It’s time FIFA reconsiders the Confederations Cup bid to the Oceania region

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Everybody loves an underdog. Everybody enjoys rooting for those with the odds stacked against them. It makes for a great story, makes for great television, and makes for great sport.

Unless those underdogs get slaughtered. Over and over and over.

Since FIFA took over the King Fahd Cup and made it the Confederations Cup in 1997, it’s been about bringing the best from every region and pitting them against each other in a warmup tournament for the World Cup.

Obviously, some regions are typically much stronger than others. Europe has dominated world soccer for a long time, with both top teams and wonderful depth. But every now and then countries from other regions such as South America, Africa, and even North America have made noise on an international level, and even Asia has a touch of ability.

Underdogs such as Japan, Australia, and the United States have made noise in both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface on Cinderella stories over the years.

Then there’s Oceania. The bid from the Oceania region to the Confederations Cup is a stretch, and one that does nobody any good.

After watching tiny little Tahiti get manhandled at the hands of Nigeria in their opening match of this year’s competition, I cringe at the thought of them facing Spain and Uruguay in the coming days. The African representatives “only” won 6-1, but it probably should have been about 12-1 had they been more focused.

It’s all well and good to give countries a chance to compete at the highest level, and by all accounts it’s probably their “right” to appear in the tournament like any other region. But do we really want to allow countries like Tahiti to appear in the competition just to watch them get embarrassed in front of a worldwide audience every four years? New Zealand may have half a chance to grab a point or two, but is thay enough to justify it?

The little Oceanic country had one aim coming into the competition: don’t concede a goal for a half. They even scored a goal against a Nigerian team clearly looking ahead to other matches, a beautiful moment no doubt. But European oddsmakers set the chances for the Iron Warriors of Tahiti to beat Nigeria at 500/1, and odds to win the competition at anywhere from 1000/1 to 10000/1.

Since the birth of the modern Confederations Cup in 1997, teams from the Oceania region have amassed a measly 11 points in group play over the 7 tournaments. 10 of those points were obtained by Australia, who have now left the Oceania region to play in Asia.

That leaves New Zealand with the only point by any country currently in the region. Thrice the Oceanic country was blanked in group play.

The countries currently forming the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) are: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanutau. Kiribati, Niue, and Tuvalu aren’t even FIFA members. Only three of those countries have a population higher than 300,000 people.

Nigeria’s Nnamdi Oduamadi scored a hat-trick against Tahiti, the ninth hat-trick in Confederations Cup history. Five of those have come against Oceania opponents.

Only four times have a member of the OFC made it to the World Cup. The OFC are the only region which does not have a guaranteed World Cup spot – the top teams must compete in playoffs with other confederations for spots – so why are they guaranteed a spot in the Confederations Cup?

There are plenty of other ways to give out the spot in order to maintain an even eight members of the competition. The best idea I’ve been able to come up with is to give the spot to the highest-ranking country not already invited. The FIFA rankings are a bit arbitrary, but seeing as the competition is FIFA sanctioned, why not?

If FIFA is insistent on keeping the competition based on regional tournaments, they could just dub Europe as the dominant region and give it to the runners-up in the Euros. They could allow Oceania the ability to make the competition with a playoff against some other opponent, but it would probably be too much to expand a non-World Cup tournament into a “qualifier.”

Finally, there’s the option of just condensing Oceania into Asia either partially or altogether, but that would put a burden of high expense on small countries in Oceania to travel long distances on a regular basis, and it would obviously have widespread consequences on the Asian Cup, World Cup qualifiers, etc.

I understand it’s a world competition, and therefore the right of everyone to take place in the tournament. However, it must be earned to play at the highest level. Oceania flat out hasn’t proven they have the ability to have any chance of competing. And it’s not like they’d be completely eliminated from contention. Anyone in the world can qualify through either hosting the World Cup, or winning the Big One. Clearly almost impossible if not incredibly unlikely, but aren’t their chances of making any noise in the Confederations Cup pretty much the same?

I give the Tahiti players an immense amount of credit for their bravery in taking this opportunity with open arms, and I’m sure these matches mean the world to them. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the players.

However, it’s painful to watch these poor players play so hard and still get slaughtered. It’s a wonderful story for Tahiti to be in the competition, but it’s not fun to watch them get picked apart. They have one professional player, and it showed. It would make for much better competition and therefore a much better watch if the spot were given to a more deserving, worthy, and able opponent.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.