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.

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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.

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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.”

Osorio: Jonathan Gonzalez has a “promising future” with El Tri

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The Jonathan Gonzalez situation still stings for many U.S. Men’s National Team supporters, and the encouragement from Mexico’s camp regarding the midfielder’s bright future isn’t making things better for Americans.

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El Tri manager Juan Carlos Osorio reaffirmed his belief that Gonzalez is one of the many promising prospects within the Mexican national team ahead of the country’s friendly against Iceland on Friday.

Gonzalez, who switched his national team allegiance to Mexico from the U.S. earlier this year, has been called up for the match after the 18-year-old made his Mexico senior team debut against Bosnia back in January.

“Jonathan, to start with, is part of a group of Mexican players that I’ve referred as having a good present and a promising future and that excites me to continue, along with Edson Alvarez, Omar Govea and others that aren’t here like Orbelin [Pineda] and Erick [Gutierrez],” Osorio said at a news conference on Thursday.

“Gonzalez is a good midfielder and can fight for a place with anyone. Like everyone, he has to improve a lot of things to win a place.

“After deciding to play for Mexico, it is our responsibility to give him a platform to develop and consolidate himself as a player.

“That’s why he’s in this call-up, and hopefully he can establish himself and show the qualities I mentioned.”

The former USMNT youth prospect has quickly become a regular for club side Monterrey, who currently sits sixth in the Liga MX table.

Gonzalez has appeared in 38 matches across all competitions for the four-time league champions and earned honors in the Liga MX Best XI following the 2017 Apertura season.

USMNT reveals new kits ahead of Paraguay friendly

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U.S. Soccer’s teams has donned some pretty sweet kits in the past, but this go around has particularly patriotic feel about it, and we like it.

[ MORE: Zlatan Ibrahimovic has joined the LA Galaxy ]

The U.S. released a video on Friday (below) with several USMNT stars, including Bobby Wood and Tyler Adams wearing the new kits ahead of Tuesday’s international friendly against Paraguay.

The home jersey features a flag design engraved on a white kit, which is representative of the American flag. Meanwhile, the away version holds a similar design, but with a blue base for the jersey.

Meanwhile, the USWNT will don their new kits on April 5 when they take on Mexico in the first two matches in the U.S. The two rivals will meet three days later for the second meeting.

What do you think of the latest U.S. Soccer kits? Let us know what you like or dislike about it in the comments section below.

UEFA Nations League gets $94 million prize fund for 55 teams

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA says it has created a 76.25 million euro ($94 million) prize fund for the inaugural Nations League.

The first champion will earn 7.5 million euros ($9.25 million).

The Nations League is replacing most international friendlies. All 55 UEFA members will play group matches in four tiers through November. The Final Four will be in June 2019.

UEFA says 12 top-ranked teams in League A will each get 1.5 million euros ($1.85 million). Group winners will get 1.5 million euros ($1.85 million) extra and advance to the final tournament, and the winner will get another 4.5 million euros ($5.55 million).

League B will pay 1 million euros ($1.23 million) per team, while in League C it’s 750,000 euros ($925,000) and in League D it’s 500,000 euros ($617,000). Group winners will double their money.

Alexis Sanchez discusses Man United struggles

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Alexis Sanchez appears to be struggling with his disappointing start to life at Manchester United.

The Chilean star, 29, became the highest-paid player in the Premier League when he arrived from Arsenal in January in a swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Sanchez has scored just one PL goal.

Sanchez has failed to make his mark on a consistent basis as United have also crashed out of the UEFA Champions League.

What does Sanchez put his lack of form down to?

In an Instagram post he left a caption saying that he was mentally exhausted: “I know you are tired. I know you are psychologically and emotionally exhausted. But you have to smile and continue”.

Speaking to the Chilean media ahead of their friendly against Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday, Sanchez revealed he has been struggling with the lack of impact he has had at United.

“The change of club was something that was very abrupt – it was the first time I’ve changed clubs in January – but many things have happened in my life that are difficult… As I am self-demanding, I expected something better. After my arrival at United, it was hard to change everything very quickly. I even hesitated to come here [to Sweden].”

Sanchez has looked better in a central role behind Romelu Lukaku but he hasn’t been used there often enough by Jose Mourinho.

At Arsenal he had the license to roam free in the attacking third but in Mourinho’s more defensive, rigid system he appears to be struggling to get on the ball in the right areas in and around the box. Sanchez has cut a frustrated figure out on the left wing and has given the ball away on multiple occasions as he tries to make the difficult passes and open up opposition defenses.

It appears that Sanchez is perhaps trying to hard to impress United and given his all-action displays, that is not easy to do.

United need more of him in the final third than out wide or tracking back to help out his own defense if they’re going to seal their top four spot and win the FA Cup to see out the final months of the season.

There’s no doubting Sanchez’s quality as we all know just how good he can be from his four seasons at Arsenal.

Yet, as he acknowledged himself, something at United isn’t quite right.