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UEFA Women’s Champions League: Pros, cons of saying goodbye to Lyon (Part 2 of 2)

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It’s the stuff Malcolm Gladwell writes books about: tournament favorite Lyon’s early exit from UEFA Women’s Champions League. Or rather, Gladwell would write a book why we perceived OL to be the Goliath. Then he’d go on The Daily Show and explain why out-of-control bias overlooked the fact Turbine Potsdam should have been favorites all long. Because if there’s one thing John Stewart’s always wanted on the show, it’s a hard-hitting segment on the future of Champions League.

Five years of soccer tells us otherwise. Lyon’s dominance isn’t a psychological phenomenon. They were the real deal. Four straight finals with demolition runs to the last two left little doubt. Lyon (pictured, above, ahead of last year’s final) were the world’s best, making this week’s Round of 16 ouster all the more confusing. While it wasn’t unfathomable that a team like Turbine could oust Lyon, a quarterfinal without the acknowledged best team in the world feels incomplete, like an unsolved crime. We need method, we need motive, but we also need to know how to move forward. We need closure.

So let’s break out the whiteboard and deploy the most reliable tool in the anal retentive nerd arsenal: The pro-con list. Let’s go through the good, sift through the bad, and let’s do so in writing. Because anything this important needs 1,800 superfluous words.

Ultimately, let’s try to figure out if a Women’s Champions League without Olympique Lyonnais is a good thing, or a bad thing:

PROS

Teams are either catching up or figuring it out – Lyon didn’t just win back-to-back titles. In 2011-12, they rolled, outscoring their opponents 37-5 in route to their second straight Champions League. Before losing last year’s final 1-0, they had outscored their opposition 40-2, leaving people who called their loss in London with plenty of evidence in support. What are you more inclined to believe: 77-7 over 17 games, or 1-0 in a final?

The way Turbine replicated Wolfsburg’s achievement makes it hard to say the Lyon era’s done. At least, it’s hard to be conclusive about it. After all, it took a hand ball and the away goals rules to leave us in this state.

There is, however, an aura of vulnerability that didn’t exist seven months ago. As Turbine showed, Lyon can be outworked, pushed around a little, and yes, beaten. Kryptonite’s been found.

For some, the competition becomes more legitimate – For years, the complaint about Lyon’s league was that there was no competition, and with Paris Saint-Germain still building their project, it remains a one-team race (even if spots two through four have become so much more interesting). England faced similar complaints about Arsenal’s dominance until Liverpool swiped their title this year.

source: Getty Images
Lyon’s French midfielder Louisa Necib (R) vies with Wolfsburg’s German midfielder Anna Blasse (L) during last year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Erroneously, people started assuming the same about Champions League. Why watch if you know Lyon’s going to win? Perhaps for the competition’s other 31 teams, though people looking for excuses not to watch will always find something. For them, Lyon’s loss won’t be convincing.

For others, a new, more competitive Champions League will be seen as a more legitimate competition. Whether that’s the right conclusion is almost irrelevant. At least some fans be more likely to follow, which leads us to …

It may be the only way to grow – Whatever it takes to get more people interested in Champions League, right? Those that came for Lyon’s dominance – the majesty of watching the best club team ever (who played some damn good soccer) – aren’t leaving now. But those that were over Lyon and stayed away? They may be more likely to tune in. That Swedish or English soccer fan that didn’t want to look beyond their league before might tune-in mid-week to see if Arsenal, Birmingham City, or Tyresö will claim the crown.

This competition’s still taking baby steps, no matter how quickly some teams went to speed up the clock. Perhaps this phase of the competition’s growth could use the variety. Then, when a new group of people come on board, it might be time for another Lyon to capture other imaginations.

People who hate big spenders: “Throw your pennies in the air/If you’re a true hater”In the men’s world, Lyon’s a huge club. That they’re one of the few from that money-laden realm to strive for excellence on the women’s side put them at a huge advantage. OL’s roster is full of high-priced talents thanks to their cherry picking the rest of France’s talent and their increased forays into the global market (Lotta Schelin, Lara Dickemann, Saki Kumagai, Megan Rapinoe among their foreign stars).

That they went out at the boots of a German team, albeit one that has players from nine different countries, will have symbolic value. While the Frauen Bundesliga brand doesn’t carry the quite same financial connotations as its male counterpart, some will still see the German club as doing it things the “right” way while Lyon’s broken out the check book.

CONS

Competition loses a focal point – Diehards like more diversity in their story lines, but favorites are a great way to draw in casuals. It was that way with the Lakers and Celtics in the 1908s. It was that way with the Yankees (at various points in baseball’s history), and with a competition that’s still well short of its stride, it was that way with Lyonnais. It’s always difficult to replace a headline act.

Another team could prove their equal, but that’s probably not going to happen. It took more than one result for periodic viewers to remember Lyon. We’ll need a few more headlines from one club before was see a line of succession.

Odds are the days of hegemony are probably over. People may have to come for the soccer, not the dominance.

Lyon’s gone all France-y, really shouldn’t be losing these games – Since 2011, the French national team has been the most disappointing side in international soccer, their combination of skill, compelling talents, and attractive play unable to generate a true threat at the last three major tournaments. From dark horses at World Cup 2011 to favorites at Euro 2013, Les Bleues have been repeat offenders in the disappointment department, their results falling short of their potential.

All during that run, France’s contributors have been predominantly Lyon players, yet those stars had managed to contain their on-field disappointments to the international realm. Not so anymore. Not only have Lyon lost the last two Champions Leagues from  a favorite’s position, they’ve used their national team’s trademarked “how did they let that happen?!?” approach. Leaving few explanations for their failure, Lyon’s gone all France-y on us.

source: Getty Images
Lotta Schelin, pictured here playing for Sweden, has 33 goals in 30 games in 2013 for club and country. Despite leading Euro 2013 scoring, Schelin’s FIFA World Player of the Year candidacy will likely be hurt by Lyon’s early Champions League exit. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Lotta Schelin will be under-appreciated – Schelin is the best player in the world. Others’ mileage may vary (that’s what comment sections are for), but for me, the debate isn’t even that compelling right now. While the distance between her and the next level isn’t big, a gap exists. There’s a precision Schelin brings to the striker position that’s unparalleled in the world game. Nobody can match it: not Abby Wambach; not Christine Sinclair; not Alex Morgan.

Unfortunately, she’s becoming a victim of her own success, and that victimization is going to cost her FIFA World Player of the Year. Like Lionel Messi in years’ past, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Cristiano Ronaldo, people are starting to complain that she doesn’t score in big games, and while that’s true (she didn’t score against Potsdam, in Sweden’s Euro 2013 eliminator, or in any of the Champions League finals), the reason is obvious. You give talented, well-organized teams one thing to do — like stop one player — they’ll usually find a way. As we saw in the buildup to this week’s Portugal-Sweden playoff, we usually greatly exaggerate the potential effect stars can have on a match.

Go ahead and bring up examples of Pele, Maradona, and the new Messi, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, or almost any other player in the history of the world’s game can be stopped. As can Messi. It’s up to their teammates to make the opposition pay.

I use mens’ players with the hopes of making the point as accessible as possible. No matter how many times world soccer’s provided evidence to undermine the idea that everybody can be Maradona, people are still unconvinced. It’s not enough to be a superstar. Every player needs to be a Super, Mega Star or they’re torn down.

Maybe Lotta Schelin isn’t a Super, Mega Star, but she’s still the best player in the world. If Abby Wambach or Nadine Angerer win FIFA Player of the Year simply because Schelin didn’t go full Michelle Akers on the world, that’s just wrong. But it would also be par for the course for that award.

The draw methodology is pretty seriously messed up – On this, we can all agree. There’s no way Lyon should be facing Turbine Potsdam this early in the competition. There’s no way Paris Saint-Germain and Tyresö should have met in the round of 32, either. And Wolfsburg shouldn’t have forced to eliminate Malmö this early. We don’t need Champions League final-caliber matchups in November.

The system needs to be changed. Right now, 16 of the competition’s 32 teams get seeded, drawn out of one bag against teams from the other – a process that changes come the Round of 16. In the interest of having the best matchups come during the later, more marketable times of the tournament, the “seeded” teams need to be protected deeper into the tournament.

A group stage is out of the question. There’s not enough money in this competition to support that right now, leaving two options (which, admittedly, me and three Twitter friends thought up):

  • Tennis/NCAA-style seeding and bracket, where the top X teams get seeds. Instead of a redraw at the end of each round, the bracket remains constant from the beginning. Or,
  • You reseed after each round until a certain point in the tournament; say, the semifinals. At the Round of 32, you have 16 seeds. At the Round of 16, you have eight. You do something to keep Lyon and Turbine from meeting so soon.

There is another problem, though, and that’s the seeding itself. With the landscape of women’s soccer in flux (thanks to the money coming into the game), it’s difficult for any rating system to stabilize. UEFA coefficients are much more effective on the men’s side than the women’s. You still have a situation where a team like Glasgow City is seeded while Tyresö is not.

Until that reaches the type of equilibrium we see on the men’s side, all seedings are going to be flawed.

‘The Workers Cup’ sheds light on migrant workers in Qatar

DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 09: Migrant workers play football on an area of wasteland beneath the sky scrapers of Doha's West Bank on April 09, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Director Adam Sobel never intended to end up in Qatar, but it was 2010, jobs were scarce in the U.S. and his longtime girlfriend – now his wife – had just been offered a job teaching at a Northwestern University Qatar. So they went.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs draw and more in Saturday’s PL action ]

While there, Sobel found work with a local production company that did news stories and documentaries for outlets like BBC, CNN, and HBO. One particular story was requested frequently: That of the migrant workers who were building the facilities for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would ultimately provide the foundation for his documentary, “The Workers Cup,” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Because the subject is so sensitive and because media restrictions were so significant, we either had to hide people’s identities or work undercover. The human touch was lost,” Sobel said. “We wanted to do something that went much deeper than that and really honored the workers for their sacrifices and their hopes and their dreams rather than doing something that just saw them as victims … I wanted to build empathy for the workers instead of sympathy.”

The film centers on the multinational men, from Kenya, Ghana, India and the Philippines, who have given their lives over to slavery-like contracts and dangerous conditions to build the stadiums from the ground up. One man, Kenneth, who was a soccer player in Ghana, shares his story about how a recruiter had told him that if he came to Qatar, he’d get a club soccer contract. It was a lie, and now he’s stuck in Qatar under horrific circumstances.

“We’ve had a lot of context about how the recruiting agents are selling a false bill of goods but certainly I didn’t expect that to be wrapped up in a professional soccer contract,” Sobel said.

The title of the documentary refers to the FIFA-sponsored “workers cup” whereby teams from different construction companies play against one another in a tournament. For men like Kenneth, it takes on a greater poignancy. Yes, it’s a welcome distraction from the conditions, but the fact remains that they are still stuck there.

“We saw (the tournament) as an opportunity because we knew they were interested in promoting this and showing to the world that workers welfare standards were improving,” Sobel said. “There was a definite PR angle there that we took advantage of and we somehow managed to stick around and keep shooting in the camps. We were able to actually get pretty close to the story.”

Sobel worked on the documentary for three years, and kept it completely secret for two due to the sensitive nature of what he planned to show and the strict media standards in the country. He’s excited that his subjects are getting their voices heard at Sundance.

“It’s a story about these guys whose lives have been sacrificed in some way for our own entertainment and that in and of itself reveals that we’re all complicit in the system,” Sobel said. “This is a story of globalization.”

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ldbahr

French league responds after Mario Balotelli racially abused

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, at the Nice stadium, southeastern France. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura says he will talk to forward Mario Balotelli before the Azzurri's next set of matches in March. Balotelli has revived his career in France, scoring eight goals in as many matches for Nice, but has not played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) The French league will open an investigation after Nice striker Mario Balotelli spoke out against Bastia fans he said made monkey noises during a match on Friday night.

[ MORE: City, Spurs draw, Reds fall to Swansea in Saturday’s PL action ]

In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, the French League said it “deplored all of the incidents” that happened on Friday. Before the match, Nice’s team bus had been pelted by stones as it arrived at the stadium.

[ MORE: Saturday’s results from around the Bundesliga ]

The LFP’s disciplinary committee will start looking into the matters when it convenes on Thursday and once it has received further information from officials and both clubs.

Balotelli wrote a message on his Instagram and Twitter pages earlier on Saturday, describing the abuse he heard during the 1-1 draw at the 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari stadium in Corsica and complaining that the French league had not acted swiftly enough.

“Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise (and) `uh’ `uh’ for the whole game and no one of the `commissions discipline’ say nothing?” Balotelli wrote, referencing the French league’s disciplinary committee. “So is racism legal in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport. Those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!”

Balotelli, 26, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, concluded his post by writing in French that what happened was “une vrai honte,” or a total disgrace.

Nice’s official Twitter account shared Balotelli’s message. On its website, the French Riviera club threw its support behind Balotelli.

“Nice, which already had stones thrown at its bus before the game, is outraged by what happened to its players on Friday night, and in particular to Mario Balotelli,” a statement read.

Bastia did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking a response to Balotelli’s claim.

Balotelli joined from Liverpool on a free transfer in August and has scored eight league goals in 10 games to help Nice challenge for the title.

He did not say in his message whether or not he had informed referee Clement Turpin, who had the authority to stop the game, of the crowd’s actions. Commentators from broadcaster Canal Plus, which covered the game, made no mention of any racist abuse during the match.

In May 2013, when playing for Italian side AC Milan, Balotelli was subject to racist abuse from visiting Roma fans, causing the Serie A game to be briefly halted by the referee during the second half after warnings to stop the abuse were made throughout the stadium. Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s coach at the time, made stinging comments against those who had racially abused Balotelli.

Bastia was docked two points by the LFP in the 2007-08 season after its fans racially abused Burkina Faso forward Boubacar Kebe by holding up a banner during a second-division home game against Libourne. The kickoff was delayed by a few minutes until the banner aimed at Kebe was removed.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea looks to extend lead, Gunners host Burnley

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea (2L) celebrates with Filipe Luis (L) and Cesc Fabregas (2R) as he scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea received everything they wished for on Saturday after several of the Premier League’s big boys all dropped points in crushing fashion.

Now, the Blues have the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of England on Sunday while two other matches are slated on the day.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Southampton vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Saints will have to make do without one of its most important defensive figures following the sale of Jose Fonte, however, Claude Puel‘s men won’t have to deal with several of Leicester’s attacking threats as the African Cup of Nations rolls on. Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey will each be absent for the Foxes as they play for their respective sides at the tournament.

Southampton has taken points against Leicester in four straight PL fixtures (1 W, 3 D), however both sides have been vastly inconsistent in form throughout the campaign. Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and his side continue to struggle, with the Englishman having posted just five goals this season after netting 24 in league play a season ago.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City, Spurs finish level ]


Arsenal vs. Burnley — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Gunners are unbeaten in five straight matches against Burnley, and Sunday presents the chance for Arsene Wenger‘s side to win its fifth consecutive fixture against the Clarets. Wenger’s men currently sit eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, and after the rest of the the PL’s title contenders slipped up on Saturday the Gunners will be looking to avoid any stumble at the Emirates Stadium.

Olivier Giroud is expected to be back for Arsenal, while Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin are also healthy once more. Meanwhile, the Clarets are said to be expecting Dean Marney, Ashley Barnes and Johann Berg Gudmundsson back in the squad after missing the team’s FA Cup victory during the midweek.

[ MORE: WATCH — Wayne Rooney’s top Man United goals ]


Chelsea vs. Hull City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Blues will be expected to take advantage of this match but all eyes will be on Antonio Conte’s team sheet, particularly with close attention on Diego Costa. The Spaniard was said to have missed the team’s last PL match due to a back injury, although reports have also suggested interest from China. Chelsea has yet to lose to Hull in nine PL fixtures, having won seven encounters and drawn the other two matches.

Meanwhile, Hull could have some of its reinforcements available on Sunday, including Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui. The Tigers will have a massive task at hand against the Blues, who have won 14 of their last 15 league matches. Marco Silva’s side currently sits in the relegation zone, however, a victory could propel the team above both Crystal Palace and Swansea City.

Watch: USMNT midfielder Hyndman provides assist in Rangers debut win

United States midfielder Emerson Hyndman (8) gets past Cuba defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe during the first half of a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying soccer match Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Well, it didn’t take long for Emerson Hyndman to make an impression at his new club.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs finish level in Saturday’s PL action ]

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder provided the game-winning assist for Scottish side Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell after picking out Kenny Miller for his second goal of the match.

[ MORE: Ghana books place in AFCON quarterfinals, Egypt edges Uganda ]

Hyndman, 20, joined the Scottish giants in January after coming over on loan from Premier League side Bournemouth. The rising USMNT attacker only made three appearances for the Cherries prior to completing the loan move to Rangers.

The former FC Dallas academy product has risen through the USMNT set up over recent years, appearing for the Under-17, U-20 and U-23 sides before Hyndman earning his first cap with the senior team in 2014.

Check out Hyndman’s game-winning assist below.