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African Cup returns to exotic Gabon, but with air of unease

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) With an air of unease hanging over the tournament, the African Cup of Nations returns to Gabon for the second time in five years.

Opposition parties in the oil-rich central African nation have stated their intention to use African soccer’s biggest show as an opportunity to express their grievances against Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who retained power in a tense election last August that led to about 100 deaths on the streets, according to opposition claims.

That gives African soccer organizers, who chose to go back to former co-host Gabon as a replacement for Libya, even more to contend with alongside shaky infrastructure and two largely untested new stadiums.

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Libreville, the capital city of palm tree-lined Atlantic Ocean beaches and French colonial villas, and Franceville, deep inland in the jungle and the last stop on the railway line that cuts across the country, staged games when Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. Now, Gabon gets the 16-team, 23-day tournament all to itself, bringing in two new venues that have barely seen any kind of soccer before, let alone a top international championship involving European league superstars.

Oyem, a town in the far north surrounded by rubber plantations, will be home to defending champion Ivory Coast for the group stage. Hopefully for Manchester United defender Eric Bailly and teammates, they’ll be in one of only a few hotels listed with the luxury of hot water.

Port-Gentil, the southern center of Gabon’s oil industry, is the second new city. Both have stadiums that were being built right up to deadline and not many have set eyes on the finished, or possibly unfinished, products.

The African Cup always has vibrant color, fans painted head to toe and in an array of wacky outfits, and competing countries you’re unlikely to ever see at the World Cup, even when it’s expanded: Guinea-Bissau qualified this year, its first appearance at a major tournament and the first time it’s really come anywhere close to the big time.

But the African championship is also an event that flirts with calamity. Two years ago at the tournament in nearby Equatorial Guinea, there were brawls between players on the field and riots in the stands when security forces waded in among supporters wielding batons and an army helicopter hovered so dangerously low in the stadium that its rotors whipped up debris and scattered the spectators.

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This year, observers wonder how the Gabonese security forces will react if there are angry protests against Bongo, who succeeded his father as president and whose family has ruled Gabon since the 1960s.

In Africa, there are other problems to contend with, too: In 2012, Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan contracted malaria, luckily a mild strain, in Franceville. He recovered and played a couple of days later.

This is a soccer event like no other, and comes around more often than the others, with the Confederation of African Football still bucking the trend of other major tournaments and staging its showpiece every two years, not every four.

Among the title contenders over the next three weeks – kickoff is on Saturday and the final is on Feb. 5 – Ivory Coast is striving for the rare achievement of back-to-back African titles after the team finally ended a long drought two years ago. There are two significant absences for the Ivorians this time, though, with powerful midfielder Yaya Toure, its driving force last time, retired from international soccer and victorious coach Herve Renard now in charge of group opponent Morocco.

Algeria and Senegal produced eye-catching performances in qualifying, with those teams spearheaded by Premier League talents Riyad Mahrez of English champion Leicester and Sadio Mane of Liverpool, respectively. Ghana has lost two finals and three semifinals in the last five tournaments and will continue its increasingly desperate search for a long-awaited first title since 1982, and, it hopes, an end to its African Cup misery.

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Egypt, the record seven-time champion, is back after failing to qualify at all for the last three cups. The last time Egypt qualified it won a third straight title, but its story is one of the best reminders that kings, or Pharaohs in this case, can easily fall off their thrones in the tumultuous world of African soccer.

Similarly, paupers can become princes. Like Zambia in 2012, unexpectedly becoming champion in Libreville nearly 20 years after a plane crash in that city tragically wiped out its entire team.

This year, Guinea-Bissau will have second- and third-division players from Portugal and Romania when it takes on host Gabon and Germany-based star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the opening game.

Also, Uganda is back for the first time since losing the 1978 final. When Uganda last played at the African Cup, Pele had only just retired and Diego Maradona was a 17-year-old upstart.

Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

Report: Frank De Boer accepts Crystal Palace job

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Frank de Boer is widely expected to be named new Crystal Palace manager this week, as he has reportedly accepted the job after having been offered the position this week.

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The 47-year-old Dutchman has been out of work since he was fired by Inter Milan in November. He lasted just 84 days at the San Siro, where he managed to win just five of 14 games. Inter Milan is Inter Milan, though, and that’s something worth remembering when critiquing Palace’s impending appointment of De Boer.

Palace are also widely expected to back De Boer in the transfer market this summer, in a big way. Kelechi Iheanacho is the biggest name linked with a move to Selhurst Park, as the 20-year-old Nigerian striker is reportedly unwanted by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.

5th-place San Jose parts ways with Kinnear after 2.5 seasons

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Dominic Kinnear is out after two and a half seasons as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, despite leading the club to a hugely improved standing 17 games into the 2017 season.

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The move comes 17 hours after San Jose put to bed a three-game winless skid with a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday, a result which propelled them into fifth place in the Western Conference, just two points off second place. After seventh- and ninth-place finishes in Kinnear’s first two seasons back in Northern California (he managed the club in 2004 and 2005 before the club was relocated to Houston, where he would remain for nine seasons, through the 2014 season), this year’s team seemed to be moving in a positive direction quicker than most had previously expected.

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The club has named Chris Leitch head coach and Alex Covelo as assistant coach. Current assistant coach Steve Ralston and goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley will remain in their current roles.

“First and foremost, we would like to thank Dominic for his hard work, professionalism and contributions to this club over the years,” Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli said in a release. “He worked hard this year and was a first-class person all the way. This decision was made after a lot of thought and evaluation. We decided that we wanted to go in a different direction as we continue to build the identity of this club.”

Kinnear is the second MLS coach to be relieved of his duties this season, suffering the same fate as RSL’s Jeff Cassar, who lasted just three games before being fired in March.

FIFA’s video-review system under scrutiny again in Russia

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OCHI, Russia (AP) FIFA’s new video review system is bringing turmoil to the Confederations Cup, with technology designed to deliver quick, clear decisions agitating players and leaving coaches and fans confused.

Perhaps even worse for FIFA, the latest controversy on Sunday – exactly one week after four goal reviews in that day’s two matches – made one of the world’s highest-rated referees look hesitant and wrong.

Wilmar Roldan sent off a Cameroon defender more than three minutes after a high tackle on a German opponent and only after his own case of mistaken identity.

The Colombian official arrived at what was arguably the correct decision following two visits to the touchline to consult video replays and first showing only a yellow card, then a red card, to the wrong Cameroon player.

“I think everyone is confused, including me,” Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said of referee Roldan after a 3-1 loss in Sochi that eliminated his team. “He and he alone can explain what happened there in that moment.”

Cameroon was also involved in two video decisions last Sunday, when possible Chile goals were reviewed for offside rulings. The first goal was disallowed, the second counted in Chile’s 2-0 victory.

Portugal had most to complain about one week ago when a potential opening goal in a 2-2 draw with Mexico was ruled out by an offside judged in an earlier phase of play.

FIFA stressed last week that all decisions proved ultimately correct, and the controversies were simply inevitable overreactions as world football gets used to a new system being put to its highest-profile tests.

Indeed, FIFA President Gianni Infantino felt confident to proclaim video review was “the future of football” and still on track to be approved by the guardians of the game’s laws before the 2018 World Cup.

Human error by Roldan seemed the biggest problem Sunday though it added to the perception that video review is capable of causing as much controversy as it solves.

FIFA has certainly pulled back from its prediction last year that game-changing decisions – goals scored, penalty kicks awarded, red cards, mistaken identity – could be reviewed and resolved in as few as six seconds.

Accuracy is more important than speed, has become the mantra in Russia.

Neither were in evidence Sunday in Sochi as Cameroon defender Ernest Mabouka eventually left the field around three minutes after his boot connected with Emre Can of Germany.

Mabouka’s teammate Sebastien Siani had sarcastically applauded the referee when he was wrongly sent from the field. Eventually Siani’s slate was wiped clean and he completed the match.

Still, the image of a top referee being openly disrespected will not please FIFA.

Roldan arrived at the Confederations Cup trying to rebuild a reputation that was damaged at the 2014 World Cup. There, he was chosen for the second game of the tournament, and incorrectly ruled out two Mexico goals. FIFA did not pick him for another refereeing duty in Brazil.

To further damage Roldan’s standing, Germany coach Joachim Loew said neither he nor Can believed the tackle merited even a yellow card.

“I didn’t have the impression that it was a mean foul with the intent to hurt the opponent. It was not intentional,” Loew said through a translator at the post-match news conference.

Loew, whose Germany team will defend its World Cup title next year, still thinks video review can benefit the game – with one condition.

“I think it can be fine-tuned over time so that decisions can be made more quickly,” the German coach said. “That would be great.”

Mario Balotelli signs new Nice contract

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Italian striker Mario Balotelli has found himself the owner of a new contract after a successful season in Ligue 1 with French club OGC Nice.

Balotelli’s one-year deal was set to expire at the end of June, but he found a career revival in what many believed would be his last chance in major European soccer. The club officially announced his new contract on Sunday, and while they did not release the length of the deal, they confirmed that Balotelli turned down deals from other clubs to stay in France.

The 26-year-old scored 15 goals in 23 league appearances last year, helping Nice to a fabulous third-place finish in Ligue 1, earning them a Champions League playoff spot.

For a player who saw trouble follow him wherever he went, the only trouble he faced last season at Nice was an erratic bout with injury issues including calf and adductor problems. However, the spells on the sidelines didn’t douse Balotelli’s form. The Italian had an incredible start and finish to the season, scoring six goals in his first five appearances of the season and bagging six goals in the last eight games of the year.

The official release by Nice said that Balotelli made “considerable financial sacrifices and chose the sporting aspect with his heart” in re-signing with the French club.