From an Optus breakdown to a rising soccer star’s big break, a father’s release to an opposition player’s arrest, a six-wicket over to a 600-gamer’s farewell – the sporting month is off to an enthralling start. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Plays of the month

A soccer player dribbles around a defender.
Adelaide United’s Nestory Irankunda in action against Melbourne Victory this month.
Credit: AAP Image / Rob Prezioso

Last year, less than six months after her surprise retirement from professional tennis, three-time grand slam singles title winner Ash Barty was appointed Optus’s chief of inspiration. More than a year later, the meaning and responsibilities of the role remain mysterious despite the corporate eloquence of the telco’s chief executive, Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, who said at the time: “Ash is a true Australian icon and role model – her performance on the courts epitomised a challenger spirit, determination and strength, while her community work has demonstrated the power of optimism in action. We’re thrilled to bring this partnership to life and inspire more Australians to enable their tech futures and unlock the power of ‘yes’.”

After a spectacular data breach last year, and then this month’s historically disruptive outage, which crippled Melbourne’s train system and left millions without internet, mobile reception or the ability to call triple-0 from landlines, it was Optus customers who were asked to epitomise the challenger spirit and demonstrate the power of optimism – not least if you were home alone and suffering cardiac arrest.

It is unknown if or how the inspiring qualities of Ash Barty were deployed during last week’s crisis. But no doubt the telco’s technicians were in need of some themselves, and it’s fun to imagine the chief executive ordering them all from their work desks for a rallying speech from the general. “You may be wondering why you’re listening to an ex-tennis pro describe how she once upset Serena Williams by revising her backhand slice, rather than, say, figuring out how to let folks call ambulances again,” Barty might have said. “To which I can only quote from John McEnroe’s inspirational memoir, But Seriously, in which he reminds us that…”

For certain pundits, ex-teammates and concerned culture warriors, Justin Langer was men’s cricket’s own chief of inspiration, and his loss as national coach last year was considered a triumph of player arrogance – one that would condemn the team to mediocrity and the country to eternal embarrassment. But this year, the Test team respectably lost 2-1 in India, won the World Test Championship against the same side, retained the Ashes in England and, after an unconvincing start, strung seven consecutive victories together to make the World Cup semi-finals in India this week. They’re doing okay, but if Langer’s still itchy to inspire, then perhaps Optus could employ him as Barty’s deputy?

Elsewhere, Liverpool Football Club forward and Colombian national Luis Díaz was reunited with his father for the first time since his kidnapping by Colombian guerillas last month. Both of Díaz’s parents were seized by armed members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) from a petrol station in Barrancas, a small town near the Venezuelan border. Díaz’s mother was rescued by police hours after the kidnapping; his father was released only last week.

Díaz received news of the kidnapping on the eve of Liverpool’s match against Nottingham Forest, from which he was naturally absent. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp said at the time: “The preparation was the most difficult I ever had in my life.” Díaz played in the next match, scored, then revealed an undershirt with the words “libertad para papa” – freedom for Dad.

After his release, Colombian sports broadcaster Carlos Aleman told The Athletic: “This country came together to express disgust against the actions of the ELN. It was news that plunged us into infinite sadness. It revived ghosts of the past, where kidnappings dominated the front pages of all media outlets in the country.”

Last year, a month before his 16th birthday, Nestory Irankunda made his A-League Men’s debut for Adelaide United. Considered one of our best young talents, the interest of one of the world’s most famous clubs, Bayern Munich, has long been rumoured. This week, only a fortnight after Irankunda scored a stunning goal from a free kick, Munich’s interest was confirmed: they’d signed the 17-year-old for a reported Australian record of $5.5 million. “I’m happy to have this all finalised and to be heading to one of the best clubs in the world; it’s a real dream come true,” he said in a statement.

There will still be time to watch Irankunda play domestically, though. FIFA’s laws prohibit the transfer of players younger than 18, and so he will not make his move to Germany until the middle of next year. In the meantime, look up that free kick against Melbourne City.

Still with the World Game, England said farewell to Sir Bobby Charlton as his funeral cortege moved between Old Trafford – the stadium he once electrified – and Manchester Cathedral. Born in 1937, Charlton survived the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight of his teammates, and would later win the Ballon d’Or and the 1966 World Cup with England – his country’s first and only. He played more than 600 times for Manchester United, and more than a hundred times for his country, for which he remains the third-highest goalscorer.

One of the thousands of United fans who lined the city’s streets was 84-year-old Jimmy Turner, who told The Guardian: “I still see him as a young man on a poster.

“He seemed to glide across the pitch. His passing was immaculate. You knew once he had the ball it was going in like a rocket. It was fantastic to watch. I can’t see him as an old man. He still is my hero. He’s two years older than I am and I still can’t believe he’s gone, really.”

Melbourne farewelled one of its own footballing legends, Ron Barassi, at a state funeral held at the MCG on November 1o, while the AFLW prepared for its semi-finals this weekend, the big story of which was the appearance of the Sydney Swans, who will play minor premiers Adelaide. The Swans went winless in their first season last year, but have recently excelled with new signing Chloe Molloy. In the other semi-final, Melbourne play Geelong. Brisbane and North Melbourne await the winners of each.

The Australian NBA star Ben Simmons, who has suffered a dramatically ignominious and injury-fouled past couple of years, has once again been declared unfit to play. His agent this week said Simmons was experiencing “nerve irritation” in his lower back and will sit out from Brooklyn’s matches for a short but indefinite period. Simmons has averaged 6.5 points, 6.7 assists and almost 11 rebounds for the Nets over six games this season.

Meanwhile, police in Britain arrested a man this week on suspicion of manslaughter following the death, in late October, of pro ice hockey player Adam Johnson. An American playing for the Nottingham Panthers, Johnson’s neck was fatally slashed by the skate blade of an opponent during a match. One of Johnson’s teammates, Westin Michaud, has publicly shared his belief that the tragedy was accidental. “It’s clear to me his actions were unintentional and anyone suggesting otherwise is mistaken,” he posted on X. “Let’s come together and not spread unwarranted hate to someone who needs our support.”

The English Ice Hockey Association has since said neck guards would be mandatory for players from next year.

Closer to home, the Australian National Dictionary Centre selected “Matilda” as its word of the year, while Heinz released a video suggesting “runners everywhere are using Heinz ketchup packets on their runs” – to which nutritionists and coaches responded sceptically – and Queensland third-grade cricketer Gareth Morgan made international news with his miraculous final over in a match for the Mudgeeraba Nerang and Districts Cricket Club against Surfers Paradise. With the opposition requiring five runs from the final over with six wickets in hand, Mudgeeraba Nerang and Districts captain Morgan nominated to bowl the ultimate over – and miraculously took six wickets. “I remember thinking after I got the hat-trick – I don’t want to lose this game now,” he said. “Then it just went crazy. When I saw the stumps go back on the last ball I couldn’t believe it … It was definitely up there with one of my best moments [in my life].”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Inspiration expiration".

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