By the time Anna Kournikova played her final tour match, vultures were already picking at the bones of a once-feted great tennis talent.

Many were leching over those same bones, of course, while glorying in her downfall. Picking out the young Russian as prime schadenfreude fodder while sleazily sparing as much thought for her physical form as her tennis form.

When the veteran Daily Progress sports writer Jerry Ratcliffe reminisced about the day in 2003 that saw Kournikova come to Charlottesville, Virginia, he remarked: "We were there to see Anna's curves, not her serves."

Sometimes, all you're looking for from a newspaper is honesty, a little truth-telling, putting the story in simple terms, cutting to the chase.

And you know where you stand when a newspaper lets that sentence through the edit.

Given it was on his beat, Ratcliffe had been at courtside for the $25k Boyd Tinsley Clay Court Classic, a tournament so minor that the presence of Kournikova, trying to find some form, was wildly incongruous.

She was ranked 72nd in the world, and just days earlier had pulled out of a semi-final at a similarly low-profile tournament in Sea Island, Georgia, due to injury. Kournikova's opponent that day would have been the 16-year-old little-known Maria Sharapova.

By the time Kournikova's career reached Charlottesville, she was already bordering on desperation, physical pulls, niggles and herniated discs having taken a heavy toll, her confidence inevitably ebbing away. Once a top-10 player, she was in danger of tumbling outside the top 100.  A turning point was what she sought, that elusive first singles title.

And so on May 14, 2003 – 17 years ago – Kournikova played what she hoped would be her first of five matches that week.

It turned out to be the very last match she would play on tour, the Russian beaten in three sets by Brazilian Bruna Colosio, a player who sat 384th in the world rankings.

The girl who had bowled over coaching titan Nick Bollettieri with her enthusiasm when springing into his academy barely a decade earlier was finished. She went down not firing but, according to reports from that day, buried by an avalanche of double faults.

Weeks later, in early June, Kournikova was seen in tears in England, pulling out of the grass-court season without playing a match.

The show was over, the series cancelled. Kournikova had just turned 22.


Here's a noteworthy Kournikova quote, snipped from a 2010 Wimbledon news conference I attended.

It came after a hit-and-giggle exhibition doubles match she played alongside Martina Hingis, at a time when both Kournikova and Hingis, once the self-styled 'Spice Girls' of tennis, were enjoying retirement.

"You know, the fame and everything, I guess most of it was created by you guys, by the media a lot of times, most of the time the yellow press," Kournikova said that evening.

"[I] never tried to pay attention. I mean, obviously it was a little hard times dealing with it being 16, 17 years old, reading some kind of c**p about yourself, you know. Most of it was made up.”

The trials and tribulations of Anna Kournikova. The sob story writes itself and has been written again and again. Look, she still blames the media. What about those results, Anna? What about your c**ppy results? Nobody made those up.

Of course you could pick apart Kournikova's career and float the idea it was a washout because she could not fulfil the potential apparent when she reached the 1997 Wimbledon semi-finals, losing to eventual champion and fellow 16-year-old Hingis.

But it would seem beyond churlish, a witless, hardly original reckoning.

Kournikova, the biggest earner in tennis who made millions in endorsements but couldn't for love nor money lay her hands on a singles crown. Kournikova, the pin-up whose tennis was ancillary to her money-spinning modelling career. Kournikova, the easiest target since the last target was taken down.

It's all been said, and said too often by those who "were there to see Anna’s curves, not her serves". By those who knew where she stood in FHM's top 100 sexiest women, if not the world rankings.


Taken in isolation, any archive transcript of an interview or news conference will speak of a time and a place.

But when the transcripts stack up, that's when patterns you might have missed at the time begin to emerge.

That's when you notice what a difference six and a half years can make.

Of the 61 news conferences transcribed and made available by sports event stenographers ASAP Sports, from the start of Kournikova's career to its 2003 denouement, it is the questions that bookend those that illustrate what a whirring, bewildering rush those years must have been.

In the first of those news conferences, at the 1996 US Open, the first question for Kournikova was a gentle "Why did you win today?", and the focus remained on her tennis.

By the time those transcripts stopped coming, the last being one from the NASDAQ-100 Open in March 2003, Kournikova departed after being asked, "The story about the divorce, was that any kind of distraction for you at all, preparing for this tournament?"

She and ice hockey player Sergei Fedorov had indeed split, but Kournikova was exasperated by this point.

It is easy for a non-journalist to conflate the news and sport media, and reporters from the front and back of newspapers can be disdainful of each other's lines of questioning. Kournikova became distrustful, and as her losses had piled up and the criticism followed suit, so she became increasingly resentful.


She was asked in that same NASDAQ-100 news conference about her continuing losses, about the criticism she faced, and whether it hurt.

"I can't change what other people think and all I can do is go and play," she said. "That's what I should really be focusing on, is just doing my thing, practising and playing and then if I do well, there will be less criticism.

"There will be criticism of something else. But at the end of the day, I can't really do anything with it. There's going to be one thing or another, so it's your job, guys, right?"

Whatever she did, Kournikova believed there would be criticism.

Which perhaps explains to a large part her current life, retired and living privately in Miami, with long-time partner Enrique Iglesias, the Spanish pop singer.

Such is the couple's secrecy, it is not known whether they are married. They have three children together, including twins that were born in December 2017, without the world having had a clue Kournikova was pregnant.

Tabloid whispers that Kournikova might have been expecting again only emerged days before she gave birth to their third child in January of this year. She keeps that low a profile, and why not?

She and Iglesias remain gossip-mag favourites but rarely give interviews.

She chooses when to accept modelling gigs, skipping strictly to her own beat.


Kournikova got plenty off her chest in that 2010 Wimbledon news conference, barely letting Hingis interject.

She spoke of how mother Alla tried to protect her during her mid-teens but ran into opposition, discovering "people didn't really like her that much for that". Kournikova promised she would "try to guard them as much as I can" if she had a 16-year-old of her own.

"It's hard," Kournikova said. "I was being pulled in every single direction. Really there was no guides or rules.

"My mum and me, we were just learning everything as we were going through it. I was here 15 years old, Wimbledon. I played a Centre Court match. I wasn't even seeded or anything.

"It's a lot for a kid."

A kid. A kid who'd routinely face questioning from men – usually the reporters were men – on topics they'd balk at broaching with their own teenage daughters.

A kid who reached that fricking Wimbledon semi-final at 16, got to number eight in the world, beat Hingis, Graf, Davenport and Capriati, won two grand slam doubles title and banked over $3.5million from playing – and way more from sponsorship deals that were accelerated by her looks but hinged absolutely on her being an elite sports star in the first place.

A kid who couldn't help but weep when she knew the tennis dreams of her childhood were over.

A kid whose name became synonymous with failure, when it was a broken body rather than broken resolve that ended her career and our broken moral compass that directed the vultures to their prey.

Could John McEnroe beat Serena Williams, if they played tomorrow?

It's an equivalent question that was asked in 1973, when Bobby Riggs went head to head with Margaret Court.

And just as a global television audience would be sure to tune in for any McEnroe-Williams clash, so the Battle of the Sexes that took place 47 years ago this week captured the world's imagination.

On May 13, 1973 – 47 years ago this week – it came down to the crapshoot of predicting whether 55-year-old Riggs, the long-retired 1939 Wimbledon champion and twice US Open winner, could match up to 30-year-old Court, by then already a 22-time grand slam winner.

It became known as the Mother's Day Massacre.

Who was Bobby Riggs, and what did he have to gain?

Riggs was a 55-year-old American who in his day had rivalled the likes of Jack Kramer and Fred Perry. Known otherwise for his gambling and hustling, the flamboyant Riggs was presumed long finished as a serious tennis player before he challenged Billie Jean King, who refused to play him, and then Court to a winner-takes-all match.

Australian Court accepted, prompting King to say, according to a Sports Illustrated report at the time: "If Margaret loses, we're in trouble. I'll have to challenge him myself."

Both players are said to have pocketed healthy appearance fees, with $10,000 at stake in the contest itself.

Where did Court vs Riggs happen?

California's San Vicente Valley staged the showdown, a gloriously off-the-beaten-track spot for a Sunday afternoon's tennis.

The drama unfolded on a green hard court, surrounded by four temporary stands housing 3,000 spectators paying $10 a head, including stars of the day, with the American football star OJ Simpson and the actor Bill Cosby among those drawn to the desert.

"I kinda think that if you're competing seriously all the time, Margaret Court will have an edge," Simpson told a US TV crew.

How did Riggs approach his greatest hustle?

Determinedly boorish, Riggs, who wore black thick-rimmed glasses, was focused on ensuring this match was about the hustle as much as the tennis.

His objective was to knock Court out of her stride before they began, and contemporary reports speculated that inveterate gambler Riggs had rather more riding on the outcome than the relatively modest prize money.

He played up his image as an enemy to womankind, and many Americans were revolted, with Riggs crowing: "I am the greatest money player in history."

There was the date, Mother's Day, that brought added intrigue. A day to celebrate mothers, and womankind, was in danger of being hijacked. Court was a new mother herself.

Crucially, Riggs had trained hard, knocking several vices on the head, or at least limiting them, and achieving prim shape, certainly for a man in his mid-fifties.

Court dressed for the occasion, in a patriotic yellow and green pastel kit, 'Margaret' stitched onto the collar. The New York Times reported it was the first time she had not worn white.

She had plenty of support, too. 'Women's libbers', as they were popularly known at the time, were out in force to back Court.

But Riggs was not to be outdone, and the showman walked down onto the court from a stairway in the stands decked out in a tracksuit as blue as the sky, carrying a bouquet of roses, that he presented nonchalantly to Court, who instinctively curtsied.

First blood, Riggs.

What a Bobby dazzler!

A match that the bookmakers could not call was to prove utterly one-sided, indeed hugely anti-climactic.

Once the drama of the build-up was done, Riggs pegged back serve-volleyer Court and tore to a 6-2 6-1 victory.

Hardly what the CBS television audience, and those watching back in Australia, had expected.

Court's performance was unusually listless, and she said afterwards the gentle nature of Riggs' game, which he had mixed up to compelling effect, had caught her out.

As an excuse, it was bunk really. Riggs the show pony had completely outfoxed her, steering her to distraction.

"My concentration was bad today," Court told reporters, "and I've been concentrating really well in the last six months or so. I saw everything going on around the court today which was very unusual for me."

Riggs rejoices, and "proves a point"

Court had stressed before the match she was not interested in the 'Battle of the Sexes' element of the contest and was not carrying any banner, but Riggs was all over that aspect.

"I think it proves a point," he said afterwards.

"Fifty-five-year-old, one foot in the grave, night and day difference. And she's the best woman player of all time.

"Sixty million people watching. Biggest match of all time. Battle of the Sexes. And we've all had plenty of time to get ready for it. And you saw what happened, I don't have to explain it to you.

"I think it was the tension, the pressure, the biggest match ever played. The 60 million audience on television. All the press, the way the thing has been built up over the last six months 

"She arrived here with the whole pressure of the women's world on her."

King and I

After seeing off Court, Riggs could name his price for a follow-up match, providing he could find a worthy opponent.

In stepped King, just as she promised, and both reportedly landed $75,000 just for taking part in a September 1973 clash, with a further $100,000 for the winner.

Hosted at the Houston Astrodome, King sauntered to a 6-4 6-3 6-3 victory to land the cash, strike a crucial blow for women in sport, and surely give Court more than a little pause for thought.

When Sebastian Vettel joined Ferrari ahead of the 2015 Formula One season he arrived with dreams of emulating the great Michael Schumacher at the Italian giants.

The allure was easy to see for Vettel given fellow German Schumacher won five straight titles in a glorious period between 2000 and 2004 with the Scuderia, F1's most famous franchise.

Yet, despite signs of promise at times, there was a clear fissure between the great dream and the harsh reality and Vettel – a four-time world champion with Red Bull – never quite reached his own expectations.

Five years on, Vettel is departing with his future in F1 unclear. It was not all disappointment, though, and here we take a look at the 32-year-old's highs and lows with Ferrari.


2015: Winning the Malaysian Grand Prix

The previous campaign had been bleak for Ferrari, who failed to win a race all season. But in just the second round of 2015 Vettel provided hope of an unlikely title challenge with the dominant Mercedes when he defeated Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight for his maiden victory with the team. With Mercedes' tyres struggling in the heat at Sepang, Vettel was able to triumph in a tactical tussle. Things panned out as predicted in the end with Hamilton beating team-mate Nico Rosberg to the title, but Vettel was able to win twice more in a solid debut campaign.

2015: Podium at Monza 

Hamilton, after Mercedes were cleared of flouting tyre-pressure rules, picked up a dominant win at Monza that year. But Vettel secured a podium finish and was on the second step at Ferrari's home grand prix in his first outing with the team at the track, where he had won three times, as the chasing Rosberg had to retire due to engine failure three laps from the end. However, Vettel has never won at Monza with Ferrari, whose nine-year drought in Italy was ended by Charles Leclerc in 2019.

2017: Stunning Canada comeback

While it was once again Hamilton celebrating in Canada, it was the sixth time he stood on the top step in Montreal, Vettel – leading the championship at the time – put in a blinding performance in a dramatic race. Forced to pit early due to a damaged front wing sustained after contact with Max Verstappen at the start of the race, Vettel found himself down in 18th. However, a high-risk strategy of aggressive overtaking saw him recover in sensational fashion to fourth. His pass of Force India's Esteban Ocon was a particularly impressive manoeuvre.

2018: Brilliant in Bahrain

On his 200th F1 start, Vettel celebrated victory in a memorable Bahrain battle. In a race where team-mate Kimi Raikkonen collided with a mechanic in the pits, which left the unfortunate crew member with a broken leg, Valtteri Bottas pushed Vettel hard and Hamilton battled through the pack from ninth as Mercedes chased an unlikely one-two. With his tyres deteriorating and Bottas closing in, Vettel clung on to complete a masterclass.


2016: Winless second season

There had been moments of promise in 2015 but Vettel's second season with the Scuderia was a forgettable one. Mercedes won all but two races as Rosberg finally toppled Hamilton to win his only F1 title (he would retire at the end of the campaign). Vettel finished fourth in the standings behind Daniel Ricciardo and was on the podium only seven times as Ferrari were left with plenty to ponder. 

2017: Japan retirement all but ends title hopes

All the signs were of a real battle for the title in 2017. Vettel led after the Belgian Grand Prix in August that year and was only three points behind when Hamilton triumphed in Italy. But a crash in Singapore was followed by engine issues in Malaysia, where he battled from the back to finish fourth. More engine woe in Japan led to another retirement, though, as Hamilton stole into a 59-point lead with 100 remaining.

2019: Vettel in a spin during Monza nightmare

Last season was not one Vettel will remember with any fondness. There was a controversial five-second penalty in Canada that saw him demoted to second behind Hamilton after stewards deemed he committed an act of dangerous driving by pushing the Mercedes man off track when re-joining after running wide at turn three. In Monza, it was a nightmare for Vettel – who had the ignominy of watching Leclerc end Ferrari's wait for Italian glory – in a moment of madness. After spinning off at the Ascari chicane, Vettel recklessly re-entered without looking and crashed into the Racing Point of Lance Stroll. A 10-second stop-go penalty was awarded but he could have been in far greater bother.

2019: Double DNF after crash with Leclerc in Brazil

Leclerc may have been in his debut season with Ferrari but the young upstart clearly had no desire to play second fiddle and tensions were fraught at times with Vettel last year. Things unravelled in Brazil when Leclerc made a fine pass into turn one with five laps to go to move into fourth. Vettel attempted to come back into turn four and had enough room around the outside, only to edge back across and collide with his team-mate leading to a double DNF in a horror show for Ferrari.

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

April 7, 2016 could potentially be looked back upon as an iconic date for Swedish football in future – Ostersunds were beginning their first-ever Allsvenskan campaign at home to AIK, who started a strike partnership with a combined age of just 35.

As the haunting and ominous intro of AC/DC's 1980 classic 'Hells Bells' rang out around the Jamtkraft Arena, AIK's Alexander Isak – 16 at the time – took his first steps into fiery world of top-flight football, an often ruthless and brutal realm.

But, as Isak later recounted, the nerves were not really there and he took to his new reality with startling ease, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win with a delicate first-time finish from a right-wing cross to make him AIK's youngest league goalscorer in history.

By the following January, having seemingly had every major club in Europe clamouring for the 'next Zlatan Ibrahimovic', Isak was a full Sweden international and joined Borussia Dortmund in a deal supposedly worth up to €10million.

But a little more than three years on, here he is, in the comparatively unfashionable surroundings of Real Sociedad. One might ask where it went wrong for him, but the evidence suggests it will be Dortmund left to rue their parting.

'A very determined young man'

Isak played just five Bundesliga matches – including a solitary start – for Dortmund in two years with the club. Although upheaval and the club's frequent changes of coach around that time will not have helped, it looked a mighty fall for a talent who had previously been a desire of Real Madrid, particularly when he joined middling Eredivisie side Willem II on loan in January 2019.

But for Janne Andersson, Sweden coach and the man who gave Isak his international debut, it is the striker's mentality that stands out – he was not going to let those struggles at Dortmund define him.

Speaking to Stats Perform, Andersson said: "He has a unique talent but also works very hard and is a very determined young man.

"We have to remember that Alexander is still a young player and I hope that he can improve in a lot of ways, and knowing Alexander, I'm certain that he will continue to improve."

It turned out to be a move that reinvigorated the teenager's career, as he scored 13 goals in 16 league matches, including a run of 12 in his first 12 outings. Romario, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez – none managed such a feat during their formative years in the Eredivisie.

Although Dortmund failed to see that form as reason to keep hold of him, their loss has been La Real's gain – the Spanish side reportedly acquired him in a deal that will cost them a maximum of €7.5m.

Back in black (and yellow)? Don't count on it

To say that purchase has already been a success would be an understatement. In 34 games across all competitions, Isak has 14 goals split evenly between LaLiga – in which La Real are fourth – and the Copa del Rey, a competition the Basques have reached the final of.

His seven-goal haul in LaLiga may not lead to gasps of disbelief, but it is a solid record for someone with just nine starts to his name. Similarly, the fact no player in the division has been used as a substitute on more occasions highlights coach Imanol Alguacil's belief in him to make an impact.

Coincidentally, it was against the club that tried so hard to sign him – Madrid – that he produced his most devastating performance for La Real in February. Although the display contained some wastefulness one might expect of a young player, he wreaked havoc on Los Blancos' defence at the Santiago Bernabeu.

An acrobatic strike was soon followed by an emphatic near-post effort in a quickfire brace early in the second half, while it was his shot that rebounded back to Martin Odegaard for the opener and he later produced a wonderful assist for La Real's fourth in the 4-3 win.

Dortmund managed to retain a buy-back clause when selling Isak – but they should not expect him to agree to any return. "All I can say is, Dortmund is in my past and not in my future," he told Sportbladet earlier this year.

Shaking off the Zlatan comparisons

Agile despite his height, a Swedish striker and blessed with wonderful technique, it is easy to see how he came to be tagged as the 'next Zlatan', but they are significantly different in reality.

Isak is much more likely to drift out wide or look to race on to passes behind a defence than Ibrahimovic has ever done, while their personalities could not be more different – the former's persistent "no comment" responses to questions about the comparison in a 2016 interview with Cafe evidence of his rather more reserved nature.

Of course, on the pitch Isak has a long way to go to reach Ibrahimovic's level, but his early strides in LaLiga have been positive. With seven goals and one assist from 1,055 minutes of action, he is averaging a goal involvement every 132 minutes, better than one every two games.

His conversion rate of 21 per cent is promising as well, putting him within touching distance of the top five in that metric (of players with at least seven goals).

Isak has also recorded a solid number of shots on target (16), given he is often used out wide and from the bench. Lionel Messi (55) leads the way in that regard, but Chimy Avila – who has the fifth-most – has 28 from double the amount of starts as the Swedish forward.

Andersson has taken note of Isak's early progress and applauded his professionalism when playing – his maturity already a common source of praise during his fledgling career.

"For such a young player, he has a mature way of playing the game," Andersson added. "He is a very intelligent footballer that acts like a seasoned pro on the pitch. He has improved a lot this past season and I hope he still has more in him."

After breaking free of the wearisome Ibrahimovic comparisons, Isak is establishing himself as a star in his own right.

Was that angel song, or simply the voice of chancellor Angela Merkel confirming the Bundesliga is coming back?

Sweet music resonated among German football supporters on Wednesday when the government gave the go-ahead for the league to resume.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect Germany, but the conclusion of the title race and the battle to beat the drop will now come as welcome distractions.

Here, we look at the story so far of another soap-opera Bundesliga season.

What is the state of play?

Guess who's top? Naturally, it's Bayern Munich. But rather than the German top flight plodding towards a familiar conclusion, a plotline has run through this campaign with twists few saw coming.

Starting the season with an eighth successive title in their sights, Bayern were flailing by the autumn, sitting fourth in the table after 10 games.

They encountered similar strife in 2018-19 and stuck with coach Niko Kovac, but this time patience ran out. Kovac's exit by mutual agreement in early November avoided the need for a messier divorce and sparked speculation Bayern would be in for a superstar boss, and for a while Arsene Wenger was strongly tipped to come in.

Instead, former Germany assistant boss Hansi Flick picked up the pieces, initially on an interim basis, but Bayern have not looked back and sat four points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund when the league went on hold. Flick signed a three-year deal in April.

Dortmund remain in the hunt, not least because Bayern must visit Westphalia and face the Yellow Wall in Der Klassiker before the season ends.

With January arrival Erling Haaland banging in goals at a ridiculous rate since arriving in January from Salzburg, BVB will not be giving up, and nor will third-placed RB Leipzig, a point further back.

Paderborn, top-flight perennials Werder Bremen and Fortuna Dusseldorf were staring the prospect of relegation in the face when the league came to a jarring halt. What difference will the intervening two months have made?

What have been the big controversies?

Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp has been forced to endure a dramatic escalation in hostility towards him from supporters of rival clubs.

Banners bearing insults and threats have been seen on high-profile occasions, with fans expressing outrage towards the Hoffenheim benefactor, who has been allowed to bypass Bundesliga rules that in normal circumstances dictate club members should own majority stakes. As a long-time benefactor of the club, he is entitled to a larger share, his wealth allowing the club to reach the top flight.

Hoffenheim and Bayern left the pitch in a stance against disruptive Bayern fans when the teams met in February. They eventually returned for the closing 11 minutes of the game, with the teams casually passing the ball between themselves as a riposte to the anti-Hopp protests.

Jurgen Klinsmann made a blink-and-you'll-miss-him return to the Bundesliga. The former Bayern and Germany boss was appointed head coach of Hertha Berlin in late November but quit in February after an apparent breakdown in his relationship with the club's board.

Who had momentum before everything stopped?

Bayern's last defeat came against Borussia Monchengladbach on December 7, when Flick was still finding his feet. They have sprinted to the top of the table and looked unstoppable by early March.

Dortmund strung together four straight wins in the Bundesliga before the break, with Haaland and Jadon Sancho such a threat, but a Champions League setback, going out to Paris Saint-Germain, was a heavy blow.

Mainz gathered eight points from five games before the lockdown to give themselves breathing space towards the foot of the table, pulling four points clear of 16th-placed Fortuna.

Which clubs have had it toughest during the COVID-19 months?

Just this week, it was announced there had been 10 positive tests at Bundesliga clubs. The problem, therefore, has not gone away, but officials hope to manage it efficiently.

Salomon Kalou showed he was rather Kalou-less when the Hertha forward posted a video of himself shaking hands with team-mates and interrupting a medical check, defying club instructions.

He was suspended by Hertha for the blunder.

Germany appears to have contained the virus far more effectively than many European countries, which has allowed Merkel to approve the return to action.

The Bundesliga has been given the green light to resume later this month, having been on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic since March.

With nine rounds of the season still to be completed, there remains much to play for in Germany's top-flight and play is set to re-commence in the second half of May.

And given there have been precious few other sporting events around the world allowed to resume yet, the Bundesliga could be set for an influx of new viewers and fans.

While most football fans will be well aware of the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland, Timo Werner, Jadon Sancho and the Bundesliga's other leading stars, there are other players perhaps not quite at that level yet who are also worth keeping an eye on.

We identified six who were either enjoying impressive seasons before the suspension, or have shown significant promise.

Amine Harit (22), attacking midfielder – Schalke

To seasoned viewers of the Bundesliga, Harit won't be a new name – after all, he was Rookie of the Year in 2017-18. But after a difficult 2018-19 Harit is enjoying his finest season in professional football. With six goals and four assists, the Morocco international has been a key player for David Wagner's Schalke this term – the skilful and creative attacking midfielder a threat to any defence on his day. However, all of his goal involvements came before Christmas, and if Schalke are to hold on to a Europa League spot, the 22-year-old rediscovering his 2019 form could be vital.

Christopher Nkunku (22), central midfielder – RB Leipzig

A product of Paris Saint-Germain's academy, Nkunku broke into their first-team squad last term but couldn't hold down a place in the starting XI. Leipzig had seen enough of him to feel compelled to part with a reported €15million for the French midfielder, however, and it looks great business. After scoring with his first touch in Bundesliga football, he has contributed another three goals and 12 assists – a haul bettered by only Sancho and Thomas Muller. A wonderful technician, Nkunku is a dead-ball specialist, a fine striker of the ball and a supreme midfield athlete.

Marcus Thuram (22), forward – Borussia Monchengladbach

There aren't a huge amount of similarities between Marcus and his dad Lilian, one of the greatest centre-backs of his generation, but physical presence is one. Marcus Thuram is a handful for defences in virtually every way possible; quick, strong, tall, athletic and a good dribbler. Capable playing anywhere in attack, Thuram is particularly useful coming in off the left on to his right foot, and he has played a role in 14 league goals this term, eight of which were assists. Gladbach are looking to secure Champions League qualification – if they don't, keeping Thuram could be a challenge.

Dayot Upamecano (21), centre-back – RB Leipzig

You won't find many more-complete centre-backs than Leipzig's Upamecano. Strongly linked with a move to Bayern Munich at the end of the season, the France Under-21 international seems to have it all. His excellent distribution is highlighted by the fact his 66 per cent long-pass success is better than Mats Hummels (58), Manuel Akanji (55) and Benjamin Pavard (61), while his 35 interceptions is more than Virgil van Dijk has managed. The next superstar-in-waiting off the Red Bull production line, Upamecano has a big future in front of him.

Giovanni Reyna (17), attacking midfielder – Borussia Dortmund

The son of former Manchester City and United States midfielder Claudio Reyna, Gio appears destined to go on to bigger things than his old man. The 17-year-old made his debut as a substitute in the 5-3 win over Augsburg on January 18 and has played another seven Bundesliga matches since. Although mostly making cameo appearances, his direct approach to dribbling, upright running style and effortless elegance on the ball bear resemblance to Brazil and Milan great Kaka. It's only a matter of time before he gets his first Bundesliga start.

Jean-Clair Todibo (20), centre-back – Schalke

A newcomer to the Bundesliga, having joined on loan from Barcelona in January, the jury is still out on Todibo. Schalke accept it's unlikely they'll be able to trigger his purchase clause – reportedly worth €25m plus €5m in add-ons – due to the pandemic, but a loan extension is said to be a possibility. A technically gifted centre-back who is comfortable on the ball and a solid passer, Todibo, 20, was perhaps unlucky to not get more opportunities at Camp Nou. He made five league appearances after joining Schalke, and although only two were starts, he is considered a real prospect.

For a player who has had to deal with speculation over his future since attracting attention as a 16-year-old for Valenciennes, it is little wonder Dayot Upamecano is so relaxed about recent links with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

"Even though I know there are clubs that want me - that is certain - I am keeping my feet on the ground," he told Foot Mercato last month. "We will discuss my future at the end of the season with my agents and my family."

Upamecano has a habit of making the right choices, seeing him make a name for himself in the Bundesliga and star on the biggest club stage of them all, the Champions League.

With a pick of Europe's top teams to choose from, as well as the option of extending his stay at his current side, Upamecano faces a big decision at the end of the campaign as he enters the final year of his Leipzig deal.

With the Bundesliga now poised to return later in May after the coronavirus pandemic halted the season, we have used Opta data to examine just why the Frenchman is attracting so much interest from across the continent and look at his next possible career step.

The story so far

Despite supposed interest from Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal at the time, Upamecano opted for Salzburg in 2015 and soon got a taste for first-team football at feeder club Liefering.

Given the links between the clubs, it came as little surprise when the centre-back opted for Leipzig in January 2017, quickly adapting to a new country and a new league with 12 Bundesliga appearances in the remainder of the season.

Upamecano's displays over the course of the next year saw him nominated for the 2018 Golden Boy award, won by then-Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt, but his game has since gone up another level under the stewardship of Julian Nagelsmann.

The Evreux-born defender has been a mainstay at the back, making 29 appearances in all competitions during the current campaign, which has been halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Leipzig have the joint-best defensive record in the Bundesliga this term, alongside leaders Bayern, with Upamecano playing his part in six of their clean sheets, making the most interceptions and clearances in the side.

Pace, power, passing and positioning

Upamecano boasts a short-pass accuracy of 92.24 per cent in the Bundesliga - an impressive figure - but it is his long passing that sets him aside from the division's other elite players at his position.

Nearly 66 per cent of the 199 long passes he has attempted this season have been successful, compared to 61 per cent for Benjamin Pavard at Bayern, with Borussia Dortmund duo Mats Hummels and Manuel Akanji and 58 and 55 per cent respectively.

As impressive as his strength, pace and passing ability may be, the most notable aspect of Upamecano's game is his ability to take the ball off opponents and start attacks from deep.

He has intercepted the ball 35 times this season, five more than Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk - widely considered to be the best central defender on the planet.

They play in different leagues, of course, but Upamecano has also transferred his domestic displays onto the European stage.

Already arguably the most coveted defender around after stifling Bayern's Robert Lewandowski a few weeks beforehand, Upamecano once again stepped up in Leipzig's impressive 3-0 win over Tottenham last month, each of his enduring traits were on display.

With Leipzig successfully overcoming Tottenham to book a place in the quarter-finals, he will now have an even bigger audience to showcase his skills to when the competition eventually resumes.

What have they said and where next?

A number of current and former stars have heaped praise on the 21-year-old, with team-mate Timo Werner comparing him to Jerome Boateng, for a long time a player many youngsters would mould their game on.

During the enforced break in action amid the COVID-19 outbreak, German football legend Lothar Matthaus talked up the youngster while at the same time warning him that he cannot afford to get carried away.

"He's a young player, highly rated, fast, has a good positional game and uses his body well for a 21-year-old. But a year or two in Leipzig would not hurt him," Matthaus told Sky Sport Germany.

"I can still see one or two per cent where he can learn, but he's a huge player and that's why I'm not surprised that top clubs in Europe are after him."

Upamecano would arguably suit a side that looks to get the ball forward quickly, given that is what a large part of his game centres around at Leipzig, but his defensive abilities and dribbling skills means he would not be out of place at any club.

If the rumours are to be believed and Bayern are weighing up an end-of-season move for Upamecano, it may be too big an opportunity to turn down for a player in control of his own destiny.

The death of Ayrton Senna on this day 26 years ago was a chilling moment in sporting history.

Already a motorsport great by the time of the crash that ended his life, Senna is remembered as one of the most accomplished and toughest drivers to have ever got behind the wheel.

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard landed a punch for the ages to become middleweight world champion on May 1, way back in 1957.

And only last year, Lionel Messi struck a wonder-goal against Liverpool that at the time looked to have sunk Jurgen Klopp's side's hopes of reaching the Champions League final.

It was his 600th goal for Barcelona, but there was a twist left in the tie.

1994 - Ayrton Senna dies after Imola crash

The weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix had already been one of the most devastating in Formula One history, with Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger dying after crashing into a wall during Saturday's qualifying session.

Tragically, there was another death to come, and the world was stunned when three-time world champion Senna lost his life in Sunday's race.

Senna was just 34 years old. His Williams car was travelling at 192mph when it ran off course on the seventh lap and collided with a concrete barrier.

The Brazilian was airlifted to hospital but could not be saved and his death was announced that evening.

His funeral took place four days later in Sao Paulo, Senna's home city, with a reported three million people taking to the streets to mourn.

1957 - Sugar Ray Robinson throws the perfect punch

Many rate Robinson as the greatest fighter there has ever been, and aside from a 1943 defeat to Jake LaMotta, he lost to nobody in his first 131 completed professional bouts.

After losing two of his next five fights, Robinson retired in 1952 and pursued a show business career, but he was drawn back to boxing and became a middleweight world champion for the third time in December 1955.

Robinson was increasingly vulnerable later in his career, but he landed a fourth middleweight crown in Chicago on May 1, 1957, avenging a defeat to Gene Fullmer four months earlier.

Fullmer only lost one fight by knockout through his own storied career, and it was this one, Robinson landing a stunning left hook to the jaw in the fifth round that sent his opponent sprawling.

It has been widely described since as a 'perfect punch', and Fullmer had no comeback.

Robinson lost and later regained the middleweight title, retiring at the age of 44 in November 1965.

2019 - Messi puts Barca on the brink with 600th goal

Messi's 600th goal for Barcelona should have left no doubt about the Blaugrana's place in last year's Champions League final; after all, it put them 3-0 up against Liverpool in the first leg.

His raking free-kick flew into the top-left corner, with a small deflection on the way, to bring up another century of goals from Messi for the Camp Nou giants.

It was Messi's second goal of the game, as Barcelona left Liverpool, who played well but went unrewarded, with a mountain to climb at Anfield in the second leg.

Famously, of course, Liverpool turned the tie around with a 4-0 home triumph, leaving Barcelona, and the mercurial Messi, to wonder how they managed to squander such a position.

'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

Every parent thinks they know what's best for their child and that proved to be a key component of Dominik Szoboszlai's development into the talented 19-year-old Hungarian midfielder who is expected to go on big things.

Zsolt Szoboszlai, himself a footballer once, was his son's coach at Videoton until he was dismissed for refusing to bump a child up to a more advanced group, as their parent requested.

But by then, Zsolt had already acquired a strong grounding in youth coaching and development, honing specific philosophies along the way that emphasised ball work.

He and the fathers of two other young players formed their own club in the same town, Fehervar, calling their team Foenix-Gold FC, and 13 years on they are thriving.

According to Foenix-Gold, their ideals lie in humility, hard work and passion, and on their website they openly criticise the Hungarian Football Federation for the "quality of the training", which "hinders the rise of Hungarian football".

But such an attitude can seemingly be backed up by Foenix-Gold's results, as shown by the younger Szoboszlai.

Jacques Rudolph enjoyed a debut to remember for South Africa on this day 17 years ago, while April 26 is a date during which the eyes of the NFL world were locked on Andrew Luck and Baker Mayfield.

Bangladesh had no answer to the classy Rudolph as he made a double-century on his first taste of Test cricket for the Proteas.

Luck found himself headed for Indianapolis, while Mayfield set the sat nav for Cleveland after being taking first in the NFL Draft.

We take a look at some memorable moments from April 26 in years gone by.

2003 – Debutant Rudolph slays Tigers

It was 17 years ago when Rudolph – aged just 21 – arrived on the Test scene with a magnificent 222 not out in South Africa's innings-and-60-run hammering of Bangladesh in Chittagong.

The cultured left-hander put on 429 with Boeta Dippenaar, which represented a South Africa record and 10th highest stand in Test history.

A masterful innings laid the platform for a mammoth victory, with Bangladesh finally put out of their misery with Graeme Smith's declaration.

Rudolph played 48 Tests in total for the Proteas, scoring 2,622 runs in the longest format.

2011 – Neuer makes an impression against Red Devils

It is nine years since Manuel Neuer produced the kind of performance that displayed why he was quickly becoming recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in the world

The record books show a 2-0 defeat for Schalke in their Champions League semi-final home leg against Manchester United.

But the situation would have been much worse had it not been for Neuer, who made a string of brilliant saves.

Neuer left for Bayern Munich at the end of the campaign and he has won seven Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals and a Champions League with Die Roten, also becoming a World Cup winner with Germany in 2014.

2012 – Andrew's Luck in with Colts 

Big things were expected of Luck when he was selected first with the overall pick of the 2012 draft by the Colts, who were looking for an heir apparent to Peyton Manning.

Having impressed at college level with Stanford, losing out on the Heisman Trophy to Robert Griffin III – who went second in the draft, Luck was regarded as one of the best quarterback prospects in years.

He led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three years, including the AFC Championship game in the 2014 season.

But Luck's career became dogged by injuries and, despite winning the NFL's Comeback of the Year award in 2018, he retired prior to the 2019 season at the age of 29 in one of the biggest shocks in the league's history.  

2018 – Browns go for Baker

After going 0-16 in the 2017 season, the Browns had the top pick for the second year running.

Mayfield had a stellar college career, including winning the Heisman in 2017, but had caused some controversy with his on-field antics.

Still, the Browns went for Mayfield over other prospects such as Sam Darnold and Josh Allen.

In his first season, Mayfield entered during a week-three win over the New York Jets as the Browns went 7-8. In the 2019 season, where Mayfield started every game, the Browns were 6-10.

Arsenal may have gone 16 years without an English league title, but the last time they landed the trophy it was an unforgettable triumph for Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles'.

They secured the silverware for the competition then known as the Premiership on this day in 2004, with a 2-2 draw against bitter north London rivals Tottenham.

On the same day, Sri Lanka humiliated Zimbabwe in an ODI cricket clash in Harare, bowling out the home team for 35 - the lowest innings total for a one-day international.

In 2012, Bayern Munich denied Real Madrid a place in the Champions League final when they beat Los Blancos, whose star names faltered in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

And 12 months ago, Kyler Murray chose American football ahead of baseball when he was drafted first by the Arizona Cardinals.

Here we look back on some of the most memorable moments from the world of sport to take place on April 25.

2004 - Wenger wonders toast title at White Hart Lane

Alan Shearer's winner for Newcastle United against high-flying Chelsea earlier in the day meant Arsenal had the chance to scoop the Premier League title at Tottenham's White Hart Lane home.

Unbeaten in the league all season, Wenger's side were not in the mood to let such an opportunity pass them by and swept into a 2-0 lead by half-time thanks to goals from Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires.

Jamie Redknapp pulled one back and Robbie Keane fired a late penalty equaliser for lowly Spurs, but Arsenal had needed just one point, so the 2-2 draw was enough to spark celebrations among the visitors.

2004 - Harare horror show

Zimbabwe lost the ODI series 5-0 and suffered back-to-back huge innings defeats in a 2-0 Test trouncing by Sri Lanka - and this surrender in the third ODI was perhaps the worst of that grisly set of results.

Dion Ebrahim top-scored for Zimbabwe with seven runs as the hosts were skittled for 35 in 18 overs, Chaminda Vaas taking 4-11 with the ball for merciless Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka missed out on a 10-wicket victory when Russel Arnold fell cheaply, but they sauntered to a nine-wicket success to ease 3-0 up in the series.

There were extenuating circumstances, with Zimbabwe hugely weakened due to their established players going on strike in a protest over political interference.

2012 - Penalty woe for Ronaldo and Ramos

Armed with a 2-1 semi-final lead from their home leg, Bayern nevertheless appeared to be seeing the Champions League final slip out of sight when Cristiano Ronaldo fired Madrid 2-0 up inside 15 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu, only for ex-Real winger Arjen Robben to revive the Germans' hopes with a penalty.

The tie was locked at 3-3 on aggregate after half an hour of a breathless second-leg battle and it remained that way after 120 minutes, meaning penalties would decide who joined Chelsea in the final.

The usually reliable Ronaldo and Kaka saw their kicks saved by Manuel Neuer, and Sergio Ramos fired over the bar, allowing Bastian Schweinsteiger to convert the winning penalty.

Jose Mourinho's Madrid still won LaLiga that season, while Bayern finished empty-handed after losing the Champions League final to Chelsea - on penalties - and seeing Borussia Dortmund land a domestic double.

2019 - Cardinals take Murray with first pick

Kyler Murray was the ninth overall pick in the MLB Draft in June 2018, having had his choice of sports. But his continuing success with the Oklahoma Sooners in college football meant Murray was coveted by NFL teams too, and he soon gave up the approaching prospect of a baseball career.

A quarterback, he was drafted first overall by the Cardinals and became a resounding hit in his first NFL season, winning the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

He bettered all other first-year players with 349 completions - the third-most by a rookie in NFL history - and 3,722 passing yards.

Harry Kane is poised to mount a challenge to Alan Shearer's Premier League goals record - and it all began with an April purple patch.

At the beginning of April 2014, the man who has gone on to become England captain was a lively enough Tottenham prospect, albeit struggling for game time in the Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor era.

Kane had yet to score in the English top flight, either for Spurs or in an unproductive loan spell at Norwich, although he had done better in stints in the lower leagues with Millwall, Leyton Orient and Leicester City.

His world changed thanks to a stroke of ill-fortune for Soldado, the goal-shy Spaniard injured in a thumping 4-0 defeat at Liverpool, giving Kane a chance to make his first Premier League start.

Tim Sherwood was in his final weeks as Spurs boss, but it was he who promoted Kane and a three-game scoring run was the result, changing the course of Kane's career and Tottenham's history.


Before starting against Sunderland on Monday, April 7, Kane had made eight Premier League appearances in his career - including three for Norwich - and had not netted in 170 minutes of action.

In the 2013-14 Premier League season, he had featured for only 32 minutes in four brief forays from the bench, having a mere two shots.

Sherwood and predecessor Andre Villas-Boas gave Kane plenty of domestic cup and Europa League opportunities, but an EFL Cup strike at Hull had been his only goal of the season.

Kane landed the Premier League goal he craved by prodding home a Christian Eriksen cross from the left in a 5-1 slaying of Sunderland, before headers in the 3-3 fightback at West Brom and 3-1 home win over relegation-bound Fulham gave him three goals in 13 days.


Starting from the Sunderland game, Kane had 26 shots in six consecutive starts, with an impressive accuracy of 73.3%, let down only by being unable to convert as many of those chances as he would have wanted. Those three in three games were his only Premier League goals of the campaign.

Opta's expected goals model - known as xG - shows that Kane might have done better. He had an xG figure of 4.56 goals for that period, but it would not be long before Kane began exceeding the forecasts of such metrics.


Kane was back on the bench for the start of the 2014-15 season as the Mauricio Pochettino era began, but a flood of Europa League and League Cup goals led to inevitable promotion within the Spurs ranks.

He ended that campaign with 21 Premier League games in 34 appearances, netting once every 122.9 minutes of action and far exceeding his 14.46 xG prediction.


Opta's xG measurements are based on the nature of the chance falling to a player, including looking at whether opportunities are defined as big chances.

Kane has consistently surpassed the xG metrics, demonstrating how clinical he has been, often taking chances when it appeared he stood only a slim chance of scoring.

In 2015-16 he bagged 25 Premier League goals (xG: 21.75), in 2016-17 he grabbed 29 in 30 games (xG: 18.59), in 2017-18 Kane hit 30 goals in the top flight for the first time (xG: 24.79), and last season his 17 goals in 28 games defied xG of 14.77.

During the current, coronavirus-disrupted campaign, Kane has netted 11 times in 20 Premier League games (xG: 7.19), again often proving his team's driving force.


It all began with that April 2014 burst, with Kane now up to 136 Premier League goals, putting him 13th on the all-time list.

Still just 26 years old, he has plenty of time to move closer to Shearer's record of 260 goals in the competition and is within striking distance of former Tottenham favourites Teddy Sheringham (146), Les Ferdinand (149) and Jermain Defoe (162).

It is little wonder Kane has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, but to Spurs he is surely priceless.

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it's a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, it's grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explains to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It's little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

History on hold for the phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will, in theory, be the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While clearly a momentous occasion, coverage of this final hasn't been entirely positive. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – has been met with much praise on the one hand, giving smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez says, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agrees. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. Now there's lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledges, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for a potential postponement of the final, he feels.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said. "That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They are saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalls David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replies when asked if final qualification is a sign of things to come for La Real, who were fourth in LaLiga before its suspension. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 36-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage, while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

"Let's be honest, getting tickets for the Crucible is harder than getting an Iron Maiden ticket, which is saying something."

Snooker's World Championship has been postponed from its traditional April and May dates because of coronavirus, causing huge disappointment to the devotees who flock to Sheffield each year.

Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain is a regular visitor to the Steel City, and the man who has played the world's biggest stadiums and rock arenas feels a unique magic every time he steps through the Crucible Theatre stage door.

Stuart Bingham was a long-time tour pro before he won the World Championship in 2015.

Both men told Stats Perform what you have missed out on if you have never paid a visit to snooker's greatest venue, which was due to host the first day of its 44th consecutive World Championship on Monday.


It's true, the silence can be overwhelming, especially when the tension ramps up.

NICKO MCBRAIN: "Oh my sweet Lord. It really is powerful. There’s certain lights that the TV use that have got fans in them, and that’s all you can hear.

"And you get the odd cough here and there. It’s super quiet, you could literally hear a pin drop. And I felt that sense of awe when the lights went down and the players came down the steps and past the press area where we were sitting.

“Even a whisper sounds like you’re shouting."


The theatre might be renowned worldwide, now that snooker has spread its wings and established strong footholds in Europe and Asia, but it really is poky, seating just 980 spectators.

NICKO MCBRAIN: "Television doesn't do justice to it. Every red-blooded Englishman knows how big a snooker table is and you’ve got two of them sitting on the floor. It’s very tiny and intimate, like a club vibe in there rather than a bigger venue.

"My first impression was of the size and the intimacy in there, and I could really feel the essence of these snooker players, these wonderful professional guys, and [the difference to] novices like me who can’t break more than 39. You can see it’s an amazing atmosphere in the room, and with all the years of history, it’s in every true Englishman’s heart. As soon as you say 'Crucible', they don't associate the Crucible with theatre, which is what it was really built for."


Many of the top professionals had their first taste of the arena as paying spectators, including past champions.

STUART BINGHAM: "I remember coming in 1993 and 1994 to watch Brian Morgan play and getting an autograph, being a snooker fan, so I wore a Brian Morgan T-shirt as I sat in the crowd, just thinking how much I wanted to make it here as a player one day.

"So 20 years later to get my hand on the trophy... these events are every kid’s dream.

"It’s like winning the Masters or the Open in golf, winning the FA Cup or the World Cup. It’s that feeling, just unbelievable.

"I remember walking up the stairs, giving it the old Pat Cash moment, to see my manager who I’d been with since a year before I turned pro. It was just a priceless moment."


That was a term coined by BBC commentary box great Clive Everton, and it aptly describes the 17-day tournament. The wild men of the 1980s snooker boom may have gone, but they have been replaced by a new breed of ravenous competitors. Not that the current set of players wouldn't have enjoyed those heady days of yesteryear.

STUART BINGHAM: "It would definitely have been fun to be part of it. It’s a bit more professional in these days.

"It was maybe a bit more relaxed then, with players having a drink and a smoke, but it’s so professional these days that you have to be match fit. You’ve got to be on your game from day one.

"I think this is the only tournament with the kudos. It’s special. You’ve seen so many special world champions, great memories and it comes about because of this place, the Crucible, and Sheffield."

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