NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 06:  Ghana fans attend the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Semi-Final match between Burkina Faso and Ghana at the Mbombela Stadium on February 6, 2013 in Nelspruit, South Africa.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

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

Sydney FC return to winning ways in A-League

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24:  Goalkeeper Danny Vukovic of Sydney FC makes a save as Bruno Fornaroli of City competes for the ball during the round 21 A-League match between Melbourne City and Sydney FC at AAMI Park on February 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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SYDNEY (AP) Bobo scored twice as Sydney FC rebounded from its first loss in the A-League to beat Melbourne City 3-1 and continue atop the table.

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Sydney’s ambitious attempt to become the first team to end the regular season unbeaten came unstuck last week when it was beaten by Western Sydney Wanderers in a fractious local derby, repercussions of which continued through the week. Wanderers were fined $20,000 by Football Federation Australia after its fans unfurled an obscene banner targeting Sydney coach Graham Arnold.

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Sydney raised itself above that controversy on Friday with a comprehensive win over Melbourne City which briefly took it 11 points clear in first place.

Melbourne Victory restored the gap to eight points when it beat defending champion Adelaide United 2-1, and Perth leapfrogged Melbourne City into third place when it dumped the Wanderers 2-0.

Bobo opened Sydney’s scoring with a penalty, but City canceled that out only a minute later.

Sydney went in front again after the break, and Bobo sealed the win, set up by a superb through ball by Milos Ninkovic which highlighted their developing combination.

Midfielder Brandon O’Neil said Sydney was determined to leave behind the contention of their derby loss.

“When it all came out, the FFA and Western Sydney had to deal with it and it did,” O’Neil said. “It brought us together and we spoke about a few things, and nothing changed for us. We want to be premier (champions).”

Melbourne Victory’s win over Adelaide kept it in touch with Sydney with seven regular season rounds remaining.

Wellington kept its faint playoff hopes alive, staying in seventh place with a 2-1 win over Brisbane.

Whitecaps acquire U.S. defender Brek Shea in deal with Orlando City

Toronto FC v Orlando City SC
Alex Menendez/Getty Images
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With almost a week to go until the Major League Soccer season kicks off, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City may have pulled off one of the biggest trades of offseason.

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The clubs announced on Saturday that the Whitecaps have acquired U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder/defender Brek Shea in exchange for forward Giles Barnes, who is headed to Orlando City.

“We are excited to welcome Brek to our club and city,” said Whitecaps FC manager Carl Robinson. “Brek is a tall, physical, skilled player and will bring a different dimension to our attack. Brek will join the group in coming days and we anticipate he will be available for selection as early as this Thursday’s Champions League match against New York.”

Shea, 26, began his career in MLS with FC Dallas before heading to England for a brief stint with Stoke City. The U.S. defender made his way back to MLS ahead of Orlando City’s inaugural season in 2015 and started 39 matches in that span.

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Meanwhile, Barnes has scored 33 goals since joining MLS in 2012. The 28-year-old forward played with the Houston Dynamo before spending last season with the Whitecaps.

Report: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Bayer Leverkusen & Mexico
AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Major League Soccer has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars over recent years and now one of the Mexican national team’s top talents could be heading stateside very soon.

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According to ESPN FC, MLS is currently in negotiations with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen in an attempt to lure Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to the U.S. in the summer of 2018.

Expansion side Los Angeles FC has been heavily linked with Hernandez, with the club making its entrance into MLS in 2018. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy have also been said to have strong ties with Chicharito.

Hernandez, 28, is currently under contract until next summer, and MLS is reportedly seeking a move in 2018 to avoid paying a transfer fee for the El Tri forward.

ESPN FC is also reporting that Chicharito could make around $9 million annually if he does in fact join MLS.

In 2015, Orlando City and the Chicago Fire were both linked with acquiring Hernandez but the Leverkusen forward was insistent upon the fact that he play Champions League football.

PL Sunday: Spurs look to regain second against Stoke

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Although there’s only one match on Sunday’s Premier League docket, the fixture bears great weight for both clubs.

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Tottenham vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs have the chance to move back into second place at White Hart Lane as Mauricio Pochettino‘s side are firmly in a battle to finish runners’ up to Chelsea this season. Tottenham currently sit 13 points out of the top spot, however, five clubs are within four points of another in the battle for second. Danny Rose and Erik Lamela remain sidelined due to injuries but Spurs will remain the favorites in the fixture after having won their previous two league meetings.

Stoke enters Sunday having gone unbeaten in five of its last six PL matches and the Potters can enter the top 10 with a victory. Mark Hughes‘ side could be given a big lift with the potential return of Xherdan Shaqiri while Saido Berahino could be in line to earn his first start since joining Stoke. Both players could present massive upside for the Potters, who have struggled to find goals as of late. In their last four matches, Stoke have managed just three finishes, one of which came from an own goal.