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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.

Infantino says closing stadiums only a short-term coronavirus solution

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated that he does not support playing closed-door games as a long-term solution to avoiding the threat of coronavirus.

Serie A will play games behind closed doors for the second straight weekend thanks to the rapid spread of the disease that has infected over 800 people in Italy. Most notably, the game between title contenders Inter and Juventus will be played in front of an empty Allianz Stadium in Turin.

“I don’t think it is sustainable in the long term to play behind closed doors,” Infantino said before a meeting in Northern Ireland. “Every competition organizer ultimately has to decide what is best for him. Obviously, on the short term it can be a solution [to play without fans] in order to move on. But you cannot imagine a few months of a competition being played, several matches being played, behind closed doors.”

Infantino went on to say he “wouldn’t exclude anything” when asked about possible solutions for international fixtures coming up in March, but admitted “I hope we will never have to get into this direction. We cannot underestimate and say it’s nothing but we don’t have to overreact and panic.”

Meanwhile, English tabloids reported Friday that the Premier League could close up shop early, costing Liverpool its league title should it take place before Liverpool is mathematically crowned champions. However, the Liverpool Echo reported that the Premier League is still considering all possibilities as solutions for coronavirus prevention and that scenarios like that are at this point considered “still at a hypothetical stage.”

Some Premier League clubs confirmed they are banning handshakes around the training ground, while others have told players to tone down fan interaction for the time being. Other leagues around Europe have taken more drastic measures, such as the Swiss league which has completely shut down until at least mid-March on instruction from the government.

French goalkeeper throws ball into own net

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There’s own-goals, and then there’s own-goals. French goalkeeper Brice Maubleu scored an own-goal.

The Grenoble goalkeeper, taking on fellow Ligue 2 side Caen on Friday, threw the ball into his own net in the 18th minute to give the hosts a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

It appeared that Maubleu was attempting to distribute the ball to one of his defenders only to pull back at the last minute, and upon his attempt to halt the throw, he instead tossed it back towards his own net. The 30-year-old captain attempted to scramble back and stop the ball, and he very well may have, but the referee gave the goal and replays were inconclusive.

You can watch video of the brutal own-goal here.

Maubleu confirmed that was his intention after the fact. “There are dark evenings and this is one of them,” the Grenoble captain said after the match. “On the goal, I wanted to quickly set Jerome (Mombris) away, but I saw that he was not looking at me so I revised my decision and then the ball left my hands”

Maubleu recalled when French goalkeeper Steve Mandanda did something similar while playing for Marseille in 2012, throwing the ball right to an opposition attacker who easily buried the ball into the empty net. “This happens sometimes and people think that it can’t possibly happen to others. In the end, I play the ball thinking that all was still ok but apparently the ball had already gone in,” Maubleu said.

“I am disappointed because it gave our opponent a two-goal lead. I will have to quickly get back working and move on, because it will likely do the rounds on social media. The goalkeeper position is exposed and there are risks. After that, I was back in my match and made saves even though those won’t be remembered.”

The 30-year-old Maubleu has played for just Tours FC and Grenoble in his career, making two Ligue 1 appearances in 2009 before spending the rest of his time in Ligue 2.

Arsenal posts loss as Champions League absence felt

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Arsenal announced Friday a loss of £27.1 million ($34.6 million) for the most recent fiscal year, citing the combination of high player wages and a lengthy absence from the UEFA Champions League competition as the main contributing factor for the poor financial performance.

The loss is the club’s first since 2002, according to Chairman Sir Chips Keswick.

Arsenal Holdings plc released the after tax total for the fiscal year ending May 31 2019, down from a $72.1 million profit the previous year. Commercial revenues were up significantly, increasing profits from $495.6 million to $504 million. Still, operating profits rocketed to $295.8 million thanks to what the club called “continued investments in player wages.”

“Our player trading profit for this financial year was limited and this combined with a second consecutive season of Europa League football has meant the club recorded its first overall loss since 2002,” Keswick said in a club statement. “For 2019-20 we will see increased commercial revenues from Adidas and our renewed deal with Emirates, but another season outside the Champions League will continue to apply pressure to our financial results.”

The Gunners were shockingly eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday at the hands of Olympiakos in extra-time, meaning the only way they end the Champions League drought will be to charge into the Premier League top four. Currently Arsenal sits ninth in the table, six points off fourth-placed Chelsea.

Back in July, Arsenal director Josh Kroenke – son of owner Stan Kroenke – warned that the club “had a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget.”

3 things to know about Inter Miami and Nashville S.C.

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The Major League Soccer gets under way this weekend, and for those fans who would like to get a better feel for the league as a whole, a good place to start is the two new clubs.

[ MORE: MLS Week 1 preview ]

Inter Miami and Nashville S.C. will both get a difficult welcome to the U.S. top flight this weekend, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United on Saturday while Miami travels to LAFC on Sunday. Neither clubs are expected to be immediate playoff contenders, but as both their debut opponents will tell them, there doesn’t always have to be a learning curve for new introductions.

[ MORE: 2020 MLS season predictions ]

So, with that in mind, let’s learn more about the two expansion clubs that take the MLS total to 26.

INTER MIAMI

Seven years after David Beckham retired from Major League Soccer franchise and began pursuit of club ownership, his team finally takes the field. It has been a brutally long journey for the South Florida side, but the beginning is finally here. The roster looks solid and the coaching staff is well built, so don’t be surprised if they put up a fight in the playoff race.

1. The team is stocked with MLS veterans

Inter Miami had a clear strategy while building its initial squad – hoard experience. The team acquired USMNT midfielders Lee Nguyen and Wil Trapp, former champions AJ DeLaGarza and Alvas Powell, longtime NYRB goalkeeper Luis Robles, journeyman Juan Agudelo, and former NYCFC defender Ben Sweat. The players may or may not click together, but if one thing is for certain with Inter Miami, the club doesn’t feel as brand new when looking at the roster.

2. Matias Pellegrini will lead the way

While the squad is loaded with domestic experience, the club looked abroad for its first two Designated Players. 26-year-old Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro joined from Monterrey for a hefty fee, and he will be critically important moving forward in midfield. Young striker Julian Carranza is injured for the first month but will be a major factor up front as well. However, 19-year-old Matias Pellegrini will likely be the club’s most important player. The Argentine is an electric player, and how he integrates with a squad full of veterans will make Inter Miami an intriguing watch early in the campaign; if he doesn’t hit the ground running, the Inter Miami attack will sputter.

3. Depth is a strength

This team may need time to gel, but it is a well-constructed roster that is built to weather a storm. The only position that looks thin is center-back where Powell and Nicolas Figal are backed up by just inexperienced Grant Lillard, 19-year-old Christian Makoun, and 20-year-old Andres Reyes. Everywhere else is covered by experience. DeLaGarza provides excellent cover for Sweat and recent college graduate Dylan Nealis. Nguyen may not be an everyday starter any more but he is as good as bench options come. Robbie Robinson will likely begin the season up front but eventually take a back seat to Carranza and be a solid option off the bench, while Jerome Kiesewetter brings European experience as well.

NASHVILLE S.C.

Making less of a splash than Inter Miami is new Western Conference members Nashville S.C. Unlike Inter Miami, Nashville isn’t starting completely from scratch, having two years in USL under their belt. Still, there are plenty of questions to be asked about how Nashville can compete on a consistent basis this season.

1. This team is strong defensively, and not so much up front

This squad is clearly built for one thing – defensive strength. Nashville brought in USMNT veteran Walker Zimmerman from LAFC who will be partnered with 26-year-old former LA Galaxy defender Dave Romney. Dax McCarty provides good cover in midfield, and while Daniel Lovitz can get forward, the full-back group doesn’t exactly scream “attack attack attack.”

On that sense, going forward may be an issue. Nashville scored nine goals in preseason, but playing against other sides’ backups for much of the time it’s hard not to take that with a grain of salt. Dominique Badji’s MLS numbers with Colorado and FC Dallas are mediocre at best and Hany Mukhtar’s production abroad doesn’t jump off the page either. David Accam can create for himself but only has 17 assists in 124 career MLS appearances, so while goalscoring can be there, the creativity is lacking greatly. Abu Danladi hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations thus far and will be hoping a change of scenery can unlock a new level, but it’s hard to see the season-long consistency there.

2. The roster is full of scrappy players

A number of guys on the fringe of the Nashville S.C. roster may actually end up contributing more than expected. Randall Leal is an exciting player who could find himself a fan favorite with his swashbuckling style of play. With the expected inconsistency up front, Daniel Rios could get a look if he can translate his USL goalscoring numbers (40 goals in 62 games) to the MLS level – obviously a major question, but also one deserving the time of day. McCarty is a well-liked player who puts in a shift in midfield, and his partner Anibal Godoy plays the crunching style expected of a Central American defensive midfielder. This team will be a grind to break down.

3. Nashville probably needs to look for a few more pieces

With only Mukhtar signed on as a Designated Player, Nashville is probably a few more key contributors away from a playoff spot. Should they hold down a respectable start to the campaign, a summer signing could push this team into contention, but as it stands the cohesion brought on by two years in USL likely won’t be enough to see them keep pace with the stronger teams in the West. With an opening trio of games against Atlanta United, Portland, and Toronto FC, it will be difficult for the new boys to hit the ground running this season, and at times it could feel like a slog.