Unraveling the mess at Southampton FC: Cortese, Pochettino, Liebherr and Saints’ future

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SOUTHAMPTON — As sweat poured off his forehead and he fanned himself with his hands, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino fielded intense questions for over 45 minutes at St. Mary’s Stadium on Thursday. But we are still no closer to unraveling the monumental mess the Premier League club has now been left in.

On Saturday his Southampton side travel to play Sunderland (watch live on NBCSN, 7:45am ET and online via Live Extra) but only one token question was asked about Saints’ game against the Black Cats during the lengthy and heated press conference.

Right now, there are more pressing issues to contend with at Southampton.

After Nicola Cortese brought his four years in charge at the club to an abrupt end earlier this week, as the former Executive Chairman walked away from Saints midseason, Pochettino’s future had been flung into doubt when owner Katharina Liebherr announced she was now the non-executive chairman of the club, as the search began for a Chief Executive to take over Cortese’s place on the board. All this has happened in the midst of Southampton enjoying their best season in decades, as they sit in the top 10 of the Premier League after rising from the depths of English soccer’s third-tier just over three years ago.

(MORE: Pochettino will stay on as manager of Southampton)

Here we will try to unravel exactly what is going on at Southampton, what has been leading up to this dramatic climax and which direction the club can move towards in the future, both short and long-term. This is the story on how Southampton’s dramatic rise towards the top six of the PL is now in danger of falling apart.

WHO IS THE OWNER?

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Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese brokered the deal and controlled the running of the club. Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter’s hands.

Throughout Southampton’s two seasons back in the Premier League, Katharina Liebherr has been in charge of the club. She’s been in the background, living in Switzerland mostly, as she let Nicola Cortese run the club. Hearing from sources close to her, Ms. Liebherr intends to live in Switzerland and does not want to move to England. However, she will remain in the UK until this issue has been resolved by either selling the club, or handing the reins over to a new Chief Executive who can steer the ship back in the right direction.

In 2009 her father Markus Liebherr, who tragically passed away in 2010, saved Southampton from extinction. Days away from dropping out of the soccer world, Liebherr was tipped off to a potential investment opportunity by his friend and financial adviser, Mr. Cortese. Within 48 hours billionaire Liebherr, whose family own an industrial machinery company which is one of the largest in the world and is worth $5 billion, was in Southampton and bought the club for a cut price $22 million. The stadium, the players, the training ground, the staff, the whole lot.

Of course, the debt had been swallowed up after Southampton went into administration and had to start the season on -10 points in English soccer’s third-tier in 2009-10.

But the journey to redemption had begun.

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Southampton owner Katharina Liebherr took over her father’s estate, which included Southampton FC, when her father Markus died in 2010. Will she sell the club or keep the status quo?

Sadly Liebherr didn’t get to see too much of it, as Saints’ back-to-back promotions to the Premier League came after his death in 2010. All the time his daughter Katharina was in the background quietly leaving the everyday running of the club to Cortese as she signed checks and took care of her late father’s estate. Now Katharina, with Saints flourishing in the top half of English soccer after soaring up 58 places in the English soccer period in just three seasons, is in the spotlight. But she doesn’t deserve any animosity or abuse. Her family is bank-rolling the club and she’s merely the custodian who wants to honor her father’s memory in the best possible manner. Unexpectedly, and most reluctantly, she is now the leading figure of a Premier League side.

She has backed the manager and the players and said they have her full support. I believe she means well. But now she has to find someone to run the club with the same tenacity, ruthlessness and clinical cynicism that Cortese previously did. That takes us onto the man in question nicely.

WHY DID CORTESE LEAVE?

Pochettino unzipped his black tracksuit jacket as the heat cranked up a few notches in the press room at St. Mary’s. The new beaming white spotlights assembled just for this press conference made it seem like I was watching the start of a police interrogation. Asked why Cortese had left by a rather blunt national journalist, Pochettino replied, “I don’t know. I found out like you did. It’s very difficult.”

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Nicola Cortese walked out on Southampton, after spending over 4 years at the club. During that time Saints went from bottom of League One to the top half of the PL. Why did he leave? Nobody knows…

That answer wasn’t good enough. Pochettino was sneered at for revealing he has met the owner of the club just twice, once at the end of season party last year for five minutes and then briefly before Thursday’s press conference. That’s it. Southampton’s manager tried to state how no players would be sold in January. “But how could you guarantee that?” One journalist irately asked. The Argentine boss had a resigned look across his face. Right now, he can’t guarantee anything.

Pochettino was hounded by the press as they dug deep to try and understand why his close ally Cortese, who had carved out an incredibly successful career for himself with some of the largest Swiss banks, would suddenly up sticks and move away from a club he had described as “his baby” and a project he had started in 2009 from scratch and built the team up from League One basement boys to top six hopefuls in the richest and most-watched league in the world.

Many theories exist as to why Cortese walked away. The Italian had actually handed in his notice in October as he felt the time was right to move on. Some argue that his constant bickering with Katharina Liebherr over the running of her father’s estate was stopping his plans to push Southampton onto the next level. Indeed last May he almost walked out as he sought more financial clout from Liebherr to push Saints on. Cortese got those funds, in the end, but it seems like he wanted more. Another theory is that his long-standing relationship with Serie (Saints have got many players from Cortese’s links with the Italian top-fligh) has seen him been offered a similar role in Italy. In recent times AC Milan had offered Cortese the GM’s job but it was rejected, with the Italian giants currently restructuring, we may see him pop up there.

Other reasons for his departure suggest petty rows over his contract and salary was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That may seem ridiculous for a man whose wealth is obviously significant, but having spent some time around Southampton’s training ground and facilities in the past few months, you get the feeling his nature is one of stubbornness and petulance if things aren’t done his way.

(MORE: Cortese resigns as Southampton Chairman, manager Pochettino could follow)

Talking about Southampton as his baby, Cortese has plowed tens of millions into the club’s sublime training ground on the edge of the New Forest National Park. It is a sight to behold, although still not quite finished, as multiple pitches all made of different grass fibers are present so the team can prepare properly for each away venue. Swimming pools, treatment centers, classrooms, glass clad balconies, it has it all. One staff member showed me how a small 15 yard piece of road had taken two months to build as every time Cortese arrived he ordered builders to ‘widen it’ then ‘narrow it’ then ‘widen it.’

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Cortese’s ruthless business nature transcended to the sporting arena. Often that didn’t win him friends, but Saints’ success has told it’s own story.

He is a perfectionist, and if something isn’t how he wants it, he won’t have it. Word has it staff at the club weren’t treated too well, as Cortese charged them to park their cars on the premises as the club is now run with ruthless efficiency and no handouts are given to anyone. Legendary past players have been turned away at the door as they haven’t paid to get in. That’s the way Cortese rolls. It was his way, or the highway. “You have a sexy job, if you don’t want to do it, there are millions of others who I can hire.” Those were the alleged words of Cortese to some of his employers in the past.

Look, let’s not muddy the waters here. Cortese is a genius in the eyes of some, as he took a floundering club riddled with financial mismanagement and took them from the third tier all the way to the upper echelons of the Premier League and building the best youth academy in England and a marvelous training facility that will be the envy of most PL clubs along the way.

Speaking of Cortese’s departure and how it has affected his players, Pochettino sat up straight and cleared his throat as the crowded press conference room at St. Mary’s hung on his every word.

“We were all sad to hear of his departure because we all had a personal relationship with Nicola. Of course I’ve spoken to the players because I knew, even ahead of time, that the rumors were going to be massive regarding his departure. I basically said to them what I’m saying to you now. There’s something else that I would like to highlight and to add to what I’ve just said. When Nicola offered me my contract, just as he did when he offered contracts to players, there was only one thing he said to me: to be 100 percent professional, regardless of whatever situation is happening. That puts him on a higher level. He is a stand-up guy, and that’s something that I’d like to say about him.”

WHAT ABOUT THE PLAYERS?

Since the announcement of Cortese leaving Saints broke, tabloids, 24-hour TV stations and radio shows across England have driven the story into a frenzy and suddenly every single Southampton player wants to leave. That is categorically not the case. Before the press conference on Thursday I was chatting with a few journalists and office staff from the club, who were jokingly trying to work out which one of them would be playing up front or in goal against Sunderland this weekend, they were poking fun at the absurd hyperbole being churned up by the media fallout.

The tabloids had sunk their teeth into the situation at Southampton, and they weren’t going to let go until they had their pound of flesh.

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Southampton’s fine crop of young English talent will not be sold, as Katharina Liebherr’s first move was to reassure the fans their heroes would not vanish.

Despite all the fabricated rumors about teenage sensation Luke Shaw moving, plus England internationals Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana and others leaving Southampton, none of them have left and none of them will leave.

Here’s a statement released by owner Katharina Liebherr on Friday saying just that.

“The Club has no plans to sell any of the squad during the January transfer window. The manager and the team have my full support.”

Fans of Southampton can breath easy. For now. The top English clubs are circling to snap up their talented players, as the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are on the hunt for a quick-fire sale from Katharina Liebherr. It seems like that’s not likely to happen, but that doubt will keep looming until the situation has been totally clarified.

POCHETTINO’S COMMITMENT TO THE CLUB?

The big question to clear up from Southampton’s Argentine boss during the press conference, was the fact that back in May when similar rumors about Cortese leaving had surfaced, Pochettino stated he would follow Cortese and walk out of the club.

But he hasn’t. Not yet.

“They are completely different situations. Eight months ago, when this thing was happening [before] and we were speaking about this, we were finishing my first season at Southampton Football Club. I did say that, if he left, there would be no sense for me to actually stay. The situation right now is completely different. We’re in the middle of our process and our project here at Southampton Football Club, so it’s a completely different situation. Nicola knows of my decision to stay. I’ve spoken to him about it, and it shows that I’m fully committed to these players, to the staff, to all of the people working at this Club and to this society. It would make no sense to leave in the middle of our path.”

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Pochettino was left with a difficult decision to make, as his closest ally and confidant, Nicola Cortese, walked out on him.

Turn the clock forward seven months and halfway through his first full season in charge, Pochettino made a massive U-turn and without really knowing it, will now be idolized by the home supporters. Pochettino rarely speaks about the fans or waves to them during games or acknowledges them when they sing. But he doesn’t have to. They respect him for the job he’s done and will now continue to do. On Saturday at Sunderland Pochettino will get a heroes welcome from the Saints fan when he appears from the tunnel pregame. His name will be sung with gusto and pride. He has stuck by Southampton in their time of need. The fans will never forget that.

Pochettino could’ve easily walked away. The man who shared his vision for the football club and wanted him on board has left and now the Argentine boss must start all over again with a new Chief Executive, or potentially a new owner if Katharina Liebherr decides to sell up. Staying was not the easy option. There will be tough times ahead for Saints, as Pochettino’s young squad brimming with teenagers are expected to brush away the off-field troubles without emotion, and carry on their relentless pursuit of the top clubs in England. Pochettino has become a symbol of hope for the fans. Now Cortese has left he is the leading light preaching the “Southampton Way” which the club believes is essential to success.

“That vision attracted me. He [Cortese] had such great vision that he brought me here!,” Pochettino laughed in brief light-hearted moment in the heated debate about the future of both himself and the club. “All I need to focus on is to keep doing the work I’ve been doing so far and to continue that until the end of the season – that’s my commitment to the Club and that’s what I need to do as manager. I am 100 percent committed to those players, I am 100 percent committed to the project and to the two years of my contract. I have a contract and a responsibility with Southampton Football Club.”

THE FUTURE OF SAINTS?

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Until the end of the season Pochettino will remain in charge of the team. But what then?

Southampton’s press officer had to jump in on numerous occasions during Pochettino’s presser. Journalists wanted more answers, wanted to probe the tired looking manager more.

You had to feel sorry for the Argentine facing the media circus with arguably so many questions of his own floating around in his mind. His family had moved from Barcelona to England, they were settled, had just bought a house and on Saturday against Sunderland he will celebrate one year in charge of the club. Then… WHAM. This hits him. But throughout the Argentine coach stayed relatively calm but was forthright in what he said, he addressed questions respectfully and should be commended for his honesty. That came to the fore when Pochettino was asked about how he was handling the situation.

“It was difficult to sleep when this happened yesterday, I am not going to lie. Because this is a great responsibility to be a manager of this club. When you sign a contract, you are not just signing a piece of paper, it’s abut your commitment and your responsibility to the staff , to the players, to the club as a whole. It’s a great responsibility. A great responsibility that I am fully, 100 percent decided on staying here until the end of the season and taking this club as high as I can.”

Right now Pochettino is the man leading Southampton into the unknown. Life without Cortese won’t be as bad as everyone believes it will be. Hopefully owner Katharina Liebherr can find the right person to replace him and one change, albeit a very big one, is the only one that needs to be made and a seamless transition from the Cortese era to the a new one can keep Southampton on course in their quest to impact European soccer. That is the dream Pochettino and Cortese shared, and whoever comes in must have that same dream, or the entire fabric of the club could falter and see the Saints sent into a downward spiral.

Currently sitting on 30 points and in ninth place with 17 games to go, it’s safe to say Southampton will still be a Premier League club next season. But the new Chief Executive Liebherr appoints will play a key role in determining which road Saints will take at the crossroads engineered by Cortese’s departure.

(MORE: The dramatic rise of Southampton and their supporters)

If Liebherr sales, everything will change. Right now the club is worth approximately $220 million. Not bad for a club her father bought for a miniscule $22 million just over four years ago. But if she stays and puts a new Chief Executive with similar visions to Cortese and somebody Pochettino can work with, Southampton’s path to the top will only be briefly halted then realigned. Instead of coming to a shuddering halt and going under like many had feared when the news of Cortese’s departure first arrived.

Amongst it all Pochettino’s willingness to state he will reassess things at the end of the season is slightly worrying for Saints fans, but at least he has stuck around to see this storm out. To round of the press conference I asked Pochettino if he had a message to Southampton’s fans.

First he asked, “do you mean in six months or ten years?” I wanted to reply ‘ten years’, but instead I was eager to know what he was thinking of between now and the end of the season. The future seems a long way away.

“Until the end of the season if the owners want me to be the manager, then I will be the manager at this club,” Pochettino said with his jaw locked, a look of disbelief glazed over his eyes. “On a personal basis I would not be in agreement to sell any player that I do not want to sell.”

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Fans of the South Coast club are desperate to see them succeed. But most dream of stability after Cortese’s departure.

Through it all Pochettino’s stubbornness shone through. Like Cortese he will not do anything that he doesn’t want to. If Pochettino remains in charge, the man who dragged Southampton up from the depths of despair to fame and fortune in the big-time will never be forgotten. His mentality is mirrored by Pochettino. They’re two peas in a pod, and if Southampton’s manager remains, Cortese can rest assured that he’s left the footballing side of the club in safe hands, not turmoil. Now Katharina Liebherr must do the right thing and be sensible with the appointment of a Chief Executive that mirrors those values.

Southampton still have the chance to do something special, they’ve already scared most of the Premier League’s elite with their dazzling displays this season. Now it’s time to do it all over again.

After saving German club, Green hopes to revive USMNT career

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Julian Green has been the Halley’s Comet of the U.S. national team. He appeared out of nowhere for the 2014 World Cup, scored against Belgium and then pretty much disappeared.

After scoring the goal that saved a German club from relegation to the third division, he’s back with a young American group that has no World Cup to prepare for. And he’s still only 22.

[ MORE: Commisso “hopeful” of $500m USSF deal ]

“It made me much stronger. I’m a different person now. I’m a better player now,” he said Thursday ahead of next week’s exhibition against Bolivia.

Born in Tampa, Florida, Green was 2 when he moved to Germany with his older brother Justin and his German-born mother.

A member of Bayern Munich’s youth system, he was not part of the U.S. pool that qualified for the 2014 World Cup. The winger played for Germany in three qualifiers for the 2014 European Under-19 Championship, then switched to the Americans at the behest of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

He was a surprise pick on the U.S. roster four years ago this week, seemingly to displace Landon Donovan. At 19 the third-youngest player in the World Cup, Green scored in the Americans’ extra-time loss in the round of 16, two minutes after entering. He left Brazil on the list of potential breakout players for the next four-year cycle.

That potential has not yet been fulfilled.

While he played in exhibitions later that year against the Czech Republic and Colombia, his career stalled for club and country. Green was bypassed for the 2015 and 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cups and the 2016 Copa America. His only U.S. appearances were in three friendlies in 2016.

[ MORE: Next USMNT-Mexico date set ]

After Bruce Arena replaced Klinsmann that fall, Green was never brought back. Until now.

“I’m curious just to hear his side of things and see where he’s at,” said interim coach Dave Sarachan, who took over after the U.S. was eliminated with last October’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Green joined Bayern at age 14 and made his first-team debut on Nov. 27, 2013, late in a Champions League match against CSKA Moscow. Bayern coach Pep Guardiola said he expected to keep Green for 2014-15, then reversed course and loaned him to Hamburg. Green made it into just five Bundesliga games that season,

“The coach that wanted me, he gets fired after one week,” Green said. “That was a hard time.”

Green returned to Bayern for 2016-17, and his playing time under coach Carlo Ancelotti was limited to a pair of German Cup matches. He transferred to second-tier Stuttgart in January, had one goal in 10 league games, then was loaned to second-division Greuther Fuerth for 2017-18.

His played regularly, and his career started to revive. On May 13 he scored on a right-footed shot from about 23 yards in a 1-1 draw against Heidenheim, preventing Greuther Fuerth from getting demoted to Germany’s third tier.

“One of the best seasons for me personally,” he said.

He understands why he couldn’t get playing time at Bayern, one of the world’s top clubs.

“At each position there were like three top stars,” he said.

Green started to play a more central role this season, one that could have more of an impact on his team.

“Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, they always told me my best position is in the middle,” Green said. “The first games at Fuerth I started out wide, and then the last games I started in the middle. And for me personally, I think in the middle is a better position.”

Green’s contract with Stuttgart runs through 2018-19, and he’s not sure which club he’ll be with next season. He knows he can’t afford to disappear from the thoughts of coaches on both sides of the Atlantic.

“To his credit, he’s only 22 years old and he’s back here, and he did it by playing his way back in,” U.S. assistant coach John Hackworth said.

If Green becomes a first-division regular, he could become part of the American nucleus for the 2022 World Cup cycle, a roster led by Christian Pulisic that also could include midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, and defender Matt Miazga. Among that quartet, Green is the oldest. He has three goals in eight U.S. appearances and is the only player on this week’s roster with World Cup experience.

“I’d like to see his personality sort of emerge,” Sarachan said. “He’s a quiet kid.”

Green had a hard time believing the U.S. failed to qualify for next month’s World Cup. Given the time difference, he didn’t stay up to watch the match in Trinidad. He figured he’d find out happy news in the morning.

“I took a look at my phone: I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought it was a joke.”

Notes: The U.S. will play Mexico in an exhibition on Sept. 11 at Nashville, Tennessee, the second of what likely will be two home matches during the international fixture period.

Aubameyang: Arsenal coaching change can help “stagnation”

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Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is politely echoing what many Gunners supporters have been saying for some time when it comes to Arsene Wenger leaving the Emirates Stadium set.

[ MORE: Next USMNT-Mexico date set ]

Unai Emery has been tabbed to replace the departing legend, who oversaw a relatively poor sixth place finish in the Premier League this season.

From RMC, translated by Goal.com:

“I think it’s a little bit of a mixed feeling in fact,” Aubameyang said. “On one hand, it’s strange for all the fans that the coach has left. But it’s definitely a fresh start.”

“Since over the last few seasons – you have to tell the truth – the club has stagnated a little bit, I think everyone is actually a little bit excited to see what happens next season.”

The 28-year-old striker scored 10 times for Arsenal since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in January, scoring or assisting in 10 of 13 Premier League matches and bagging braces in two appearances.

“Hopeful” Commisso extends deadline for $500m NASL restoration

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New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso tells ProSoccerTalk that he has extended his deadline in regards to his $500 million investment offer to fund a resurgent North American Soccer League.

Why? Well, for one, Commisso feels that progress is being made, so much so that he’s willing to characterize his outlook as “hopeful.”

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth, they basically said they can’t get everything done by the 31st and they need more time and that’s the reason why we changed the deadline,” Commisso said.

U.S. Soccer told the NASL it could not meet prior to the June 13 vote regarding 2026 World Cup hosting. In extending his deadline to May 31, Commisso is asking for a few commitments from U.S. Soccer.

Commisso wants U.S. Soccer to commit to a board meeting with a “yes or no” vote no later than June 29, and wants U.S. Soccer to provide a list of prerequisite actions needed to have such a decision on his proposal at said meeting. And he wants a commitment from U.S. Soccer to stick to the timeline.

So what’s the impetus for Commisso’s hopeful nature?

“They’ve showed some good faith and I’m willing to move if they’re willing to do X, Y, and Z. It’s a moving thing and I’m being flexible to their asks and to see at what point and time they’re going to come up with something else.”

Commisso said his deadlines have not been about putting pressure on USSF, rather the many things he’d have to do to get the NASL back on the field by March 2019 for a season with a minimum of 10 teams, which would be sanctioned as D-2.

Additionally, the 10-year runway would include D-1 sanctioning in 2020 with a minimum of 14 teams, a minimum of 10,000-seat stadia, a minimum of three time zones represented, as well as a plan to introduce promotion and relegation in said top flight.

He’d also need multi-team ownership to start, but said that would be solved by independent ownership at the end of the 10-year runway, if not sooner, with all teams meeting the current Professional League Standards for D-1.

“I’m asking for the 10 years, let’s be clear,” Commisso said. “If you read our original letters, we’ve always asked for the ability of multi-ownership. We put out a chart that goes back all the way to 1996 that shows the transition from 1996 to 2011, that during those periods there were certain owners with multi-teams. In 2003, three guys owned the entire league, so that’s what I’m asking for.”

Commisso said that, like the MLS build-up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there would be safeguards in place to maintain sporting integrity, and that his full 2019 roster of clubs would be finalized by Sept. 20, with the NASL’s league ops fully restored by New Year’s Eve. There’s also an ask of commitment from USSF to address governance issues by February 2019.

The $250 million he’s investing is joined by $50 million each from Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva and Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer, plus help from “leading Wall Street banks.”

The NASL has already identified 12 potential clubs, 11 of which are in metropolitan areas with populations above one million. The investment would go to building modular soccer-specific stadia in some markets, and his league would put an emphasis on youth development and domestic players.

“I’m hopeful that the leadership of U.S. Soccer sees in the largest investment ever proposed by a single individual for the benefit of American soccer getting this through as quickly as possible.”

Italy coach Mancini leaves door open for Gianluigi Buffon

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Italy coach Roberto Mancini says former captain Gianluigi Buffon will still be considered if he wants to return to the national team.

Buffon retired from international soccer in November after Italy lost a World Cup playoff to Sweden, but he recently returned for friendlies.

[ MORE: Next USMNT-Mexico date set ]

Mancini says “(Buffon) wants to continue playing football … Everyone who will play and will be among the best can be considered for the national team.”

Buffon is expected to bid the national team goodbye for good in another friendly on June 4 against the Netherlands at Allianz Stadium. However, at a news conference last week to announce his departure from Juventus, Buffon insisted he had made the last of his 176 appearances for his country.