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Boxing Day: One of English soccer’s greatest traditions

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“Boxing Day… what the heck is that all about?”

Going back to my college days in Pennsylvania, that question was often thrown my way. So, as a proud Englishman, here it goes, this is what it’s all about.

First and foremost, it’s about a full slate of 10 Premier League games all taking place on the same day. That doesn’t happen often, New Years Day and the final day of the season are the only other times, so that special feeling of non-stop soccer really gets the juices flowing. The eyes of the world are on the Premier League on Boxing Day, it is the one day of the year when only games in the UK dominate global soccer coverage and bumper crowds draw in millions in revenue for the clubs on a special day for everyone involved.

For many soccer fans in England, including myself, this day is perhaps the most sacred on the sporting calendar for a number of reasons. For instance, you have to understand that Boxing Day is pretty much treated the same as Christmas Day in England… Just 24 hours later, but without the presents.

Families get together on Boxing Day to celebrate yet another Yuletide feast consisting mostly of leftovers, as they nurse hangovers communally and most importantly: watch soccer. This year, like every year, is no different as every PL team will be in action on this joyous occasion. I love it.

WATCH EVERY BOXING DAY GAME LIVE ONLINE, VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA

The atmosphere buzzes with excitement, as the season of perpetual hope springs fountains of unrealistic optimism within fans. Families gather around the TV to watch the games throughout the day, much like family feasts on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. are centered around ‘What time are the football games on?’

To many people, Boxing Day in England is their favorite holiday. For many, it provides an escape of the rigors of Christmas.

Travel distances for Boxing Day

193 miles, Stoke to Newcastle
188 miles, Swansea to Chelsea
172 miles, Sunderland to Everton
139 miles, Southampton to Cardiff
133 miles, Crystal Palace to Aston Villa
125 miles, Fulham to Norwich
123 miles, West Brom to Tottenham
103 miles, Manchester United to Hull
35. 6 miles, Liverpool to Man City
9.4 miles, Arsenal to West Ham

The endless meals of stodgy stuffing and dry meat, mixing with relatives and in-laws, watching boring black and white movies and pretending to get excited about the pair of socks Aunt Barbara bought you… Boxing Day is a haven away from all that. The matches are usually set up so away fans don’t have to travel far away from their families to see their team play, but this season for whatever reason that really hasn’t happened. Look at the table on the left which shows how far each set of away fans will have to travel on this sacred day. Respect to those traveling fans on Boxing Day.

As a player and a fan, the crackling atmosphere on December 26th can perhaps only be rivaled by the opening and final days of the season, in terms of the excitement levels inside the stadiums. With thousands of new sweaters adorning the terraces across England, there’s no secret that this is often the most attended weekend of PL action in the entire season.

Tickets for Boxing Day matches are snapped up like gold dust as families unite to attend the matches and cheer on their team as one. The spirit, even between opposing sets of fans, is usually quite cordial around this special holiday fixture. And let me tell you, that’s something that doesn’t happen often. Friendly and non-offensive banter is a rare thing in and around PL stadiums.

There’s just something about being huddle together on a cold winter’s day cheering on your side with the memory of Christmas Day fresh in your mind. There’s definitely been games I’ve played in that should’ve never have gone ahead as the pitches were waterlogged or frozen, but rarely are they cancelled. Players are excepted to perform, despite seeing their festive season completely overlooked but when they signed a deal, they knew what they were getting into.

source: Getty Images
Festive spirits switches from the dining rooms to the football stadiums on Boxing Day, creating a special atmosphere.

It’s Boxing Day, there has to be soccer. Just like on Thanksgiving, when there has to be football.

Boxing Day matches go back to as far as I can remember, and sporting tradition runs deep on Dec. 26. The famous horse race, the King George VI Chase is run on Boxing Day, as well as rugby matches and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish soccer leagues in the U.K.

Officially the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malta celebrate the day, with many other commonwealth countries also observing it. But why is it called Boxing Day? Well, traditionally this is when tradesmen would go to the houses of the people they worked for to receive gifts in boxes, as congratulations for a year of hard graft.

Today the Boxing Day sales get in the way of PL crowds slightly, as retailers slash their prices to attract the punters in their droves. Oxford Street in London on Boxing Day makes Black Friday at the Mall of America seem like a cake walk. Soccer is an escape from all that nonsense too.

For foreigners looking at the madness of 40 PL games being wedged into 12 days in and around the Christmas and New Year period, it must look like absolute madness. Every other major European league takes a winter break at this time of year. In the much more moderate climates of Italy, Spain and France, players are given two weeks off to spend with their families and recharge the batteries for a grueling second half of the season. That’s particularly helpful when national teams compete in massive tournaments in summer months.

source: Getty Images
The big game on Boxing Day sees Man City welcome Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium.

In England, the attitude is “get stuck in son, slog it out on that wet, muddy pitch.” The quality of play doesn’t matter, as long as it’s on offer. I recently spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino about his first-ever time managing in England during Boxing Day and the busy festive period.

“Me and my staff are really looking forward to this [the Christmas period]. It’s going to be crazy with many games in a short period of time but I think it’s a very good time for [people] to get together, come to the stadium and come together as a family. It’s something that the people and many families enjoy doing in this country, we as well. We want to enjoy. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Another foreigner who enjoys Boxing Day is Jose Mourinho. Following Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Monday, he had this to say about no winter break in England, and the aura around Boxing Day.

“I love it,” Mourinho said. “I don’t play of course, so for the players it is more difficult than for me but it is a fantastic occasion. I feel proud of working on Boxing Day and giving the people what they want.”

No matter how much resistance there is for change over the festive season and to give PL players a winter break, (there are some out there, scrooges we call them, who think it should be stopped) it will simply never happen.

This revered day in English soccer is a joy for all the reasons I’ve listed and more. Long may it continue.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the festive feast set to unravel before your eyes the morning after Christmas in America. You won’t regret it.

China plans for 50,000 soccer academies by 2025

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  China's President Xi Jinping addresses an audience of dignitaries including the British Prime Minister David Cameron (not seen) at Manchester airport on October 23, 2015 in Manchester, England. The President of the People's Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005.  (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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BEIJING (AP) China plans to have 50,000 football academies by 2025 as part of an ambitious blueprint to grow into a soccer superpower.

The announcement, made by China’s football association Vice President Wang Dengfeng, more than doubles the earlier target of 20,000 academies by 2020.

Wang was quoted by state media on Wednesday as saying that each school would be able to train 1,000 young players on average, fulfilling the goal laid out in a plan announced last April of having 50 million competent players.

“This is a solid way to select football talent for our future reserves. Improving Chinese football is no longer just a dream,” Wang was quoted as saying on the website of the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

China’s men have only qualified for one World Cup and President Xi Jinping has made boosting China’s football fortunes a national priority. Plans call for again qualifying for the sport’s marquee event, hosting it and winning the title by 2050.

To that end, China last year signed Brazil’s World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi to take over the national men’s team. The government has also ordered the creation of 70,000 football fields to fill gaps in its youth program.

Teams in China’s professional leagues, meanwhile, have recruited international stars such as Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez on highly paid contracts, raising concerns that they are neglecting home-grown talent.

In response, China’s football association last month said it plans a series of measures in response to “irrational” spending by clubs. It also reduced the number of foreigners who can play per club at any given time from four to three and required that each team’s starting list must include at least two Chinese players under age 23.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.