Ajax has been released from last place in the Eredivisie. ‘Phenomenal Hassan wins in marathon debut in London’. ‘FIFA boss confirms: Saudi Arabia will host 2034 World Cup’. ‘Sepp Kuss completes Jumbo-Visma’s unique trilogy with Vuelta victory’. ‘Double sadness for the Netherlands due to dramatic falls just before the finish’. ‘Orange Lionesses keep Olympic dream alive after crazy ending with two goals in injury time’. And, at the last minute, Ajax again: ‘Historic stunt: Ajax lost in the KNVB Cup against amateurs from Hercules.’

Just some headlines from last year. Events that no one could have predicted. The unexpected is what makes sport beautiful. Perhaps it is the raison d’être of sport. And sometimes anticipation is almost as much fun as reality. Therefore: five questions and answers to kick off the 2024 sports year.

1. Will PSV get a perfect score?

PSV celebrates the 4-0 victory over AZ in Alkmaar in the last round before the winter break.
Photo Olaf Kraak/ANP

January 12 – May 19: second half of the Eredivisie season

He became overall amateur champion with AGOVV and was promoted to the Eredivisie with Heracles Almelo. Peter Bosz sometimes says it himself: he has won quite a bit in his career as a trainer. But a national title at professional level has not been possible in the quarter century that he has been a head coach. It has to happen this season. At PSV, where his team has a ten point lead over number two Feyenoord (and fourteen over number three FC Twente) at the halfway point of the competition. Never has a team given away such a lead after the winter break.

It is already clear to the fans: PSV will become champions. One supporter already had a champion tattoo (a light bulb wearing a PSV scarf) and showed it on television. In fact, the PSV crowd is mainly tense for the eighth final of the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund. And they are calculating. Because could it be possible, a perfect score after 34 competition games?

102 points. That has never happened in the Eredivisie. The record is in the name of Ajax, in the 1971-1972 season: 93 points (converted, because you still received two points for a victory). Ajax, with Johan Cruijff, also won the European Cup I and the KNVB Cup that year. PSV never achieved more than 88 points in one season, that was in 2014-2015, under the leadership of coach Phillip Cocu.

PSV has now played sixteen matches and won 16: 48 points, goal difference 56-6. At the beginning of this season, Bosz won the Johan Cruijff Shield with PSV by beating Feyenoord 1-0.

2. Is Rafael Nadal capable of a grand farewell?

Rafael Nadal on Tuesday during his successful return to the ATP Tour in Brisbane
Photo William West/AFP

Sunday January 14 – Sunday January 18, 2024: Australian Open

Number 672. That is the position of Rafael Nadal (37) in the world rankings. He was injured during the 2023 Australian Open and had to leave the tournament in the second round. Cause: the iliopsoas, a muscle at the front of the hip. Nadal underwent surgery. And then? Doubts. Months of doubts.

Would Nadal, one of the best tennis players of all time, return to the court? Sometimes he gave an update. He was training again. He hoped to return. He wasn’t sure yet. He wondered if he could still do it physically. The definitive answer came via a video that Nadal posted on X in early December: yes. He will play the ATP tournament in Brisbane this week in preparation for the Australian Open (the tournament director had accidentally revealed his participation on television).

“I always hoped that I would be able to play again,” Nadal said a little before his own announcement on the ATP Tour website. “How often and at what level? That is difficult to answer. We know the pain will never go away, but I took another step. That means a lot to me.”

It is pretty much certain that it will be his last year. It is not clear how long the 22-time Grand Slam winner will last in Australia. He defeated Austrian Dominic Thiem in the first round on Tuesday, but will his hip hold up? And his back – rather a problem too. At the end of December, Nadal’s coach Carlos Moyá again fueled doubts about the physical capabilities of the clay specialist. “Playing for three sets won and being back on the court two days later… then we have to wait and see whether the body can handle that load and how the body reacts.”

3. Will the leader in Frenkie de Jong stand up?

Frenkie de Jong played the ball for FC Barcelona in a league match against Girona FC in December last year.
Photo by Pau Barrena /AFP

Friday June 14 – Sunday July 14: European Football Championship in Germany

It was the middle of summer, and football season seemed far away. FC Barcelona was in Las Vegas to play a lucrative tournament against other European top clubs. There the club announced who would be the captains in the upcoming season – Barcelona always appoints several leaders. Frenkie de Jong was one of them. He was “very proud” of it, he said during a press moment, “it does me good.”

De Jong was never seen as a leading figure. A quiet boy, kind, polite, great football player. And the latter can also be leadership, of course. Breaking open a game with one pass. Claim a ball under pressure and dribble past three opponents. That the whole team thinks: so, and now you again.

De Jong has always had moments like that. As a player for Ajax, when he left a few Real Madrid players orphaned on the ground after an unprecedented passing move. And recently, when he played with FC Barcelona against Valencia, and with the outside of his foot he put two teammates completely free in front of the goal.

Virgil van Dijk is captain of the Dutch national team. He does the most interviews and is so important as a leader that he was included in the team during the 2021 European Championship despite a serious injury.

But slowly, more attention is being paid to De Jong. When the idea arose last year that Dutch players are ‘too nice’ to each other, he was one of the players who calmly but decisively challenged the story. He thought it was a bit exaggerated, he said during a press conference, it had taken on “a life of its own”. You didn’t hear much about it after that.

De Jong will turn 27 in May. He will play his third major final tournament. Every national coach drafts him first.

Perhaps the week of November 21 was symbolic of his growth as a person. De Jong became a father. A few days later he wore the captain’s armband of FC Barcelona. He is already a leader there. He seems ready for the Dutch team.

4. Is Sifan Hassan doing something that is physically impossible?

Sifan Hassan during the 5,000 meters final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
Photo Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ ANP

Friday July 26 – Sunday August 11: Paris Olympic Games

On the bus to the start of the marathon in London, Sifan Hassan almost wanted to cancel. She did not feel fit, had not actually trained enough, had been ill, had recently fasted for a month during Ramadan, and often trained in Ethiopia next to a road on which many polluting trucks drove. The outcome, in April 2023, is known: Hassan ran anyway, got cramp halfway through, but won the prestigious marathon – she had never run the distance in a competition before.

Later, Hassan also won the Chicago marathon, and then the question became very pressing: will she also go for the longest distance during the Paris Olympics? In the meantime, she won bronze in the 1,500 meters and silver in the 5,000 meters during the World Athletics Championships in Budapest – a fall in the 10,000 meters prevented her from winning a gold medal.

If you can do everything, what do you choose? Do you choose at all? In principle, it is physically impossible to combine short, medium and long distances and be world top everywhere. Marathons require a completely different training regimen than the 1,500 meters. The marathon also requires something completely different from a body than medium distances such as the 5 and 10 kilometers. The body’s own ‘fuel’ glycogen is indispensable for running, but those who only train for 5 or 10 kilometers do not have enough of it for a marathon. Fat burning also works very differently during a marathon.

A body can be perfectly adjusted to either shorter distances or the marathon. But Sifan Hassan can do both. It is still uncertain whether she will combine distances on the track – and which of the three – with the marathon. But at the end of December, Hassan announced that she will run the Tokyo Marathon on March 3. She seems to be preparing for the Olympic marathon. Which track distances she will run will probably only be known just before the Olympic Games.

If she chooses a combination of track numbers and the marathon, she can achieve a unique performance. Only the Czechoslovak runner Emil Zátopek (‘the locomotive’) ever did something like this. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, he won gold in the 5,000, 10,000 meters and marathon. “If you want to win something, run a mile. If you want to experience a new life, run a marathon,” Zátopek once said.

And actually it is the same with Hassan. She needs new goals to continue enjoying her sport. To feel like she’s alive. Although it also suits her to keep choices hidden for a long time. Or to hesitate for a long time. We may not know whether she will run the Olympic marathon until she steps off the bus to that race.

5.Nederlands success in ‘Oranje’-Tour de France Femmes?

Demi Vollering won many large and small races for her SD Worx team last season, including a stage in the Tour de Romandie.
Photo Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA.

Monday August 12 – Sunday August 18: Tour de France Femmes in the Netherlands, Belgium and France

When Tour de France winner Demi Vollering is in the Netherlands, she sleeps with her parents in Berkel and Rodenrijs. Then she trains in the area: Rotterdam, Zeeland, lowlands, coastline. She had thought a lot about how the course of the Tour de France Femmes would be laid out in 2024. Would she go to places she knew?

Of course. For those who are not completely clear: the Tour de France Femmes will largely be a Dutch tour. Start in Rotterdam (near Berkel and Rodenrijs), finish of the first stage in The Hague (note fans along the coast!). On the second day even two stages in the Netherlands. Dordrecht – Rotterdam (67 kilometers) and an individual time trial (6.3 kilometers) through the center of Rotterdam. On the fourth day we start in Valkenburg, cross the Cauberg and head towards Belgium and ultimately go to France. After eight days there is the finish on top of Alpe d’Huez.

A “Vollering Tour”, Vollering himself said to the NOS at the presentation of the course in October. “This will never happen again. I hope to see family, friends and acquaintances on the sidelines.” Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb spoke of “three days of celebration in the Netherlands for women’s cycling”.

The major Dutch role in the upcoming Tour de France Femmes is not entirely surprising. The Netherlands has dominated the sport for years. Since 2016, the Dutch formation SD Worx has been named the best team every year. But 2023 was everything: Vollering won on behalf of the team not only the Tour de France, but also (among others) the Amstel Gold Race, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “It’s just kind of antisocial now,” said sporting manager Danny Stam NRC about the team’s success.

Because Annemiek van Vleuten said goodbye to cycling at the end of last year and Marianne Vos missed a large part of the last road season after surgery on a femoral artery, all eyes will be focused on Demi Vollering again during the ‘Dutch Tour’.

Her own expectations are also high. She is going for a second Tour victory in a row. Finally on Alpe d’Huez, a mountain she had never climbed before. “It was the first climb I heard of as a little girl,” she said at the course presentation. She always wanted to win there.


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