No mega events but plenty on the sporting menu in 2015

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 19, 2014 2:17 PM

By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The lack of an Olympics or a soccer World Cup deprives 2015 of a single global focus for sports fans but a rich calendar of international events has more than enough world class action to satiate even the most refined palate.

Tens of millions of cricket obsessives in South Asia will ensure plenty of eyeballs on the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, while rugby's equivalent is among many contenders for the title of the world's third biggest tournament.

The Tour de France, with a worldwide TV audience of 3.5 billion people every year, will be a battle royale between defending champion Vincenzo nibali, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana in July.

The burgeoning popularity of European club soccer shows no sign of abating but men's international football honours in 2015 will be confined to regional championships in Asia, Africa as well as South, Central and North America.

The finest female footballers from all five continents will gather in Canada in June and July to contest the seventh women's World Cup, however, with Germany and the United States the early favourites.

The Olympic programme is on furlough but not so the athletes, who compete in world championships in track and field, swimming and a host of other sports as they embark on a trail they hope will climax with gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

The July 24-Aug 9 swimming championships in the Russian city of Kazan will be without the biggest name in the sport after 18-times Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps was kicked off the U.S. team in the wake of a drink driving arrest.

Usain Bolt, however, looks certain to be back where it all began for him at the athletics world championships at Beijing's Birds Nest, the venue for his stunning 100 and 200m victories in world record times at the 2008 Olympics.

Seven years on and the Jamaican sprinter, who will turn 29 the day before the championships begin on Aug. 22, remains his sport's trump card as one of the few sportsmen or women to enjoy a truly global profile.

There will be much interest in whether two other members of that elite club, golfer Tiger Woods and tennis maestro Roger Federer, can arrest signs of decline and maintain their place at the top table on grounds of form rather than reputation.

Woods won the last of his 14 major titles two months before Bolt's Beijing triumph and Rory McIlroy could go some way to replacing him as the face of golf if he can become the sixth player to win a career grand slam at the U.S. Masters in April.

Federer has won just one major title, his 17th, in the last four seasons and starts his year as always in Australia, which dominates the first quarter of the 2015 international sporting calendar.

As well as the Australian Open tennis, the country hosts soccer's Asian Cup, the opening race in what looks likes being an intriguing Formula One season, and the cricket World Cup.

Australia have won four of the 10 cricket World Cups and will be confident of a fifth title on home soil from Feb 14 to March 29, with reigning champions India and South Africa the most likely to stop them.

India, whose 2011 triumph helped bolster the 50-over game against the threat of obsolescence in the face of the growth of the Twenty20 game, might struggle on the quick Australian tracks but conditions should suit a settled South Africa team.

New Zealand have won just two of the seven rugby World Cups -- both on home soil -- but still go in as favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy every four years and the Sept 18-Oct 31 tournament in England is no exception.

South Africa and the hosts, the teams responsible for the only two defeats the world champions have suffered in 42 tests since they won the 2011 title, look most likely to benefit if the All Blacks once again falter in the northern hemisphere.

(Editing by Julien Pretot)