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Refugee to referee: Syrian eyes promotion to Bundesliga

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BERLIN (AP) Almost a year into his new life in Germany, Syrian refugee Ammar Sahar is well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a Bundesliga referee.

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Sahar, who already referees matches in the Berlin league in the sixth tier of German soccer, has his hopes pinned on officiating at the highest level.

“I have a good chance,” the 27-year-old told The Associated Press.

Sahar has been refereeing since he was 17 years old, when he took charge of an under-14s league game in his home city of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest after Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

“After two years I went to the second and third divisions in Syria. From 2008 to 2010 I was in the first division in Syria,” said Sahar, who also officiated youth games in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria’s devastating civil war forced him to flee with his wife Loubana via Lebanon in October 2015. Sahar had a brother living in Germany so it was the logical choice. The couple had to get there first, however, undertaking the perilous journey from Turkey and across the Aegean Sea toward Greece, the first frontier for most migrants seeking to reach the EU.

Loubana was seventh months pregnant at the time. But they paid smugglers a premium so that they could travel on a safer boat. Sahar believes there were around 30 fellow passengers when normally some 45 are crammed on board for a cheaper price. There was still drama on the crossing, however.

“We were halfway when the motor gave up,” Sahar said. “But other people on the boat helped me to get it going again.”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ahead of USA vs. Mexico ]

Like many other refugees, they made their way by bus to Macedonia and then Serbia, before continuing by train through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, from where a bus took them to Passau on the German border, then another to Munich.

“In Munich the police gave us tickets for a (refugee) center but I said, `No, no, we’re not going to Munich, we’re going to Berlin!'” Sahar said.

He thought the German football federation’s headquarters must be in Berlin, the capital.

“But it’s in Frankfurt. I thought at the time it was in Berlin so I said, `We go to Berlin, we want to go to Berlin.’ And the police were so nice they gave me two tickets to go to Berlin.”

Before that, a visa stamp on Sahar’s passport from Oman had raised a few eyebrows among German police before he explained he had travelled to the Arabian sultanate to referee an under-14 tournament.

“I showed them a photo. `I’m a referee,'” he said.

Soccer is the national sport in Germany so that may have eased his entry into the country.

The Sahars were just one couple among 890,000 migrants to arrive in the country last year. The latest government figures suggest some 213,000 applied for asylum in the first nine months of this year.

Sahar got in touch with the Berlin football federation and was given three games to referee as a test in the Landesliga Berlin, a level below the Berlin-Liga.

“After this match in the Landesliga, the Berliner Fussball Verband (Berlin football federation) called me to go to a referee camp. They told me, `Now you are a referee in the Berlin-Liga.’ I was very happy,” Sahar said.

Matches are shared between three officials, each doing two games as an assistant before one as a referee.

Sahar refereed his fifth Berlin-Liga match on Sunday, a 5-0 victory for BFC Preussen at DJK SW Neukoelln. He had a busy game, handing out five yellow cards and one red that led to a penalty.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoffs power rankings — conference finals edition ]

“He had a great game. He did a super job,” said Neukoelln player Marco Fink, who acknowledged the red card had been justified.

Local league photographer Christoph Lehner had seen Sahar in action several times before and said his biggest challenge was communicating with the players.

“Of course the language plays a huge role in communication,” Lehner said.

Sahar, who speaks basic English and German, admits that communication is an issue but says it’s getting easier all the time.

“Sometimes I have a problem understanding what a player is saying to me, but anything I don’t understand, I save in my mind,” he said. “The assistants also help me a lot.”

Learning German is key as Sahar aims to integrate as quickly as possible in order to reach his goal.

“I must work very hard to be a good referee in Germany,” he said. “Now I work step-by-step to arrive in the Bundesliga.”

Sahar works as a swimming instructor in a local school in Berlin, while juggling German language lessons, referee training and parental duties with Loubana for their son Nidal, born in Berlin not long after the couple’s arrival in the German capital on Dec. 3, 2015.

They recently moved to an eastern district of Berlin. The change just adds to the daily challenges. Besides training, parenting, working and learning German – they still have to get a new kitchen installed – Sahar keeps looking on the bright side.

“German is hard, but it’s a nice language,” he said.

That positive outlook is fueling his push for promotion to referee at the top level.

“I hope to go to Bundesliga 1 and 2 in the future. I work every day to get to the next level, to get to the Bundesliga. The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world,” Sahar said.

And it doesn’t need to end there for the ambitious match official whose favorite referee is Howard Webb of England.

“In the next five or six years, maybe I’ll have a German I.D. and I could be an international referee from Germany, maybe. This is my dream,” he said.

Serie A wrap: ‘Benjamin Button’ Zlatan nabs 2; McKennie debuts for Juve

Serie A results
Photo by Filippo Alfero - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images
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Catch up on all you missed from the opening week of calcio with the Serie A wrap.

[ MORE: Serie A schedule ]

Fourteen of the league’s 20 teams debuted this weekend, as European combatants Atalanta and Inter Milan will start the season late along with Serie B playoff winners Spezia.

That leaves opponents Lazio, Benevento, and Udinese also waiting to start their 2020-21 seasons.


Benjamin Button’s brace leaves Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice as AC Milan started the Serie A season with a 2-0 defeat of Bologna on Monday.

The humble Swede said that if he were 18 years younger he would’ve scored two more.

“I am not old, I am like Benjamin Button, I start old and die young,” Ibrahimovic said after the win. “Kidding aside, the team worked well, we are not at 100 percent and therefore made some mistakes we usually avoid, but it bodes well.”

Ibrahimovic is 38 years old and demanding he not be held to any less of a standard than his prime, which is incredible considering his prime is better than 99 percent of top soccer careers.

“I don’t want people to talk about my age, I want to be treated at the same level as everyone else,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I am 38, I want to be treated like someone aged 20 and do the same work.”

Milan is coming off seven-straight seasons outside of the top four, six of those coming behind their city rivals Inter Milan.

But Ibrahimovic’s 2019-20 half-season in Italy showed he can still bring the goods, with 14 goals and five assists in 20 appearances

Now he’s scored thrice in two competitive fixtures after opening his campaign with a goal against Shamrock Rovers in Europa League qualifying.

Milan is aiming high and is tied for the fifth-best odds to win the scudetto this season due to a talented squad that features Ibrahimovic, Alessio Romagnoli, Gianlugi Donnarumma, and Theo Hernandez.

“This year, we have to take it one game at a time, play with confidence and treat every match like a Cup Final.”

Serie A results
MILAN, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 21: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images)

McKennie impresses as Juve rolls again

Playing under Andrea Pirlo has started well for USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie.

The 22-year-old Texan went 90 minutes in central midfield with Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot as Juventus beat Sampdoria 3-0 in Turin.

McKennie had 94 touches and completed 88 percent of his passes, with one key pass and four-of-five crosses in that mix.

[ MORE: Americans abroad in Bundesliga, Week 1 ]

He took two shots and converted his lone dribble attempt, the busy midfielderwinning six of 12 duels while registering four tackles, three interceptions, and two clearances. SofaScore did hit him with a “big chance missed” on debut.

McKennie kept some very good players on the bench in the forms of Arthur and Rodrigo Betancur. It’s going to be a battle to keep his place in the Starting XI but it’s clearly one he’s prepared to fight.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonoard Bonucci, and Dejan Kulusevski all scored for The Old Lady, who is bidding to win its 10th-straight title. That would double Inter’s second-best five-consecutive title run earlier this century.


Week 1 scoreboard

Fiorentina 1-0 Torino
Hellas Verona 0-0 AS Roma
Parma 0-2 Napoli
Genoa 4-1 Crotone
Sassuolo 1-1 Cagliari
Juventus 3-0 Sampdoria
AC Milan 2-0 Bologna


Week 2 fixtures

Torino v Atalanta — 9 am ET Saturday
Cagliari v Lazio — Noon ET Saturday
Sampdoria v Benevento — Noon ET Saturday
Inter Milan v Fiorentina — 2:45 pm ET Saturday
Spezia v Sassuolo — 6:30 am ET Sunday
Verona v Udinese — 9 am ET Sunday
Napoli v Genoa — 9 am ET Sunday
Crotone v AC Milan — Noon ET Sunday
AS Roma v Juventus — 2:45 pm ET Sunday
Bologna v Parma — 2:45 pm ET Monday


Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Genoa 1 1 0 0 4 1 3 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Juventus 1 1 0 0 3 0 3 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Milan 1 1 0 0 2 0 2 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Napoli 1 1 0 0 2 0 2 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 Fiorentina 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Cagliari 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Sassuolo 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 Hellas Verona 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 Roma 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Atalanta 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Benevento 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Inter Milan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Lazio 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Spezia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Udinese 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Torino 1 0 0 1 0 1 -1 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Bologna 1 0 0 1 0 2 -2 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Parma 1 0 0 1 0 2 -2 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 Crotone 1 0 0 1 1 4 -3 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Sampdoria 1 0 0 1 0 3 -3 0-0-0 0-0-1 0

Champions League qualifying: How to watch, start times, odds

UEFA Champions League qualifying
Photo by Raddad Jebarah/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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The 12 clubs remaining in the race for the final UEFA Champions League group stage slots will be pared down to six in the next eight days.

There are American connections to two of the six ties.

Former USMNT midfielder Jesse Marsch manages Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg toward the next round, while Molde right back Henry Wingo came up with the Seattle Sounders.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Salzburg are significant favorites to advance over two legs, odds accentuated by Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s seven players absent due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Marsch had previously said he did not want to go to Israel due to COVID-19 concerns, calling it “dangerous,” but has accepted the task at hand.

From Austrian publication Kronen Zeitung:

“The moment UEFA said we were going to play in Tel Aviv, it wasn’t a problem for me. Maccabi has a great team. We are not naive. We understand that we have to fight tomorrow.”

At 3:10 in some sportsbooks, Marsch’s men are the only club favored to win the first leg away. Salzburg is led by Dominik Szoboszlai and Patson Daka, who’ve helped the team thrive despite the sales of several stars including Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino.

Molde has a much tougher test with Hungarian side Ferencvaros, who knocked off Celtic. That tie could go either way, while Slavia Prague and Olympiakos are respectively noticeable favorites to beat Midtjylland and Omonia Nicosia.

Dynamo Kiev will be expected to outlast Gent over two legs, while it would be a minor upset if PAOK takes down Krasnodar.


UEFA Champions League playoff round matches

All 12 legs will kickoff at 3 pm ET between Tuesday and Sept. 30.

Tuesday

Maccabi Tel-Aviv v. Red Bull Salzburg
Slavia Prague v Midtjylland
Krasnodar v PAOK

Wednesday

Gent v Dynamo Kiev
Molde v Ferencvaros
Olympiakos v Omonia

Sept. 29

Ferencvaros v Molde
Dynamo Kiev v Gent
Omonia v Olympiakos

Sept. 30

Midtjylland v Slavia Prague
PAOK v Krasnodar
Red Bull Salzburg v Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Bundesliga: Takeaways from Week 1

Bundesliga Week 1
Photo by M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images)
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With all due (and perhaps a bit) biased respect to Giovanni Reyna and Borussia Dortmund’s decisive beating of fellow title hopeful Borussia Monchengladbach, the Bundesliga’s top story came Friday with the champions.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season preview ]

Bayern Munich thumped Schalke 8-0, running its win streak in all competitions to 22. That’s just two behind the world record set by Brazil’s Coritiba in 2011.

It’s not just about the extension of the streak, but about the pure domination from the champs.

Hat trick hero Serge Gnabry and midfield prototype Joshua Kimmich continued to play as well as any midfielder in the world. New pal Leroy Sane played a role in three goals while Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, and Leon Goretzka all scored before German-English teenager Jamal Musiala scored to make it eight.

As a domestic bonus, American defender Chris Richards played the final 17 minutes and completed 95 percent of his passes while making an interception.

[ MORE: Bundesliga odds 2020-21 ]

As for the record, Bayern will have to work for it. The Bavarians need to beat Sevilla in Thursday’s UEFA Super Cup before visiting a decent Hoffenheim side.

If they win both, Bayern will have a chance to set a Guinness Book record by beating… Borussia Dortmund in the German Super Cup on Sept. 30.

Now let’s talk about Schalke. While sold midfielder Weston McKennie was starring for Juventus, the remaining players had little to like about their day.

A team that failed to win its final 16 league matches of the 2019-20 season, losing 10, was again oh-so-poor.

If manager David Wagner wanted to get some heat off his back after holding onto his position, this wouldn’t have helped things.


Americans Abroad

— Tyler Adams went the distance at midfield in RB Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Mainz. He was typically tidy at 78-of-82 passing including a perfect 4-for-4 on long balls. Adams had four tackles and won 4-of-9 duels.

— Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent was deployed as more of a left-sided attacking midfielder in a lopsided loss to Hertha, making one key pass and putting a matching shot on target in an uneven performance.

— John Brooks helped Wolfsburg keep a clean sheet and posted three clearances, three interceptions, and a tackle at center back. He wasn’t as clean passing as usual, but connected on 7-of-13 long balls.

— There were just a few minutes for 88th-minute Eintracht Frankfurt sub Timothy Chandler. He won his only duel and completed his only dribble in the waning moments of a 1-1 draw with Arminia Bielefeld.

— Reyna scored his first Bundesliga goal and won a penalty in 78 strong minutes that featured a perfect 29-for-29 in passes.

— Bayern’s Richards, 20, went 17 minutes and completed 19-of-20 passes while making an interception.

— Stuttgart manager Pellegrino Matarazzo, a New Jersey-born Columbia University product, saw his promoted side lose at home to Freiburg.

— U.S. eligible Norwegian youth international Julian Ryerson was an unused sub for Union Berlin.

Bundesliga Week 1
John Anthony Brooks (Photo by Peter Niedung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Player of the Week

Serge Gnabry was absolutely marvelous. Even considering the lack of, well, everything from Schalke, Bayern’s hat trick man had as many key passes as goals.

Gnabry hit 30-of-35 passes in doing all of his damage on 57 touches over 72 minutes.

The German made three tackles and two interceptions to edge opposite wing Leroy Sane’s 1-goal, 2-assist, 5-key pass day and the hat trick produced by Hoffenheim’s Andrei Kramaric in giving his team three leads and the win.


Team of the Week

Casteels (Wolfsburg)

Framberger (Augsburg) — Lacroix (Wolfsburg) — Pieper (Bielefeld)

Kimmich (Bayern)

Kramaric (Hoffenheim) — Reyna (Dortmund) — Cunha (Hertha)

Sane (Bayern) — Haaland (Dortmund) — Gnabry (Bayern)

  • All three of Koen Casteels’ saves in Wolfsburg’s 0-0 draw with Bayer Leverkusen came inside the box, while Lacroix put together a gaudy stat line in front of him: 10 clearances, four interceptions, three tackles.
  • No one completed more dribbles than Matheus Cunha’s five. The Brazilian also scored as Hertha hung four on Werder Bremen.
Bundesliga results
Bremen’s Josh Sargent and Maximilian Eggestein couldn’t stop Hertha’s Matheus Cunha (Photo by PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Week 1 results

Bayern Munich 8-0 Schalke
Union Berlin 1-3 Augsburg
Stuttgart 2-3 Freiburg
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-1 Arminia Bielefeld
Werder Bremen 1-4 Hertha Berlin
Koln 2-3 Hoffenheim
Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Borussia Monchengladbach
RB Leipzig 3-1 Mainz
Wolfsburg 0-0 Bayer Leverkusen


 

Week 2 fixtures

Hertha Berlin v Eintracht Frankfurt — 2:30 pm ET Sept. 25
Bayer Leverkusen v RB Leipzig — 9:30 am ET Sept. 26
Augsburg v Borussia Dortmund — 9:30 am ET Sept. 26
Borussia Monchengladbach v Union Berlin — 9:30 am ET Sept. 26
Arminia v Koln — 9:30 am ET Sept. 26
Mainz v Stuttgart — 9:30 am ET Sept. 26
Schalke v Werder Bremen — 12:30 pm ET Sept. 26
Hoffenheim v Bayern Munich — 9:30 am ET Sept. 27
Freiburg v Wolfsburg — Noon ET Sept. 27


Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 1 1 0 0 8 0 8 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Hertha BSC 1 1 0 0 4 1 3 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 Borussia Dortmund 1 1 0 0 3 0 3 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Augsburg 1 1 0 0 3 1 2 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 RB Leipzig 1 1 0 0 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Freiburg 1 1 0 0 3 2 1 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 Hoffenheim 1 1 0 0 3 2 1 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 Arminia Bielefeld 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Eintracht Frankfurt 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 Bayer Leverkusen 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Wolfsburg 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 1. FC Köln 1 0 0 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 Stuttgart 1 0 0 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 Mainz 05 1 0 0 1 1 3 -2 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Union Berlin 1 0 0 1 1 3 -2 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 Werder Bremen 1 0 0 1 1 4 -3 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 Mönchengladbach 1 0 0 1 0 3 -3 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Schalke 04 1 0 0 1 0 8 -8 0-0-0 0-0-1 0

Guardiola expected Man City rust in ‘good win’ over Wolves

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola got what he expected from a 3-1 season-opening win over Wolves at the Molineux.

Kevin De Bruyne won and converted a penalty before playing a role in goals from Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

City was very good early but Wolves took hold of the game for part of the second half and had the scoreline at 2-1 before Jesus put the result to bed.

Guardiola expected periods like that given Wolves had played more matches. Neighbors Manchester United had that problem for almost all 90 minutes of a loss to Crystal Palace.

“It’s a good win,” Guardiola said, later saying, “In the period that we are and the situation that we had these last two weeks, I expected that in some moments we’d suffer but in general we did well.”

Guardiola was asked about Foden, who was very good.

The English youngster made headlines off the pitch earlier this month but was very good back on it.

He passed at 94 percent, completed 4-of-5 dribbles, and won 8-of-13 duels.

The goal and the second half he played incredibly well,” Guardiola said. “He helped us keep the ball. We could not run much because we’re tired in our legs.”

Perhaps it’s reading too much into it, but Guardiola was short and maybe even a bit testy in his post-match remarks.

“It’s just a 3-1 game so there were 114 points to play for (and) now there are 111.”