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People who will define the 2022 World Cup

The World Cup is finally here – but not without its share of controversy and backlash. Here, theScore looks at the people who, for better or worse, will have the greatest impact on the tournament in Qatar.

Gianni Infantino

As human rights organizations called on FIFA to grant compensation in the hundreds of millions to migrant workers and their families, Infantino, the president of football’s under-fire governing body, chose to defend Qatar from what he considered prejudicial criticism. Then, on Saturday, the eve of the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, Infantino doubled down on his stance against the West, painting the media and countries from around the globe as hypocrites.

“For what we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people,” the 52-year-old said.

Qatar has made some changes. It introduced a monthly minimum wage, allowed workers to move freely between employers, and set up a committee to oversee working conditions at World Cup sites. Still, many activists claim the country has failed to properly implement these new policies.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Infantino has tried to dismiss all the criticism as discrimination against Qatar’s Islamic values. But his efforts to whitewash credible allegations of abuse have only inflamed the politics of this World Cup.

That’s not to say it’s the only tournament to ever take place in a politically charged setting. Think of the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina hosted under military rule, or the 1938 World Cup, which Benito Mussolini exploited to promote fascist ideals. The festival of football hasn’t always been about football.

But this year’s edition has sparked more outrage than any other. Activists, government leaders, and independent organizations have all affected the way we’ll look at this World Cup. They’ll continue to reveal the stories of marginalized communities in Qatar, while Infantino tries his best to change the narrative.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Entering their fifth and likely final World Cup, Messi and Ronaldo can burnish their legacies with success on the world’s biggest stage. They’ve been inseparable since bursting onto the scene in the mid-2000s, waging an arms race in individual accolades, and it’s fitting they’re in Qatar together for one last run at the only thing missing from their trophy cabinets.

Of the two, Messi has arguably the greatest chance to prevail. As captain of Argentina’s best team in years, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has helped to rebuild a program that suffered from a serial lack of leadership. Now riding a 36-match unbeaten streak into the tournament, Argentina is one of the favorites to lift the trophy.

Portugal isn’t necessarily short on talent, but head coach Fernando Santos’ restrictive tactics threaten to derail the national team’s pursuit of a first World Cup. The sideshow surrounding Ronaldo and his explosive interview with Piers Morgan could also distract Portugal from its singular objective.

That’s on the pitch. Off the pitch, the two rivals seem closer than they’ve ever been.

In an interview released earlier this week, Ronaldo spoke glowingly of Messi, saying he considered the Argentine a “teammate” and a “great” person who’s always shown respect to him and his family. Then, on Saturday, the two shared an image of themselves playing chess, serving the world an iconic image that perfectly captures the rivalry they’ve shared for nearly two decades: a fierce but respectful competition between two of the greatest players of all time.

Fans of Messi and Ronaldo will continue to put the idol they support on a higher pedestal than the other. But the players themselves seem to see each other on the same level. Given they no longer play club football in the same league, Messi and Ronaldo will relish the opportunity to spar once again.

Migrant workers

Before departing for Qatar, Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes lamented the more than 6,500 lives lost on construction sites since the Gulf nation won the right to host the World Cup in 2010. Prior to that, Denmark unveiled monochromatic jerseys as a mark of respect for the migrant workers who died during the country’s costly construction boom. Many more players voiced their disapproval in varying tones in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Clearly, the topic of workers’ rights had become bigger than even the biggest tournament in sports. Many of the migrants who perished had worked in searing heat; many more logged 12-hour days just to make enough to support their families back home.

MARIANA SUAREZ / AFP / Getty

Qatar left families of loved ones who died without a reasonable explanation for their deaths, saying in most cases that they had suffered heart failure from natural causes. It denied access to autopsies and limited information.

A disproportionate number of migrants had come from countries like Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as West Africa. Qatar offered them better pay than they could get in their countries – but only up to a few hundred dollars per month. It had clearly exploited people from poorer nations and used them to build the foundation for his mega event.

This World Cup should’ve happened without the literal blood, sweat, and tears they shed. It also wouldn’t have happened without them.

Neymar

Neymar has already prepared the Brazilian public for his international retirement. “I can’t guarantee that I’ll play another (World) Cup,” he said recently. “I honestly don’t know. I’ll play like it’s the last.”

Clearly, the 30-year-old sees an opportunity to leave the national team at the highest possible point. Brazil is the oddsmakers’ favourite to win the World Cup, and Neymar’s entering the tournament in great form, having racked up 11 goals and nine assists in 14 Ligue 1 appearances this season.

If he scores three more times in Qatar, Neymar will also surpass Pele as Brazil’s highest-scoring player of all time. Imagine winning the World Cup and knocking Pele off his perch in a month’s work. Who wouldn’t leave on such a high?

Stefano Guidi / Getty Images Sport / Getty

But fairy tales don’t always come to life. Neymar and his teammates spoiled a golden opportunity to win the World Cup on home soil in 2014, losing in ignominious fashion to Germany in the semifinal. Brazil could encounter similar disappointment in Qatar.

It’s up to Neymar and Co. to right the wrongs of previous generations. The timing is good – he tends to play his best football before the calendar year turns – and the chance too great to pass up.

World Cup captains

FIFA reached an agreement with United Nations agencies Saturday to let captains wear armbands promoting messages of “health, unity, and non-discrimination” during the World Cup. But many football associations, including those from England, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, said they’d continue to use the “OneLove” armband their captains wore in the lead-up to the tournament. It’s unclear if FIFA will issue fines to these teams, but even if they do, FAs will likely be all too happy to cover the cost.

Harry Kane, Manuel Neuer, and Simon Kjaer began wearing rainbow-colored armbands this year to show their support for the LGBTQ community, which faces acute persecution in Qatar. Sex between individuals of the same gender can lead to a maximum prison sentence of seven years in the Gulf nation, and homosexuality is forbidden. Former Qatar international and World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman recently said homosexuality is “damage in the mind.”

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

The 32 captains in Qatar hold a lot of power. Neuer said Saturday it’s “good we are doing it together,” and if the captains can indeed coordinate a goodwill campaign – as their Premier League counterparts did when they agreed to take the knee – it would deliver a true message of unity to all parts of the globe.

Not everyone may agree to take part. Some players may prefer to focus on the football. That’s their right. They didn’t vote on the destination of this World Cup. But the captains who do want to lead a movement have a chance to create lasting change within their own dressing rooms, countries, and FIFA itself.

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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Transfer window preview: 50 players who could move in January

Find the biggest stories from across the soccer world by visiting our Top Soccer News section and subscribing to push notifications.

With the January transfer window set to open on the first day of the new year, we’re teeing up the wheeling and dealing by presenting 50 players who could be on the move.

LEAGUE DEADLINE DAY
Bundesliga Feb. 1 (12 p.m. ET)
Ligue 1 Feb. 1 (5 p.m. ET)
Premier League Feb. 1 (6 p.m. ET)
La Liga Feb. 1 (6 p.m. ET)
Serie A Feb. 1 (7 p.m. ET)

Note: Estimated transfer values provided by transfermarkt.com.

Premier League ?gbeng

Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal)

Age: 25
Position: Goalkeeper
Estimated value: €28M

Unseated by the arrival of David Raya, Ramsdale’s future is a little murky. Arsenal are unlikely to sanction a loan move, especially to a Premier League rival, but with an eye on Euro 2024, the netminder needs more minutes.

Lloyd Kelly (Bournemouth)

Age: 25
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €16M

Bournemouth don’t want to lose him, but with Kelly’s contract set to expire in the summer and no sign he’ll renew, defender-needy clubs like Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are circling in the hopes of sealing a midseason signing.

Ivan Toney (Brentford)

Age: 27
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €35M

Toney’s eight-month ban for betting breaches ends in January, and his return to the pitch could precipitate a transfer. He’s a proven scorer with 32 goals in 68 Premier League appearances, and plenty of clubs need help up front.

Marc Cucurella (Chelsea)

Age: 25
Position: Left-back
Estimated value: €25M

Despite his recent injury, Cucurella headlines a trio of defenders who may leave west London this winter – Ian Maatsen and Trevoh Chalobah could also depart. Chelsea, as ever, will be fascinating to watch when the window opens.

Conor Gallagher (Chelsea)

Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC / Getty

Age: 23
Position: Midfielder
Estimated value: €42M

One of the window’s most intriguing names. Only Axel Disasi has played more minutes for Chelsea this season – Gallagher has even worn the armband – but he represents the Blues’ best chance of making a sizeable profit in January.

Noni Madueke (Chelsea)

Age: 21
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €25M

January is about finding opportunities to bolster your squad or, in some cases, find a piece to push your team over the top. Madueke, clearly very talented but getting few chances to shine at Chelsea, could fit the bill.

Joao Palhinha (Fulham)

Age: 28
Position: Defensive midfielder
Estimated value: €60M

After coming agonizingly close to joining Bayern Munich in the summer – Palhinha was literally in Bavaria waiting, in vain, for a deal to be closed – the excellent midfielder will once again be a hot, though expensive, commodity.

Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City)

Age: 28
Position: Defensive midfielder
Estimated value: €28M

Nobody needs a January transfer more than Phillips, whose career has derailed since joining Manchester City; Pep Guardiola has repeatedly apologized for his lack of opportunities. Juventus are reportedly interested.

Anthony Martial (Manchester United)

Age: 28
Position: Forward
Estimated value: €15M

Erik ten Hag may say that Manchester United aren’t looking to move Martial, but the Frenchman’s limited amount of playing time this season speaks louder than the manager’s words ever will.

Jadon Sancho (Manchester United)

Matthew Peters / Manchester United / Getty

Age: 23
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €23M

With Sancho and Ten Hag perpetually at odds, it’s in everyone’s best interest to just part ways. A loan seems most likely in January, with United having a better chance of recouping some of his huge transfer fee in the summer.

Raphael Varane (Manchester United)

Age: 30
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €25M

Real Madrid and Bayern Munich need help in central defense, and Varane could represent excellent value. His familiarity with the Spanish club would make his transition seamless, which is always a key consideration in January.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Tottenham Hotspur)

Age: 28
Position: Midfielder
Estimated value: €28M

Hojbjerg has only started three Premier League matches this season under Ange Postecoglou. In what will become a common refrain on this list, the Dane could depart in search of more regular playing time ahead of Euro 2024.

La Liga ??

Ferran Torres (Barcelona)

Age: 23
Position: Forward, winger
Estimated value: €35M

Despite getting consistent opportunities since joining the club, there’s always been a sense that Barcelona don’t truly believe in Torres. Already fierce competition for minutes will be more extreme following Vitor Roque’s arrival.

Miguel Gutierrez (Girona)

Age: 22
Position: Left-back
Estimated value: €20M

Gutierrez has been one of the breakout performers helping to fuel Girona’s fairy-tale title push. Real Madrid reportedly have an €8-million buyback option on the youngster, who seems destined for a big move soon.

Juan Miranda (Real Betis)

Fran Santiago / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Age: 23
Position: Left-back
Estimated value: €9M

Miranda, a product of Barcelona’s famed academy, is another soon-to-be free agent who could yet leave in January if his club wants to procure a transfer fee. AC Milan, seeking defensive depth, are working to sign the Spaniard.

Rafa Mir (Sevilla)

Age: 26
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €5M

Sevilla are among the most obvious candidates for a big January shakeup following a dismal opening half of the season. Mir’s struggles – just two league starts and one goal – are emblematic of the rough campaign in Andalusia.

Serie A ??

Joshua Zirkzee (Bologna)

Age: 22
Position: Forward
Estimated value: €30M

Zirkzee’s been one of the revelations of the European season, helping power Bologna’s top-four push. The Dutchman reportedly has a €40-million release clause, and Bayern Munich retained a buyback option worth half that.

Radu Dragusin (Genoa)

Age: 21
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €20M

A physically imposing center-back with the necessary on-ball skills to thrive in the modern game, Dragusin is garnering interest across Europe. Atalanta, perhaps anticipating Giorgio Scalvini’s summer exit, are reportedly keen.

Samuel Iling-Junior (Juventus)

Age: 20
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €20M

The Englishman has received little playing time after breaking into Juventus’ senior side last season. If Juve decide to sacrifice one of their young talents to generate funds, Iling-Junior seems the likeliest candidate at the moment.

Victor Osimhen (Napoli)

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

Age: 24
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €110M

Osimhen may have just signed a contract extension with the ailing Italian champions, but that won’t stop the rumors, especially with his reported €130-million release clause. Chelsea remain in desperate need of a proper No. 9.

Lazar Samardzic (Udinese)

Age: 21
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €20M

Looking for something – anything, really – to help jump-start their miserable title defense, Napoli have apparently turned their attention to Samardzic, who provides silky dribbling and playmaking ability from midfield.

Bundesliga ??

Piero Hincapie (Bayer Leverkusen)

Age: 21
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €35M

It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to leave red-hot Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen right now, but Xabi Alonso’s preferred back-three doesn’t include the Ecuadorian, which could facilitate a January transfer.

Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)

Age: 21
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €20M

Reyna must move to get his once blossoming career back on track. A variety of factors contributed to his recent status as a bit-part player at Dortmund, but he’s flashed enough potential in the past to earn a chance elsewhere.

Donyell Malen (Borussia Dortmund)

Age: 24
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €35M

Dortmund tumbled down the table following a rough run into the winter break, leaving Edin Terzic on thin ice. Against that backdrop, parting with one of your few scoring threats would be a tough sell, but rumors about Malen persist.

Manu Kone (Borussia Monchengladbach)

Christian Verheyen / Borussia Moenchengladbach / Getty

Age: 22
Position: Midfielder
Estimated value: €35M

After several clubs, including Bayern Munich and Liverpool, were linked with his services in the summer, the trail has gone a little cold on Kone of late. That’s sure to change in January. A deadline-day deal is a distinct possibility.

Fabio Carvalho (RB Leipzig)

Age: 21
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €14M

Carvalho’s loan move to RB Leipzig simply hasn’t worked out as anyone had hoped. He’s made just three starts, prompting Liverpool to explore the possibility of recalling and sending him elsewhere in January.

Serhou Guirassy (VfB Stuttgart)

Age: 27
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €40M

Scoring 17 goals in 14 Bundesliga games doesn’t go unnoticed. A January move for the Guinean is complicated by his expected involvement in AFCON, but his extremely modest €17.5-million release clause has clubs salivating.

Ligue 1 ??

Tiago Djalo (Lille)

Age: 23
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €15M

Instead of losing the Portuguese defender for free in the summer, Lille are reportedly considering cashing in now. With Inter, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid all in the mix, the French outfit could incite a decent bidding war.

Leny Yoro (Lille)

Age: 18
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €25M

Already one of the standout defenders in France despite his tender age, Yoro is someone Lille will fight to keep for as long as possible. PSG, now trying to scoop up every emerging talent in the country, will need to pony up.

Khephren Thuram (Nice)

Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Age: 22
Position: Midfielder
Estimated value: €40M

Thuram, despite interest from England and Italy in the summer, remained in the French Riviera – who could blame him? Both he and teammate Jean-Clair Todibo will feature prominently as the January rumors swirl.

Hugo Ekitike (Paris Saint-Germain)

Age: 21
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €15M

Ekitike’s big move to the French capital went sour very quickly. PSG tried to offload him in the summer, to no avail. Stuck behind Randal Kolo Muani and Goncalo Ramos, he’s played a measly nine minutes in Ligue 1 this season.

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

Age: 25
Position: Forward
Estimated value: €180M

What, you thought we’d get through a transfer window without rehashing Mbappe’s flirtations with Real Madrid? The saga will inevitably heat up again now that Madrid can negotiate openly with the impending free agent.

Around the world ?

Jota (Al-Ittihad)

Age: 24
Position: Forward, winger
Estimated value: €9M

Jota’s move to Saudi Arabia has been an unmitigated disaster for everything but his bank account thus far, sparking rumors that the ex-Celtic star could be one of the first players to make a swift return to Europe from the Middle East.

Thiago Almada (Atlanta United)

Age: 22
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €27M

It’s simply a matter of when Almada makes the leap to Europe. The only question is whether the diminutive Argentine will break Miguel Almiron’s €24-million record as the most expensive outgoing transfer in MLS history.

Antonio Silva (Benfica)

Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Age: 20
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €45M

Enzo Fernandez’s mammoth move to Chelsea proved that Benfica aren’t afraid to sanction sales of vital players in January if the offer is sweet enough. Silva, whose price tag is only rising, could be next in line.

Valentin Barco (Boca Juniors)

Age: 19
Position: Left-back
Estimated value: €13M

Chelsea are reportedly keen on Barco. Strasbourg, the French side also owned by the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital consortium, could be used by the Blues as a means to beat the likes of Manchester City to the Boca starlet.

Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge)

Age: 24
Position: Winger, wing-back
Estimated value: €8M

Inter are reportedly advancing in talks for the rapid Canadian, who’s viewed as the ideal replacement for the injury-ravaged Juan Cuadrado. Buchanan would serve as Denzel Dumfries’ backup in Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation.

Benjamin Rollheiser (Estudiantes de La Plata)

Age: 23
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €10M

Newcastle United, decimated by injuries and in search of reinforcements, are reportedly tracking the electrifying dribbler, who’s lighting things up in Argentina. Not to be outdone, Benfica and Atletico Madrid are also circling.

Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati)

Age: 25
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €8.5M

Vazquez was unable to replicate his breakout 2022 campaign this past year, but that hasn’t deterred clubs intrigued by his blend of power and scoring prowess. Brentford, given the uncertainty around Toney, could make a move.

Nico Gonzalez (FC Porto)

Age: 21
Position: Midfielder
Estimated value: €9M

Things haven’t quite worked out as planned after a summer move to Porto, with the former Barcelona midfielder spending most of his time on the bench. An immediate return to La Liga shouldn’t be ruled out.

Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto)

Diogo Cardoso / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Age: 31
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €12M

Inter continue to show strong interest in Taremi, who was one of their targets in the summer window before they settled for a low-cost option in Marko Arnautovic. The Iranian striker is a free agent at the end of the season.

Santiago Gimenez (Feyenoord)

Age: 22
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €50M

The prolific Mexican is one of the game’s most coveted scorers after a sensational 2023 in which he broke Luis Suarez’s record for most Eredivisie goals in a calendar year. Feyenoord will demand a fortune, and rightly so.

Andre (Fluminense)

Age: 22
Position: Defensive midfielder
Estimated value: €25M

The Brazilian, who was scouted by some of the Premier League’s top teams over the summer, put them all on high alert when he recently said his “big dream” is to play in England. How long can Fluminense hold on to him?

Denis Bouanga (LAFC)

Age: 29
Position: Forward
Estimated value: €10M

On the heels of capturing the MLS Golden Boot in 2023, Bouanga suggested he could soon return to Europe. Any move would require a “hugely expensive” transfer fee, according to LAFC general manager John Thorrington.

Johan Bakayoko (PSV Eindhoven)

Age: 20
Position: Winger
Estimated value: €40M

Wingers who excel at beating their defender and teeing up teammates inside the penalty area are always in high demand, so the collection of big clubs eyeing Bakayoko should come as no surprise. An opulent transfer beckons.

Georgiy Sudakov (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Quality Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Age: 21
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €18M

Already a regular for his national team, the Ukrainian is being monitored by Juventus, who are looking for more guile and creativity in midfield amid the continued absences of Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli.

Viktor Gyokeres (Sporting CP)

Age: 25
Position: Striker
Estimated value: €45M

Sporting made out like bandits when they signed Gyokeres from Coventry City for a modest €20 million this past summer. The Swede is now worth more than double that amount after going on a tear since arriving in Portugal.

Goncalo Inacio (Sporting CP)

Age: 22
Position: Center-back
Estimated value: €40M

Like his compatriot Silva at Benfica – a player to whom he’s often compared – Inacio has been scouted by some of the continent’s heavyweights. The defender reportedly has a €60-million release clause in his contract.

Claudio Echeverri (River Plate)

Age: 17
Position: Attacking midfielder
Estimated value: €12M

Manchester City are working hard to beat Barcelona to Echeverri’s coveted signature. The ascendant Argentine was one of the standout players at the recent Under-17 World Cup and could reportedly cost up to €25 million.

Arthur Vermeeren (Royal Antwerp)

Age: 18
Position: Defensive midfielder
Estimated value: €30M

Chances are your favorite club has been linked with Vermeeren at some point in recent weeks. Judging by his displays in the Champions League, the prodigious Belgian already looks capable of handling a big transfer.

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theScore's 50 favorite moments of 2023: Titles, twists, and one epic speech

This year in sports was defined by inspiring stories, historic achievements, and surreal events that not even Hollywood could script. We loved them all. With 2023 drawing to a close, theScore is looking back on 50 moments that resonated most with us over the past 12 months. Our five-part series, which counts down every Friday in December, continues below with moments 30-21.

Dec. 1 Dec. 8 Dec. 15 Dec. 22 Dec. 29
50-41 40-31 30-21 20-11 10-1

30. Bellingham takes down Barca ?

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Jude Bellingham was already hailed as the second coming of Cristiano Ronaldo before he led Real Madrid to victory in his first Clasico. The English midfielder morphed into one of the best finishers in the world after joining the club from Borussia Dortmund. His 13 goals in his first 10 games – including various winning strikes – were two more than Ronaldo scored to start his iconic career in Madrid. But nothing compared to Bellingham’s heroics against Madrid’s bitter rivals, Barcelona. After scoring a spectacular equalizing goal from 30 yards out, the 20-year-old further endeared himself to fans with an opportunistic winner in the dying minutes. – Gordon Brunt

29. Etienne’s Pyrrhic performance ?

Everyone loves a big fantasy football performance – unless you’re on the wrong side of it. Imagine how Travis Etienne felt after posting one of the best games of his career while playing against himself in fantasy football. The running back exploded for 136 rushing yards, four receptions, 48 receiving yards, a pair of touchdowns, and a two-point conversion against the Bills in Week 5. His opponent surely appreciated the 30+ fantasy points, but Etienne was likely happier winning the game in real life on the back of his dominant outing. – Andrew Dixon

28. PGA TOUR, LIV Golf join forces ?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. After more than a year of legal battles, the PGA announced a surprise merger with Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf, shocking just about everyone. While LIV golfers like Phil Mickelson rejoiced, many PGA golfers found out about the merger through a leaked press release on social media, and members of Netflix’s docuseries “Full Swing” found out on camera. Those who refused LIV Golf’s massive payouts were angered by the PGA’s lack of loyalty, and Tiger Woods was “frustrated” with the lack of player involvement. The tours have until Dec. 31 to finalize the agreement but, regardless of the outcome, June 6 will go down in golf history as a day stranger than fiction. – Sarah Wallace

27. FDU stuns No. 1 Purdue ?

Five years after No. 1 Virginia lost to No. 16 UMBC, New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson handed Purdue an opening-round loss in the same setup. The Knights had to win in the First Four to qualify, while the Boilermakers lost four games to end the regular season before winning the Big Ten title. FDU held off No. 1 Purdue with two clutch blocks in the final minute of play to advance the Knights to the second round. Meanwhile, No. 4 Virginia lost to No. 13 Furman, marking the second time in three years the Cavaliers lost in the first round. – Donald Higney

26. Aces breathe rarefied air ?

The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty were on a collision course to meet in the WNBA Finals all season long. Both teams were loaded with stars and dominated in the regular season to earn the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Aces took the first two games at home before the Liberty responded with a victory in Game 3. Las Vegas lost starting point guard Chelsea Gray and starting center Kiah Stokes to injuries before Game 4 but withstood their absences to claim a 70-69 victory. The win made them just the third repeat champion in WNBA history, and the first since 2002. – Josh Goldberg

25. José Ramírez decks Tim Anderson ?

It was a bad, bad year for Tim Anderson. The former batting champ struggled through injuries and underperformed in the most disappointing campaign of his career. But the worst night of his dreadful season came on Aug. 5 when he picked a fight with the wrong guy. The White Sox shortstop hurled his glove to the ground and put his dukes up after getting into a verbal dispute with Guardians slugger José Ramírez – which turned out to be a poor decision. Anderson hit the dirt like a ton of bricks after catching a wild overhand right from Ramírez. The fight led to a bench-clearing brawl and Eloy Jiménez even got stepped on as Anderson was sidelined recovering from embarrassment. – Bryan Mcwilliam

24. Nuggets, Jokic claim 1st title ?

Garrett Ellwood / National Basketball Association / Getty

For the fifth straight season, the NBA got a new champion. The Denver Nuggets won their first championship after taking down the Miami Heat in June. Nikola Jokic dominated the playoffs, averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, 9.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game – elevating his game as the competition and stakes increased every round. Denver got a boost from Jamal Murray, who put up 26.1 points and 7.1 assists in the postseason as he played in his first campaign after an ACL tear. With this tandem, the Nuggets look to be a formidable championship contender for the foreseeable future. – Higney

23. Coco conquers US Open ?

Greatness was expected of Coco Gauff ever since she made her professional debut at 14 years old. But those expectations quickly became a burden, weighing her down even as she spent her high school years winning various 500- and 1,000-level tournaments. So when she came back from a set down against Aryna Sabalenka to win the US Open in September – clinching her first major title at the grand old age of 19 – Coco had a few things to say. “To those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it, and now I’m really burning so bright right now,” she said as the 28,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium erupted in support. Now it’s no longer about whether Coco can win majors, but how many victories she’ll collect. – Anthony Lopopolo

22. You come at the king … ?

LeBron proved that you can’t count him out, even during his 20th NBA season. After then-Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks sent him numerous taunts and a hit in the groin, LeBron got his revenge. Leading by three points in overtime of Game 4 in their opening-round playoff series, the dueling players found themselves matched up – with LeBron driving past Brooks and drawing a timely foul to help put the lower-seeded Lakers up 3-1 in the series. In a cathartic moment, King James burst into emotion as the Lakers crowd went crazy. L.A. went on to win the series, while the Grizzlies declined to re-sign Brooks, allowing him to join the Houston Rockets. – Higney

21. Wild Bill’s legendary parade speech ?

Warning: Video contains coarse language

There have been some incredible Stanley Cup parade speeches over the years, but Vegas Golden Knights forward William Karlsson gave one for the ages in June. The moment he took the mic shirtless and drenched in sweat, it was clear he was about to deliver an all-timer. It’s two minutes of absolute gold: Karlsson initially censoring himself but dropping an actual F-bomb 22 seconds later. The Arizona Coyotes catching a stray. That poor woman trying in vain to get him to wrap it up with a tap on the back, the hand-across-the-throat gesture, a plea of “let’s go,” and finally dragging him across the stage. Perfection. – Josh Gold-Smith

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Why does European soccer keep ignoring African coaches?

The rest of Europe didn’t take notice when Albanian club KF Tirana hauled itself out of relegation trouble before miraculously clinching the title in 2020. For a continent where Champions League glamor and the wealthiest domestic competitions hog the limelight, Albanian football isn’t even an afterthought.

But on this occasion, Tirana’s climb up the Kategoria Superiore table captured the attention of millions outside Europe. Africa was watching.

“I didn’t follow the directive of the owner of the team, or the president or the directors, because they have been doing it the wrong way – and that is why the team didn’t win the league for 11 years,” former Nigerian international Ndubuisi Egbo told theScore about how he became the first African coach to guide a European team to a league title.

“It’s like Frank Sinatra: I did it my way.”

Albania’s most successful club was a mess. In addition to the boardroom issues that contributed to Tirana’s prolonged title drought, Egbo found the squad’s “harmony was destroyed because the players were arguing and fighting with each other.” He tried to ignore club politics and address some of its problems in simple ways, like putting players in their correct positions. Most crucially of all, in his debut at the helm, he masterminded Tirana’s first win over archrival Partizani Tirana in almost six years.

It sparked a 17-match unbeaten run across all competitions. Tirana, once sitting eighth in a 10-team league, went on to win their 25th Albanian title, finishing the campaign with a four-point cushion atop the league.

It wasn’t all good news, though: Egbo’s incredible Tirana turnaround came amid a backdrop of racism from opposing supporters. He had a banana thrown at him. He was spat at. He felt people around the country wanted him to fail because he’s Black.

Egbo in Tirana’s technical area for a match vs. Young Boys DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

“It’s what motivates me,” Egbo said about racism he experienced firsthand.

Egbo’s played and coached in Albania. The former goalkeeper, who experienced two Africa Cup of Nations campaigns with Nigeria, became an Albanian citizen in 2014 and speaks the language fluently.

“Even though I’m Albanian by citizenship, still they will always see you as a foreigner,” Egbo said.

Egbo refused to be cowed by the racists, and won. He’s a trailblazer: the first African coach to win a domestic title in Europe, and the first from the continent to qualify for any European competition. Many African and Black coaches called him after his achievements in Albania. He showed them what was possible.

‘A lack of trust’

Egbo’s feat came in 2020, over 130 years after African footballers began making an impression in Europe. A group of African-born stars, headlined by proud Mozambique native Eusebio, famously helped Benfica win the European Cup twice in the early 1960s. Why did it take African coaches so long to follow in the players’ footsteps?

Another rather brutal caveat is that Egbo won a title in what is effectively Europe’s football wilderness. But it’s no surprise the breakthrough needed to happen in a country like Albania, well beyond the continent’s top competitions. Patrick Vieira, the Senegal-born World Cup winner with France, held the greatest coaching job in Europe’s top five leagues of anybody hailing from an independent African nation. Vieira oversaw Crystal Palace for 20 months until he was sacked in March – and the English club certainly isn’t a giant despite its longstanding Premier League status.

Oluwashina Okeleji, a Nigerian journalist for BBC Sport, understands and feels the frustrations of African managers not getting top jobs in Europe, but he thinks someone from the continent will land one soon.

“Gradually, African coaches are punching,” he told theScore.

Okeleji picks out Walid Regragui and Aliou Cisse as coaches he believes are nearing big European breaks. Regragui won two league titles in Morocco: the Moroccan Throne Cup, Qatar’s first division; and the African Champions League. He then moved into international management, where he made Morocco the first African team to reach a World Cup semifinal at Qatar 2022. Cisse’s guided Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations glory and earned qualification to back-to-back World Cups; his side reached the knockout rounds in Qatar despite the absence of star player Sadio Mane.

Serial trophy winner Pitso Mosimane is another head coach whose achievements should place him among managerial candidates of clubs in Europe’s top five leagues, but there’s little to indicate that’s the case. The South African tactician continues to discuss the lack of African managers in Europe since he’s taken over clubs in the Middle East.

Mosimane wins CAF Champions League for Egypt’s Al Ahly picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

“I don’t know what our future will be. Europe is Europe, man – it’s not how good you are. I’ve got all these European Pro Licence coaches here in Saudi and we’re beating them every day,” Mosimane said in a Radio 2000 interview in May. “Why can’t we get a chance?”

Mosimane ended a turbulent period for Mamelodi Sundowns before igniting the most prolific spell in club history with five South African titles, four domestic cups, and its first and only African Champions League triumph. He then tested himself with a move to Egypt’s Al Ahly in 2020, where he won a league and cup double, and hoisted the Champions League trophy twice in three years. More recently, he guided Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli to promotion in his single season in charge before he took over at Al Wahda in the United Arab Emirates in June.

It’s an impressive resume – and just one example of many managers who’ve flourished in African club football (and in Mosimane’s case, even further afield). But Europe’s focus appears to be elsewhere.

“There’s a lack of trust in African managers. There’s a lack of belief in their ability,” Okeleji said.

“Africans are only good at playing football, they’re not good at managing – (it’s) a stereotype that has been going on for so long,” he added.

In an era where clubs rely heavily on data to find marginal gains on the pitch, fine-tune training methods, and uncover players from around the globe, it’s hard to conceive a reasonable excuse for Europe’s failure to find a gifted coach from the world’s second most-populous continent.

It’s not specifically Africans who are overlooked, either. In England, there’s a talent drain of Black footballers once they finish playing. The Black Footballers Partnership reported in January that Black players made up 43% of Premier League squads and 34% of squads in tiers 2-4 in 2022, and added in March that only 4.4% of manager-related roles in English football were held by Black employees.

Egbo believes the lack of diversity among coaches presents a missed opportunity for English clubs to improve communication with their players.

Nigerian icon Nwankwo Kanu and Egbo celebrate on Super Eagles duty Matthew Ashton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

“If you look at the English Premiership, you find that the number of Black African players who are playing there is very high,” Egbo, now managing Kosovan side Prishtina, said. “And in many teams you still find they’re being coached by European coaches who don’t know anything about African culture; who don’t understand where the player is coming from, who don’t understand what he’s going through, who don’t understand anything about his family upbringing.”

The challenges

A popular suggestion to make European football more representative of society is to introduce something similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule. The policy was adopted in 2003 and made it mandatory for NFL teams to interview minority candidates for positions. The Rooney Rule has undergone several revisions, but today includes requirements like interviewing at least two external minority candidates for head coaching vacancies, and that a minority and/or female candidate be included in the interview process for senior positions like club president or executive roles.

But Seyi Olofinjana, who made 239 appearances across the top two divisions of English football, doesn’t feel comfortable with a similar policy for soccer.

“I want to get the job because I’m good enough, rather than some system saying some quota of Black or other ethnic minority should give me a job,” he told theScore.

Olofinjana considered leaving football and “going a different route altogether” once he retired from playing. He studied throughout his career, even obtaining a chemical engineering degree before he made his life-changing transfer to Europe, but always felt the pull of the sport. He returned to the Wolverhampton Wanderers in a non-playing capacity, and eventually landed his “dream” job of sporting director with Grasshopper Club Zurich. The position fit neatly with his other studies: he also has masters degrees in project management and sporting directorship, and carries UEFA’s top coaching qualifications.

The ex-midfielder, a member of Nigeria’s squad for three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, offers a unique perspective through his year with the Swiss giants. He has empathy for fellow Africans trying and struggling to get into the European game, but also understands some of the barriers preventing this rare leap. He recognizes the huge pool of coaches available in each European country and across its borders, and he’s wary of the “very, very short” amount of time coaches are given to adapt in a results-based business.

And when discussing Africans’ oft-unsuccessful efforts to move north, it’s no surprise that someone with Olofinjana’s education is mindful of the coaching qualifications required to manage in Europe.

Olofinjana celebrates scoring for Stoke vs. Arsenal Neal Simpson – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

“People always think it’s racism or what have you – some element of it is that. But I see it both ways,” Olofinjana explained. “It’s a lack of trust on the part of the owners, probably a lack of acceptance of who we are as Africans. But on the other side, for some it’s a lack of education on the part of some African coaches.”

There are obvious hints that African coaching certifications – and those issued by non-UEFA confederations – aren’t deemed as valuable as their European equivalents.

A head coach in the African Champions League must hold an “A” license – the top coaching qualification available from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – or the equivalent top-level coaching certification issued by FIFA’s five other confederations. For the European Champions League, only UEFA coaching badges are accepted.

CAF ensuring its coaching courses and qualifications are of equal value to UEFA, and for this to then be reflected in the coaching regulations for Europe’s leading competitions, could open doors for African coaches.

But that point is moot if they aren’t even considered for roles in the first place. Michael Osei served as an assistant coach for the Under-23 teams of Germany’s Kickers Offenbach and FSV Frankfurt after spending a significant portion of his playing career in the country. Across the two different jobs, Osei helped the teams win three lower-league titles between 2008-2010. However, when a promotion to one of the clubs’ senior teams – which were both competing in Germany’s second tier – wasn’t forthcoming, the former Ghanaian international decided to return home.

“I didn’t get the opportunity. It wasn’t easy for a Black coach to get the opportunity to coach (in the) Bundesliga,” Osei recalled. “That’s why I switched to come back to Ghana to continue on my coaching career.”

Now in charge of Bibiani Gold Stars in the Ghana Premier League, Osei observes another major obstacle for African coaches wanting to obtain UEFA badges: cost. To attain the four UEFA coaching qualifications up to and including the coveted Pro Licence with the English Football Association, it would cost around $18,300 (£14,995).

The average monthly wage for head coaches in the Ghana Premier League is less than $1,000, another boss working in the competition told theScore. So even if a head coach is taking home $1,000 each month, the UEFA coaching qualifications cost the equivalent of over 18 months’ salary. That considerable cost is augmented by travel, accommodation, and other daily expenses. Studying also takes coaches away from their main source of income.

The backroom positions that Otto Addo and Gerald Asamoah, also Ghanaian, hold at Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke are among the reasons Osei has hope that things will change. However, he estimates it will be another 10-15 years before an African head coach is hired by a prestigious European club.

“We have to believe it,” Osei said.

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