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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.”

Bolt to train with Borussia Dortmund on Friday

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DORTMUND, Germany (AP) Sprint star Usain Bolt is set to train with German soccer team Borussia Dortmund on Friday.

The Bundesliga club says the eight-time Olympic champion, whose last race before retirement was at the 2017 world championships, will “participate in an open training session” with coach Peter Stoeger’s side.

Bolt posted a picture of himself in a Dortmund shirt on Twitter, saying, “BVB, get ready for Friday.”

Dortmund, which shares a sponsor with Bolt in sportswear giant Puma, had long said that the 31-year-old could train with the team at some stage.

Dortmund’s next game after the international break is at Bayern Munich on March 31. Bayern can secure the league title then if other results go its way.

Can says he wants to play for “very big club” next year

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Liverpool swing man Emre Can – whose contract expires this summer – has not yet found a club to sign with yet, and the future free agent is playing up his own talents while looking for a new home.

“I have the self-confidence to say that my qualities are sufficient to play in a very big club next season,” Can told German newspaper Suddeutche Zeitung. “I’m doing great in England. The Spanish league is also attractive. The same applies to Germany, where tactics are concerned, and the Italian club football, which has recently caught up.”

“Incidentally, the same applies to France, this league has now established itself as one of the best in Europe. Therefore, I do not want to exclude anything.”

However, Can also said that the Premier League’s spending power plays a major role, and singled out the German top flight – his home country – for its inability to pay top players.

“Sure, the Bundesliga would interest me, why not? Although I must say honestly that the level has waned in recent years,” he said. “The Premier League has the power to spend more money on players than the Bundesliga. This is very, very important for players.”

Despite those comments, the 24-year-old insists that money is not the ultimate deciding factor in where he will play.

“What counts for me is that I’m an integral part of the team and at a club with a chance of winning the title,” he added. “That’s what every footballer dreams of because that’s the reward of your hard work.”

Can has not ruled out a return to Liverpool, a club that he says “still feels like family.”

Wales boss Giggs claims he wont give in to commercial pressure to play Bale

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Wales is among the field of the China Cup, an international tournament in Guangxi, China, to play a pair of international friendlies this week.

New manager Ryan Giggs admitted there is outside pressure to play Gareth Bale in the event at some point, but admitted he will not put the Real Madrid star at risk just to appease sponsors. In fact, the only pressure he’s feeling is from himself.

“Any risks, stupid risks, I won’t be taking,” Giggs said. “But it’s also my first game and I want to get my best team out there.”

Wales missed out on the 2018 World Cup, and there’s little to gain from having Bale out on the field the entire time. Wales will play China in the semifinals on Thursday, and then meets the winner of Uruguay and Czech Republic next week.

According to reports, Wales would lose nearly $150,000 of its $1.5 million participation fee if Bale did not play.

“I’ve not spoken to [Real Madrid manager Zinedine] Zidane, but I’ve spoken to Gareth,” Giggs said. “I’ve been in contact with him regularly in the last few months and I’m not stupid because it’s an important part of the season.”

Bale has been smothered by injuries – mostly calf problems – during his Real Madrid career, missing a stretch of over two months through October and November with hamstring issues. He has been fit since, but Zidane rarely risks Bale for the full 90 minutes. In fact, Bale’s only three full 90’s of the 2018 calendar year have all come in the last three weeks.

The 28-year-old has three goals in his last five La Liga games, including one off the bench in a 6-3 win over Girona last weekend.

International preview: What is to come over the next week

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With the 2018 World Cup less than three months away, countries are taking these last moments to see players within their selection pool and make tweaks to the squad and tactics.

This week’s international window has already kicked off with the likes of South Africa, Liechtenstein, and Andorra taking the opportunity to see the field, and World Cup countries take the field tomorrow – two, to be exact. And they play each other.

Denmark and Panama meet in a rare friendly between countries set to take part in the summer festivities, with the match taking place in Bronby at 3pm ET. The two countries chose to play knowing they cannot possibly meet in Russia 2018 until at least the quarterfinals, with their respective Groups C and G split apart across the knockout rounds.

The hosts are fantastic from set-pieces and focus their attack around Tottenham star Christian Eriksen. Panama’s midfield rock Gabriel Gomez will likely be tasked with keeping Eriksen quiet, something the Republic of Ireland was unable to do last time Denmark took the field as Eriksen bagged a hat-trick. Defender Andreas Christensen is headed towards the World Cup in fantastic form with Chelsea, having earned a starting spot with the Blues. With some injuries at the back, Christensen has also played out wide along the back line before as well, something to keep watch for.

On Friday, the heavyweights begin to see the field as Uruguay hosts Czech Republic. The South American nation received a friendly draw in World Cup Group A, but brought in a solid European side to match wits with after the Czechs finished third in their qualifying group. Japan also takes to the pitch on Friday, playing Mali on a neutral field in Belgium. The Japanese will need to be at the top of their game come summer, matched into Group H against Colombia, Poland, and Senegal.

England and Argentina have both scheduled games against European sides that disappointed by failing to make the 2018 tournament. On Friday, England travels to Amsterdam to take on a Netherlands squad in turmoil, while Argentina travels to the Etihad to meet Italy.

Russia and Brazil meet in Moscow on Friday, with over 50,000 tickets already reportedly sold for the match at Luzhniki Stadium. The hosts will then get another stiff test as they take on France four days later on Tuesday. If Russia’s squad has lots of work to do before hosting the World Cup, we’ll know in a week.

The main event on Friday will be Germany and Spain meeting in Dusseldorf in a matchup of the last two World Cup winners. Germany will be without Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus, but still fields one of the deepest squads in the entire world. The Germans don’t then get the week off, having to meet Brazil on Tuesday. If Jogi Low’s side comes out of those matches on top, they could cement their status as favorites headed into the summer.

France has a stiff test as well, meeting Colombia on Friday. Like Denmark and Panama, the two countries reside in Groups C and H, meaning they could not rematch in the World Cup until at least the quarterfinals. The French then go to take on Russia next week.


Denmark vs. Panama
Slovakia vs. UAE
China vs. Wales
Algeria vs. Tanzania
Malta vs. Luxembourg

Germany vs. Spain
Italy vs. Argentina
Russia vs. Brazil
Netherlands vs. England
France vs. Colombia
Portugal vs. Egypt
Uruguay vs. Czech Republic
Mexico vs. Ireland
Poland vs. Nigeria
Austria vs. Slovenia
Peru vs. Croatia
Austria vs. Slovenia
Greece vs. Switzerland
Norway vs. Australia
Mali vs. Japan

Sweden vs. Chile

Kuwait vs. Cameroon
Nicaragua vs. Cuba

Portugal vs. Netherlands
Bulgaria vs. Kazakhstan

Russia vs. France
Germany vs. Brazil
England vs. Italy
Spain vs. Argentina
United States vs. Paraguay
Tunisia vs. Costa Rica
Colombia vs. Australia
Belgium vs. Saudi Arabia
Egypt vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Chile
Japan vs. Ukraine