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Kelly: Euro tournament a reminder that soccer is what binds Europeans



The first European soccer championship, held in 1960, was a shambles.

The idea was proposed by a Frenchman, Henri Delaunay, which was problematic. Since no one else had thought of it first, no one wanted to cede the credit.

Negotiating the details was so politically vexing, it took Delaunay 30 years to get it off the ground. He died five years before kickoff.

As was their habit at the time, the English soccer establishment wanted nothing to do with the continent and took a pass. So did the Italians and the West Germans. Until the last moment, they couldn’t find 16 countries to join the qualifying tournament. (Fifty-three nations tried their hand for the current Euro).

The Spanish showed up, but when they were slotted to play the Soviet Union in the semis, their fascist government withdrew the team.

France failed to make the final, causing local interest to collapse. Paris’s Parc des Princes was less than half full as the Soviets beat Yugoslavia to claim the inaugural title.

In many important ways, the Euro began coming together as Europe did likewise.

When we look back on this continent’s modern golden age, it will be situated some time around the end of the 20th century. It wasn’t expressed just in terms of great change, but in a coming together. Everything seemed to work then. This was where you wanted to be.

As it applied to soccer, France was at the centre of that. It was host of and won the 1984 iteration of the Euro that is thought of as its first real flowering as a global sports spectacular. The French won in 2000, the best of these, and maybe the most satisfying one-off sports event in history.

Now, as things begin to unravel, France looks the likeliest team to win again. This country is European soccer’s bellwether – there when it mattered, at the centre of it all when things were beginning, peaking and perhaps ending.

Looming over this show is the hard-to-mistake general dissatisfaction with the thing that connects most of the participants – membership in the European Union.

A great deal has been made locally of aggressive police tactics in response to intermittent fan disruptions. Riot cops, who are omnipresent in huge numbers at each game, have spent the past week distributing tear gas to needy English tourists in Marseille and Lille.

A faction of the English support – the blind drunk part – takes a good bit of the blame, given that one of their handy chants is: “Sit down if you hate the French.” (Everyone is meant to be sitting already. Hilarious.) Another is, “F- off Europe, we’re all voting out.”

Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the EU takes place on Thursday.

Two days later, if things continue as they have done, England will play its first game in the knockout rounds. There is every possibility the English will enter this tournament as Europeans and leave it as dissenters to that national experiment.

If they go, this could be England’s (and Scotland’s, and Wales’, and Northern Ireland’s) last Euro.

If possible, the French are even less enamoured with Europe at the moment. In Britain, just under half of those polled would like to leave. In France, it’s as high as 60 per cent (though that’s complaining that has, as yet, no proposed consequence).

As revolted as they might be by England’s boozed-up vandals littering their public squares with flung pint glasses, some notable French talking heads applaud their zeal for secession.

“I’d love it if the English gave the starting signal for the dismantling [of Europe],” French novelist and political arsonist Michel Houellebecq said this week. “I hope they won’t disappoint me.”

Houellebecq mustn’t be much of a fan. Otherwise, he’d know that when England and soccer are in the midst of collision, disappointment is generally the chemical result.

As Canadians, we’ve been here before, deploying similar torqued arguments, if not on the same specific topics, then in the same shrill manner.

Brexit is, at its core, a fight about the other: identifying him, separating him out and then removing yourselves – the pure bloods – from his midst.

You know you are dealing with a nasty bit of business when one side will not speak out loud what it actually means. Instead, it engages in slippery code wording.

The British who would leave Europe aren’t interested in disengaging from Germans or Italians. What they want is nothing to do with the people currently washing up on the borders of those countries in dinghies or on foot. Those people don’t need to say the word “dirty” before “foreigner,” but it’s hanging there, parenthesized and very well understood. At the least, the nitwits being chased around the port of Marseille have the courage to say it out loud.

How do you counter an argument that is never actually tabled and discussed in any useful way? You do it through the deployment of symbols.

That is why the timing of Euro 2016 seems so portentous. Trade agreements and a parliament may be what connect Europe, but soccer is what binds Europeans.

Ask an Englishman to name a Swede, any Swede. I’ll bet the vast majority start with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

A Pole? Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski.

A Hungarian? Ferenc Puskas (though he’s been dead nearly 10 years).

As an outsider, you see this familiarity in action on a daily basis. These people don’t know each other, but they do recognize one another. It may be in terms of crude stereotypes (when the Swedes chanted “Go home to your ugly wives” at the Irish, the Irish chanted back, “You’re [deleted], but your birds are fit”). But it’s recognition all the same.

Almost without exception, they are delighted to reconvene after four years apart. They move in huge, diverse groups. One can only imagine the exponential positive effect of every Paddy and Sven going home to tell stories about the once-in-a-lifetime night he spent drinking with the (insert country here) fans.

That only happens because of this sport and this tournament. It is a visceral reminder of the value of community.

We won’t know for another week, but in the end, it may turn out that France has had another chance to bring Europe together, and at no time more importantly than right now.

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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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