Switzerland Investigates Qatar’s Khelaifi, France’s Valcke

Geneva, Paris- The Paris offices of BeIN Sports were searched on Thursday as part of a criminal probe against former FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke and Qatar’s BeIN Media Chief Executive Nasser al-Khelaifi, French authorities said.

Meanwhile, another inspection campaigns were launched in Greece, Italy, and Spain in the framework of the Swiss criminal investigation on the crime of bribing Valcke to buy TV rights to World Cup tournaments.

The probe, which is the latest in a series of corruption scandals involving FIFA and World Football in the last two years, included searches in several places, including the Parisian offices of the Qatari network, whose chairman also chairs the French Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) club.

Swiss Attorney General’s Office (OAG) announced that they have opened criminal proceedings Khelaifi and Valcke against the backdrop of awarding of World Cup media rights for the 2026 and 2030 tournaments.

The proceedings relate to an ongoing OAG investigation into Valcke that began in March 2016 and was opened on “suspicion of various acts of criminal mismanagement.”

Findings obtained in that process have led to a separate line of inquiry involving PSG President Khelaifi.
The OAG stressed “no one has been on remand” and the presumption of innocence applies.”

The OAG said it had also opened a new criminal proceeding against Valcke and an unnamed figure in the sports rights business, who is accused of having bribed Valcke in connection with the award of media rights for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 2022 in Qatar and the 2026 and 2030 tournaments.

Khelaifi, Valcke and the unnamed businessman are collectively suspected of bribery, fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery of a document, in a criminal proceeding – effectively an investigation rather than charges – ongoing since 20 March this year.

Legal authorities in France, Greece, Italy, and Spain cooperated with this area of the Swiss criminal investigation and “properties were searched in various locations”.

Valcke – who was interviewed on Thursday – is in the process of appealing against his 10-year ban from football at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The Frenchman was found guilty of a series of breaches of FIFA’s code of ethics and was sacked in January 2016, though he has always denied any wrongdoing.

Ronald Koeman Given Time to Solve the Everton Crisis he Largely Created


London — From the biggest investment in Everton’s history to a vote of confidence in the manager by 2 October: this season was always liable to test Ronald Koeman’s managerial skills, given the number of new faces, the sale of Romelu Lukaku and a punishing schedule, but few would have anticipated him floundering so badly, so quickly. It is he, not Everton, who must implement change during the international break.

The Dutchman retains the “total support” of Farhad Moshiri, Everton’s major shareholder, and the 54-year-old should have time to correct the malaise that has gripped Goodison Park when he is largely but not entirely responsible for the team’s regression. It is also important for Moshiri to demonstrate that faith and patience in a manager, a consistent theme of Bill Kenwright’s ownership, has not become prone to regular upheaval since he came on board. Not that the billionaire’s statement to Sky Sports’ Jim White was without flaws.

Moshiri blamed injuries, European exertions, mental and physical fatigue plus a tough fixture list for a run of form that has left Everton two points above the relegation zone. Sunday brought a fifth defeat in eight matches as Burnley executed Sean Dyche’s game plan to perfection. The “only unexpected loss”, said Moshiri, leaving the unfortunate impression that defeats against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were not, despite having spent almost £140m on seven additions to the first-team squad this summer. It may have been diplomatically prudent for Moshiri but it would be inaccurate to exclude Koeman from the list of reasons for Everton’s toils.

Stubborn, confusing team selections have produced consistently laboured and passive performances this season. A lack of pace, balance and threat has been a recurring theme of an Everton team who veer between defeated and dull. There was no width in the Europa League draw against Apollon Limassol last Thursday. Koeman had three wide players, Nikola Vlasic, Kevin Mirallas and Ademola Lookman, on the bench. Worryingly for the manager, when he tried to rectify the issues by starting Oumar Niasse and Vlasic against Burnley it yielded the same failing.

Again, however, his decisions contributed to another subdued display and underlined his tendency to dispense with the easy option – young homegrown talents such as Tom Davies and Jonjoe Kenny – while favouring signings he pushed for. Morgan Schneiderlin, Ashley Williams and Gylfi Sigurdsson have struggled, although Everton’s £45m record signing has been isolated on the left after a pre-season spent pushing for a move from Swansea City. “Both of us like to play more centrally,” Sigurdsson told a Sunday newspaper before the Burnley game. The other player he was referring to was Wayne Rooney, who has also had limited opportunities in a central role and paid the price for the team’s failings with a substitute’s role on Sunday.

Rooney contradicted Koeman last week when insisting a lack of confidence was not the root of Everton’s problems. The manager had claimed otherwise when accusing his players of being afraid to play football in the costly 2-2 draw against Apollon. His new-look team have certainly appeared inhibited as they attempt to gel, only for poor results to provoke a change in approach by the manager, who told Everton to play more direct on Sunday.

Michael Keane, one of the players who has suffered a loss of confidence according to Koeman, said: “I think everyone expected more than we have given so far: the players and the staff, not just the fans. We know we have been disappointing as a team and need to improve. Expectations from fans are one thing but the main thing is what we expect of ourselves and in a few games this season we have fallen below those standards.

“I did not think that was the case [against Burnley]. We just need to show that bit of quality and, hopefully, we will do that soon. I thought the game plan was good. We had them on the back foot, we just lacked that final bit of quality, that good cross or good finish. We have been 1-0 down previously and collapsed but I did not feel like we did that. We got back on the front foot.”

Koeman does have solutions to Everton’s faults at his disposal with the exception of the most glaring of all – an adequate replacement for Lukaku, who has scored three more Premier League goals for Manchester United this season than his former club have managed collectively. Recognition of this error in the transfer market is arguably what protects the Everton manager from greater pressure from within.

Kenwright, the Everton chairman, gave Steve Walsh a consoling pat on the back as the club’s director of football stared at the Goodison pitch on Sunday and absorbed another damaging defeat. The Everton hierarchy were well aware of Lukaku’s intentions to leave before the end of last season and had time to locate an alternative striker once Olivier Giroud, Koeman’s preferred target, decided to stay at Arsenal. Instead six weeks and £45m were spent on a deal for Sigurdsson, who may well justify Everton’s investment in the long term but was not a priority acquisition with Rooney and £23.6m Davy Klaassen in place.

Any mention of Everton’s summer spending brings a dismissive retort from Koeman, who with some justification will respond with the net spend argument. After £140m and 14 games, however, he should be much closer to justifying Moshiri’s decision to lure him from Southampton on a £6m-a-year contract.

The Guardian Sport

From Maguire to Winks: Which England Hopefuls might Make the Plane to Russia?


London – 1) Butland hardly tested but should stay second choice

Despite having made his England debut in August 2012, Jack Butland had to wait three years for his competitive bow and another two to double the tally when lining up here. England qualified for Russia 2018 on Thursday so here was invaluable game-time for the 24-year-old Stoke City goalkeeper. Yet the contest gave Butland scant chance to show he can be relied upon. The man most likely to dislodge Joe Hart watched an early Fiodor Cernych shot carefully, then gathered a later one with ease. This was all that was required until just after the half-hour. Then, he dealt with a Kieran Trippier backpass by booting it towards halfway. On 54 minutes Butland did make a crucial save, though, by stopping Michael Keane scoring an own goal. Butland is next in line after Hart, ahead of Fraser Forster, Jordan Pickford and the injured Tom Heaton, and competitive action will have done his confidence no harm.

2) West Ham’s Cresswell can deliver a set piece

Inside five minutes Aaron Cresswell made an impact by hitting a cross in from the left that landed plum on Harry Maguire’s head and which should have led to the opener. A later free-kick from the right again showcased Cresswell’s ability to strike a ball as the defender spun in a cross that posed the Lithuania defence a question. The West Ham United defender had been handed a third cap and chance to further his claim for a World Cup berth in a defence that featured three centre-backs. In this the 27-year-old operated at left wing-back, a demand familiar to him as his club manager, Slaven Bilic, uses the system. Cresswell was near faultless and when pushing ahead suggested he can be a factor: a second-half header forced Ernestas Setkus into a sharp save. Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose – who is injured – are ahead of him, while Luke Shaw and Ashley Young may also change Gareth Southgate’s mind.

3) Winks tidy but may be too late to join the party

Harry Winks could be proud of a first taste of senior international football as the 21-year-old offered a tidy all‑round midfield display. The Tottenham man often roved forward to link though on occasion his control let him down. Winks’s first contribution in an England shirt was to beat Vykintas Slivka with some slick footwork. Later he combined with Marcus Rashford but the latter ball watched. Next came an illustration of Winks’s energy as he raced back to break up a Lithuania attack. While he came close to a first England goal early in the second half, the challenge he faces comes from those players ahead of him in Gareth Southgate’s thinking. Winks was only drafted into the squad after Fabian Delph dropped out. The Manchester City midfielder, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Adam Lallana, Jake Livermore, and even a consistently fit Jack Wilshere are those whose claim is stronger.

4) Maguire’s dream could take him all way to Russia

Harry Maguire’s debut came close to a dream start five minutes in as the central defender lurked near Setkus’s goal. Yet when Cresswell delivered the ball where the Leicester City man – an ever-present this season – wanted it, Maguire spurned the header. But accomplished defending is his prime concern, and at this the 24-year-old was largely reliable on the left of Southgate’s trio of centre-halves. Yet it was his error that allowed Lithuania to turn defence into attack and which led to Keane nearly scoring an own goal after the interval. Earlier he made amends for the missed header by initiating the attack from which Harry Kane opened the scoring. It was Maguire’s clever dinked ball to Henderson from which Dele Alli won the penalty, converted by Kane. Again, though, competition is fierce. Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, John Stones, and Keane are those who are ahead in the reckoning.

5) Trippier gives it his all in quest to be on the plane

One of four Tottenham players in the XI, Kieran Trippier made an uneven start but he improved as the contest developed. After winning their first corner the 27-year-old allowed Vytautas Andriuskevicius to find a cross from which Darvydas Sernas flashed wide of Butland. This was followed with a diagonal ball that was intercepted and he later failed to get close enough to Sernas. From here, though, Trippier began hustling better and was a constant outlet along the right, though he was not always noticed by team-mates. When he was – by Kane, just after the latter’s penalty – Trippier used the ball aptly by moving it inside quickly to Winks. This second England appearance ended as a note to Southgate that he is worth consideration. With Kyle Walker first choice, Trippier’s competition appears to be only Nathaniel Clyne, who is injured, and perhaps a left-field option, like Manchester United’s Ashley Young.

The Guardian Sport

Microchip Athletes to Stop Doping- Olympians’ Chief Says

The Olympic rings are set up on Trocadero plaza that overlooks the Eiffel Tower, a day after the official announcement that the 2024 Summer Olympic Games will be in the French capital, in Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.

London- All athletes need to be fitted with microchips to stop drug cheats and protect clean sport, according to a leading representative of international sports people.

Mike Miller, the chief executive of the World Olympians Association (WOA) and chairman of the Association of Football Agents – and former chief executive of the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) – said the technology was coming that would allow an implant both to track people’s movements and detect any performance-enhancing drugs in their systems.

“We chip our dogs,” he told a Westminster Media Forum on integrity and duty of care in sport.

“We’re prepared to do that and it doesn’t seem to harm them. So, why aren’t we prepared to chip ourselves?”

Admitting he was “no Steve Jobs”, the man who leads an organization which boasts of representing 100,000 living Olympians, also called for drugs cheats to be banned for life.

“We need to keep in front of the cheats,” he said.

“I believe that, in order to stop doping, we need to chip our athletes where the latest technology is there.

“Now, some people say it’s an invasion of privacy. Well, it’s a club and people don’t have to join the club if they don’t want to follow the rules.”

Stressing this was his personal opinion and not that of the WOA, he added: “The technology is not quite there yet but it’s coming.

“The problem with the current anti-doping system is that all it says is that, at a precise moment in time, there are no banned substances.

The chief executive of UK Anti-Doping, Nicole Sapstead, was skeptical about Miller’s proposal.

“We welcome verified developments in technology which could assist the fight against doping,” she said.

“However, can we ever be sure that this type of thing could never be tampered with or even accurately monitor all substances and methods on the prohibited list?

“There is a balance to be struck between a right to privacy versus demonstrating that you are clean.

“We would actively encourage more research in whether there are technologies in development that can assist anti-doping organizations in their endeavors.”

Citing one case which included allegations of “domestic abuse”, she said: “It is quite clear to me that if there is abuse, bullying, or just inordinate pressure on an athlete to succeed, that immediately increases the risks of doping and incitement to dope.

“We should be alive to that risk, especially when we are talking about very young or very vulnerable athletes or athletes at the twilight of their career.”

She added: “Sometimes, what appears at first to be an anti-doping case, upon further investigation actually turns out to an issue of athlete welfare.

“We have uncovered harassment and bullying and have referred cases to the police and to the sports.

“In the main, the welfare issues relate to recreational drugs, supplement use or painkillers.

“UKAD has referred 17 cases in the past 12 months, because of clear welfare issues, to the appropriate authorities.”

Bilic Mutes the Mutiny at the Last but West Ham’s Battlers Need a Plan


London — Midway through the first half, Slaven Bilic switched his wingers. Michail Antonio went left, André Ayew went right. It was a sure sign that Bilic’s tactics were malfunctioning.

In theory it made sense for West Ham United to start in a 4-4-2 system, which plays to the strengths of both Andy Carroll and Javier Hernández, for the first time this season. Yet a plan that looks good on paper will never work if players are confused by their instructions and in practice West Ham’s ponderous approach rarely stretched Swansea City. There was no flow, no rhythm, and the disgruntled atmosphere at the London Stadium grew to a mutinous pitch when Diafra Sakho replaced the ineffective Hernández in the 78th minute.

A dire game was drifting towards a goalless draw and for the first time there was a sense of the narrative shifting against Bilic, whose hold over a hitherto adoring public seemed to be slipping, belatedly allowing the board to contemplate sacking the Croat without having to worry about a supporter backlash. Hernández furiously shook his head on the bench and the crowd sympathised with the £16m striker’s incandescence at having made way instead of Carroll.

Yet a prominent theme during the past 12 months has been West Ham’s knack of grinding out an ugly win just when Bilic is thought to be on the brink. It happened on several occasions last season and the pattern continued when Sakho, who tried to engineer a move to Rennes in the summer, vindicated Bilic’s unpopular decision by converting a cross from his fellow substitute Arthur Masuaku in the 90th minute.

There was a similar vibe when West Ham responded to losing their first three games by earning an unconvincing victory against Huddersfield Town last month and there is a temptation to conclude that winning while playing poorly is proof that a decent team will break out once confidence comes flowing back. It is partly this sense of longing that has protected Bilic, an intelligent and charismatic man who speaks articulately and wears his heart on his sleeve.

He is hard to dislike, which explains the desire to see him do well. Other teams in West Ham’s position might have downed tools in an attempt to force their manager out, but Bilic’s players continue to fight for him, masking the lack of any discernible style of play by demonstrating their battling qualities.

“I see that they want to do it,” Bilic said. “After the first three games, when we were on zero points, I didn’t see no discipline in the camp. On the contrary, I felt that we wanted to do it all together. Are they doing it for the manager or themselves? At the end of the day, it’s not important.

“You can talk about the quality of our performance today but we won the game because we didn’t give up. We didn’t raise unbelievably the quality of our game in the second half, but if I am on the pitch and I don’t care, it was the perfect situation not to care. But we didn’t. We forced that goal.”

The problem is that the longer this persists, the more Bilic will come across as a motivational cheerleader rather than a tactical mastermind. That might be enough to keep West Ham out of the relegation zone but it is not a solid foundation for success.

Having risen to 15th after picking up seven points from four games, West Ham have an opportunity to build after the international break. “Now I’m expecting for us to do much better,” Bilic said.

He is safe for now, but ultimately this was the kind of uneven performance that shows why his long-term future is less certain. Unless Bilic can snap them out of the wearying cycle of constantly needing a scrappy win to ward off a major crisis, West Ham will have few compelling reasons to extend his contract at the end of the season.

The Guardian Sport

Glut of Goals, Fresh Talent, Unpredictability Fuel Serie a Revival

London — There was a time when Italians might have been insulted by the suggestion of theirs being the third-best football league in Europe. Serie A was always il campionato più bello del mondo – the most beautiful championship in the world. How else to describe a competition that produced 12 European Cup finalists between 1983 and 1998, a place where you could watch Diego Maradona take on Franco Baresi, or Zinedine Zidane battle Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or?

Nobody is blind, though, to the power shift since. Between TV deals and billionaire owners, Premier League clubs became able to offer wages the Italians could not match. Barcelona and Real Madrid kept pace by using the Champions League to solidify their status as global brands. Serie A’s most marketable teams were too busy squabbling over the Calciopoli scandal.

Even the Bundesliga, rich with well-run clubs and domestic talent, moved ahead in the continental pecking order. By 2014, the columnist Gianni Mura was writing in the newspaper La Repubblica that he had “never seen a Serie A of such scarce technical quality”.

So when Italy climbed back up to third in Uefa’s country coefficient rankings last month, it was a cause for modest celebration. In practical terms it meant nothing, since the top four nations will each send four teams to the Champions League from 2018 in any case. But to move ahead of Germany for the first time in seven years was a salve to wounded national pride.

The hope is that it also provided confirmation of Italian football being back on a positive trajectory. At the time of Mura’s lament, the opposite seemed to be true. Juventus were ploughing towards a record points tally but had failed to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. The only Italian side who did, Milan, got thrashed 5-1 on aggregate by Atlético Madrid.

Domestically, the tactical trend was towards ever more defensive formations. “Catenaccio has returned in its most rudimentary form,” wrote Mura, painting a picture of “bad full-backs dressed up as wingers”, playing in “three-man defences that are, in fact, a back five”.

Since then, however, Juventus have been in two Champions League finals and Serie A has transformed into a Wild West of attacking football. The goals are flying in at a higher rate in the Italian top flight (2.88 per game) this season than in any of Europe’s other top five leagues. The same was true last season as well. Only one game out of 49 since the start of September has ended goalless.

After six straight titles, Juventus’s hegemony is finally under threat. Napoli have not only won their opening seven games but scored at least three times in each. Just as Milan were elevated in the late 1980s by a former shoe salesman, Arrigo Sacchi, so Napoli’s rise has been masterminded by a man who was working in a bank at the age of 43. Perhaps it is easier to take risks when you are doing, as Maurizio Sarri describes it, “the only job I would do for free”.

And perhaps that boldness is catching. Serie A has not traditionally been a welcoming place for teenage talent but these days it is awash with it. Pietro Pellegri, born in 2001, was already the youngest player to take part in a Serie A game, and became the youngest to score a brace when he struck twice against Lazio last month. The 19-year-old Federico Chiesa stirs memories of his father, Enrico, at Fiorentina, and Milan, after spending more than €200m on new signings, have started games with a homegrown teenager, Gianluigi Donnarumma, in goal and another, Patrick Cutrone, leading the attack.

It has been a challenging start to the season for the Rossoneri, beaten three times already, but the ambition shown by their new owners, as well as those of neighbours Internazionale, has restored enthusiasm in the stands.

Milan achieved the highest attendance for a Europa League qualifier when 65,673 fans came to see them crush Craiova. A few weeks later, 51,752 turned out to watch Inter beat Fiorentina in Serie A, the biggest crowd the Nerazzurri had achieved for an August fixture since their treble-winning campaign in 2009-10.

Average attendances in Serie A are up by more than 1,500 per game from last season. The Milan clubs have played a part but so too have sides such as Napoli and Atalanta, the latter continuing to defy gravity with a core of players developed through their academy system.

We are not quite back in the age of the Sette Sorelle – Seven Sisters – when Juventus, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, Lazio, Roma and Parma were all considered legitimate title contenders. But Serie A’s pool of stars is spread more evenly than it has been in the recent past, allowing eight or nine teams to at least aspire to a place in the top four.

Dries Mertens has been the greatest revelation, with 24 goals and 11 assists in the league since the start of 2017. But even outside the most obvious clubs, Lazio can boast Ciro Immobile – whose 13 strikes this season are bettered only by Lionel Messi across Europe’s top five leagues – Torino have Andrea Belotti and Atalanta the irrepressible Papu Gómez.Not everything is positive. Although a handful of clubs have followed Juventus’ lead by either constructing stadiums or taking ownership of their existing ones, progress remains painfully slow. Figures published by KPMG show Serie A revenues grew at a slower rate between 2011-12 and 2015-16 than in any of Europe’s other top leagues.

The gap between the top and bottom of the division, furthermore, has rarely appeared wider. A survey conducted by Gazzetta dello Sport found 58% of readers in favour of reducing the number of teams in the division to 18 or even fewer.

Overall, though, there is more good than bad. The introduction of the VAR system for reviewing major refereeing decisions appears to be making a positive impact, despite some heated debate, with the number of fouls per game down across the board.

Serie A has a way to go before it can confidently call itself the most beautiful championship in the world again. But more goals, fewer fouls and fresh talent coming through feel like a good place to start.

The Guardian Sport

Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge is Limping towards Life on the Sidelines


London – Just before Daniel Sturridge was withdrawn from proceedings on a grey northeast afternoon, he could be seen sitting on the turf clutching his left boot and looking in distress. He soon rose to his feet and headed to the bench as Roberto Firmino came on for him as one of two 74th-minute Liverpool substitutions, the striker’s expression turning to glumness as he did so. For those who follow Sturridge’s career it was a poignant moment and for the most pessimistic, further evidence that a player who once shone so brightly so often is slipping further into the darkness of a career unfulfilled.

It feels almost like a trick of the mind to remember it was only three years ago, at the climax of the 2013-14 season, that Sturridge was being spoken of as being among the most deadly finishers in Europe. It was the days of Brendan Rodgers and Luis Suárez, a doomed but thrilling title charge and, for Sturridge, 25 goals in 33 appearances. He was at his peak, ready to kick on, ready to become an Anfield legend. And then came the painful demise, literally given Sturridge’s injury record. A long and varied list, taking in more than 640 days on the sidelines since he arrived from Chelsea in January 2013, and it would not come as a surprise if that moment of distress against Newcastle was the onset of another forced absence.

That is where we are with Sturridge, and to some extent it is unfair given the player’s attempts to get himself in shape to be a potent force for Liverpool once more. He underwent hip surgery in May 2015 and, the previous Christmas, flew to Boston in order to get fit. But the knocks have taken their toll and chipped away at the player’s talents.

There have been goals – 26 in 76 appearances since the 2013-14 season – and hence excitement and intrigue at the rare start he was handed against Newcastle by Jürgen Klopp as the German looked to shake up a side that has shown a severe lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Firmino was dropped to the bench, not a major surprise given the Brazilian’s somewhat tired displays in recent weeks, and Sturridge took his place as the focal point of a three-man attack, with Sadio Mané to his left and Mohammed Salah to his right. With Philippe Coutinho also deployed in midfield it was all set up for Liverpool’s No15, who had scored seven times in seven previous outings against Newcastle, to take his chance, in more ways than one. But ultimately he failed to do so as Liverpool drew 1-1 for the second time inside a week.

Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool captain and manager turned Sky pundit, described Sturridge’s performance as “labored”, while the judgments on social media were even more damning. The post-match statistics also did Sturridge few favors – he had just one shot on target during the entirety of his time on the pitch. And it was a decent opportunity, too, with the player clean through on goal following Ciaran Clark’s horrible slice just outside Newcastle’s area on 50 minutes. The Sturridge of old would have buried it; this version hit a tame shot straight at Rob Elliot’s feet and watched on as Salah also failed to convert the rebound.

In fairness to Sturridge, he did try to impact proceedings, during the first half in particular. Facing a deep-lying and compact back four, he drifted back in order to pull defenders out of position as well as to initiate attacks. On 19 minutes he put Salah through with a well-weighted pass and shortly after it was possible to hear the traveling supporters chant his name. They clearly appreciated Sturridge’s efforts, which while lacking Firmino’s relentless pressing did involve the closing down of opponents, as seen after just two minutes when Sturridge forced Newcastle’s captain Jamaal Lascelles to clear the ball out for a throw. But Sturridge’s display deteriorated after the break and it felt symbolic that he should be replaced by Firmino – for that is what has happened to the England international on a broader level following Klopp’s arrival at Anfield two years ago. A one-time regular is now a regular back-up option.

“It’s time,” the manager said when asked before kick-off why he had decided to start Sturridge, and few could disagree with that given Liverpool went into Sunday’s encounter having scored just seven times from their previous 126 shots. A high-quality finisher was required at a time when many of Liverpool’s top-four rivals have one of their own – Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Agüero, Alvaro Morata, Harry Kane. There was a time when Sturridge could stand shoulder to shoulder with them all, but no longer. The sharpness is not there, either with his movement or his finishing, and who knows when he will start for Liverpool again? Given their next two Premier League games are against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – either side of an important Champions League trip to Maribor – it is unlikely to be for some time.

“He was so disappointing,” Souness said. It was, and is, hard to disagree.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special


London – The almost total lack of regard in which broadcasters hold football fans is no secret, so it should have come as no surprise to learn Sky Sports is proposing to reschedule Arsenal’s home match against Liverpool for Christmas Eve in what the Football Supporters’ Federation has described as “a new low point in putting the interests of football broadcasters over those of match-going fans”. And yet somehow it did come as a surprise. Even by the notoriously cut-throat standards of TV networks scrambling for subscriptions, this seems unnecessarily grasping.

With an already hectic festive grind looming, footballers would almost certainly rather not play on Christmas Eve. Fans, some with other commitments and others faced with the return journey to and from London from Liverpool on what is a chaotic day for transport, would almost certainly rather not travel on Christmas Eve.

Matchday staff earning not much more than minimum wage for their shifts would almost certainly rather not work on Christmas Eve. On a day that vast swaths of the British population set aside for last-minute trolley dashes, family reunions, festive roistering and all the domestic disquiet that entails, we could almost certainly do without the added distraction of Premier League football on television. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not, despite the fact almost everyone involved apart from the broadcasting company that paid £11m for British TV rights for the match appears to agree it is a ridiculous idea. Even before a final decision has been made, both football clubs involved have complained, as have their supporters.

But while Sky Sports has not yet publicly acknowledged any of these gripes, early indications suggest it is likely to respond to this almost unanimous groundswell of disapproval by – yes, you’ve guessed it – scheduling a second Premier League match for the same day and transforming Christmas Eve into a Super Sleigh Bell Sunday featuring two games instead of the more traditional and generally accepted none.

A spokeswoman for Sky said she was not in a position to comment given the fixtures for December have not been selected but that an announcement will be made in the next fortnight. “Twice in recent years [2011 and 2016] Christmas Eve has fallen on a Saturday,” says the FSF. “In both those years the Premier League has not scheduled any fixtures for that day, presumably in recognition of the significance of the date. For broadcasters now to move fixtures to Christmas Eve, and on a Sunday at that, flies in the face of that policy.”

On Monday, it emerged the second match being mooted for rescheduling to Christmas Eve is West Ham v Newcastle, which would almost certainly occupy the 1.30pm TV slot and mean a round trip of 560 miles for traveling Geordies, who, unlike Father Christmas, do not have the luxury of airborne sleighs drawn by reindeer to speed them home.

Expect more entirely justified disquiet from a set of supporters whose location means they are already treated particularly contemptuously by TV schedulers.

The clubs, despite their predictable carping, can have no complaints as they are lying in a cash-strewn bed of their own making. When Sky and BT Sport paid a combined £5.136bn for the UK TV rights of the Premier League in the famously lucrative carve-up of February 2015, it was the former network that paid the lion’s share of the money, £4.176bn, to win the vast majority of the TV slots available. Two of those are on Sunday afternoons, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 4pm, windows dictated at the time by clubs mindful of potential viewing audiences and hoping to rinse the maximum revenue possible out of the bidders.

Much to their delight the money duly arrived but in the ensuing contract negotiations the clubs either did not bother, did not want to, or perhaps just never thought to insist on clauses precluding Sky or BT Sport from rescheduling matches that would quite clearly inconvenience fans traveling long distances at great expense.

Evidently they also failed to reckon on Christmas Eve 2017 falling on a Sunday and the potential problems that might cause. Sky has two slots to play with on Christmas Eve Sunday. One can be moved to the previous Friday night, but this would still leave one Sunday slot vacant.

Should Sky decide to keep match-going fans and the FSF happy by not broadcasting Arsenal v Liverpool or any other match on Christmas Eve, it would to all intents and purposes be throwing away the £11m it paid for the right to do so. Even at a time of goodwill to all men, this course of action is one it would be understandably reluctant to take.

This could easily have been avoided. As equal shareholders in the Premier League, along with the 18 other clubs who comprised English football’s top flight at the time the deal with Sky and BT was struck, there was nothing to stop Arsenal, Liverpool or the other shareholders preempting such a scenario and colluding to ensure it never came to pass. They did not and, as usual, it is their fans who will suffer the most.

“Spirit Of Shankly have been made aware that Liverpool’s away fixture against Arsenal, scheduled for 23 December, is being considered for a move to Christmas Eve,” said a Liverpool’s supporters’ group, which pointed out the impact such a switch would have. “SOS are contacting relevant personnel to put forward our case that it is completely unacceptable to expect fans to travel for a match at this time. The suggestion of such a change again shows zero regard for supporters – much like the corresponding fixture where Euston station was closed over bank holiday weekend.”

The FSF has declared it will continue to work in conjunction with supporters’ groups to engage with the Premier League and broadcasters “to register our discontent and to seek full involvement and consultation with supporters in determining future scheduling”.

Good luck to them but history suggests their hopes of being paid anything other than lip service would constitute a Christmas miracle.

The Guardian Sport

Jack Wilshere Keen to Stay at Arsenal after Return to First-Team Fold


London – Jack Wilshere looks like a player determined to grasp every moment of football he is offered this season, and his mini renaissance since returning to fitness and the fold at Arsenal has made him want to commit to the club for the long term. Wilshere’s contract expires at the end of this season and given his injury history he is doing everything in his power to ensure he prolongs a connection that dates back to boyhood.

“Do I see myself staying? Of course I do,” he said. “I have always been at Arsenal, I love this club. They have been good to me over the years, I have a great relationship with the boss. He has played me since I was 17. He has put his trust in me since then. We have a great understanding and of course I want to stay.”

Past experience ought to have taught Wilshere to be cautious about what the future holds but his desire to play and enjoy football is so strong he walked off the pitch after an impressive 90 minutes against Bate Borisov in the Europa League on Thursday and could not resist saying: “I definitely feel I’m back.”

Wilshere’s positive vibes outweigh any wariness about how much football and how many performances are needed to convince others that this latest comeback has staying power. There were moments – imaginative touches and brilliant passes – that were classy reminders of his capabilities. Of that Arsène Wenger has no doubt. The midfielder’s capacity to produce his best over a season is less clear.

“You are always playing for your future but at the moment I am happy to be back, to feel part of the squad. It has been a while,” added Wilshere. “Last year I was at Bournemouth, year before I was injured. It has been a while since I felt a proper Arsenal player but I am back, in training, back in the squad, playing these types of games. I am doing everything I can to stay fit, training well, we will see. I am not looking too far ahead. We have another game Sunday, more League Cup and Europa League, so I am happy.”

He acknowledged that football critics have short memories and that being written off comes with the territory. “That is part and parcel of football. Football is a game where people forget. Everyone says ‘you are never fit’ but last season I was fit for the whole season. It was only in April that I got an impact injury. That was unfortunate timing but throughout my rehab it went well.

“People say it’s a long road but it was four months and I have had longer than that before. I felt good coming back to Arsenal and into training and the boss has been good. He has been speaking to me, been patient and I feel good and enjoy working with these top players again.”

Wilshere confessed that the night before the game in Borisov he was in the hotel and could not remember when he had last played a European away game for Arsenal. In fact, the answer was at Anderlecht in the Champions League in October 2014. Fellow team-mates that day were Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. It must feel like an age ago.

Wilshere has not yet worked his way into contention to start in the Premier League but if he keeps up his current progression that should not be too far away. Arsenal do not possess too many midfielders blessed with the vision he uses so instinctively.

“As a player you want to be in every game, especially when you have been injured, but at the same time I understand they have been winning and playing well,” he said. “Am I 100 percent back? Maybe not. I felt good in the first half and start of the second and then fitness-wise it started to go a bit towards the end. But that is normal. It will come and I am patient at the moment and we will see where I am in three or four weeks.”

Wilshere enjoyed the challenge of playing in a tweaked position in Belarus, pushed further forward as part of the attacking trio alongside Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud.

“I was playing a different position, coming off the line to link with Theo and Olivier and especially in the first half it worked really well. I wasn’t playing as an out and out 10, I was on the wing and the boss told me to come into the pocket and pick it up.”

The 25-year-old was instrumental in helping Arsenal beat Borisov 4-2 and hopes that he can go from strength to strength. There is a lot to pin hopes on – a new contract and the prospect of a World Cup at the end of the season – but for now he is taking baby steps. He has stopped even looking out for the England squad.

“I am getting back to full fitness and of course I want to be part of that. I have only played two 90s in four or five months. When I am fit and playing in the Premier League, we will see.”

The Guardian Sport

Keep Politics out of Sport? Don’t Make me Laugh


London – Barcelona’s decision to play the October 1 match against Las Palmas in an empty stadium smacked of choosing points over principles, and overlooks the fact that sport has always found room for protest.

When it came down to it, FC Barcelona – mes que un club, remember – could not bring themselves to go all in. The threatened loss of six points – three for the defaulted match, three more as a penalty – was enough to persuade them to stage their match against Las Palmas behind locked doors in a deserted Camp Nou, while outside the streets of the city rang with the echoes of violent confrontations between police and voters in an independence referendum ruled illegal by the national government.

The club’s decision was an important one. Barça is a powerful international symbol of Catalan identity. A refusal to play Sunday’s match would have added tinder to the fire of the independence movement. But they compete in a league where their final standing against Real Madrid has been measured in the last three seasons by two points, one point and three points. So they took the safer option, leaving Gerard Piqué who has never made a secret of his Catalan pride, to join up with the Spain squad and face uncomfortable questions about divided loyalties.

Meanwhile, fans who had voted for independence pointed to the example of Welsh clubs competing in the English league as evidence that independence from Spain would not have to mean ejection from La Liga. Few would want an entirely autonomous Catalonia to incorporate a future of Barça competing in a domestic mini-league made up by FC Girona, Gimnàstic de Tarragona and Lleida Esportiu.

Keep politics out of sport? Don’t make me laugh. Politics infiltrates sport at all levels. Think about the decision to start next year’s Giro d’Italia in Israel. For one partner in the deal, that’s obviously a matter of money – €17m, apparently. For the other, it represents valuable image-polishing. This is not quite the same as launching the Tour de France in Yorkshire, which was not, the last time I looked, surrounded by walls aimed at keeping out people from Lancashire or County Durham. Or there’s Qatar, whose appalling treatment of migrant workers on the 2022 World Cup stadiums was exposed – not for the first time – by Human Rights Watch this week. Do we really think the Qataris are investing so heavily in football, at home and abroad, out of a sheer love of the game?

The coming days might tell us whether FC Barcelona has a further role to play in the dramatic reawakening of old regional tensions and whether the events of October 1 will join the line of football matches that played a part in shaping history, a phenomenon that could be said to have begun in 1969 with a conflict between El Salvador and Honduras that became known as the Football War.

Tensions between the two countries had been heightened by the migration to Honduras of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, leaving a country one-fifth the size of its neighbor but with a population 40 percent greater, prompting the Honduran government to enact reforms intended to keep land out of the hands of immigrant farmers while expelling Salvadoran laborers. The fuse for open conflict was lit when the two countries met in the qualifying tournament for the 1970 World Cup.

The first match was held in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where the visiting players were kept awake by crowds letting off firecrackers and breaking windows in their hotel. The home team won by a single goal, prompting an 18-year-old girl watching at home in El Salvador to take her father’s pistol from his desk and shoot herself dead. Amelia Bolianos was given a state funeral, her coffin accompanied by the president of the republic and the players of the football team.

When Honduras arrived in San Salvador for the return leg a week later, the welcome included rotten eggs and dead rats thrown through their hotel windows. They made their way to the Flor Blanca stadium in armored cars, passing through angry crowds holding portraits of the dead girl. El Salvador won this one 3-0, which meant that the tie progressed to a play-off on neutral ground in Mexico City. El Salvador won 3-2 with an extra-time goal from their right-winger, “Pipo” Rodríguez, a qualified civil engineer, a few hours after their government had dissolved diplomatic relationships with Honduras in protest against further mass expulsions.

Two weeks later the Salvadoran army and air force launched an invasion which drew a swift response. The war lasted 100 hours and killed 3,000 people, the majority of them civilians, before both sides obeyed a ceasefire call from the Organization of American States. Three months later El Salvador beat Haiti in a play-off to reach the 1970 finals in Mexico, where they lost all three of their group matches.

Twenty years later Red Star Belgrade traveled to meet Dinamo Zagreb in a Yugoslavian league fixture in the midst of rising fervor among Serb and Croat nationalists. Rioting between the home fans and 3,000 visiting supporters continued during the match itself and the game was on the verge of being abandoned, with several players having made it to the safety of the dressing rooms, when Zvonimir Boban, the Dinamo playmaker, kicked a police officer. Although criminal charges were brought and a suspension cost Boban his place in Yugoslavia’s team at the 1990 World Cup finals, his gesture made him a folk hero to his fellow Croats during the bloody war that raged from 1991 to 1995, by which time he was starring for Milan and sending part of his salary back home to help the fight against Serbia.

Back in Mexico City, the black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and the raised hand of Diego Maradona in 1986 were political statements, the first an explicit protest against racial injustice in the United States and the second an implicit response to England’s victory in the Falklands War. Two years ago the flag of a notional “Greater Albania” was flown from a drone into the Belgrade stadium where Serbia and Albania were playing in a Euro 2016 qualifying match, provoking fights among players and fans that led to the match being abandoned.

Like those examples, last weekend’s Barcelona affair and Donald Trump’s continuing assault on the take-a-knee movement in the NFL show that sport cannot seal itself off from the stresses and strains of the real world. From the anti-apartheid boycotts of the 1960s to the demonstrations against holding a grand prix in Bahrain, it offers a useful theater for protest. And those who complain about the temporary inconvenience are seldom on the side of the angels.

The Guardian Sport