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August 24, 2021 Tuesday 10:20:11 AM IST

Redemption, Resurrection and Hope

Sports & Games

What a month! July 2021 had a blind date with sports. The month was packed with some pulsating sporting events that brought an end to the long drawn drought created by the pandemic. Looking back, 2020 was a year set to ring in a slew of major events. But Fate had other plans. Events were called off, postponed or cancelled. Then followed months of anticipation, the lockdown became the new normal and uncertainty gripped the world. Players, teams and fans waited impatiently for some action.

Organisers found a way out to bring players into action, the bio-bubble became a new normal, sports resumed behind closed doors. Then in July this year we saw major sporting events held in packed stadiums. Sports seemed to have won a huge battle. It was a resurrection and hope that all was not lost yet. Deeper, almost all the July events appeared to be a thematic extension of Redemption, Resurrection and Hope.

Italian Renaissance

Italian football was stuck in a deep, dark pit. The former world champions even failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1958. The Italian League did keep throwing up amazing talent but somehow they were searching for a messiah, an inspiration, to bail them out of the dumps. And Italy found the man in Roberto Mancini.

Mancini, the former international, took over the reins of the Italian national side when it was in shambles, lacked confidence after the World Cup debacle. There were no takers for this job after Gian Pedro Ventura was sacked. Mancini’s first job was restoring confidence in a demoralised side. But it will forever be remembered how he resurrected the side, instilling grit and determination.

No one gave Mancini any chance, not even the players. As Italian captain Giorgio Chiellini said, “At the beginning when he (Mancini) said we had to think about winning the European Championship, we thought he was crazy.” But Mancini dreamed of an Italian Renaissance.

It took nearly three years to build this Italian team into a winning combination. They had no superstars. The bulk of their international experience centered around Chiellini and fellow Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci. Mancini used all his experience as player and manager to construct a team that played attractive football. A mercurial goalkeeper, Gianlugi Donnarumma backed by a formidable midfield of Marco Veratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella proved crucial to Italy’s triumph.

Right through the Euro Cup Italy proved their mettle. When they beat favourites England, touted to be a side with deeper resources, egged on by a huge partisan crowd at their home turf in Wembley, it was an end to Italy’s 53-year wait to win this title. The side also extended their unbeaten run in international football to 34 matches just one less than the world record of 35 managed by Spain during their golden run from 2007-2009.

Redemption for Mancini

It was true redemption for Mancini who was never able to truly write himself into the history of the Italian national team as player. But as manager he will have a chapter entirely written to himself – the man who turned hopeless losers into European champions in the space of three years.

This triumph was resurrection for Italy that suffered immensely when the pandemic hit the world. Hospitals in north Italy were overwhelmed with patients and the death toll soared. Italy fought back with guts. And the Euro Cup win must have given the country renewed hope.

The Italian hope in sports extended to Wimbledon too. Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian to enter the men’s singles final. Berrettini eventually lost to World No. 1, Novak Djokovic, but the Italian did show a lot of promise for the future. And Berrettini rushed from Wimbledon to Wembley to watch is country win the Euro Cup.

July also witnessed the redemption of Djokovic. After his acrimonious exit in the US Open in 2020, the powerful Serb was virtually seething to vindicate himself. And he did exactly that. Djokovic began the year 2021 winning his 9th Australian Open title, moved to Rolland Garros to claim the French Open and then triumphed at Wimbledon. This win at the All England Club helped Djokovic equal Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s all-time record of 20 Grand Slam titles. The Serb also became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles in the same year.

Glittering Messi

For Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer on the planet (certainly the most loved) it was one final shot at redemption – for him and for his Argentina. When Argentina won the 2021 Copa America (America Cup) beating traditional rivals Brazil by a solitary goal in the final at the famous Maracana stadium it was the end of a 28-year-long wait for the country in a major football championship.

There was an outpouring of emotions when the final whistle went off. Messi, usually seen composed after a win or loss dropped to his knees, not able to control his tears, while his teammates lifted him above their shoulders and tossed him in the air. The legend had finally ticked the last blank empty box in his glittering career.

The trophy was Messi’s first with Argentina after a string of painful, agonizing failures, including the most demoralizing defeat of his career, against Germany in the World Cup final, at the same stadium in 2014. As he said after the victory, “I needed to remove the thorn of being able to achieve something with the national team.” At the age of 34, Messi had shut the biggest gap in his decorated career.

For Argentina and Messi, it was the end of a long, arduous wait. Messi must be at peace with himself. Redemption indeed!

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..