Gervinho

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Ranking the worst failures in World Cup qualifying

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So many high expectation nations missed the 2018 World Cup that a second-tier tournament is being bandied about, enough so that people are legitimately intrigued at the idea.

That begs the question: How did we get here? In some cases, sides missed the big dance due to wonky qualifying schedules. Others had tough draws and couldn’t rebound in a playoff. Another group just flat out flopped in red, white, and blue.

[ USMNT-PORTUGAL: Match recap | Player ratings ]

Who’s failure was most heinous? Let us count the ways, er, teams.

7) Netherlands — This is a nation that, like England, has overachieved so many times that neutrals expect more from them that, perhaps, is rational. Their domestic league is not what it once was, but finishing behind Sweden is a tough pill to swallow for a side which has been on the proverbial podium the past two World Cups and four times in its history.

6) Ivory Coast — Africa’s qualifying is brutal, but Les Elephants lost two of three home qualifiers and managed two scoreless draws away from home. In fact, the team was blanked thrice despite a unit with Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Jonathan Kodija, and Wilfried Zaha. Yes, the nation is on a downswing, but still were the favorites to advance past Morocco.

5) Bosnia and Herzegovina — Perched atop the group for a decent period of qualifying, a loaded BNH side drew Greece home and away, lost in Cyprus, and lost at home to Belgium in a cycle which could’ve seen them make a deep run powered by Edin Dzeko, Sead Kolasinac, Asmir Begovic, and Miralem Pjanic.

4) Italy — The highest-ranked ELO team to miss the tournament, Italy had the misfortune of being drawn with Spain (and vice versa). Second-place there was no shame, but being unable to finish over two legs against Sweden may be understandable — Blågult only allowed nine goals in qualifying — but Gian Piero Ventura’s keeping Lorenzo Insigne out of the starting lineup will be questioned for a long, long time.

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3) Chile — CONMEBOL qualifying is as difficult as any confederation, and probably the toughest. Still, La Roja was shutout in six of its nine away qualifiers, including losses to eighth place Ecuador and ninth place Bolivia. For a side with Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal to be blanked that many times? Brutal.

2) Ghana – At least the Ivory Coast finished second in its group! Ghana drew all three of its home matches, managing its only win at the Republic of Congo. That means Apparently the Black Stars couldn’t imagine a World Cup without the USMNT.

*1b) United States — With respect to the improving nature of CONCACAF, the confederation’s relative weakness and wildly forgiving Hex means the Bruce Arena’s men did as poorly as any decent nation in the world. To not even make a playoff is embarrassing, and the first leg of Honduras versus Australia lets you know all that’s needed about the quality of the lesser friends of CONCACAF.

*1a) Australia — The asterisks is important because the Socceroos dominated Honduras in the first leg only to not find a goal, and can still advance to the World Cup with a win at 4 a.m. ET in Sydney. But losing to Honduras after finishing behind Saudi Arabia on the weakness of handing Thailand one of its only two points of qualifying? Wooooof.

Report: James turned down $32 million salary in China

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An $32 million per year salary and $114 transfer fee were not enough to woo James Rodriguez and Real Madrid into a move to the Chinese Super League.

Manuel Pellegrini‘s Hebei China Fortune was the club behind the offer, according to Marca, although the second bid may’ve been done simply to raise the profile. The report says the rejection of an $84 million bid made it clear no offer would hit the spot.

[ MORE: Arsenal’s new non-league LB ]

Hebei has Ezequiel Lavezzi, Stephane Mbia, Gael Kakuta, and Gervinho on the books.

James made comments about leaving Madrid at the Club World Cup, and Marca says the Chinese club was quick to make its intentions known to agent Jorge Mendes.

Rodriguez has 4 goals and 10 assists in 18 matches for Madrid this season.

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China’s football revolution kicks into overdrive

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BEIJING (AP) As coaches take notes, teenagers dribble footballs through a course of cones on Ritan Middle School’s gleaming artificial field in eastern Beijing, part of a massive program to promote soccer as a pillar of China’s rise to global prominence.

The 14-year-old boys and girls were being scrutinized under a newly added section of Beijing’s high school entrance exam, which beginning this year includes an elective football skills test in addition to such standards as Chinese, math, and English.

[ USMNT-SVG: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ]

While the skills tests comprise only a small part of the placement exam, the fact education officials tweaked a notoriously rigid standardized test is one sign of how thoroughly China is mobilizing under President Xi Jinping’s drive to overhaul the game domestically and turn the Chinese team into a World Cup winner by 2050.

The football revolution spans from schoolyards to the top professional league. Local officials tout how thousands of high schools are becoming government-designated football “priority” schools. Cities announce hundreds of football complexes being built every week.

Chinese clubs are paying record fees to woo stars away from Europe and boost interest in the domestic league. And in the past year alone, Chinese investors have spent a staggering $3 billion to buy stakes in European clubs, with the stated aim of bringing football know-how back to China.

“We’ve talked about football under several top leaders but until now, there has never been this will,” said Pang Xiaozhong, former director of the Institute of Sport Science, an arm of China’s state sports program. “It’s unprecedented.”

[ MORE: SVG 0-6 USMNT recap |

Boosting China’s standing in the game is part of Xi’s push to raise China’s global prestige. With the national men’s team ranked No. 78, a turnaround would be nothing short of cathartic. While the women’s team has often found international success, China’s men have qualified for only one World Cup, bouncing out of the 2002 competition without scoring a goal.

Decades after China’s government successfully created a Soviet-style sports juggernaut, emphasizing highly technical disciplines such as diving, the question is whether the sports-by-diktat approach can work for the world’s most popular game. Unlike sports such as gymnastics, in which elite state academies develop selected prospects from a young age, commentators say football success will require a huge player base and vibrant, structured youth leagues – all of which China is trying to create practically from scratch.

In May, the cabinet issued a 50-point plan that called on local and provincial governments to promote football by setting up school programs, creating amateur leagues, offering tax breaks for pitch construction and recruiting foreign coaches with the goal of establishing 70,000 new fields and producing 50 million school-age players by 2020.

In a top-down system under which the ruling Communist Party still issues five-year economic plans, this state-led mix of infrastructure investment and mass grassroots mobilization is precisely what Beijing sees as needed to bring home a World Cup trophy.

“In China, the role of the government is always the biggest and most effective,” Pang said. “Football is something we can grasp if we’re methodic.”

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Although the government has not released cost estimates for its development plan, analysts say hundreds of millions could be spent over the next five years on facilities alone.

What has been made public, however, is the $300 million this year that Chinese Super League clubs have splashed out recruiting stars such as Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jackson Martinez and former Arsenal striker Gervinho. And that does not include the wages on offer at Chinese clubs, which are now some of the highest in the world.

Clubs have also splurged on high-profile coaches, including ex-Real Madrid and Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, former Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and one-time England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said there’s no reason to doubt China could become a regional football superpower. But he warned there were similarities with the government’s approach to economic planning that, despite its successes, can lead to inefficiency or graft. One example is the wave of interest that followed the 2002 World Cup run, which quickly fizzled out when the domestic league was hit by rampant corruption scandals.

“The leadership sketches a hugely ambitious and yet ambiguous vision and people lower down the chain – government bureaus, provincial governments – and those hoping to curry favor, especially in business, pick it up and run with it,” Sullivan said. “The problem is everyone often runs in different directions.”

Chinese football investors are already scrambling to buy into storied clubs such as Inter Milan and AC Milan, sometimes speaking of those deals as patriotic buyers.

In a recent interview, Jiantong “Tony” Xia, who took over England’s Aston Villa in May, said a main objective was to eventually field Chinese players and establish academies.

[ WATCH: Pulisic, Kljestan combine… twice ]

“It’s been proven that buying foreign firms with know-how and then bringing that back to the domestic industry has been the most efficient route,” Xia said.

As China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi’s personal influence on the promotion of football has been enormous.

The president makes no secret of his love for the game which he picked up as a child playing alongside the scions of other Communist Party leaders at the elite Beijing 101 Middle School.

A 1983 exhibition match between China and English club Watford was said to have left a particular impression on Xi. China was then just opening up to the outside world after decades of Maoism, and when Watford trounced the Chinese national team, Xi left the Beijing Workers Stadium fuming, childhood friend Nie Weiping recalled in an interview years later with state media.

“He felt hurt watching the match,” Nie was quoted as saying. “But he’s continued to always follow Team China.”

Those presidential concerns appear to be having a direct effect at the grassroots.

On the leafy Ritan Middle School campus, extracurricular director Xu Fuxing described how the public school’s budget has risen 25 percent since Xi’s administration made sports an educational priority.

The campus recently resurfaced an artificial field and Xu has hired youth football academy Huawen to train its students. Aside from offering traveling competitions that barely existed a few years ago, Huawen employs coaches such as Juan Varela, a former trainer with Atletico Madrid who moved to China earlier this year and works with help from translators.

Speaking over Varela’s cries of “Spread out! Spread out!” as eight-year-old kids swarmed after loose balls, Xu said the national plan’s key element is to encourage the formation of clubs and leagues to offer competitive experiences to young players.

Even small measures such as Beijing’s new football exam have encouraged kids to try the game and, as Xu said, “It symbolizes much more to come.”

Manuel Pellegrini hired to manage Chinese club Hebei China Fortune

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Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has been hired by Chinese club Hebei China Fortune as the Chinese top flight adds another big name manager. He joins just three months after stepping down as manager of Manchester City in favor of Pep Guardiola.

The Chilean will match up with former Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who currently heads current league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, in his first game in charge on September 10. Evergrande sits 15 points adrift of Hebei in the table. Sven-Göran Eriksson also manages in the league, in charge of Guangzhou R&F.

Pellegrini inherits a squad that includes Ezequiel Lavezzi plus former Premier Leaguers Stephane M’bia, Gervinho, and Gael Kakuta. The club currently sits in fifth in the league table out of 16 teams, with seven matches remaining in the season.

Following Pellegrini’s departure from City, the 62-year-old said he wished to remain in the Premier League, but also that he would retire if he did not receive an offer that interested him.

Pellegrini replaces former Everton midfielder Li Tie, who worked previously under Marcelo Lippi at Evergrande before being hired as Hebei manager a year ago. Tie was in hot water after criticizing the Chinese national team selection process and travel planning in early July.

List of top 10 best paid players: Graziano Pelle now 5th after move to China

Shandong Lenung
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Following his move to Shandong Lenung in the Chinese Super League on Monday, Graziano Pelle is now the joint-fifth best paid player on the planet.

Let that sink in for a moment.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Janssen ]

Now, I am not knocking Pelle, far from it. He scored 30 goals in 81 appearances for Southampton over the past two seasons and the bustling forward who turns 31 this week shone for Italy at EURO 2016. Well, apart from that penalty kick against Germany…

Whatever you think about Pelle’s move, it confirms the CSL’s huge spending power as four of the top 10 best paid players on the planet now play in China’s top-flight, according to a list compiled by Tancredi Palmeri.

A player like Pelle just can’t turn down the sums of money on offer even if it means his international future with Italy is hampered and he will no longer play in the global spotlight of the PL for Southampton or another team with both Chelsea and Everton linked with him this summer. Yet, the riches of the CSL was too good to turn down. He was a player at his peak after a stunning EURO 2016 campaign and his decision to cash in now and earn a reported $45 million over the next 30 months is one most would surely make given the opportunity.

[ MORE: Henry out as Arsenal youth coach ]

With President Xi pushing China to get behind soccer with new academies and an emphasis on improving facilities, many state owned companies are bankrolling these CSL teams. Yes, some of the players they have bought are coming towards the end of their careers but the likes of Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Paulinho and Gervinho are definitely not.

Many will say they’re giving up the UEFA Champions League and playing in the top leagues in Europe for money and they’re probably right. The CSL’s average attendance is growing at just over 20,000 and with foreign giants coming to play in China each preseason, the appetite for the game is continuing to grow, especially as the government devotes more money to its development with a dream of one day hosting the FIFA World Cup.

That extreme wealth means we may not see the end of this spending and this may just be the start. Despite the CSL currently having a rule of just four overseas players per team, plus another from a fellow Asian Football Confederation nation, it still continues to attract interest from players and to coaches as Luiz Felipe Scolari, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Felix Magath are all currently coaching in the CSL.

So, here’s a look at the top 10 best paid players in the world with regards to their pure salary paid by the club.

Of course, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar all earn many more millions in endorsement deals and sponsorship but the huge strides China is making in attracting the top talent in world soccer is making everyone sit up and take note.


Highest 10 paid soccer players (Jul, 12, 2016)

1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) = $446,000 per week
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona) = $427,000
2. Hulk (Shanghai SIPG) = $427,000
4. Neymar (Barcelona) = $407,000
5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United) = $341,000
5. Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng) = $341,000
7. Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich) = $289,000
8. Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune) = $275,000
9. Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao) = $262,000
10. Thiago Silva (PSG) = $256,000