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Barcelona caught in storm over Catalonia’s independence vote

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Politics and soccer will merge on Sunday when Barcelona becomes more than just a football club for Catalonia’s separatists.

Barcelona’s home match against Las Palmas falls on the day when the region’s secessionist leaders have vowed to defy authorities and hold a disputed referendum on independence from Spain.

The Spanish government calls the vote illegal and has ordered a crackdown to stop any ballots from being cast, sparking protests in the streets and universities.

The dispute has increased tensions in the proud and prosperous region to fever pitch – and Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium will be no exception.

“It won’t be a normal day, it will be a historic day for the country, but we have to treat the football match like any other,” Barcelona vice president Jordi Cardoner said. “We will carry the Catalan flag’s (red and yellow) colors on the collars of our shirts and in our hearts.”

Europe’s largest stadium at nearly 100,000 seats, Camp Nou has become a rallying point for Catalan nationalists in recent years with the boom in support for a break from Spain that polls show has reached roughly half of the region’s 7.5 million residents.

Spain’s King Felipe VI met with deafening jeers at Camp Nou at the final of the Copa del Rey in 2015, and the chants of “Independence!” that are a fixed feature of every home match are set to be at maximum volume come Sunday.

Given the super-charged atmosphere, the club has called for calm and for the spirit of sport to prevail.

“We are not uncomfortable with the date of the match. It’s an important day for Catalonia and the interests of Barca have to be compatible with the majority of Catalans,” Cardoner said. “I believe that each one of our members and fans can express whatever they want, but we ask them to do it respectfully. We are focusing on the competition. We all want to win the match.”

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique is also giving advice.

“From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically,” Pique tweeted on Thursday. “Don’t give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That’s what they want. And sing loud and clear.”

Pique and the rest of Barcelona’s players have good reason not to get distracted by the whirlwind of politics and police activity. The team is on an eight-game winning run, leads the league, and holds a seven-point advantage over fierce rival Real Madrid in sixth place.

Barcelona’s football club became identified as a bastion of Catalan culture during the repressive years of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-1975, when the Catalan language, which is spoken alongside Spanish, was banned from schools and public use. Its slogan “More than a club” has come to mean for many its commitment to Catalonia.

In the past four decades Catalonia has gained a large degree of self-governance and boasts one of the strongest economies of the southern European country. Still, many Catalans feel disrespected by the central government in Madrid and complain that they pay more in taxes than they receive back in public spending.

Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid carries political overtones for many, with “Barca” representing Catalonia and Real Madrid standing in for the rest of Spain.

Most of Barcelona’s players avoid talking about politics but former player and coach Pep Guardiola has led pro-independence rallies and is an outspoken proponent of Sunday’s vote.

“This isn’t about independence, it’s about democracy,” Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, said in a video posted on social media by a separatist grassroots group this week.

Barcelona has openly backed a referendum and criticized the robust steps taken by authorities to impede the vote that Spain’s government considers unconstitutional since questions of state should involve all Spaniards, not just those in one region.

Many Catalans are lukewarm supporters at best of Spain’s national team, which would lose several key players, including Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, if Catalonia separated.

Catalonia already has a regional selection that plays the occasional friendly. It got a huge boost when it was coached by Dutch great Johan Cruyff, and it has played top-level national sides including Argentina and Brazil.

Police have decreased the chances of separatists being able to hold a wide-scale vote, which pro-union parties have boycotted on grounds that it is outside the law and lacking in guarantees of transparency.

But Barcelona’s alignment with the separatist cause is in direct conflict with its desire to remain one of the world’s most successful soccer teams.

Not only would Barcelona run the risk of alienating supporters across Spain, the big fear is the potential flight of its top stars, led by Lionel Messi.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas and Spain’s Higher Council of Sport have repeatedly warned that Barcelona and the other football clubs in Catalonia would be out of La Liga if the region seceded.

Tebas recently said that Barcelona would be in a Catalan division that “wouldn’t be much better than the Dutch league.”

Europa League preview: Arsenal in Serbia, Everton desperate vs. Lyon

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The twelve groups of the UEFA Europa League bring forth soccer on Thursday, with a bevy of matches dotting the continent.

[ MORE: Full Europa schedule ]

Here are the top five matches to keep an eye on.

Everton vs. Lyon — 3:05 p.m. ET

If you would’ve told Ronald Koeman his Toffees would walk into this match with just one point but sit only another behind Lyon, he’d probably tell you to take a hike. But Lyon drew 1-1 at Apollon Limassol and 1-1 at home to Atalanta, opening the door for Everton to finish the day in Group E’s top two slots.

Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid loanee Mariano Diaz have seven goals each for Lyon, while ex-Premier Leaguers Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore are also key components of the French outfit’s attack.

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET

Arsenal in Europa has been pretty thrilling, with 3-1 and 4-2 wins under Arsene Wenger‘s belt ahead of the first of two with the 1991 European Cup winners. It’s a nice challenge for Canadian national team backstop Milan Borjan, who should be the man to try to thwart the Gunners in Serbia.

Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir — 3:05 p.m. ET

The favorites to win the group are dead last in the group as they welcome the perceived group underdogs from Turkey. The Super Lig runners-up have some familiar names on the roster with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Eljero Elia, Mevlut Erdinc, Gokhan Inler, Aurelien Chedjou, and Emre Belozoglu.

AC Milan vs. AEK Athens — 3:05 p.m. ET

Milan has been burying goals in Europa play, with five at Austria Wien and three in a home win over Rijeka. Enter Athens, which has scooped up four points in group play and will look for a win to put them ahead of the group-leading Rossoneri.

Nice vs. Lazio — 1 p.m. ET

The only group with a pair of 2-0 teams. Mario Balotelli is plenty familiar with his Roman opposition from his time in Serie A.

Probe finds racial discrimination by England women’s coach

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LONDON (AP) Former England women’s team coach Mark Sampson racially discriminated against two of his players, a fresh Football Association investigation has concluded after initially dismissing allegations of wrongdoing and prompting a damaging public row with striker Eni Aluko.

Sampson was cleared of discrimination by earlier FA investigations but was fired last month because of an unrelated case of inappropriate conduct toward players in a previous job.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Only now has a barrister considered new evidence about Sampson’s conduct toward England internationals Aluko and Drew Spence, with the details being released ahead of a parliamentary hearing.

“I have concluded that on two separate occasions, MS (Sampson) has made ill-judged attempts at humor, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race,” barrister Katharine Newton wrote in the report.

One racially discriminatory comment by Sampson in 2014 toward Aluko requested her family members from Nigeria didn’t come to a game because of Ebola.

“MS (Sampson) did treat EA (Aluko) less favorably than he would have treated a player who was not of African descent,” Newton wrote. “MS had therefore subjected EA to less favorable treatment because of her ethnicity.”

During a team meeting in 2015, Sampson also asked Spence if she had been to prison, and then suggested she had been arrested four times. Newton concluded that the comment was made “because of her ethnicity.”

[ MORE: Hamid leaving DC United ]

FA chief executive Martin Glenn apologized to Aluko and Spence before the hearing. But Aluko told legislators that Glenn’s earlier conduct toward her was “bordering on blackmail” after he threatened to withhold payments from an 80,000 pound ($105,000) financial settlement unless she published a statement saying the FA “was not institutionally racist.”

With Aluko sitting behind him, Glenn later told the hearing that the player had not been blackmailed.

Instead Glenn said that an August tweet by Aluko – “at least we now know the FA’s stance on derogatory racial remarks by an England manager. Ignore, deny, endorse” – was a “clear breach of the agreement.”

Aluko, who was part of the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup, has not played for England since making her 102nd appearance in April 2016.

There was a more apologetic tone from Glenn in his written statement on Wednesday, saying that Sampson’s conduct was “not acceptable” and he “would like to sincerely apologize” to Aluko and Spence.

“Our ambition has always been to find the truth and take swift and appropriate action if needed,” Glenn said. “It was our decision to have the original, second and final investigation to ensure that due diligence was taken. It is regrettable that Eniola did not participate in the first external investigation as this would have enabled Katharine Newton to conduct and complete her investigation sooner.”

Report: Hamid leaving DC United to “push himself” elsewhere

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Bill Hamid is taking his talents elsewhere.

The 26-year-old has been with DC United since 2007, making an even 200 appearances across all competitions.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Hamid is thrice capped by the United States and widely considering to be one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, but the Washington Post’s Steven Goff says Hamid wants to showcase himself on a new stage.

“I want to push myself and see how far I can go because I know I have the work ethic and the hunger to take myself very far in this game. I know I can make it to the next level.”

Hamid is likely to wind up in Europe, and Goff said Danish club Midtjylland is the favorite. He’s also been scouted by Eintracht Frankfurt.

With a new United States men’s national team coach set to be appointed and Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando all on the back end of their time with the USMNT, Hamid has to look at himself as competing with Ethan Horvath and any number of young prospects.

Horvath is 22 and starting for Club Brugge. If their season continues on its pace, he’ll have a Belgian title and a Norwegian title under his belt.

U-20 players Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha Berlin), Brady Scott (Koln), and Justin Vom Steeg (Fortuna Dusseldorf) are in German systems, while U-17 World Cup starters CJ dos Santos is at Benfica.

Age when making European debut and club
Tim Howard, 24, Manchester United
Brad Friedel, 23, Newcastle United
Brad Guzan, 23, Aston Villa
Kasey Keller, 23, Millwall
Tony Meola, 21, Brighton and Hove Albion
Ethan Horvath, 19, Molde

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…