When fairy tale comebacks go wrong…

Thierry Henry’s fairytale return to Arsenal has already turned sour amid angry gestures to the crowd in the wake of their 3-2 defeat to Swansea. While Paul Scholes still basks in the glow of being the comeback kid that everybody still loves – what can they learn from other sporting comebacks? Are they usually as short-lived as Henry’s has turned out to be?

When fairy tale comebacks go wrong…

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January 16th, 2012

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Martina Hingis – queen of the multiple comebacks

The “Swiss Miss” was World Number One as a teenager, then burned out pretty rapidly, being forced to give up playing due to injury at the grand old age of 22.  Hingis returned to the tour in 2006 (Comeback #1), doing so well that she rose to no. 6 in the world rankings.

So far so good, but the curse of the comeback was about to hit when she tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon.  Although she denied using the drug, Hingis chose not to appeal against the inevitable ban and announced her (next) retirement from tennis a few months later.

An immediate attempt at rehabilitation was made when she took part in Strictly (Comeback #2) – that didn’t work, she was voted out in the first week…

Since then there have been lots of hints and rumours that she would return to the tour again and she did actually start playing in some of the minor tournaments (Comeback #3). This comeback was eventually downgraded and she now plays at veteran level.

Comeback honeymoon period:  About a year

Lesson learnt:  If at first you don’t succeed, don’t keep on trying/failing


Niki Lauda – the miracle worker

Niki Lauda almost literally came back from the dead to win the 1977 Formula One world title.  At the German Grand Prix the previous year Lauda (the fastest driver in the race and the hot tip to win) had tried to get his fellow drivers to stage a boycott of the legendary Nürburgring, due to the circuit’s poor safety arrangements.  He was out-voted and this almost led to tragedy when, following a swerve off the track which led to a collision with another car, Lauda’s Ferrari burst into flame, with Lauda trapped inside.

He suffered horrific burns and fell into a coma that many people doubted he would recover from.  But – it wasn’t at this point that he retired from racing as miraculously he returned to health.  What eventually forced his retirement was a disagreement with Ferrari over his brave withdrawal from the Japanese Grand Prix – a race that was hit by torrential rain.

It’s hard to imagine the goodwill for Lauda, the man who escaped death, so everyone willed him on when he returned to racing to fund his charter airline business (I promise this isn’t the plot of a Jackie Collins novel).  The next few seasons Lauda “enjoyed” stop-start racing seasons that were a poor imitation of his former glories.

Comeback honeymoon period:  He lasted about three seasons, not all of it exactly “honeymoon” in atmosphere.

Lesson learnt:  If something tries to kill you, it’s probably not a good idea to carry on doing it


Zinedine Zidane: When he’s good he’s very, very good…

One of the greatest footballers of all time and one of the greatest comeback stories ever.  Zizou (the talisman of the 1998 World Cup winning French team and generally a national hero) announced his retirement from international football after Euro 2004, but was talked into coming back to help out the struggling Les Bleus.

Zidane was just one of a mass import of veteran players brought back in by Raymond Domenech – Bixente Lizarazu, Marcel Desailly, Claude Makélélé and Lilian Thuram were also recalled, but it was Zidane’s re-appointment as Captain that transformed the team.  Cutting a long story short, against the odds, France made the final.

At this point Zidane had already been named as the best player of the tournament and announced his 2nd retirement (from all football this time), which would be effective after the final.

So as the world sat down to dutifully watch what was expected to be a slightly dull final between the most defensive team of the championship versus a team of old-timers, the fairy tale script was clear.

Then the klaxons went off.  Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the most inexplicable act since Cantona karate chopped that bloke in the stands at Crystal Palace, everyone got upset that Zizou had seemingly gone mental and there was endless hand-wringing over how Zidane had “torn up his legacy”.

Well, a few years down the line, it still seems a little crazy, but now we can remember him for being a great footballer (as well as being grateful for how he livened up a dull match).

Comeback honeymoon period:  Around 18 months – could so easily have gone into infinity

Lesson learnt: Never listen to an Italian who is trying to wind you up, no matter what they say about your sister.

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