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“The Game of the Century”: Boca vs. River, Copa Lib final

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) They’re calling it “The Game of the Century” and “The Final of all Soccer Finals.” They’re not wrong.

Think Celtics vs. Lakers, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, and England vs. Scotland all rolled into one and you still might not be doing it justice.

The rivalry between Buenos Aires soccer teams Boca Juniors and River Plate ranks up there with the fiercest, most intense on the planet, and their regular “Superclasico” matchups create heated atmospheres that aren’t for the faint of heart.

The next two games, however, will be even more magnified than usual because the clubs will be facing each other in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Gonzalo Rodriguez Peralta, a 45-year-old River fan who was given club membership by his late father when he was born. “There’s no explanation … you only understand it when you’re there.”

It’s the first time that Argentina’s two biggest teams will meet in the Copa Libertadores final. Boca has won the title six times since the tournament began in 1960, one behind Argentine club Independiente’s South American record of seven titles. River has won it three times.

“Boca and River have raised Argentine soccer where it has never been before,” Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “Regardless of the outcome in these finals, we’ve put Argentine soccer at the highest level. Today, the whole world is talking about this final.”

The first leg will be played Saturday at Boca Juniors’ home stadium, an intimidating ground known as “La Bombonera” or “The Chocolate Box” for its tightly enclosed shape that looks like boxes stacked on top of each other. The second leg will be on Nov. 24 at River’s Monumental de Nunez Stadium, where Argentina won its first World Cup in 1978.

As is usual in recent years, visiting fans will not be allowed at either match because of the fear of violence. It’s been that way since 2013 and not even a plea from Argentine President Mauricio Macri, a former Boca president, could change that.

Argentina’s most successful teams originated in the docks of the southern working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca and their rivalry dates back to the early 20th century.

Boca was founded by a group of Italian immigrants who chose the blue and yellow club colors after the flag of a Swedish ship that arrived in port. River, with its white shirt and diagonal red stripe, moved to a northern affluent neighborhood during the league’s beginnings. The derby’s gritty play, passionate fans and colorful celebrations was once ranked by British newspaper The Observer in its top spot of the 50 sporting things you must do before you die.

Some of history’s best players have come from Boca and River. Diego Maradona, who captained Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, spent two stints at Boca and has his VIP seat reserved at the stadium. Playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and prolific goal scorer Martin Palermo were part of a golden era when the club even beat all-mighty Real Madrid for the Intercontinental Cup in 2000.

River Plate takes pride in having produced world-class players like Alfredo Di Stefano, who began his career at the club and went on to win five European Cup titles with Real Madrid. Or Enzo Francescoli, an inspiration for France great Zinedine Zidane, who named one of his children after the Uruguayan forward.

Although it’s the first time Boca and River will play each other for the Copa Libertadores title, the teams have met in the South American competition three times previously. Boca won in the 2000 quarterfinals 4-2 on aggregate and in the 2004 semifinals on a penalty shootout. River won the 2015 round-of-16 match in 1-0 after tournament organizers eliminated Boca because of pepper spray spread by its fans in the second leg.

“No one can erase what has been done,” River coach Marcelo Gallardo said recently. “But now, it’s a whole new story, one more page in this book. It will be up to us to continue being part of this history.”

River is looking for its second Copa Liberatdores title in the last three years, a huge achievement considering the team was relegated to the second division in 2011 – a painful blow that triggered riots between police and fans.

Gallardo, a former River player, has restored River’s pride since taking over in 2014, winning several championships and last year’s Argentine Super Cup against Boca.

Of course, none of that matters to Boca Juniors.

“This is not one more game in the league. This is a final,” Barros Schelotto said. “The only thing in my mind is to try to win these two games.”

Both coaches have plenty to play for. Besides gaining iconic status among the legions of fans for each team, the winning coach also would improve his prospects of taking over Argentina’s national team.

Gallardo will be at a bit of a disadvantage, though. He will miss the first match after being sanctioned by South American soccer’s governing body for failing to follow a previous suspension that banned him from contacting his players during the semifinals.

On the field, Boca’s best-known player is forward Carlos Tevez, who appeared in two World Cups for Argentina and previously played for clubs including Juventus, Manchester United and Manchester City. But these days, the team depends on striker Dario Benedetto, whose goals helped the club reach the final.

River striker Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez could be the one to watch on the other side. He scored in the last two matches against Boca and is expected to return after recovering from the flu. Other key players include midfielder Juan Quintero and Franco Armani, who is considered one of the best goalkeepers in Latin America.

“The pressure is very high because the public is following closely and the result will matter to them. It will be remembered for many years because it is a unique final,” said Oscar Mangione, a sports psychologist who has worked with Boca but is a devoted River fan. “It now depends on the players, on the coaches and how they deal with that pressure.”

The pressure, the history, the animosity: No one in Argentina seems to be talking about anything else.

“We’re living a unique moment,” Boca captain Pablo Perez said, “first because it’s a final, and second because it’s against River.”

Grassroots refs use rock-paper-scissors to back suspended ref

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“Hundreds” of grassroots referees in the UK used rock-paper-scissors in place of the customary pre-game coin flip this weekend to show support for suspended official David McNamara.

[ MORE: Southgate: “Hungry” Harry Kane “the best goalscorer in the world ]

McNamara was banned for three weeks by the Football Association for using rock-paper-scissors before a Women’s Super League match last month. McNamara left his coin in the referees’ locker room before a Women’s Super League match and opted for a different method to determine which side would kick off first/which end the two teams would attack.

One referee in Lancashire, 19-year-old Ryan Hampson, claimed that the players asked to do rock-papers-scissors ahead of the game he was set to referee — quotes from the BBC:

“Without me saying a word, four players came up to me and said, ‘Are we getting on the rock-paper-scissors today?’ as they had seen coverage of the issue.”

Ref Support UK, an organization that backs the UK’s more than 28,000 licensed referees, issued a statement that very much straddled the fence of right and wrong, versus solidarity:

“We can’t condone anyone deliberately breaking the laws of football. However, we understand hundreds took part. The level of support should send out a message that the punishment was disproportionate.

“This suggests people are willing to face a possible charge from the FA or their county FA as they feel so strongly about it.

The Laws of the Game state, in no uncertain terms, that a coin flip must occur prior to kickoff.

Mauritania qualifies for 2019 African Cup in latest surprise

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Mauritania qualified for its first major soccer tournament on Sunday when it beat Botswana to claim a place at next year’s African Cup of Nations.

It was the second major surprise of qualifying after Madagascar sealed a spot at the African Cup for the first time last month.

Mauritania, a country in northwest Africa covered almost completely by the Sahara desert, came from behind to beat Botswana 2-1 with two goals by forward Ismael Diakite.

It means a nation that waited 17 years after its first international game for its first win will finally play among the continent’s best teams next June and July.

Mauritania is one of 13 countries to have now qualified for an expanded 24-team Cup of Nations hosted by Cameroon. Eight of them qualified this weekend, the penultimate round of games, led by former champions Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Algeria.

Nigeria is back at the tournament – for the first time since it won the title in 2013 – after a 1-1 draw with South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday. A Nigerian state governor promised the team $25,000 for every goal in the crucial game but one was enough as Nigeria secured the point it needed to guarantee it one of the two qualifying places from the group.

Ivory Coast, the 2015 African champion, made sure of its place despite an underwhelming qualification campaign when it drew 1-1 in Guinea on Sunday. The result qualified both teams. Morocco’s place was confirmed after Malawi surprisingly lost 2-1 in Comoros. That eliminated the Malawians and caused their federation head, Walter Nyamilandu, a newly elected member of the FIFA Council, to complain about the makeup of the Comoros squad. It’s almost completely foreign-born players and Comoros’ goals against Malawi were scored by French-born players El Fardou Ben Nabouhane and Nasser Chamed.

Nyamilandu claimed on Twitter that Comoros “buy citizenship to make a national team” and called it “immoral.” There was no sign of an official protest by Malawi, though.

Algeria is through after winning 4-1 in Togo, helped by two goals from Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Other teams to qualify this weekend were Mali and Uganda.

War-torn Libya, which has twice in the last five years had to back out of hosting the African Cup because of its civil war, still has a chance to qualify. Libya crushed Seychelles 8-1 and faces South Africa in a decisive game in the final round of qualifying in March to see who joins Nigeria at the African Cup from that group. Although it’s a “home” game for Libya, the North Africans haven’t played on home soil for five years because of the conflict, instead holding their home games in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Libya needs a win while South Africa just needs to draw.

More debutants may be joining Madagascar and Mauritania next year, the first time the African Cup has expanded to 24 teams from its usual 16. Burundi needs a draw at home in its final game against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s Gabon to reach the finals. Lesotho, the tiny country surrounded by South Africa, is also still in contention.

200-plus players call for resignation of players’ union leader

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Citing a need for greater support of former players, more than 200 high-profile players have reportedly signed a petition calling for the resignation of Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), and a democratic vote to name his replacement.

[ MORE: Southgate: “Hungry” Harry Kane “the best goalscorer in the world ]

Taylor, who was paid a $3-million salary in 2017, has been in charge of England and Wales’ players’ union for 37 years, but has drawn a great deal of criticism in recent years. Many players are said to believe that Gordon, and the union as a whole, have not been acting in the best interest of current and former players. This is due, in large part, to the PFA receiving more than $34 million from the Premier League’s various television deals, and currently boasting a financial reserve of more than $56 million.

The Guardian claims to have obtained, and has shared parts of, a copy of the petition:

“You may have seen that Ben Purkiss (PFA chairman) has called for an independent review of the PFA. We are backing his call and would like to also call for a fair and democratic election of a new PFA chief executive. Throughout our careers we have never had a vote and this has to change. The PFA needs to be open and accessible to all. Every player should know when and how to vote, and the PFA must be run by people willing to be open, transparent and democratic. We call for Gordon Taylor to step down and allow the PFA to modernize and evolve.”

The goal of a union is not to make and keep money, the players are arguing, but to use its assets to support its members in a time of need. Whether a former player struggles with physical ailments, Alzheimer’s, mental health, the traumatic effects of sexual abuse, addiction or financial difficulties, the PFA should exhaust all of its options to support the players upon whose backs the union was built and has profited.

Southgate: ‘Hungry’ Harry Kane ‘best goalscorer in the world’

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There’s no better goalscorer in the world than Harry Kane, according to England boss Gareth Southgate.

[ MORE: UEFA Nations League: England reach finals; Belgium capitulate ]

Whether or not he’s bagging a goal every game, every other game or once every eight games — as was the case coming into Sunday’s pivotal UEFA Nations League finale against Croatia — Southgate backs a “hungry” Kane over any other forward in the world. It’s not just the goals that Kane scores, but his all-around game that allows him to impact the Three Lions in so many different ways — quotes from the Guardian:

“Harry is the best goalscorer in the world. You’re always loth to take a player off of his ability. I know people have questioned some of those decisions over the summer but he’s our main penalty-taker, our leader. In 98% of the games, his hold-up play and goalscoring is critical. He played a fantastic pass for Raheem Sterling after dropping off deep and turning in the first half. We have huge belief in him. He is so hungry to lead the team on.”

Never mind the fact that England don’t have another forward with a comparable set of skills which would allow them to play in a similar way, should Kane be dropped from the lineup for a meaningful game.

[ MORE: Lingard: Making it to Nations League finals is “what we want” ]

Kane only turned 25 this summer, and has already amassed 20 international goals in just 35 appearances (in four years since making his England debut). If he remains the first-choice no. 9 until he’s 30 — let alone a year or two beyond that — he’ll get dangerously close to breaking Wayne Rooney‘s record of 53 England goals and going down as the best the Three Lions have ever had. Prior to his recent goal-less skid, which would have reached a full eight games had he not grabbed the late winner on Sunday, those numbers stood at 19 goals in 27 appearances — clearly an unsustainable, but otherworldly goal-scoring pace.

Kane’s rise to prominence — and ultimately, superstardom — came so abruptly and unexpectedly that so many fans and pundits appear to be still waiting for the other shoe to drop on the impostor who could never actually be as good as everyone else thinks he is. After five full years of prolific goal-scoring for club and country, it’s probably time we start giving Kane a bit more benefit of the doubt.