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Despite fanfare, Chinese fans doubt Lippi will work miracles

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BEIJING (AP) A native of Shanghai, a city synonymous with the Chinese growth miracle, Yi Weizhong watched up-close as his country morphed into a world economic powerhouse.

Yet he can’t envisage anything like that happening on the international football scene, doubting that even a coach of Marcello Lippi’s caliber can transform the dismal national team into a genuine World Cup contender.

“It’s not worth hiring Lippi,” Yi said, referring to the 2006 World Cup-winning manager’s appointment as head coach of the Chinese team.

“I would rather hire more good coaches for youth training,” added Yi, a salesman, who attended a game last week at Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium. “I can’t see hope for the next 10 years.”

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Ever since the Chinese Football Association announced last month it had coaxed Lippi out of retirement, the national team’s long-suffering fans have greeted the news with indifference, cynicism, and even a hint of outrage.

Rather than celebrating the appointment of the most high-profile coach China has ever had, some supporters have balked at the size of Lippi’s rumored contract.

A popular joke circulating on the Wechat messaging service compares it with “a nouveau riche family hiring a Harvard professor to tutor their kid.”

Given the team’s record of failure under a string of foreign and Chinese coaches, the problems are more often attributed to the lack of a strong youth program and a misplaced, money-driven focus on the domestic league.

Lippi was hired to replace Gao Hongbo, who quit after a 2-0 loss in Uzbekistan last month left China with one point from four qualifying matches and with little hope of making it to Russia in 2018. China has qualified for one World Cup – the 2002 edition co-hosted by Japan and South Korea – where it bounced out in the group stage without scoring a goal.

Fed up with such results and seeking to close a glaring gap in its international sporting prowess, China this year announced an ambitious football development plan closely identified with President Xi Jinping, a fan of the game. The plan envisions 50 million players joining in the game by the end of the decade and the transformation of the country into a “first-rate major footballing power” by 2050.

The blueprint is seen as another aspect of Xi’s grand narrative of national rejuvenation – dubbed his “China Dream” – that is generally a point of pride for the public. Yet the mixed reactions to Lippi’s appointment reflect a deep cynicism when it comes to supporting a football team that is ranked 84th and which also recently lost to Syria.

Though Xi’s administration has been applauded for proposing to build academies and thousands of football fields, the politically-tinged directive has also spurred the domestic league into spending extravagantly on foreign stars and big-name managers. That has prompted talk of a bubble that will burst before any benefits trickle down to the grassroots.

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Against that backdrop have been reports in Italian and Chinese media that Lippi would be paid a record salary of 20 million euros a year.

The former Juventus and Italy coach told Italian reporters last week the figures were exaggerated, but that hasn’t quieted grumbles about yet another football import taking money that could be spent developing Chinese youngsters.

Ma Dexing, one of China’s best-known football commentators, said Xi’s campaign, with its intended emphasis on developing youth, was already “losing its way” amid China’s frenzy of flashy managerial hires and exorbitant player purchases. But Ma said hiring Lippi was justified at whatever cost.

“His situation is different,” Ma said in an interview. “The national team is the dragon’s head – the symbolic leader. If it doesn’t do well, everyone else loses interest in football.”

Lippi, who guided Italy to World Cup success in 2006, coached Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015, winning domestic titles and the Asian Champions League. Rather than serve merely as another foreign figurehead, Ma said, Lippi has the authority and the experience of working in China to truly overhaul the country’s football organization.

“In the past they changed the water but not the medicine,” Ma said. “This is a real revolution.”

In his first meeting with the Chinese media as national coach, Lippi said his top task would be to evaluate his players’ psychology and boost their confidence, rather than introduce new tactics. He said it was highly improbable for China to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but urged the nation to back his players.

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Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based British sports commentator on China Central Television, said in some ways China resembled England, a country also locked in a perennial cycle of high short-term expectations and intense pressure on the national team, followed by disappointment and cynicism. Chinese football authorities need more independence to do their work, Dreyer said.

“They need someone who can come in and say, `Give me 20 years, you can’t expect results in two years just because you want them,”‘ Dreyer said. “But how can they suddenly be free from the government and not answering to Xi Jinping?”

Others are less positive. Outside Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium, property manager Xu Chao said he preferred watching local club Shenhua because the national team’s level of play was simply “unwatchable.”

“It’s useless to hire an expensive coach when the team’s foundation is not good,” Xu said.

Yan Shihao, a junior in university, said it wasn’t just China making a costly bet by hiring Lippi.

“Lippi chose China,” he said. “It’s a brave decision to gamble with his honor.”

Associated Press researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report from Shanghai.

Delph completes transfer to Everton

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Everton has added an England international in a move to bolster its midfield.

The club announced that it had signed Fabian Delph to a three-year contract, after an undisclosed permanent transfer from Manchester City. Delph comes to the blue half of Liverpool after spending the last four seasons at Manchester City, where he began as a central midfielder but was quickly pushed out wide as a left back, and only featured 20 times in all competitions for the Sky Blues last season.

“Every time I have played against Everton, whether it was home or away, straight away the first thing that comes to mind when you see the fans is passion,” Delph said on Everton’s website. “The Everton fans seem to know football, seem to understand it, it seems to be in their blood and they really back the team. You are always going to hear Evertonians and I’m excited to play at home and hear them when I am playing. I’m really happy to be here, I’m going to give absolutely everything – nothing less than 100 per cent.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Delph is actually still only 29-years-old, and should still have a few years left in the tank to help propel Everton to the next level. At the least, Delph adds steel and technical ability in the middle of the park, where he could likely partner with Andre Gomes, who made his move to Everton permanent this summer from Barcelona.

Delph also adds versatility, and that should help him stay in the Everton lineup, should it need him out wide or to play in the center of the park.

However, the most important aspect Delph brings is the winning mentality. Even though he didn’t play a massive role, Delph has had the opportunity to train and play alongside the likes of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, all winners in their careers who do whatever it takes to get three points and win a title.

Bringing that attitude and mentality to Everton is huge for the club, which needs a lift after the departure of Wayne Rooney and other big names who have departed since the end of the David Moyes era.

Report: Ajax in negotiations to sign El Tri’s Alvarez

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One of the Mexico National Team’s brightest stars appears to be heading to Ajax, where he could potentially be the replacement for one Matthijs de Ligt.

According to a report in Voetbol International, a publication in the Netherlands, Ajax technical director Marc Overmars confirmed the club’s interest in signing Club America and El Tri defender Edson Alvarez. Club America are reportedly demanding nothing less than nearly $17 million for Alvarez, who has in just two years become a regular for El Tri.

[READ: USMNT’s Boyd signs with Besiktas]

The report states that Wolverhampton Wanderers – which has Alvarez’s El Tri teammate Raul Jimenez – and PSV Eindhoven were also interesting in signing Alvarez.

The 21-year-old made his debut for Club America as a right back under long-time Liga MX manager Ricardo La Volpe in 2016, and just a few months after his club debut, he was already playing for the national team. He was included and featured at the 2017 Gold Cup, becoming Mexico’s youngest scorer in the competition (at age 19) and he then started all four of Mexico’s games at the 2018 World Cup, including against Neymar and Brazil in the Round of 16.

Alvarez has continued his strong play over the past year and has moved into more of a centerback and holding midfielder role at times. He played as a No. 6 for Mexico in its 1-0 win over the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2019 Gold Cup final, at times dropping into the back line to defend while providing support in the attack.

As Alvarez is still young but continues to grow, it’s a perfect time for him to join Ajax. There, he’ll face even better attackers than in Liga MX, and he’ll have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders to play for a prestigious club like Ajax. The pressure to perform will only make him better, like it’s helped countryman Hirving “Chucky” Lozano across the Netherlands at PSV Eindhoven.

Interestingly, Alvarez would be the second summer signing for Ajax with a North American connection. Defender Kik Pierie was actually born in Boston, while his father was studying at Harvard Medical School, though he’s been raised almost entirely in the Netherlands and has featured for the Oranje internationally.

USMNT’s Boyd signs with Besiktas

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Add another American to the list of players who will be playing in UEFA competitions this fall.

Turkish giant Besiktas announced on Monday that it had signed winger Tyler Boyd to a four-year contract in a transfer from Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes. Boyd has had a pretty impressive last six months, from scoring six goals in 14 games with Ankaragücü in the Turkish Superlig on loan, to scoring goals and making the Gold Cup roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

[READ: Transfer Rumor Roundup]

The New Zealand-born pacey winger completed a one-time switch to play for the USMNT in May, and he went on to score a brace in the USMNT’s Gold Cup opener against Guyana. While Boyd made five appearances for the U.S. this summer, he was left on the bench as the U.S. bowed out to Mexico, suddenly appearing out of Berhalter’s plans as quickly as he entered them.

Regardless, this is a great move for Boyd, assuming he can get some first team minutes. It’s a big step up from Ankaragücü to play for Besiktas, which not only includes the heated Istanbul derbies against Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, but next season will also include at least six matches in the UEFA Europa League. By finishing third in the Turkish league, Besiktas earned a place direct in the Europa League group stage.

Of course, like we saw this summer with the USMNT, Boyd has to break into a more talented group of players and earn minutes, both for league and European matches. If he’s not playing much, it’s possible we won’t see much of him with the national team, as Jordan Morris gets regular playing time as well as others in that position like Timothy Weah, Corey Baird and possibly Kenny Saief, now that he’s back with Anderlecht.

Boyd is undoubtedly a talented player. Hopefully, this move up in stature and pressure can help the 24-year-old take his game to a new level.

Report: Manchester United “miles” apart on Maguire deal

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Yesterday, the English tabloids exploded with reports that Manchester United was nearing a deal with Leicester City to make Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in the world with a $100 million deal nearly completed. Some even went so far as to suggest a medical would take place on Monday – today.

Now, there seems to be an about-face as ESPN senior writer Mark Ogden reports that the two sides are “miles away” on a potential deal, as his source describes it.

According to the report, Manchester United’s last bid of $50 million is much closer to their valuation of the player, and while Leicester City is holding out for a world record bid, the two sides have not made much movement towards an agreement. They are willing to go up to $75 million with another bid, but that is still well off the Leicester City price tag.

Ogden writes that Manchester United’s first choice was Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt, but he is nearing completion on a move to Juventus, and if the reports over the last few weeks are to be believed, Manchester United was never really in play. De Ligt was handed significant wages at Juventus, something Manchester United may not have been willing to do.

They turned their sights towards Maguire, but with three weeks left in the transfer window, there apparently needs to be significant work done on a deal to move it across the finish line. Ogden writes that there is “confidence” within Manchester United that Maguire wants the move, but that’s nothing if the two clubs can’t come to an agreement.