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Kelly: Euro 2016 Will be Football’s Last Great Showcase



The World Cup was first broadcast on television in 1954. The host, Switzerland, was paid about $3,000 for the rights.

They didn’t televise the first halves of most matches. There was no choice in the games – you watched what they put on. Some contests were only shown days later in highlight format.

If you wanted to know what was happening, you had to be on the ground. Fans mattered then. They don’t any more. They are window dressing for the world’s biggest sports spectacles. As such, they can be supplied locally for free.

They won’t be an issue in France. As you read this, all the matches for Euro 2016 should be sold out. Despite the usual threats and worries, 1.5 million people are expected to visit the country over the next month to attend games or to soak up the atmo.

If you are one of those lucky few, double-congratulations. You’re not just about to see what one hopes will be a great soccer tournament. You’re going to see the last great soccer tournament.

On a daily basis, they put a hundred thousand people in Berlin’s Tiergarten to watch games during the 2006 World Cup. Sometimes double that.

They showed the matches on giant, suspended screens running down the Strasse Des 17. Juni at hundred-metre intervals. They sold a lot of beer. Nobody caused any trouble.

Most of these people were soccer tourists, both native and foreign. Outside the stadiums, this was the only place that it occurred to me that the event felt like fun.

That was my first World Cup. One could not help but be struck by how little average Germans cared about Germany’s World Cup. Their team was not expected to do well (although, being German, it did). That nervous irritation infused the entire show. To most Germans you met, the World Cup seemed a great annoyance. Which, of course, it was.

Everybody likes the idea of putting on a World Cup or a Euro or an Olympics. Countries make that decision years out from the actual event. Once it rolls around – overbudget, underprepared, the country now roiling with irritation or worse and the natives fleeing town – everybody hates it. Vancouver was so much the recent exception that it proved the rule.

In the time since Germany 2006, things have deteriorated for the soccer tournament as an imaginative landscape.

South Africa was host of a World Cup of great vibrancy, and at suffocating cost to a nation that could ill-afford it. Brazil did likewise in 2014. The main difference between the two was that one was unpopular before it started, and the other unpopular only after. Both are thought of locally as financial fiascos.

The Euro has always been the World Cup’s younger, slightly-more-put-together brother. What it lacks in global reach, it makes up for in quality. The secret was – emphasis on “was” – fewer and better teams.

They used to line up to hold it because it wasn’t so much of a chore. Four or five national aspirants per tournament. Everyone on tenterhooks to see who’d win the right.

Euro 2016 had only three bidders. A joint bid by Norway and Sweden was scuppered mid-process when political leaders there realized that spending public money on stadiums could cost them their governments. France won almost by default.

This is one of only a handful of countries on Earth with the 10 required stadiums, all relatively modern and with massive seating capacities.

France didn’t need to improve transportation infrastructure or add hotel inventory. You can take a train from any host city to any other host city in a few hours and at a reasonable price. The security systems and administrative know-how are already in place. Since no real money was spent, no one will lose any. UEFA will, as usual, make out like bandits. The TV rights alone have been sold for $1.5-billion.

This is a turnkey soccer tournament. And it is the last of its kind.

A few years ago, UEFA began tentatively exploring who might next hold the Euro. The only solid bidder was Turkey – a problematic solution on a variety of levels, and that was before Syria cratered. Since no one else had the money or the inclination, they saved themselves the trouble.

Euro 2020 will have no host country. Rather, it will be staged in 13 continental capitals – ranging from Bilbao to St. Petersburg. By that point, it’s possible that 32 countries could qualify.

It really is a wonder how far this thing has fallen, and how quickly.

Euro 2000 was probably the best soccer tournament ever staged. Sixteen qualifiers. Hosts in Belgium and Netherlands that could not wait to greet their visitors. Soccer of the highest quality from start to finish.

Twenty years later, this will be something exclusively aimed at the private-jet set. Because who else is going to pay to watch a game in Bucharest one day, and then skip over to Glasgow the next? If not just the super-rich, then the exceedingly well off.

The Euro is becoming a tournament of two halves, the first of which is filler. How psyched are you for Switzerland-Albania or Hungary-Iceland? Exactly. Just imagine in coming years when you’re getting Andorra v. Luxembourg.

The problem in major sports events is one of resurrection. They keep killing the golden goose, and the goose keeps rising from the dead.

South Africa was a PR disaster no one went to. But it made money. So they tried it again in Brazil. Ditto. So they’ll try it again at Qatar 2022.
No one – underline those words – no one will go to that World Cup. Whether it’s the distance, the 45C daily highs or the fact that it was built by a labour regime taking its ethical cues from the Pharoahs, Qatar will be bereft of visitors.
But it will still ‘succeed’ because all any of us will see of it is what we’re shown on TV. You can green up a dozen patches in the grass in the desert. You can’t see heat on television. And once they start playing, everyone will forget about slave labour.

Russia 2018 will be Qatar minus the charm. They have the experience.

The genius in the way Russia staged the Sochi Winter Olympics was that it was built as a sound stage. Up close, everything was cheap and shabby. Sitting in the media centre, you’d occasionally hear a loud crack and then a cheer would go up. Someone had snapped another arm off one of the comically flimsy chairs they’d given us. By the end of the Games, you were hard-pressed to find one with a complete set.

It was like that everywhere – doors that led into empty rooms, whole sections of backstage areas unfinished. You’d be standing at a live event thinking, “For this they paid $50-billion?” Then you’d watch the same venue on television, and it’d look great. Better than great. Amazing.

The Russians understood that sports have become an artificial event. Real fans are too much hassle. You have to house them, feed them, transport them, protect them and – worst of all – listen to their complaints. It’s hardly worth the bother. So when no one came to Sochi, no one cared. That apathy was tangible.

That same spirit of anti-hospitality will infuse Russia 2018. That is, if we’re not at war.

There are other wonderful tournaments staged – the African Cup of Nations, the Copa America, the women’s World Cup.

But they cannot meet the level of worldwide interest and star quality that the Euro still has, if only for now. One might argue the World Cup has already lost it. Few would argue that it’s about to.

So this is it. One more go-round to see what a proper soccer tournament looks like at ground level. This could be soccer’s version of the Beatles at Shea Stadium – not quite the last show, but the last great one.

They’re already putting on the dampeners. On Thursday, it was announced that no French bar or restaurant can put televisions outside to draw spectators. Too much of a security risk.

That’s where soccer is being driven – back into homes, where people watch alone. All that matters is that they watch, that the ads get sold, that the schlock gets bought and that the TV money keeps growing. Who really cares whether anyone was there?

A while back, I talked to a few tall foreheads and futurists, trying to figure out what pro sports would look like in 50 years. Among their tips: the return of bloodsport (check); real-time gambling (check); virtual athletes (check).

One suggested that we’d have done away with live audiences by then. Too much trouble. Too attractive to terrorists. Much easier to build stadiums as sets in neutral territory and fly teams in. Perhaps a few of the super-rich might watch for a massive fee. All that matters is that it looks good on television.

I suspected he was right at the time. The thing I wonder about now is if it will take as long as 50 years.

Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Russia was hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and that Qatar would host the 2018 version. In fact, Russia is hosting in 2018, and Qatar in 2022. This version has been corrected.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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