It’ll be easy to remember 2016 as the year of the sporting underdog: in major leagues around the world, teams wildly defied expectations and the weight of history. In one special case, victory came after a 108-year-long curse. However, for all the dramatic middle fingers raised at the odds, there were just as many quiet successes, and sportspeople the world over overcame personal turmoil to reach the pinnacle of their fields. Sprinkle in some champs being genuinely solid humans outside of the arena, and you’ve got yourself a solid list of the most heart-warming sporting events of the past twelve months:


19) Watermelon Boy ushers in a fruity revolution

At its best, sport allows us to demonstrate fearless creativity and a disregard of convention. 2016 proved spectators ain’t exempt from that, either. Opening the year in an, uh, hungry fashion, a young fan was spotted watching the January 2 Women’s Big Bash League clash between Melbourne Stars and Melbourne Renegades while devouring a watermelon, skin and all. His tenacity and can-do attitude quickly devolved into rampant memery, but look, it was a fun way to welcome in a year chock-full of left-field sporting goodness.

Also, the real list starts here.

18) Iceland’s Euro success and their throat-shredding commentator

The past 12 months have been so full of underdog triumphs, it’s possible to lose sight of moments that would’ve topped almost any other year. Iceland’s incredible success at the UEFA Euros football championship falls into that category, and commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson is one fella who won’t ever forget it. Not only did the team hold eventual champions Portugal to a 1-1 draw in the group stages, they also clocked a quarterfinal berth by beating England 1 – 2. While they were eventually knocked out by a very strong French outfit, Benediktsson’s throat-shredding call for Iceland’s second goal against the Poms is all you need to know about the passion and quality of their achievement.

17) Daniel Ricciardo introduces the world to shoeys


Formula 1
driver Daniel Ricciardo’s success behind the wheel is probably worthy of its own post here – after all, eight podium finishes, including 1st place at the Malaysian Grand Prix, propelled him to third place at the end of the season – but we’re also pretty stoked on his unique form of cultural exchange. For the first time, the time-honoured tradition of the shoey was given a global audience by the ever-grinning Red Bull wheelman, and we couldn’t help but feel a rush of pride every time he gurgled the bubbly from a still-warm boot. 

16) Ireland finally conquers the All Blacks

Ireland’s rugby union squad waited a hell of a long time – 111 years – to notch a competitive win over the All Blacks, but they managed it in 2016 with considerable style. Denting New Zealand’s winning ways in Chicago (a city you’ll see again in this list), the boys in green finally secured a victory to match their considerable guts.

15) Mick Fanning returns to J-Bay 

Despite being largely absent from the professional circuit, Aussie surfing royalty Mick Fanning still had a tumultuous twelve months. Not only did he return to South Africa’s J-Bay, the site of that shark run-in, he left with another competition W under his wetsuit. A recent jaunt to Norway also saw the bloke surf under the Northern Lights“In total darkness, just staring up, watching these lights go over you… And the silhouettes of the mountains were just incredible.”  Well deserved, tbqh.

14) Sabre Norris crushes waves, donuts, and our hearts

Speaking of instantly recognisable Aussie surfers, 11-year-old Sabre Norris‘ doughnut-fueled rise to notoriety has been an absolute blessing. It’s not only because of her frankly bonkers level of charisma, either: she’s a genuinely talented competitor with a future in the sport, if she doesn’t get plucked for a seemingly-likely media gig.

13) Ben Simmons becomes the NBA #1 Draft Pick

Ben Simmons. 19. Born in Fitzroy, Melbourne. #1 NBA draft pick. Philadelphia 76er. While Simmons’ first season in the big leagues has been mired with injury, nothing can take away the fact the brightest prospect in pro basketball is a young Australian. Shout-outs to Thon Maker as well, another ‘Strayan-raised gun who went at pick #10 to the Milwaukee Bucks.


12) Fiji nabs first-ever Olympic gold medal

Fiji did a pretty bang-up job of securing their first ever Olympic gold medal: not only was it in the brand new rugby sevens event, they did it while destroying the Poms. After 14 summer Olympic appearances, the Pacific Island nation came out on top – and look, their celebratory hymn afterwards was pretty special, too.

11) The Cleveland Cavaliers win big and Delly celebrates bigger

Sure, Cleveland may have lost out in the baseball, but the Cavaliers’ NBA victory sure as hell made up for that. Not only did the outfit secure their very first title, they did so with Aussie Matthew Dellavedova in the ranks. Even if you’re die-hard Golden State Warriors fan, seeing Delly celebrate with double-parked Coronas and rollercoasters has to bring you some form of pure joy.

10) Lionel Messi finally meets his lil’ superfan

After a photo of Afghani kid Murtaza Ahmadi fashioning his own Lionel Messi jersey from a plastic bag went viral, the Argentinian footballer / GOAT tracked him down to send him a signed version of the real thing. Just recently, their bro-hood went a bit further, as Murtaza got to meet Messi and the whole Barcelona squad. We’d be just as stoked as young mate, trust us.

9) Cronulla Sharks finally make NRL history

In their 50th season of top-flight rugby league, Cronulla Sharks‘ talismanic captain Paul Gallen lead the team to a 12 – 14 victory against the Melbourne Storm. Make no mistake, it was a tightly fought game which Melbourne could have taken, but look, sometimes you just have to give the long-time fans a trophy to appease the universe. 

8) Aussie surfer Tyler Wright secures first World Championship

22-year-old Aussie Tyler Wright securing her first ever World Surf League World Championship victory is worthy of this list in and of itself, but the fact she did so during such a trying period cements its importance. She became world champ while her brother, fellow pro Owen, recovered from a serious brain injury sustained during a fall on a wave. On the maturation she’s undergone in the past 12 months, Wright said “it made me realise I really do want to [win a world title] — I find it enjoyable, it makes me happy and I love it.” And now she has.

7) Curtis McGrath comes through on his Paralympic promise

Four years ago, Australian Curtis McGrath lost both of his legs to an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. As he waited for treatment, he told his squad they’d be seeing him in the Paralympics. He was right, and they ended up watching him take the gold medal in the KL2 para-canoe.

6) Beau Ryan answers a fan’s urgent call

 

Former NRL star and Footy Show host Beau Ryan was the subject of an urgent Facebook call-out earlier this month. A friend of 22-year-old Kia Lattice, a massive fan with an advanced cancer diagnosis, asked him to visit her bedside. Within four hours, he made the trip from Shellharbour on the NSW south coast to Randwick’s Prince of Wales Hospital. Tragically, Lattice died several days later, but friends and family have written how much Ryan’s visit meant.

5) The football world rallies around Chapecoense

Behold The Warmest, Fuzziest Highlights From A Mercifully Gr8 Year In Sport

via Laurence Griffiths / Getty.

There is nothing heartwarming about the loss of Brazil’s Chapecoense football team, but the sporting world’s actions after that deadly plane crash have been admirable. Not only did the team due to play Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamerica final offer them the title, but several greats of the game – including Ronaldinho – have been linked with transfers to the team. The Brazilian league has also ensured the squad won’t face relegation for several seasons as they rebuild. #ForçaChape.

4) The Chicago Cubs break the curse

By and large, Australia kind of missed the boat on baseball. Besides, we’re a dominant force in the objectively superior sport of cricket. Regardless, the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory is worth mentioning because of how bloody long it took – and because the Cubs’ losing ways had actually become a bloody meme. Defeating he Cleveland Indians to take the title for the first time after World War I, the Cubs gave long-suffering fans the chance to let loose. Not like Bill Murray needed an excuse, though.

3) Women’s AFL just keeps scoring goals

2016 was a huge year for women’s footy. Not only did the AFL announce a fully-fledged 8-team league will kick off from next year, exhibition matches proved the quality – and viability – of the competition. The Western Bulldogs’ 90 – 51 win over Melbourne crushed television ratings nationwide, while showcasing the fine footy of bona fide stars like future Collingwood gun Moana Hope. While there’s still a long way to go before players reach income parity with their male counterparts, this year went a long way to show just how awesome women’s footy can be – and already is.

2) Western Bulldogs power through to win the premiership flag

Grit. Guts. Perseverance. A slew of season-shaking injuries, and a peerless ability to fight through ’em. Those factors are what pushed the Western Bulldogs to their first major AFL flag in 62 years. Cementing their place as everyone’s second favourite team, the squad powered through to beat the Sydney Swans 67 – 89 in an all-time great grand final. The team’s respect for its injured members pushes this one into our #2 spot, ’cause watching coach Luke Beveridge hand his medal over to sidelined skipper Bob Murphy might be one of the most chest-clutchingly beautiful moments the game has ever produced.

Plus, check out how Tom Liberatore celebrated:

1) Leicester City win the Premier League and we still can’t believe it

Leicester City Football Club’s success is perhaps not only the most feel-good sporting moment of the year, it may well be the greatest sporting underdog story to ever unfold. It goes beyond their much-touted 5000 – 1 odds of Premier League glory, ’cause every single element of their victory commands immense respect: with a seemingly piece-meal team of utility players and diamond-in-the-rough unknowns, they won against titans of the game. They conquered financial juggernauts on a comparatively minuscule budget. And they did it while playing superb counter-attacking football. The team that wasn’t even in the Premier League a matter of years ago before commands top spot here, too. Watch out for the biopic of striker Jamie Vardy’s tumultuous life, coming any time soon.

Photo: Adam Trafford / AFL Media / Getty.