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Soccer success: Iceland investment takes tiny nation to WCup

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) Sunrise is still two hours away when 700 boys arrive for a Sunday morning soccer tournament in Reykjavik, the world’s northern most capital.

[ MORE: Mourinho hits out at Arsenal after Man United win ]

It’s snowing and freezing outside but the players have overcome the natural barrier of playing football on a wind-lashed North Atlantic island by gathering at an indoor hall with a full-size artificial grass field.

If they dream of playing in a World Cup they know it can come true because their national team is going. On Friday, Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, was drawn with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.

The latest achievement has left many wondering if the island nation of nearly 340,000 people is benefiting from its investment in the sport, or is it only temporary success?

Speaking with The Associated Press at the national football stadium, Laugardalsvollur, former Iceland manager Gudjon Thordarson said the investment was paying off.

“Place Iceland’s seven indoor halls in Coventry,” he said, mentioning an English city with a roughly matching population, “and just wait and see what happens over, say, 15 years.”

What has already happened, according to Thordarson, is that when Icelanders were able to play soccer year-round, the rest of the sport became more professional. Coaching became a paid part-time job with required qualifications, instead of a volunteer role given to any involved parent.

Iceland has 460 coaches with a UEFA B license for training children up to the age of 16, or one per 740 people.

Hakon Sverrisson, who left his job as a math teacher to become head coach at the Breidablik club, said he wanted the best coaches to stay with the youngest players because “that’s when they learn the most.”

Every child pays the club’s tuition with a 300 euro ($355) voucher provided by the local municipality to support after-school activities.

Public funding toward sport clubs and their facilities mean children need to be provided with equal opportunities. “This means it’s hard for us to select the 15 or 20 best players and train them extra hard,” Sverrisson said.

Iceland’s place at the World Cup in Russia comes after a stunning run at the 2016 European Championship, where the team made it to the quarterfinals, knocking out England before losing to France 5-2.

Vidar Halldorsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, argued in a recent book that in an era of big money the Icelandic team preserves an amateur spirit of friendship and sacrifice “while the elite teams have been weakened by greed and individualism.”

The Icelandic players have relatively modest careers as professional footballers – team captain Aron Gunnarsson, for example, is with second-tier Cardiff in the English League Championship.

“Together the players are ambitious and supportive,” Halldorsson said, “and always willing to put the team first.”

The success is not “sport specific,” he said, pointing to top-class performances by the Icelandic handball and basketball teams.

“Icelanders have not forgotten the `play’ in sports,” Halldorsson said, “and with that they champion the values the larger teams have lost in recent years.”

The matches at the Korinn indoor hall are watched by proud parents, catching up with friends and relatives. Faces are familiar in a country this small, and even Iceland President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson was there to watch his 8-year-old son.

“The kids here, they learn their game and are encouraged to pass the ball to the next player instead of just kicking it as far as you can – tiny things like that give them an understanding of the game,” Johannesson told the AP.

[ MORE: A look back at Saturday’s action from around the Premier League ]

A father of five and long-time volunteer in youth clubs, the president said the most important thing was that everybody is involved. “We just make sure that everybody has fun, everybody improves himself and everybody has a good time,” Johannesson said.

“That is what matters to me, not that we are creating professional football players 10 years on or something like that.”

Mourinho on muted celebrations from Lukaku, himself

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There’s a lot of buzz about celebrating, and not celebrating, when it comes to Manchester United.

Star striker Romelu Lukaku‘s post-goal actions were muted for a second-straight week, and manager Jose Mourinho appeared nonchalant on the bench.

[ RECAP: WBA 1-2 Man Utd ]

For Lukaku, that could be down to his status as a former West Brom player (and to be sure he was quite energetic in support of Jesse Lingard‘s insurance goal).

As for Mourinho, this is a man who was quite critical of Man City’s celebrations after winning a derby at Old Trafford. And Jose isn’t one to let a story line die unnecessarily.

Here’s Mourinho when asked about Lukaku’s non-celebration, from the BBC:

“Maybe he looks to the bench and sees his manager doesn’t celebrate. Maybe he loves West Brom. Maybe he remembers the team that helped him early in his career.

“I will celebrate if my team scores a winning goal in the last minute. But you have to have more maturity and keep your feet on the ground. If some guys want to be kids until the last day of their careers or if they want to act to the cameras then they can. But if we score an important goal then I can do anything.”

On one hand, I get it. On the other hand (and a third if I can find one), be okay with having a bit of fun, Jose.

United is back to within 11 points of leaders Man City, and it’s a massive mountain to climb for the Red Devils. Yet Ander Herrera, who was terrific again on Sunday, said the directive is simple: control what you can.

“We won three titles last season, which was very good. It is true that the top of the table is difficult to reach right now but this is Premier League, you never know. Our aim is just to keep winning games.”

The side’s 41 points through 18 matches would’ve been enough to lead the Premier League in two of the previous four seasons. No one’s going to tell United to be content with where they stand, but it’s been a fine season for Mourinho’s men so far.

WATCH: Liverpool battering Bournemouth with highlight reel half

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Philippe Coutinho is capable of elite magic, and he conjured up some fantasy on Sunday at the Vitality Stadium.

[ MORE: Watch via NBCSports.com ]

Liverpool and Bournemouth were scoreless when the Brazilian dribbled past Simon Francis and Lewis Cook on a mazy run, taking Andrew Robertson‘s square pass and dancing through daylight.

If only there were a body cam on Adam Smith, who was chasing Coutinho the whole time!

Dejan Lovren — does this require we say “of all people?” — then scored a diving header after Roberto Firmino saved a wayward corner kick.

And Mohamed Salah, what else can you say about the 20-goal scorer (in all competitions)?

Salah would get his goal in stunning fashion, bodying off a defender before dribbling past two more to finish with an off-balance belt past Begovic.

Kaka calls it a career; Won World Cup, Ballon d’Or

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He’s the last Ballon d’Or winner neither named Messi nor Ronaldo, and he’s calling it a career.

Kaka announced his retirement on Sunday after a gleaming career on three continents.

Born Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, Kaka won the 2002 World Cup with Brazil and also boasts two Confederations Cup wins amongst his 92 caps and 29 international goals.

[ MAN CITY-SPURS: 3 things |  Studs and duds ]

Kaka debuted for Sao Paolo in 2001, and left for AC Milan three seasons later. Thrice names in the UEFA Team of the Year and twice the Serie A Footballer of the Year, Kaka won Serie A with Milan and La Liga with Real Madrid.

He spent the final three seasons of his career in Major League Soccer with Orlando City SC, and was magnificent. The 35-year-old scored 25 goals with 19 assists for the Lions.

West Brom 1-2 Manchester United: Red Devils hang on

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  • United back into second
  • Lukaku scores 10th PL goal of season
  • Baggies winless in 16

Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard scored first half goals and Manchester United held on to beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 at the Hawthorns on Sunday.

Gareth Barry scored the Baggies’ lone goal, as Alan Pardew‘s men sit 19th and without a win since August.

United pulls three points ahead of Chelsea, and is 11 points back of Man City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

West Brom wasn’t intimidated by the task at hand, and James McClean was particularly lively as the Baggies tried to find an opener.

But United quickly settled into control through possession, albeit without any effective incisiveness.

That changed when Lukaku rose to deposit a trademark header beyond the reach of Ben Foster, converting Marcus Rashford‘s cross with power.

After a moment of danger provided by Allan Nyom and Salomon Rondon, United made it 2-0 when Lingard took a lay-off from Juan Mata and hit a shot that Ahmed Hegazi deflected past Foster.

Jake Livermore forced David De Gea into a low save in the 44th minute.

 

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Baggies pulled one back as both Evans and Barry could’ve tapped in a loose ball off a corner kick.

Barry did, and United was on its heels. Credit Alan Pardew for his substitutes of Barry, Chris Brunt, and Jay Rodriguez (though they were, after all, on the bench).

Rodriguez powered a header off Brunt’s cross wide of the near post with about five minutes to play.

And a scramble in front nearly put the Baggies level, but De Gea was there. The keeper was kicked by Ahmed Hegazi and came up smarting.