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The next Messi may be training at this youth soccer academy

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Benjamin Palandella dribbles around a bigger boy who comes charging at him and shoots to goal with shocking force for a 7-year-old player. Nearby, children jump to head a ball tethered on a rope, tip-toe over hoops and dribble around orange cones.

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The kids training in this concrete court in a Buenos Aires working class neighborhood play for Club Social Parque. It’s the same soccer talent factory where international stars like Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme polished their skills as children.

Spain’s “La Masia” youth academy may be the famed bedrock of Barcelona’s success and where Lionel Messi started training at 13 when he emigrated from Argentina. But Club Social Parque, a humble youth academy in Messi’s native country, has perhaps produced more world-class players than any other. At least 40 have become major international stars.

During practice, many of the children wore Messi’s Barcelona jersey and dream of becoming Argentina’s next soccer great. The coach often credited for the academy’s success oversees their drills from the sideline.

“At Club Parque, we work a lot on the fundamentals, the technique. We recognize talent from a young age and our eye has been sharpening with time,” said Ramon Maddoni, head scout at Parque and at the Boca Juniors club children’s division. “We’ve discovered more players than La Masia.”

The 75-year-old coach likes to recite the names of the dozens of kids – more than 200 by his count – that he has coached and who went on to play with Argentina’s national team, local and Europe’s top clubs.

He recalls how he promised Tevez that he’d be a world-class striker long before he became a top goal scorer for clubs in England and Italy.

Or how Juan Pablo Sorin would cry when Maddoni would line him up on defense, because he wanted to score goals. Sorin later played left back for Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, and invited Maddoni on an all-expenses paid trip to Germany to watch him play with Argentina in the 2006 World Cup.

These days, he recites names of new young talent.

“Benjamin is different from the group,” he said about Palandella. “He can pass with his back turned, he uses both legs. I see some of Riquelme in the way he moves the ball. I see some of `Carlitos’ Tevez, in how he uses his hands and leans backward… He’s different.”

After the training game, Benjamin changed into a Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi’s number 10 and continued to kick the ball even after the other kids had gone home. “I want to be like Messi and play for Barcelona,” he said. He likes how the Barcelona star “steps” on the ball, scores and shoots free kicks. Like Messi, “Benjamin is very shy, but he transforms himself on the field,” his father, Gaston Pallandela said.

Former players say that the secret to Parque is Maddoni’s eye for spotting young talent. But also his insistence on practicing skill sets in reduced spaces and imperfect surfaces where kids learn how to react faster, giving them a competitive advantage when they eventually reach large professional fields.

Players stay in touch with him, and often invite him to dinner when they come to Buenos Aires after playing with European clubs.

“I often thought about Parque when I needed to resolve a situation on the field. I’d have these flashbacks of advice from the coach. And you incorporate all of that naturally because you’ve repeated it so many times,” said Cesar Lapaglia, a former professional player for Boca Juniors and Spain’s Tenerife, who played at Parque under Maddoni from the ages of seven to 13.

Club Social Parque was founded in 1949 when two smaller clubs made up of newspaper delivery men and factory workers merged in the neighborhood of Villa del Parque. Today, about 150 children as young as 6, and from all economic levels, train together twice a week and compete on the weekends in “Baby,” a popular soccer division played in small indoor courts.

Some of the academy’s best talent blossomed under agreements to transfer its young players to clubs Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors. The deal with Boca was brokered in the 1990s by then-team president Mauricio Macri, a millionaire businessman turned politician who was elected Argentina’s president last year.

Argentina is home to some of the world’s greatest players, but also corruption. Several generations of soccer bosses, trainers and scouts run the popular, lucrative and often unregulated business of discovering and selling young promises. There are hundreds of clubs like Parque in the capital alone. For the thousands of talented youngsters like Palandella, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle along the way to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field.

An economic and governance crisis at the Argentine Football Association prompted FIFA to take control from its leadership last year and help pick an emergency panel to manage its affairs. Professional players recently waged a strike over unpaid wages that delayed the local league’s kickoff.

“Unfortunately in this country, there are a lot of extreme circumstances where it seems the mark of happiness or success is all about money, and often, parents associate soccer with this,” said former professional player Lionel Gancedo, who began his career at Parque at age 5. “During this early stage of a young player, it’s critically important that they have responsible people taking care of their development.”

During a recent youth league game played in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, some parents clung to a metal fence and cheered as if they were witnessing the World Cup final. A coach barked orders at their kids on the sideline.

Sitting on the green turf next to him was Thiago Perugini, one of the top young players at Parque. The 12-year-old with long, curly brown hair is so talented that he has was invited that weekend to play with kids two years older than him for another club. On the field, Perugini showed some of the ball control, precise passes and vision praised by Maddoni.

“The environment is very competitive,” said Thiago’s mom, Karina Estrada. “These kids have a lot pressure from all the parents screaming from the sidelines of the field. And even if they don’t have the pressure, the nerves on edge play against them.”

Back home, Thiago has dozens of trophies stacked high in the shelves of his room. He recently transferred to the youth division of San Lorenzo and his parents had painted the walls in the red and blue colors of the club that is beloved by Argentina-born Pope Francis.

A framed picture shows images of “Coco” dribbling and kicking next to similar images of Maradona during moments of brilliance that helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup. “I’d like to be like Maradona,” he said.

Like Maradona, Thiago is a classic playmaker. He knows that he wants to be a professional soccer player. But what would he do, if he doesn’t end up going pro? After a long silence, he shrugs his shoulders, smiles and answers: “I don’t know.” He trains three days a week with San Lorenzo and Parque, and often gets invited to play up to four tournament games over the weekend.

“The day that he doesn’t want to play anymore, it all ends right here. He has to be a good person and study and he has the support of his parents,” said Thiago’s dad, Diego Perugini, a former lower division soccer player who is a coach at Parque.

“But seeing him play five minutes with the national team would be awesome. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”

Ligue 1: PSG return to comfort zone, thrash Strasbourg

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PARIS (AP) After falling short in the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain returned to its French league comfort zone and beat Strasbourg 5-2 on Saturday.

Edinson Cavani netted twice, and Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria, and Neymar also scored to ensure PSG stayed 12 points clear of second-place Monaco at the top.

But not without a fright.

Strasbourg took the lead in the sixth minute and pulled back to 3-2 as PSG continued to show alarming signs of weakness at the back. Strasbourg had a late goal incorrectly ruled out for offside after PSG’s defense was again easily breached, although it was already 5-2 by then.

PSG lost at Real Madrid 3-1 on Wednesday in the first leg of the last 16. The way PSG capitulated by giving away two late goals heaped pressure on coach Unai Emery over his team selection.

“The atmosphere was a bit tense. That’s normal,” Cavani said. “We have to look forward now. We played well today, although at times we could have been better.”

Emery was booed by sections of the home crowd when his name was announced over the loudspeaker before the game. Later, Cavani stopped short of giving Emery his personal backing when asked if the under-fire coach has the full support of the players.

“We’re a team and big teams stick together in the important moments,” Cavani said. “That’s the only way you can win.”

Strasbourg beat PSG at home in December, and stunned the crowd at Parc des Princes by taking the lead when midfielder Jean-Eudes Aholou was left completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

PSG hit back hard and was 3-1 up after 23 minutes thanks to Draxler, Di Maria and Neymar’s 19th in 19 league games.

Stephane Bahoken scored against PSG for the second time this season after a quick counterattack. Strasbourg poured forward but the hope didn’t last for long.

Cavani gave PSG some breathing space with an assured finish in the 72nd, clipping the ball over goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja, then lobbed him for his league-leading 23rd goal.

“It was important to win after Wednesday’s match. We have to get our fans ready for the games to come against Marseille (next weekend) and Real Madrid,” Emery said. “We have to show we can maintain this level of play against better sides, with all due respect to Strasbourg.”

To celebrate Chinese New Year, PSG players’ names were written in Mandarin on the back of their shirts and a Chinese dragon paraded around the pitch. PSG says it has 1.3 million Chinese followers.

In order to better serve the soccer market in Asia, the league match between Nice and PSG on March 18 has been moved forward to 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT).


Marseille players will also have their names in Mandarin for Sunday’s home game against Bordeaux at Stade Velodrome. Marseille recently launched an account on Chinese social media site Weibo.

Striker Giovanni Sio’s second-half equalizer gave Montpellier the point it needed to take fifth place after drawing with Guingamp 1-1.

Two goals from newly signed striker Diafra Sakho gave Rennes a 2-2 draw at Caen, which missed two penalties.

Saint-Etienne won at Angers 1-0, Troyes beat last-place Metz 1-0, and Amiens drew with Toulouse 0-0 in another relegation scrap.

In Sunday’s other games, fourth-place Lyon goes to Lille, and Nice hosts Nantes.

Pardew “furious” after 4 WBA players steal taxi in Spain

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At least when you’re bottom of the Premier League table and appear headed for relegation, as West Bromwich Albion now find themselves, you can take the positive approach that “the only way to go from here is up.”

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Alternatively, four of your most senior players — Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill, in this case — might have other ideas and elect to steal a cab during a late-season training camp in Barcelona. That’s the current state of affairs for the Baggies and manager Alan Pardew, who openly admits he was “furious” and felt “let down” — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is obviously not ideal. They broke the curfew and that’s unacceptable and I feel a bit let down by that.”

“It’s difficult for managers. Obviously, I was furious with what happened but at the same time I’ve got to stay faithful to the players and give them a chance to remedy the situation.”

The night’s timeline reads something like this: the quartet wanted to go out in the city center, but everything was closed late at night; they got a taxi to a McDonald’s by the Barcelona port; the driver left the car, at which point the players decided to drive back to the team hotel around 5:30 a.m.; the care was returned to the cab driver around 8 a.m.

Evans was stripped of his captaincy for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Southampton. The players have since released the following statement through the club’s website:

“We felt it important we identify ourselves as the players involved in an incident which occurred during the training camp in Spain this week out of respect for team-mates who otherwise could be implicated by association. We freely acknowledge and apologize for the break of curfew which we accept represented a breach of the standards of professionalism required of us as representatives of West Bromwich Albion.

“The club has informed us that it will now conduct its own inquiry into the incident and we will cooperate fully. In the meantime, we would like to assure our supporters that this incident does not reflect the determination and resolve we possess to do all we can to recover a difficult season.”

With 11 games left to play, West Brom currently sit seven points adrift of safety; Pardew’s position grows more and more tenuous with each point dropped; and three of their final 11 games are against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

Serie A: Turkish youngster Under fires Roma back into 3rd

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ROME (AP) The rapid development of 20-year-old Turkey winger Cengiz Under is playing a big role in Roma’s revival.

Under scored his fourth goal in three matches and Roma won at Udinese 2-0 for its third straight win in Serie A on Saturday.

Roma moved into third place, two points ahead of Inter Milan, which lost at Genoa 2-0.

It’s a drastic improvement from where Roma was a month ago, when the Giallorossi were mired in a five-match winless streak that risked dropping them out of contention for the Champions League places.

“We’re getting back on track to where we were in the first half of the season,” forward Diego Perotti said.

Roma went ahead when Under unleashed a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area in the 70th.

Perotti sealed the victory in the 90th with an angled effort after Udinese gave the ball away near midfield.

Under is having a breakout month.

First, he scored after 43 seconds when Roma ended a five-match winless streak by beating Hellas Verona 1-0. Then he had a brace and also delivered an assist in a 5-2 win over Benevento last weekend.

All this after not being involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma.

“He plays far more for the team than himself,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said of Under. “His greatest strength is being able to prepare his shot with great speed, making him difficult to close down.”

Added Perotti, “He’s very humble and he doesn’t speak Italian yet but he’s well behaved and is a great kid. He deserves all of this.”

On Wednesday, Roma visits Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

“We’ve got to make the most of the fact they’ve had a winter break and might not be match fit,” Di Francesco said of the Ukrainian side. “They have a lot of quality in attack and are dangerous, but we shouldn’t change our attitude.”


Inter’s defense was in shambles against Genoa.

The hosts took the lead before the break when a failed clearance attempt from Milan Skriniar ricocheted off of a stunned Andrea Ranocchia, who was charged with an own goal.

Then former Inter striker Goran Pandev was left unmarked to score from the center of the area midway through the second half.

Inter hasn’t won at regional rival Genoa in more than seven years.

Chievo Verona took a big step toward avoiding relegation with a 2-1 win over visiting Cagliari.

Emanuele Giaccherini and Roberto Inglese scored late for the hosts before Leonardo Pavoletti pulled one back for Cagliari.

Chievo moved up to 14th, level on points with Cagliari, eight points above the drop zone.

La Liga: Barca’s 31-game unbeaten run ties longest in club history

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Eibar 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona, the last remaining unbeaten side from Europe’s five major domestic leagues, warmed up for Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 clash with Chelsea by dismantling seventh-place Eibar side away from home on Saturday and extending their unbeaten run to 31 games in the league, tying the club’s all-time record in the process.

The Blaugrana took the lead after 15 minutes, when Lionel Messi slotted an inch-perfect through ball for Luis Suarez who rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home (WATCH HERE) for his 17th league goal of the season (20 in all competitions).

Messi played his part in Barca’s second goal, which came three minutes before full-time. The Argentine’s shot was initially saved, but Jordi Alba arrived on the scene moments later to clean up and finish off the 10-man Basque minnows.

The victory sends Barca 10 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid, who play on Sunday, and 20 points clear of fourth-place Real Madrid, who have played two fewer games thus far.

Malaga 1-2 Valencia

Valencia, who spent the majority of the season’s first half as Barca’s nearest title rivals (while never really challenging), fell to third when they recently lost three straight league games, but have since regained their footing with back-to-back wins, including Saturday’s come-from-behind triumph away to last-place Malaga.

Brown Ideye put Malaga ahead just before the half-hour mark, a lead which remained intact for more than 50 minutes. Alas, Francis Coquelin bagged his first goal for Valencia in the 80th minute to draw level, followed by a penalty kick converted by Dani Parejo five minutes later.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 1-2 Sevilla
Alaves 1-0 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Sociedad vs. Levante — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Villarreal — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET