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Welsh Star Gareth Bale a Folk Hero to His People



PARIS – I put the same question to every Welshman I meet here in France: “Ryan Giggs or Gareth Bale?”

It’s rarely a contest. There’s genuine indifference towards Giggs, the Manchester United legend. Not hatred, but a special kind of grievance, the kind you have for an estranged sibling.

Bale isn’t just respected for single-handedly getting Wales to its first major tournament in a half-century. He’s a folk hero, someone who has a connection with the Welsh people.

In the immediate aftermath of an historic win over Northern Ireland, Bale brought his three-year-old daughter, Alba Violet, onto the pitch, showing her off to Welsh supporters who remained inside Parc des Princes.

The focus wasn’t on him. He wasn’t already looking ahead to Friday’s night’s massive quarterfinal against Belgium in Lille. He was simply enjoying the moment. Playing for Wales is like a vacation for him.

“It’s like being with your mates all the time,” Bale said. “It’s like being on holiday. We’re just enjoying the occasion. We’re doing quizzes all the time. We’re playing table tennis.”

Bale hasn’t spoken with Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo since being here. Most likely because the two are polar opposites, especially at the international level. In many ways, Bale’s the anti-Ronaldo.

The 26-year-old holds regular press conferences, deflecting pressure and smiling while taking playful shots at England. Still, Bale’s humbleness is plain to see. He’s not here for himself.

Rather, he’s here for something else.

“The dragon on my shirt,” Bale said, pointing to the Welsh flag on his training top, which motivates him. “That’s all I need.”

Did Giggs ever say anything similar, or was he too busy skipping out on international friendlies?

Bale-led-Wales is playing without fear. They’ve already exceeded expectations having topped a group containing England. Now they’re not expected to beat a Belgian side that’s one of the best in Europe.

“It’s definitely the biggest game in Welsh football, for sure,” Bale said of Friday’s match. “We just want to enjoy the occasion. We want to take it all in. Hopefully we can get into the semifinals.”

It will take a continuation of the undoubted good fortune that’s got them here. Despite being out-possessed and outshot, Wales took four points off Belgium in Euro qualifying, finishing just ahead of Bosnia.

The Dragons — a team of destiny, perhaps — also have benefited from horrendous goalkeeping and an own goal during a narrow win over lackluster Northern Ireland in the Round of 16.

“To play bad and win — well, not bad, but ugly — shows the team spirit and the character and what we’ve got,” Bale said.

They’re like Iceland in that way. Plucky and organized, fighting until the end.

There’s little tension or stress, the two things that eventually did England in. Credit also must go to manager Chris Coleman for getting the most out of a side comprised of little-known Brits.

“Maybe it’s just that the preparation has been perfect from both countries,” Bale added. “Iceland have been a breath of fresh air. So have we. If you go play football and enjoy it you’re going to get better results.”

Having your best players doesn’t hurt, either. Welsh centreback Ashley Williams is fit to face Belgium after suffering a shoulder injury in the previous round.

The Swansea City defender could be key to slowing down a Belgian attack that hammered Hungary by four goals in the Round of 16. The Red Devils are huge favourites to advance from Friday night’s fixture, though Wales is used to taking on an underdog role.

“We don’t need extra motivation,” Bale said. “They’re a very good team. We understand that. They’re goal is to win the Euros. We don’t think that’s disrespectful. But it’s about us. It’s about us concentrating on ourselves.”

For Bale, it’s about Wales and nothing else. For that reason, he’s already one of the biggest winners at this tournament.

As for Giggs, we haven’t seen him in the stands. He’s doing commentary. Somewhere.


German man-mountain Mario Gomez wasn’t billed as a key piece in Die Mannschaft’s pursuit of another major trophy.

Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil are the household names mentioned most often.

But even German manager Joachim Low can’t deny his 6-foot-3 target man is the primary reason the defending world champs have rediscovered the attacking flare that went missing earlier at Euro 2016.

“I’m not only pleased with him for (scoring), but also because he’s able to tie down two defenders in the middle and creates space for his teammates,” Low said of Gomez following a win over Northern Ireland.

The 30-year-old on-loan Besiktas striker then tallied against Slovakia, putting him one off the Golden Boot pace ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal meeting with Antonio Conte’s Italy, which saw off Spain this week.

Perhaps, though, part of the reason Italy’s back three — Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli — were able to remain so organized against a more technical side is they weren’t made to compete.

If you’re Low, you demand everything of Gomez. He can’t allow Italy’s defensive trio to become comfortable. He simply must be a handful, pulling Chiellini and Barzagli out of spaces for Muller and Mario Gotze to run into.

“I really only care about winning a European Championship,” Gomez said, according to UEFA. “If coach needs me for 15 minutes, I’ll be there.”

Surely he’ll be needed for longer with Gotze so ineffective up front.

Not only that, but Gomez is hungry. He was left out Germany’s World Cup-winning side due to injury. There’s no guarantees he’ll be around for Russia 2018. He needs to be on the field for Germany to succeed.

“I’ve played a few tournaments now, and a good Round of 16 or group stage counts for nothing,” Gomez added. “So far, it’s been a good tournament. For it to be great, we have to go all the way.”

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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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