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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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Manchester United look to leave a poor three-match streak behind as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea  (Watch live at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The last time both teams faced off was during the season’s opening matchweek, which saw the Red Devils steamroll Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Since, United’s quality hasn’t been the same, slipping to ninth in the league, while the Blues have maintained themselves in the European competition conversation throughout the majority of the season.

A win for either side at this point of season will provide a huge morale boost, as both teams go into Monday’s match without a win in three bouts.


Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT —  Pulisic (groin), Van Ginkel (knee) QUESTIONABLE — Abraham (knock), Giroud (knock), Loftus-Cheek (calf)

Manchester United: OUT — McTominay (knee), Tuanzebe (thigh), Pogba (ankle, 5 Mar), Rashford (back), Fosu-Mensah (match fitness), Grant (surgery) QUESTIONABLE — Ighalo (match fitness)


Probable lineups

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Tomori, James; Kante, Jorginho; Hudson-Odoi, Mount, William; Abraham.

Manchester United: De Gea; Williams, Maguire, Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka; Fred, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, James; Martial


What they’re saying

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga last weekend: “It wasn’t about giving him a jolt. It was just a selection on that day. I want everyone’s reaction spot on. I know how it will feel for him. I had it in my career, it is part and parcel. I am pleased with the reaction.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Odion Ighalo: “As a striker you get thrown on out there and it might be he’ll have to come off the bench, give us a goal and he does whatever he does.”


Prediction

Chelsea will be in front of their supporters on a Monday night with Manchester United in town. That scenario tends to go well for the Blues more often than not. Chelsea, 2-1.

Mexicans Abroad: Rodolfo Pizarro’s goalscoring start headlines handful of debuts

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A handful of Mexicans abroad debuted with their respective clubs over the weekend, but none were at par with Rodolfo Pizarro’s.

The 26-year-old attacking midfielder scored on his fourth touch as an Inter Miami player, two minutes after coming off the bench. Pizarro’s right-footed strike proved to be historic, as it became the first official goal in club history.

Also on Saturday, in different regions of the United States, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Alan Pulido, respectively, made their debuts. Chicharito played 78 minutes in Los Angeles Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC, while Pulido logged 61 minutes in Sporting Kansas City’s scoreless bout.

Qatar’s new marquee star, Marco Fabian, debuted in Al-Sadd’s hard-earned cup win.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Jimenez started and played all 90 minutes in Wolves’ 0-0 draw against Leicester City. The forward registered four shots off target and one blocked.

La Liga

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid —  Herrera was not called up by Diego Simeone for Atletico Madrid’s draw against Valencia on Friday.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado dressed but didn’t take the field on Sunday.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old was is out after undergoing appendicitis surgery.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo played a vital part in La Liga’s most surprising outcome of the matchweek – Celta’s 2-2 draw with Real Madrid. The defender recorded eight clearances, one interceptions and two tackles throughout the 90 minutes.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  Lozano, Napoli’s most expensive player in team history, was not called up by Gennaro Gattuso on Sunday. The 24-year-old and the Italian manager seem to be on different pages, and the situation doesn’t appear to be getting better with time. It might be time to panic for Lozano’s development in Italy.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played 84 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 victory over Vitoria, which was marred by racist abuse towards Moussa Marega by Vitoria supporters.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez played the final five minutes of PSV’s 3-0 thumping of AOD Den Haag.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — After several weeks of little activity, Alvarez seems to be making his way back into Ajax’s starting lineup. On Sunday, the Mexican defender played his second set of 90 minutes in four days.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea played 76 minutes in Zulte’s 2-1 loss on Sunday.

Major League Soccer

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, LA Galaxy – In front of a semi-full Dignity Sports Park, Chicharito made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut. The storied forward, however, failed to score despite seeing a decent amount of chances. Galaxy open the MLS season against Houston Dynamo on February 29.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami – It took two minutes for an Rodolfo Pizarro to score on his unofficial Inter Miami debut. Ironically, the brand-new MLS franchise has yet to announce the signing of the 26-year-old from Monterrey.

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City – Pulido played 61 minutes in SKC’s scoreless, preseason draw against Real Salt Lake.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Ulises Davila, Wellington Phoenix – Davila played all 90 minutes in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory over Melbourne City. The attacker also managed to pick up a yellow card throughout the match.

Marco Fabian, Al-Sadd – Fabian debuted for Xavi’s Al-Sadd on Saturday, playing all 120 minutes in his team’s win via penalties.

Hector Moreno, Al-Gharafa – Moreno and Al-Gharafa were inactive this weekend.

La Liga roundup: Celta spoil Hazard’s return in Real Madrid draw

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Real Madrid’s draw against relegation-battling Celta Vigo highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Real Madrid 2-2 Celta Vigo 

Celta’s Santi Mina scored in 85th minute to give a depleted Celta Vigo a precious point at the Santiago Bernabeu, spoiling Eden Hazard‘s return to Real Madrid’s lineup after a notable absence.

Madrid’s eighth draw of the season moves champions Barcelona just one point behind Zinedine Zidane’s side.

Returning from ankle injury that kept his out of action for three months, Hazard returned to the pitch in fine style, leading all players on the field in chances created with three and earning a penalty that Sergio Ramos converted to put Real Madrid ahead.

Hazard – and all of his flair – left the field in the 70th minute, granting Vinicius Junior the final 20 minutes of the match.

Ramos’ sixth goal of the season builded on Toni Kroos’ left-footed strike early in the latter half of the match. Real Madrid, more or less, were cruising against Celta, who had a goal to their name following Fyodor Smolov’s early opener.

Celta, who had arrived in Madrid in 18th place and had lost their last seven at the host’s home, were destined to do the unthinkable. Denis Suarez and Mina – both utilized as substitutes – paired up for the equalizer with five minutes to go, spoiling Hazard’s return.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-2 Espanyol

Leganes 0-0 Real Betis 

Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Osasuna

Teammates appear to stop Marega leaving after racist slurs

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LIBSON, Portugal — FC Porto striker Moussa Marega, who tried to walk off the field after being the target of racist slurs from fans, faced apparent attempts Sunday by his own teammates and opposition players to prevent him from leaving.

Marega, who is black and from Mali, was visibly angered by monkey noises targeting him after he scored Porto’s second goal in a 2-1 win at Guimarães in the Portuguese football league.

But when Marega started to walk off the field, several players from both Porto and Guimarães appeared to argue with him. Porto coach Sérgio Conceição also went on the field and spoke with Marega.

It took Marega several minutes to leave the field when he was substituted.

Marega held his thumbs down at the crowd as he went into the tunnel to the changing rooms. The crowd responded with loud jeers.

The attitude of the other players has drawn criticism on social media.

“We are indignant with what has happened. Moussa was insulted from warmups (before kickoff),” Conceição said after the match.

“We are a family. One’s nationality, color, or height does not matter. We are human beings. We deserve respect and what happened was despicable.”

Marega received a yellow card following his goal in the 61st minute when he appeared to respond to the slurs by pointing at his skin and by picking up a seat that had been thrown on the pitch.