After so much humiliation, England a source of pride, unity

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SAMARA, Russia (AP) — So often the source of letdowns and embarrassments, England’s soccer team is a unifying force among players and the nation.

At least in some sections of the country riven by economic, political and social divisions that led to Brexit, reaching the World Cup semifinals is a welcome distraction from the charged atmosphere. It’s a chance to clamber onto traffic lights, fling beer in the air and toast the success of the footballers in an outpouring of delirium not witnessed across England since the last century.

For the first time since the 1990s, England is in the last four of a major tournament. England will play Croatia on Wednesday for a place in the final after beating Sweden 2-0 Saturday.

“The chance to connect everybody through football and to make a difference to how people feel,” England coach Gareth Southgate said, “that is even more powerful than what we are doing with our results. That is very special. I would imagine there is a big party at home. Not for us.”

There is still much work to do if England is to reach its first World Cup final since lifting the trophy on home soil at Wembley in 1966.

But Southgate believes he has instilled the humble mentality in the dressing room that is required to keep the journey going all the way to Luzhniki Stadium next Sunday. Humility has replaced the hubris that defined the celebrity-obsessed David Beckham-era where the furthest the team reached was the quarterfinal stage of any tournament. Just look back on how Harry Maguire, who headed in Saturday’s first goal, reported for England duty for the first time last year with his clothing in a black trash bag rather than designer luggage.

Ambitions appeared to be thwarted for so long by a culture of entitlement as England gloried in the hype and status of being the birthplace of soccer without backing it up with results. And as players started to collect millions in salaries from their clubs, commitment to the national team was called into question.

“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet,” Southgate said, “but lots of good young players who are showing on the world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience now.”

At the start of his tenure in 2016, Southgate realized he had to deliver an important message to his players: Any success with England will be greater than anything achieved with their clubs.

“They have been prepared to park their club rivalries at the door,” Southgate said. “We’ve talked about how important it is to have that spirit.”

Also, how to recover from adversity. One of the lowest points for English soccer came two years ago — days after that European Union referendum in Britain — when a team coached by Roy Hodgson was humiliated by Iceland.

“Under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said. “They will have days when they are not able to cope with things.”

But experiencing the misery at Euro 2016 as players — or as a fan in the stadium like Maguire —helped a Harry Kane-led England advance relatively serenely to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990, according to Southgate. England even managed to beat Colombia in the round of 16 on penalties, halting a run of five successive shootout losses at tournaments.

The victories in Russia are also reversing an anomaly. England hosts the world’s richest soccer competition — the Premier League — but hasn’t been able to produce a national team to match. Southgate was on the last England side to reach a semifinal, at the 1996 European Championship, when the team anthem was “Three Lions.” The “football’s coming home” lyric is back in vogue in Russia, ringing out from stadiums to bars among the few thousand fans who defied the logistical challenges to follow the team.

“We have a good balance and the team are together,” 53-year-old England fan Andrew Court said outside the stadium in Samara where Maguire and Dele Alli scored the goals against Sweden.

Southgate, though, is looking beyond the hollow “Football’s coming home” concept.

Reflecting a studious approach, the platform gained from his greatest day in soccer was used to deliver several powerful messages on Saturday. Above all, Southgate wants more Englishmen playing alongside the Premier League imports.

“The more remarkable thing is that we’re in a semifinal,” Southgate said. “We only have 33 percent of the league to pick from. So that is still a huge problem for us, and we’re playing some young players who are barely established at their clubs, never mind international careers.

“But we feel that they’re able to play the way we want to play, playing huge pride, playing with no lack of quality, showing the sort of mentality to work for the group,” he said.

And it’s a group that, Southgate emphasizes, reflects the diversity of England and cuts through the economic divide in England where so much wealth is centered in the south.

Southgate has singled out the less affluent northern towns where players like Maguire are from.

“All of these players come from different parts of the country,” Southgate said, “and they’ll be youngsters watching at home from the areas that they come from. They’ll be inspiring.”

Iran warned new law is putting Asian Cup place at risk

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Iran has been told it could face suspension from the Asian Cup in January over a law interfering in the national soccer federation’s independence.

The Asian Football Confederation says it is “closely monitoring the current issues” with its top-ranked team, and will not tolerate “third-party interference in their member associations.”

The Malaysia-based AFC says Iran’s parliament announced a law “designating the (soccer federation) as a non-government public body and prohibiting the engagement of retired personnel.”

The AFC says it hopes Iran’s soccer body “can maintain its independence and avoid any sanctions” less than two months before the Asian Cup starts in the United Arab Emirates.

Iran, the best Asian team at No. 30 in FIFA’s rankings, plays its opening game Jan. 7 against Yemen in Abu Dhabi. The group includes Iraq and Vietnam.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

UEFA Nations League reaches exciting climax

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It has plunged Germany into renewed crisis, provoked scenes of jubilation in Kosovo and Gibraltar, and set up what could be an exciting week of international soccer in a summer usually bereft of competition for European countries.

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The UEFA Nations League might not have been welcomed by some clubs across the continent – Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp called it “the most senseless competition in the world of football” – but it has generated plenty of intriguing story lines to pique interest in its inaugural year.

The competition has reached its final set of qualifying matches, and results over the next week will determine which teams will feature in a Final Four mini-tournament in June – when the first Nations League champion will be crowned. Currently, France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are favorites to be the finalists.

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The upcoming matches will also establish which of the lower-ranked teams qualify for the Nations League playoffs, from which one place at the 2020 European Championship will be awarded.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake:

GROUP A1

France, the world champion, has won two of its first three group games and will advance to the Final Four with a win over the Netherlands in Rotterdam on Friday. A victory for the Dutch means they can then qualify by beating – or potentially even drawing with – Germany in the group closer in Gelsenkirchen on Monday.

France has seen four players, including Paul Pogba, withdraw from the squad through injury on Monday.

Germany is last in the group, having collected one point from three games, and is on the brink of relegation to League B featuring Europe’s second-tier nations. Coming after a World Cup where the team failed to get out of the group stage, coach Germany coach Joachim Loew’s decision to stay on in the role is under as much scrutiny as the team’s mettle.

GROUP A2

Iceland has already been relegated after losing its first three games, leaving Belgium and Switzerland – tied on points – to battle for first place. The Belgians have played a game less, so a home win over Iceland on Thursday will leave them three points clear heading into the group decider in Switzerland on Monday.

Belgium is the world’s top-ranked team and will look for revenge for its semifinal loss to France at the World Cup if it does reach the Final Four.

GROUP A3

There is an added emphasis on which of Portugal or Italy advances, considering the team that qualifies from this group will host the Final Four in June. Portugal is the favorite after winning its first two games, without needing Cristiano Ronaldo, and needs only a point away to Italy on Saturday to guarantee first place.

If Italy wins, Portugal can still finish top with a home win on Tuesday over Poland, which has already been relegated after picking up just one point from its first three games.

GROUP A4

Spain looked on course to qualify comfortably from a group also containing England and World Cup runner-up Croatia after beating both teams in its first two games. Losing to England 3-2 in Sevilla last month, in arguably the standout match of the entire group stage so far, has kept things alive.

If Spain loses to Croatia in Zagreb on Thursday, England can finish first with a win over the Croats at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Spain coach Luis Enrique has called up Barcelona left back Jordi Alba for the first time since taking charge of the team after the World Cup.

LEAGUE B

Ukraine became the first country to secure promotion to Group A for the second Nations League, in 2020. Bosnia and Russia are well clear in their groups and need one point from their final matches, against Austria and Sweden respectively, to also ensure promotion.

In the other group in League B, Wales and Denmark are fighting for first place. They meet in Cardiff on Friday, when a Welsh win would guarantee them top spot.

The Nations League also offers a second chance to qualify for the European Championship in 2020. The 16 group winners in Leagues A, B, C and D – or the next best-placed teams who have not already qualified via the European qualifiers starting in March – will progress to the playoffs to compete for the last four qualifying places.

It means the so-called minnows of Europe have something tangible to play for.

LEAGUE C

No teams have won their group so far, though Finland is close after winning its first four games in Group C2 and needs one point from its last two.

In Group C1, Israel and Scotland are batting for first place; in Group C3, Norway and Bulgaria are tied on points with two games left; and in Group C4, there is a three-way fight between Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.

LEAGUE D

In the league containing Europe’s weakest countries, Gibraltar and Kosovo – two of the newest members of UEFA – have claimed their first ever competitive international wins.

Kosovo is top of Group D3, two points clear of Azerbaijan with two games left. Gibraltar is second behind Macedonia in Group D4. Georgia has won Group D1, and Luxembourg and Belarus appear to be fighting for first place in Group D2.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Most popular Premier League jerseys in each US state revealed

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So, this is interesting.

The folks over at soccer.com have revealed the top selling jerseys they ship out in each U.S. state and a few of these may surprise you.

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In a nutshell: the USA is red. The red of either Liverpool or Manchester United.

And while the two bitter rivals clearly have plenty of fans Stateside, so too do Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Remarkably, at least according to shirt sales, reigning champs Manchester City are the most popular team in only one state: New Jersey.

Below is a look at the map in full.


Premier League hire new Chief Executive

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The Premier League has appointed a new Chief Executive.

Susanna Dinnage will take over from Richard Scudamore who has led the PL for the last 19 years and is stepping down in December.

Dinnage was previously employed by media outlet Discovery, where she was most recently the global president of the Animal Planet channel. She previously worked for Channel Five and MTV before being with Discovery over the past 10 years.

The PL confirmed that Dinnage will begin her new role in early 2019 after being chosen by the Premier League nominations committee, which is led by Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck.

Speaking about her new position, Dinnage is excited to led England’s top-flight into a new era.

“I am excited at the prospect of taking on this fantastic role. The Premier League means so much to so many people. It represents the pinnacle of professional sport and the opportunity to lead such a dynamic and inspirational organisation is a great privilege,” Dinnage said. “With the support of clubs and the team, I look forward to extending the success of the League for many years to come.”

Dinnage becomes just the third person to lead the PL since its first season in 1992-93, after Scudamore took over from Rick Parry in 1999.

In its announcement upon hiring Dinnage, the PL also revealed it is now looking for a non-executive Chair as it prepares for Scudamore’s departure by filling two roles.

“The Premier League clubs have already agreed to split his (Scudamore’s) role, with Dinnage becoming Chief Executive, and the search for a non-executive Chair will now commence. The Premier League Nominations Committee comprises: Bruce Buck (Chair), Susan Whelan (Leicester City), Mike Garlick (Burnley), Claudia Arney and Kevin Beeston (both Non-Executive Directors of the Premier League). The Committee is grateful for the assistance provided by Jonathan Smith and colleagues at executive search and leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart.”