a chance to recapture a declining audience. More parochially, it is also vital that British athletics begins to find and nurture young replacements for the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes, Steve Backley and Jonathan Edwards if the London 2012 Olympics is not to prove a domestic track and field embarrassment.

After English cricket’s 2005 highs (Ashes series) and lows (Pakistan tour), the next 12 months hold as much potential excitement. Michael Vaughan’s men get the opportunity to show if they have learnt lessons about the game on the subcontinent when they tour India for three Tests, the first of which begins on March 1. A long summer – too long, many would argue – then beckons with three home Tests against Sri Lanka (the first begins on May 11) followed by four against Pakistan (commencing July 13), not to mention 10 one-day internationals and two Twenty20 matches. The best is saved for last, when England resume Ashes battle in Australia over five Tests (the first starts on November 23).

Domestic dates to remember include rugby union’s RBS 6 Nations tournament (February 4-March 18), when this season’s as yet mediocre English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish sides will hope to raise their game and build momentum in what is a vital pre-World Cup year.

And finally, horseracing aficionados will be clearing their diaries and bank accounts for the Cheltenham Festival (March 14-17); the Grand National (April 8), The Derby (June 3); Royal Ascot (June 20-24); and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (October 1).

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