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Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig deliver Bundesliga early Christmas gift



Right at that time of year when those watching the Bundesliga ask themselves whether anyone can challenge Bayern, RB Leipzig answered with a resounding yes.

Julian Nagelsmann’s side dominated early proceedings, recovered from a quick fire Bayern double and kept the world’s most in-form striker, Robert Lewandowski, out of the game. They might not have won, but it has been a long time since a team displayed as much quality and confidence throughout a game in Munich.

Bayern, on the other hand, might feel more like this was two points dropped than one gained. Hansi Flick’s side had their moments, Kinsgley Coman bagged a hat trick of assists that left Leroy Sané in the wind, but not even the inevitable nature of their equalizer could hide just how a tough a test this was.

A game worthy of the hype

Despite excessive schedules only exacerbated by having a host of players away on international duties, this was a contender for game of the season. Not just for the dramatic back-and-forth and exciting football on display but because a game between the top two teams in the league, the best attack (Bayern had scored 31 goals beforehand) against the best defense (RB Leipzig had only conceded six beforehand), and the country’s top two coaches truly lived up to the hype.

Much of that is down to Julian Nagelsmann and his side. Indeed, the only thing better than Nagelsmann’s plan was his side’s execution of it. Given he was unable to rest too many big names in Leipzig’s midweek thriller in Turkey – unlike Hansi Flick in Madrid – and with more than half an eye on the showdown with Manchester United next week, assessment of the young German coach in this game might have been tied to RB Leipzig’s European hopes. Instead, it should be about how he delivered a blueprint as to how to push the defending champions.

“We had Tuesday in the back of the minds so I’m happy with the way the lads went to their limit,” Nagelsmann said afterwards.

RB Leipzig’s opener, one that fittingly came from a Bayern attack, was less of a surprise and more a reward for a game plan that hurried their hosts and made them look ordinary. Having won the ball back following Thomas Müller’s misplaced pass, Emil Forsberg sprang the pass for Christopher Nkunku. The Frenchman did what few have ever done and found a way around the out-rushing Manuel Neuer before rolling into the empty net.

Musiala and Müller magic

Perhaps Hansi Flick might have made the change anyway, but when the weakest element of this Bayern side (Javi Martinez) was forced off with injury, his replacement breathed new life into the hosts.

Seventeen-year-old Jamal Musiala’s agility and speed on the ball made a difference in midfield. Five minutes after he came on, he sent a rasping low drive into the bottom corner from outside the box. “He was in a position where we had trouble at the start, but he demanded the ball and even though he is 17, he is really mature,” Flick said afterwards.

Five minutes after that, Thomas Müller had Bayern in front as the contest went up a gear. “You live for games like these,” Emil Forsberg said afterwards.

Indeed, games that players long to play in also afford many the opportunity to make their name, and loanee Justin Kluivert did just that with a neatly taken finish to make it 2-2. Three minutes after the restart, Angelino put the third on Forsberg’s head, as the Swede capped a great night. “I was surprised at how open I was,” Forsberg admitted afterwards, a damning indictment of Bayern’s marking.

First Munich, then Manchester

Bayern had gone from looking like Bayern to looking like Germany, namely capable of scoring goals but incapable of defending. Flick called it a wild game, lamenting relatively easy goals conceded and that too often his side played the ball long when a pass along the ground was necessary.

Naturally, Müller was on hand to head home a perfect Coman cross at the peak of Bayern’s pressure.

“It was a thrilling game. You could see we had a day less to recover and had to take off key players after the hour mark to rest them for next week and that made life harder for us,” Nagelsmann said afterwards.

In the context of the Bundesliga, such games are not unprecedented. In recent years, Bayern and Dortmund have delivered truly exciting games, as have Bayern and RB Leipzig. In the context of the current season though, that these two teams – admittedly aided by enormous financial means – were able to deliver such a contest was impressive.

Julian Nagelsmann proved against Bayern Munich that with great risk can come great reward. Now the unrelenting nature of football’s schedule will ask him and his side to do it all in again in three days time. For now though, it is clear who Bayern’s challengers this season are.

As it happened:

— Müller in critical mood

He may have notched a brace but Thomas Müller is not entirely satisfied with his evening’s work.

“For me there were too many times that we lost the ball,” Müller told Sky. “Not everything was perfect. Of course you don’t score twice in every game, I’m happy about that but for me personally, it could have been more today.”

— No winners or all winners?

Who is happier with that result? Instinct would probably say Leipzig, but Julian Nagelsmann’s substitutions suggested he thought his side could win it. Bayern are certainly looking more vulnerable than they have since Hansi Flick took over but they still get the job done. And, despite their shortcomings, which were evident in today’s draw with Eintracht Frankfurt, this result keeps Borussia Dortmund in touch.

FULL TIME: It petered out a little at the end but this was a sensational game.FromNkunku’s early breakaway goal, through a goal from the bench from 17-year-old Musiala and a brace from Müller that put Bayern in front and then saved them, it had it all. In the end, a draw was a fair reflection of a high caliber game and Bayern remain two points clear of RB Leipzig at the summit of the Bundesliga. Stay here for post-match reaction and report.

90+1 – Neuer flies out of his goal again, as he did for Leipzig’s first. But this time he gets it right and whacks it clear.

90′ – Neuer gets away with another nervy moment as he controls a ball outside the box on his chest but Bayern on the front foot as we move in to two minutes of added time.

87′ – Gnabry has grass in front of him and drives in from the left flank. But Nkunku blocks his shot from the edge of the box. Leipzig have lost a bit of control here, they can’t keep the ball.

85′ – Two subs combine as Costa floats a ball from the left towards Musiala on the opposite flank. But the teenager can’t do anything with the header.

83′ – The tempo has slowed a touch, unsurprisingly. But Flick won’t have that, he introduces Costa in place of Coman and Richards for Boateng, who has had a touch evening.

80′ – In to the last ten and neither side look keen to settle for a point, feels like there’s a winner here.

77′ – Gnabry wriggles free down the right and hammers in a low cross, Konate just about hacks it clear. And Nagelsman moves for a change before the corner, bringing on Orban and Sörloth for Haidara and Kluivert.

75′ – Bayern Munich 3 (Müller) – 3 RB Leipzig
It had been coming, and it’s that man Müller. Musiala started things, pushing the ball out to Coman on the right. The winger whipped in a wicked cross and two Leipzig defenders got drawn to Lewandowski, leaving Müller free to nod home from close range. What’s next?

72′ – Sabitzer, who has had a few injury problems of late, is replaced by Kampl, who should bring some energy to the visitors. Dani Olmo is also on, with Mukiele the man replaced.

70′ – The visitors are starting to sit deep here. It’s a long time to hold on against this Bayern team.

67′ – Bayern have seen a lot of the ball lately but they’re struggling to turn their opponents around. Lewandowki and Müller both being kept quiet. For now.

64′ – Flick responds. Gnabry on for Sane, who had a quiet game.

62′ – Nagelsmann makes the first change, Poulsen replacing Forsberg who, as it stands, has scored the winner. Fair way to go yet though.

60′ – Musiala drifts left and spots the run of Sane from the opposite flank, but his cross is slightly overhit.

59′ – Little bit of a scrappy spell now, for maybe the first time in the match before Neuer almost makes another blunder, slipping during a routine backpass. Gets away with it.

55′ – Musiala dances his way in to the box after a short corner on the left but he holds on a bit too long as is crowded out.

54′ – Neuer just about gets away with another mistake as he looks to play a one-two with Süle in his own box. Adams reads it but he’s too close to the byline and can’t get it under control.

51′ – Mukiele is the first name in the book for a fairly innocuous looking challenge.

48′ GOAL! Bayern Munich 2 – 3 RB Leipzig (Forsberg 48′)
A well-worked move from Leipzig but more catastrophic defending form Bayern. The Swedish midfielder finds yards of space between Süle and Boateng and nods in Angelino’s inch-perfect cross from the left.

47′ – Upamecano plays a loose pass at the back which almost gets his side in trouble. But Coman is a touch slow in reading it and gives away a foul.

46′ – We’re back underway in this fascinating contest. A massive 45 minutes coming up.

HALF TIME: Well, I think we all need a breather after that. RB Leipzig started the scoring, with Nkunku breaking Bayern’s offside trap and beating Neuer, who come way off his line. Bayern then turned it round with two excellent goals from substitute Musiala and then Müller. It’s been frantic, fun and high quality. Here’s to more in 15 minutes.

45+2 – Lewandowski, who has been ususually quiet, tries to flick Sane in but the keeper gets there first.

45′ – Now Nkunku is down, a disjointed end to a brilliant half.

44′ – Haidara is up and hobbling and we go again.

42′ – Haidara down on the turf holding his head and played is stopped for a moment. Time for a breath.

40′ – Forsberg thinks he’s got Nkunku through again but he’s just offside. Bayern’s defensive line almost on the halfway line there, a dangerous game against this team.

39′ – This has been played at a frantic pace but there’s still a decent level of control, the sign of a high class contest.

36′ – GOAL! Bayern Munich 2 – 2 RB Leipzig (Kluivert)
What is going on?! Julian Nagelsmann’s selection call now vindicated. This one came from nowhere, with Haidara turning a cute, cushioned little ball around the corner on the edge of the box and the Dutchman setting himself before hammering a low drive from right to left across Neuer. What a game.

34′ – GOAL! Bayern Munich (Müller) 2 – 2 RB Leipzig 
Another sensational goal, this time a real team effort. Musiala and Lewandowski do brilliantly to work the ball to Coman, who spots a cheeky little reverse pass and Müller does the rest from 10 yards.

33′ – On a knife edge this one, a really absorbing game.

30′ – GOAL! Bayern Munich (Musiala) 1 – 1 RB Leipzig 
Wow, what a strike and what an introduction. Coman pops a ball in to Musiala on the edge of the box and the teenager takes a touch, finds half a yard and steers it low to Gulacsi’s left. Flick’s bold call vindicated by the English youth international, born in Germany.

28′ – What a save!
Remember Pavard’s incredible strike for France against Argentina at the World Cup? Well, he almost repeats it, cutting across a bouncing ball from the right edge of the box and sending it arcing for the top corner. But Gulacsi makes a stunning fingertip save to retain his side’s lead.

26′ – The new man and Alaba test Gulacsi with crosses from the left, but the Hungarian keeper is up to the challenge.

25′ – Yep, Martinez is off, replaced by 17-year-old Jamal Musiala. Bold call there from Hansi Flick.

24′ – Martinez looks to be struggling a little here, it seems to be his groin that’s causing him bother.

23′ – Kluivert gets in behind now, out wide on the left. But he dithers a little and the opportunity is lost. Leipzig sense blood here.

19′ – GOAL! Bayern Munich 0 – 1 RB Leipzig (Nkunku)
No surprise that it’s a devastating counterattack that gives Leipzig the lead. Forsberg picks it up deep and Nkunku sees a space vacated by Boateng stepping out. The Swedish midfielder picks out the Frenchman in that space and Neuer comes flying out to sweep up but gets it all wrong allowing Nkunku to beat him to the ball and roll in to an empty net from outside the box. Errors from a couple of Bayern veterans there. Game on.

19′ – Coman races on to a lovely ball down the left from Alaba. The French flyer just reaches it before the byline and drives across goal. Gulacsi makes a bit of a meal of it but Leipzig survive.

17′ – Nkunku again involved out on the left. He stands up Pavard and tries to curl on in to the opposite corner with his right foot, but it’s a little high. Danger signs for the champions right now.

15′ – Sabitzer swings a lovely ball out to Nkunku on the left but his cross is hacked clear. The visitors are clearly looking to break at speed here and exlpoit Bayern’s high line, and perhaps Boateng’s decreasing mobility on the turn.

13′ – Then Leipzig break. Forsberg finds Nkunku, whose effort is diverted over the bar for a corner. Angelino’s set piece is easily cleared. A pattern is starting to emerge here.

12′ – Coman twists and turns in the area but his shot from a tight angle flies in to the side netting.

10′ – Lewandowski hits the deck after tangling with Upamecano but it looks like he’ll be alright.

8′ – The home side starting to dominate the ball, but mainly in areas that won’t worry their opponents. Leipzig then look to break through Kluivert but his cross floats in to Neuer’s arms.

5′ – The ball breaks to Sane in midfield and he drives forward, before pushing it out to Müller on the right. His cross is cleared behind by Upamecano but Gulacsi punches the corner firmly clear.

2 ‘ – Woodwork!
Great start from the visitors. Kluivert forces a corner, which eventually finds its way to Sabitzer on the edge of the box. He cuts across the ball and the swerving drive rattled Neuer’s bar. The Bayern keeper looked unsure there.

1′ – And we’re off! Forsberg gets this critical clash going.

— Nagelsmann looking to Champions League

As my colleague Matt Ford points out, Julian Nagelsmann has just told Sky that his team selection was influenced by the big Champions League game against Manchester United on the horizon. Big gamble, that.

— Sane starts

A host of big names return for Bayern after a weakened XI won a point against Atletico Madrid in the week. Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski and Leon Goretzka are back, while Leroy Sane starts ahead of Serge Gnabry. Sane hasn’t begun a match in the Bundesliga since late October.

There’s a bit of a surprise in the visitors line up too, with neither Alexander Sorloth or Yussuf Poulsen starting. Justin Kluivert is given the nod, with Nagelsmann perhaps thinking his pace will trouble Bayern’s high defensive line.

— Boost for both sides

After a loss to Cologne last time out, Borussia Dortmund have spurned the chance to put the pressure on Bayern and Leipzig. Lucien Favre’s men could only manage a 1-1 draw away at Eintracht Frankfurt, with Gio Reyna’s sweet second half strike leveling it after Daichi Kamada had given the hosts an early lead. Elsewhere, Arminia Bielefeld picked up a huge 2-1 win over Mainz while the points were shared between Cologne and Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach and Freiburg. Both those finished 2-2.

— Battle of the bosses

Have Bayern dropped off a bit of late? Probably, but they’re still top of the table and cruised through their Champions League group. Julian Nagelsmann said the champions have the best squad in the league and have improved under Hansi Flick but believes there’s a chink in the armor.

“Sometimes it looks as though they lose a bit of focus in certain situations, and seem a bit less sharp,” he said ahead of the game. “That’s a natural consequence of a long preseason and the busy schedule. But they’ll want to win at home. We’re prepared for that.”

The treble-winning Bayern coach did admit there’s been something of a drop off but expects his team of winners to demonstrate their mettle when it counts.

“First vs. second is always a special game. Champions prove themselves in these big games, so I’m expecting my team to show that they can play better than they have been doing in recent weeks.”

— Head to Head

As they have with every side in the division, Bayern have a strong record against Saturday’s visitors. The first time the sides met was as recently as December 2016, when a 3-0 win at the Allianz Arena meant Bayern pipped the newly-promoted side to the top of the table ahead of the winter break. They’d go on to win the title and capture the double over RB with a memorable 5-4 win in Leipzig, capped off by this Arjen Robben special.

Since then, the games have tightened up with just three goals in their four meetings in the last two Bundesliga seasons. Leipzig’s only win remains a 2-1 victory in 2018, thanks to goals from Naby Keita and Timo Werner. Both of those are gone, but is Bayern’s hold over the Red Bulls?

— Team news

Hansi Flick had updates on some key figures for Bayern in his prematch press conference, not least Joshua Kimmich.

“If it were up to him, he’d be playing 60 minutes tomorrow,” Flick said. “We don’t want to rush things though. The way he is training, day to day, is just lovely to see.”

The Bayern boss went on to suggest the Leipzig game would come too soon for Kimmich and revealed that Alphonso Davies is back in training, though also not expected to feature on Saturday.

The visitors will also be without a number of key figures, including Konrad Laimer, and Lukas Klostermann but French creator Christopher Nkunku is back after missing Leipzig’s Champions League win in midweek.

— Match preview

If you can’t beat Bayern Munich, statistically you have next to no chance of winning the Bundesliga.

In the last 30 years, only one team has managed to claim the title without defeating the record champions – Borussia Dortmund in 2001.

So if relative newcomers RB Leipzig really have aspirations to reach the top, they’ll have to find a way of beating the Bavarians.

Since cementing themselves as title hopefuls two seasons ago, however, they’ve fallen flat with three draws and a loss. Close, but not good enough.

Just two points currently separate the Bundesliga’s top two teams but Nagelsmann realizes that victory is no easy task.

“Bayern have the best squad in the league and a strong team chemistry,” he said. “They’ve improved significantly under Hansi Flick, particularly in defense and working without the ball.”

“Ideally [we want] all three points, but you can never guarantee that against the record champions.”

Chinks in the armor

Behind the scenes, though, Nagelsmann’s competitiveness will ensure he’s drilling belief into his squad ahead of what could be a crucial result at the end of the season.

Bayern have endured a rough schedule during the corona pandemic – the consequence of an incredible treble run. After an almost non-existent off-season, they’ve started to look vulnerable.

“In some situations, Bayern haven’t looked as sharp and not quite as focused,” Nagelsmann admitted. “But they will want to live up to their top-dog status at home. We’re ready for that.”

No Timo, no problem?

Much has been made of Timo Werner’s departure and understandably so. Yet Leipzig certainly haven’t been less dangerous in front of goal.

Last season they netted 17 in the first 10 matchdays with Werner grabbing nine of them. After 10 matches this campaign, they’ve shared 18 goals around the squad, with left-back Angelino top scorer with four.

Nagelsmann has adapted his system, but to compete with the best he’ll need to find a new striker. It’s rare to find a world-class team that doesn’t rely heavily on one expert marksman.

Alexander Sorloth finally broke his duck against Bashakshehir on Wednesday and he cut a frustrated but relieved man during his celebration. He’d missed a penalty last weekend against Bielefeld and it’s been a tough start to his Leipzig career.

Nagelsmann was clearly delighted but also admitted Sorloth had had a “complicated” game. Nevertheless, if the 24-year-old Norwegian can start scoring regularly it would be a huge boost for the team’s title chances.

Champions’ mentality

Bayern’s recent fragilities have largely gone unpunished. They haven’t looked at their best, particularly defensively, but have still found enough to grind out results. Their recent win over Dortmund was yet another sign of their pedigree.

It’s the type of mentality which has set them apart for the last two decades, but Flick wants to see more from his team against Leipzig.

“First versus second is always a special game,” Flick said. “Champions prove themselves in these big games, so I’m expecting my team to show that they can play better than they have been doing in recent weeks.”

If neither Leipzig nor Dortmund both can find a way to beat Bayern this season, history suggests Bayern will stroll to a ninth straight Bundesliga title.

This is Nagelsmann’s big chance to show that they won’t have it all so easy this season.

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Lionel Messi wins Ballon d’Or 2021 to claim record seventh trophy



independent– Lionel Messi has won the men’s 2021 Ballon d’Or, and a record seventh trophy, at an awards ceremony in Paris on Monday evening.

Messi, 34, held off the challenge of Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Jorginho to collect the prize and move two clear in his long-running battle with five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who was among the 30 players shortlisted but did not feature in the top three for the first time in 11 years.

Messi was the favourite to collect the award after winning the Copa America with Argentina earlier this year – his first major international trophy – despite one of his less impressive periods at club level: Barcelona finished third in La Liga and fell in the first knockout round of the Champions League. However, Messi scored two goals as Barca won the Copa del Rey final and he was La Liga’s top goalscorer once more, before switching to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.

Lewandowski did pick up the consolation prize of the newly formed Striker of the Year award, while the Women’s Ballon d’Or went to Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas.

Further awards went to Gianluigi Donnarumma for the Yashin Trophy of best goalkeeper, to Barcelona midfielder Pedri as the starlet was handed the Kopa Trophy and another new award went to Chelsea for Club of the Year for their on-pitch achievements with both men’s and women’s teams.

Lewandowski can feel hard done by after another stellar year of goalscoring for Bayern Munich saw them retain the Bundesliga title. He scored a record 41 Bundesliga goals in the 2020-21 season and is leading the charts again this season with 14 goals from 13 games, but perhaps suffered at the ballot box from not enjoying more success with his country, Poland, in a year of major international tournaments. The 33-year-old was expected to win his first Ballon d’Or last year but the award was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Jorginho, 29, might also feel he could not have done much more given he won the Champions League with Chelsea and two months later won the European Championship with Italy, playing a key role at the heart of midfield in both sides.

The highest-ranked Premier League-based players after Jorginho included his Chelsea team-mate N’Golo Kante in fifth, Cristiano Ronaldo in sixth and Mohamed Salah in seventh.

Raheem Sterling, 15th, was the highest-ranked English player.

As the early rankings unfolded, Ronaldo posted a social media message claiming France Football’s Pascal Ferre had spoken “lies” about the reasons why the United forward was not at the awards ceremony and that his only ambition was to win more Ballon d’Ors than Messi.

After claiming his award at the end of the ceremony, Messi remarked that Lewandowski had “deserved” the award in 2020 and hoped that France Football awarded it to him retrospectively, after last year’s awards were cancelled due to the pandemic.

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Chelsea run riot against Juventus in performance befitting of champions



independent– Roman Abramovich was in London but couldn’t make Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, and he probably missed what he has most wanted during all his time at Chelsea.

This was a display entirely befitting of European champions, where they just motored over one of the continent’s biggest names in magnificent fashion. Even more pleasingly, the first three goals in this 4-0 win over Juventus were scored by different academy products – with the exceptional Reece James standing, or perhaps sprinting, given his energy, above all.

That was what was most ominous for the rest of England, and Europe. Chelsea put in such a performance without Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and with N’Golo Kante having to go off before half-time.

Despite that, there was no disruption to the team’s level. They just kept going, in the way they have been purring of late.

That is another striking element about the team right now. It is remarkable to think they started this season in rather muted fashion: controlling games, yes, but not exactly creating much. They seem to have gone up a level in recent weeks, with the promise of even more to come. This put them top of the group and through to the Champions League last 16, while perhaps illustrating they stand at the top of the competition’s main contenders.

Some of this should be put into the context of Juventus’ own drop-off. This was nowhere near the calculated 1-0 victory over Chelsea as recently as September, let alone the title-winning spell of most of the last decade. Their ongoing rebuild was simply deconstructed.

Massimo Allegri’s side just couldn’t match Chelsea’s intensity. The Italian was getting extremely animated from the game’s start, aghast at the gaps in his team. Thomas Tuchel had evidently learnt a lot from that September setback.

Chelsea had an energy that was missing that day, meaning Juventus on Tuesday evening couldn’t sit back comfortably, let alone break. As early as the first minute, Kante was just cutting through their half to force an opportunity that saw Chilwell miskick from just yards out. It should have been 1-0. They wouldn’t have to wait too long. Juventus were just hoping to make it to half-time, such was the extent of the siege.

The brilliant James almost caught Wojciech Szczesny out with a smart free-kick from wide on 24 minutes, before Trevoh Chalobah fired in from the corner. Chelsea were away.

They also knew they needed to score one more to ensure they had a superior head-to-head against Juventus. So, for the second half, they just upped it some more.

The three-minute spell just after half-time was precisely the type of thrilling whirlwind both Tuchel and his ultimate boss would have idealised. Juventus by then really couldn’t live with them. They were overwhelmed.

That was never clearer than for the clinical nature of James’s strike. With Juventus unable to clear their lines, and the ball bouncing around so invitingly, the wing-back imposed a bit of order and class on the fair. James chested the ball down before arrowing a supreme strike into the far corner of Szczesny’s goal. That made the young England international Chelsea’s top scorer for the season, which says a lot about both his evolution and the multi-angled nature of Tuchel’s attack. That was only emphasised by the different nature of the next goal, mere moments later. He had more to come, and so did Chelsea.

On for Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek slipped the ball through for Callum Hudson-Odoi to finish. It was that kind of night for Chelsea. It was barely a match.

Long before the end, the home crowd were mocking Juventus as much as their former Arsenal goalkeeper, as the oles and waheys came out for so many passes. Chelsea were toying with Juventus by then.

There was still the crescendo to come, a beautifully creative moment to top it off. James swung over a divine David Beckham-like crossfield ball for Hakim Ziyech, who whipped it through for Timo Werner to finish. This Chelsea, remarkably, look like they’re only getting started.

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China’s ultramarathon tragedy and the survivors threatened for speaking out



bbc– When Zhang Xiaotao woke up he was in a cave and somebody had lit a fire to keep him warm. He had no idea how he’d got there.

Zhang’s frozen unconscious body had been found by a passing shepherd who’d wrapped him in a quilt and carried him over his shoulders to safety. He was one of the lucky ones.

In May this year, 21 competitors died at an ultra-running event in northern China hit by extreme weather conditions: hail, heavy rain and intense gales caused temperatures to plummet, and nobody seemed prepared for it.

Only a small number felt comfortable talking about what happened – and some have been threatened for doing so.

The sun was out on race day in Baiyin, a former mining area in China’s Gansu province. Some 172 athletes were ready to run 62 miles (100km) through the Yellow River Stone Forest national park.

The organisers were expecting good conditions – they’d had mild weather the previous three years. They had even arranged for some of the competitors’ cold-weather gear to be moved forward along the course so they could pick it up later in the day.

But soon after Zhang arrived at the start line, a cold wind began to blow. Some runners gathered in a nearby gift shop to take shelter, many of them shivering in their short-sleeved tops and shorts.

Zhang started the race well. He was among the quickest to reach the first checkpoint, making light work of the rugged mountain trails. Things started to go badly wrong just before the second checkpoint, some 20km into the course.

“I was halfway up the mountain when hail started to fall,” he later wrote in a post on Chinese social media. “My face was pummelled by ice and my vision was blurred, making it difficult to see the path clearly.”

Still, Zhang went on. He overtook Huang Guanjun, the men’s hearing-impaired marathon winner at China’s 2019 National Paralympic Games, who was struggling badly. He went across to another runner, Wu Panrong, with whom he’d been keeping pace since the start.

Wu was shaking and his voice was trembling as he spoke. Zhang put his arm around him and the pair continued together, but quickly the wind became so strong, and the ground so slippery, that they were forced to separate.

As Zhang continued to ascend, he was overpowered by the wind, with gusts reaching up to 55mph. He’d forced himself up from the ground many times, but now because of the freezing cold he began to lose control of his limbs. The temperature felt like -5C. This time when he fell down he couldn’t get back up.

Thinking fast, Zhang covered himself with an insulation blanket. He took out his GPS tracker, pressed the SOS button, and passed out.

Closer to the back of the field, another runner, who goes by the alias Liuluo Nanfang, was hit by the frozen rain. It felt like bullets against his face.

As he progressed he saw somebody walking towards him, coming down from the top of the mountain. The runner said it was too cold, that he couldn’t stand it and was retiring.

But Nanfang, like Zhang, decided to keep going. The higher he climbed, the stronger the wind and the colder he felt. He saw a few more competitors coming down on his way up the mountain. His whole body was soaking wet, including his shoes and socks.

When he finally did realise he had to stop, he found a relatively sheltered spot and tried to get warm. He took out his insulation blanket, wrapping it around his body. It was instantly blown away by the wind as he’d lost almost all sensation and control in his fingers. He put one in his mouth, holding it for a long time, but it didn’t help.

As Nanfang now started to head back down the mountain, his vision was blurred and he was shaking. He felt very confused but knew he had to persist.

Halfway down he met a member of the rescue team that had been dispatched after the weather turned. He was directed to a wooden hut. Inside, there were at least 10 others who had decided to withdraw before him. About an hour later that number had reached around 50. Some spoke of seeing competitors collapsed by the side of the road, frothing at their mouths.

“When they said this, their eyes were red,” Nanfang later wrote on social media.

Zhang, meanwhile, had been rescued by the shepherd, who’d taken off his wet clothes and wrapped him in a quilt. Inside the cave, he wasn’t alone.

When he came to, about an hour later, there were other runners also taking refuge there, some of whom had also been saved by the shepherd. The group had been waiting for him to wake up so they could descend the mountain together.

At the bottom, medics and armed police were waiting. More than 1,200 rescuers were deployed throughout the night, assisted by thermal-imaging drones and radar detectors, according to state media.

The following morning, authorities confirmed that 21 people died, including Huang, who Zhang overtook, and Wu, the runner he’d kept pace with at the start of the race.

A report later found that organisers failed to take action despite warnings of inclement weather in the run up to the event.

As news of the deaths broke on social media, many people questioned how the tragedy could have happened. Some competitors, such as Zhang and Nanfang, chose to write about their experiences online to help people understand what it was like.

But Zhang’s post, written under the name ‘Brother Tao is running’, disappeared shortly after it was published.

When Caixin – a Beijing-based news website – re-uploaded his testimony, a new post appeared on the account a week later, begging the media and social media users to leave him and his family alone.

It later transpired that Zhang had suspended his account after people questioned his story. Some accused him of showing off for being the sole survivor at the front of the pack, others had sent him death threats.

“We don’t want to be internet celebrities,” he wrote online, adding that the man who saved him had also faced pressure from the media and “other aspects”.

“Our lives need to be quiet,” he wrote. “Please everyone, especially friends in the media, do not disturb me and do not question me.”

The survivors weren’t the only ones to find themselves put under pressure.

One woman, who lost her father in the race, was targeted with social media abuse on Weibo after questioning how her father was “allowed to die”. She was accused of spreading rumours and using “foreign forces” to spread negative stories about China.

Another woman, Huang Yinzhen, whose brother died, was followed by local officials who she claimed were trying to keep relatives from speaking to each other.

“They just prevent us from contacting other family members or reporters, so they keep monitoring us,” she told the New York Times.

In China it’s typical for relatives of those who have died in similar circumstances – where authorities face blame – to have pressure placed on them to remain silent. For the government, social media attention on any possible failings is not welcome.

A month after the race, in June, 27 local officials were punished. The Communist Party secretary of Jingtai County, Li Zuobi, was found dead. He died after falling from the apartment in which he lived. Police ruled out homicide.

The Baiyin marathon is just one of many races in a country that was experiencing a running boom. Its tragic outcome has brought the future of these events into question.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), China hosted 40 times more marathons in 2018 than in 2014. The CAA said there were 1,900 “running races” in the country in 2019.

Before Covid hit, many small towns and regions attempted to capitalise on this by hosting events in order to bring more tourism into the area and boost the local economy.

After what happened in Baiyin, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection accused organisers of some of the country’s races of “focusing on economic benefits” while they are “unwilling to invest more in safety”.

With Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics just months away, China has suspended extreme sports such as trail running, ultramarathons and wingsuit flying while it overhauls safety regulations. It is not yet clear when they will restart. There have been reports that not even a chess tournament managed to escape the new measures.

But without events like these, people wishing to get involved, perhaps even future star athletes, are finding themselves frustrated. In some cases, as Outside Magazine points out, athletes could take matters into their own hands, venturing into the mountains without any regulation whatsoever and putting themselves at risk.

Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, wrote on Twitter: “If this incident has removed the top layer of the mass participation pyramid – as seems likely – there’s no telling what effect that would have at the lower levels.

“The long-term effects of this tragic – and avoidable – accident could also be significant.”

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