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Lippi urges China to unite for ‘improbable’ World Cup run

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BEIJING (AP) Marcello Lippi has urged his China team and the nation to pull together to accomplish the “improbable” task of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup before he begins a thorough overhaul of the struggling football program.

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The Chinese Football Association formally unveiled Lippi as head coach of China’s Dragons at a news conference on Friday, almost a week after the deal was agreed.

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Chinese media reports say Lippi’s three-year contract is worth 20 million euros ($21.8 million) annually and makes him the highest paid national team coach in the world. Association officials have declined to discuss specifics of the compensation package for Lippi, who led Italy to World Cup victory in 2006.

China is ranked No. 84 by FIFA and is a perennial under-achiever in international football competition, despite massive spending on foreign players and coaches in the domestic league. High-profile managers including World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari and former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson have also arrived to take charge at Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG.

“I believe the players are all skillful and have no need to feel inferior or envy toward players of other countries, because they can reach the same level,” Lippi told reporters. “What they need is a sense of responsibility, mission and belief.”

Still, it’s unlikely China will even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gao Hongbo quit as head coach after the 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan earlier this month left China with just one point from four games in Asia’s last round of World Cup qualifying. China has qualified for the World Cup only once, when the tournament was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002, but was bounced out of the group stages without scoring a goal.

“In the qualification stages, our chances are not great, but what we need to do is pull together – the entire squad, the CFA, logistics, medical team – and maximize our chances and accomplish this improbable mission,” Lippi said. “After that, we can consider our long-term issues.”

Above all, the Chinese team – frequently derided by China’s soccer-loving public as a national embarrassment – needs to fix its mentality and gain self-confidence, said Lippi, who said his first priority is to psychologically evaluate his players.

“What I need to know first is why our players play very well for their club but only at 40 percent for their country,” he said. “I want to tell them it’s the highest honor to put on the country’s shirt and they need to fight and perform at the same level.”

Lippi is already familiar with Chinese football at the club level, having coached Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015. He led Evergrande to multiple domestic titles and, most notably, the Asian Champions League trophy in 2013.

The financial details of Lippi’s arrangement remains murky, with domestic media reporting his salary will be partially paid for by the real estate group Evergrande, whose owner, Xu Jiayin, is an avid supporter of Chinese football. Other Chinese commentators have questioned whether Lippi’s services are worth the expense.

CFA president Cai Zhenhua declined to address Lippi’s salary on Friday, citing his privacy, but said the amount was fair for a manager of his credentials.

The investment is part of a national soccer push. President Xi Jinping, a big fan of the game, has made improving Chinese football from the grassroots all the way to the international level a priority of his administration, saying it could boost children’s physical education as well as national pride.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

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Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

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This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.