Not world beaters yet, but Asia shows improvement in Russia

WHILE Japan going close to reaching the last eight and South Korea beating defending champions Germany stand out, all five of Asia’s sides had moments to savour at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As France celebrate in the wake of Sunday’s 4-2 victory over Croatia in the Moscow final, preparations will ramp up for January’s […]

‘We have to collect their bones’: Klopp fears post-World Cup injury woe

LONDON: Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp fears the gruelling demands of international football are putting players at such risk that “we have to collect their bones” during the coming season.

Klopp is preparing for the start of the new Premier League campaign without a number of Liverpool stars who are on holiday following international duty at the World Cup.

But there is little time for players who featured in Russia to rest and then get back to peak fitness because the Premier League kicks off on Aug 10.

Adding to the problem is the presence of UEFA’s new Nations League, which replaces the usual rounds of international friendlies and begins on Sept 6.

Klopp feels Liverpool, and every other club with a host of internationals, are in danger of paying a heavy price for the demands placed on their stars, with injuries certain to be caused by the lack of quality recovery time.

“I don’t want to get too football political but if they don’t stop with these games — they are now making it the Nations Cup to make it more important — then all these players who played at the World Cup have to go there again,” Klopp said.

“We had four players in the (World Cup) semis, which is OK, we can deal with that. Tottenham had nine players in the semis. I have no clue how they will do it. That’s a big challenge. It’s a really tough thing to deal with and in the future we have to change it.

“They play the World Cup, then the Nations Cup, next summer is the final of the Nations Cup, which is really crazy. Everything is now so important in football and we have to collect their bones afterwards, more or less.”

Hard fight

Klopp expects to be without Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who made the World Cup final, and England midfielder Jordan Henderson, who played in the semi-finals in Russia, for Liverpool’s opening game of the season against West Ham.

“It was a hard fight to convince him that he needed a holiday. I knew it would happen. On the phone I said ‘crazy’. Jordan needs a holiday so that means Aug 5 he will be back. Dejan had a party in Croatia and played a day later, so he will be back on Aug 6,” he said.

“That would mean five days training after three weeks’ holiday. I hope we are in a situation where we don’t need to think about using these two.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold could be involved, though, with the 19-year-old full-back appearing in only one of England’s games.

“With Trent I have a special agreement. He wanted to be in earlier as well. As he’s very young I said ‘OK, have two weeks’ holiday and then we’ll speak and see’,” Klopp said.

“If you asked Trent he would be good to join us in Evian (for their training camp). But I’m not sure I will do that. I want to have them desperately but the season is really long.” — AFP

Hamilton signs blockbuster Mercedes deal to end speculation over future

LONDON: Lewis Hamilton finally ended speculation over his future on Thursday as the four-time world champion signed a blockbuster two-year contract extension with Mercedes.

Hamilton’s deal is worth a reported £40 million (RM211.6 million) per year, cementing the British star’s status as Formula One’s highest paid driver and his country’s top earning sportsman.

Following months of speculation about the negotiations and whether Hamilton would move to another team, the 33-year-old is now tied to Mercedes until the conclusion of the 2020 season.

Hamilton insisted he had always been on course to remain with Mercedes, telling the team’s website after the announcement: “This contract extension has basically been a formality since Toto and I sat down during the winter, so it’s good to put pen to paper, announce it and then get on with business as usual.

“I have been part of the Mercedes racing family for 20 years and I have never been happier inside a team than I am right now.

“We are on the same wavelength both on and off track – and I am looking forward to winning more in the future and shining even more light on the three-pointed star. I’m very confident that Mercedes is the right place to be over the coming years.

“Although we have enjoyed so much success together since 2013, Mercedes is hungrier than ever – from Dr Zetsche and the board members at the top of Daimler, through Toto (Wolff) and the team management, to every single person I meet in the corridors of Brixworth and Brackley.”

Hamilton will be nearing his 36th birthday at the conclusion of his latest contract, and he has made no secret of his desire to forge a career in fashion or music.

For now, Hamilton is chasing his fifth world crown this season to join Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as the only other driver to have won more than four titles.

Competitive passion

He is second to Schumacher, in terms of Grand Prix wins, and holds the record for the most pole positions in the history of the sport.

“The competitive passion that burns bright inside me is shared by every single member of this group — always chasing the next improvement and digging even deeper to make sure we come out on top,” Hamilton added.

“I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together in the next two-and-a-half seasons.”

Mercedes have dominated F1 since 2014, winning four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles.

Hamilton has won three of those titles, with the fourth going to former team-mate Nico Rosberg, who retired after becoming champion in 2016.

Mercedes’ announcement is a huge boost for the team ahead of the Grand Prix in Germany on Sunday, with Hamilton trailing Sebastian Vettel in the championship by eight points.

Team boss Toto Wolff was relieved to get Hamilton to sign up for another two years and he believes the driver can make more history with the British-based outfit.

“We have been aligned with Lewis ever since we first sat down to discuss the details of this contract after last season, but there has understandably been a lot of interest and speculation around the whole process, so it’s good to put all of that to rest and get this thing announced,” Wolff said.

“But what I enjoy most about working with him is getting to know the man inside the racing helmet – his relentless drive for self-improvement, his emotional intelligence as a team member and his loyalty to those around him.

“Mercedes has become Lewis’ home in Formula One and his story is linked forever with the silver and green of Mercedes-AMG Petronas. I am very confident that we have some incredible chapters of our story together still to come.” — AFP

Arsenal youngster Nwakali joins Porto B on loan

LONDON: Arsenal’s Nigeria midfielder Kelechi Nwakali joined Portuguese champions Porto on a season-long loan on Thursday.

Nwakali, 20, has yet to break into the Arsenal team since moving to the Premier League club in 2016.

He was sent on loan to Dutch side MVV Maastricht for the 2016-17 season and returned to Holland for a loan spell at VVV Venlo last term.

“Kelechi Nwakali will spend next season on loan with Portuguese side FC Porto. The deal is subject to the completion of regulatory processes,” Arsenal said on Thursday.

Nwakali has played once for Nigeria’s senior team after captaining his country to victory at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015.

Speaking to the Porto website, Nwakali added: “My main goal is to develop, improve my qualities and the other aspects I know I need to correct to grow in the way I play,” he said.

“I think FC Porto is the right place to evolve as a player. There are good players, young people, and I think I’ll grow up here.”

Arsenal are also reported to be on the verge of finalising a deal for 16-year-old left-back Joel Lopez, who recently made it clear he would be leaving Barcelona. — AFP

Qatar ploughs ahead with World Cup plans despite crises

DOHA: Last year, Qatar’s finance minister Ali Sharif Al-Emadi said his country was determined to have everything ready for the 2022 World Cup well before fans started landing in the Gulf.

“We don’t want to be painting while people arrive in the country,” he said, before going on to reveal Qatar is spending almost US$500 million (RM2,033 million) a week on infrastructure projects for football’s biggest tournament.

It is highly unlikely that any visitor to the World Cup is going to see rushed last-minute preparations.

With four and a half years until the 2022 World Cup kicks off, Qatar is ahead of schedule when it comes to venues, related major projects and even paint.

Of the eight stadiums it will build or renovate for 2022, one — Khalifa International — is already open and will host the World Athletics Championships next year.

Two more, Al-Wakrah and Al-Bayt stadiums, are expected to be finished by the end of this year and officially opened early in 2019.

Work is also well underway on Lusail Stadium, where the World Cup final and opening game will be played in 2022.

Construction across Doha — the 2022 World Cup is effectively a one city tournament and the longest distance between venues just 55km — progresses despite the Gulf political crisis.

Swiftly replaced

In the 13 months since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies froze all relations with Qatar, World Cup organisers have proved resilient.

The embargo, in place since June 5, 2017, cut off the supply of construction materials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but they were swiftly replaced by imports from Malaysia and China.

New roads, hotels, museums, neighbourhoods even towns — including the estimated $45 billion Lusail — have been built.

Doha’s first metro system, costing US$36 billion, is on track to open in 2019.

Qatar expects up to 1.5 million fans to attend in 2022 and they will be housed in a combination of hotels, Airbnb properties, tents and some 12,000 on cruise ships.

Doha has proved very sensitive about accusations there will not be enough hotel spaces with claims it will fall short on the 60,000 hotel rooms FIFA requires a World Cup host nation to provide.

Designated fan zones will be put in place as well as regulated areas where fans can drink.

Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, permits alcohol but only under regulated circumstances.

Where the teams will stay in Qatar — and if all will stay in Qatar — for the moment is not clear.

Iran has offered its Kish Island as a base for teams and use of that could depend on the tournament remaining a 32-nation World Cup or if FIFA brings forward plans to increase it to 48 sides.

For security, Qatar will use foreign police officers to try and combat hooliganism, say organisers, as they aim to deliver “the safest World Cup in the world”.

British Typhoon fighter jets bought last year by Qatar for US$8 billion will help provide security and patrol the skies during the event. — AFP

Brazil’s 2014 World Cup legacy left little to celebrate

RIO DE JANEIRO: When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014 the country dreamt of glory, but the beloved national team was thrashed and the tournament left a legacy of unfinished works, huge debts and missing funds.

Brazil were hoping to add a sixth trophy to their record five World Cup triumphs, while officials promised that private finance would spare taxpayers the budgetary pain.

The optimistic view seemed credible when the hosting rights were awarded to Brazil in 2007. The economy was booming and two years later Rio would be named to host the 2016 Olympics.

But things turned out differently — and not just because the home side went out in a humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany.

The original budget of 17 billion reais ballooned to 27 billion reais (RM28 billion). And of the 8.3 billion reais spent on building 12 stadiums, only seven percent came from private investors.

“Spending went greatly over projections, with a lot less being completed than had been promised,” said Paulo Henrique Azevedo at Gesporte, which studies sports management at the University of Brasilia.

“In numerous cities, transport infrastructure projects were not only unfinished but totally abandoned, despite having already cost millions of reais,” he said.

This included airports, tram lines and dozens of other projects that, according to a study by Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, would eventually have brought benefits to 2.5 million people.

Rio de Janeiro was the one city that saw all its projects completed, but only in time for the Olympics rather than the World Cup.

The mayor at the time, Eduardo Paes, said the World Cup legacy was marked by “white elephants and feeble private investment.” His own management of the Olympic legacy would later receive equally harsh criticism.

Azevedo said the basic error committed in Brazil for the World Cup was “building too many stadiums for political reasons”.

Some of the 12 stadiums built, like in Manaus, Cuiaba and Brasilia, were in cities with no big team to take over the facilities once the tournament was over.

Corruption

For Brazil’s notoriously corrupt local and federal politicians, the spending spree was a bonanza in overbilling, skimming and pay-to-play schemes with contractors.

For example, organizers paid three times the market rate for concrete during renovations at the famous Maracana stadium in Rio, which hosted the World Cup final and later the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

In 2012, former Brazilian star striker Romario, who is now a senator, was predicting that the World Cup would be “the biggest robbery in history”.

For ordinary Brazilians, the Germany defeat was probably the bitterest part of the experience.

“In the collective memory, that 7-1 humiliation looms larger than all the mistakes committed by Brazil,” wrote sports journalist Rodrigo Mattos in his 2016 book “Ladroes de Bola,” or “Thieves of the ball”.

On the plus side, the actual tournament passed off smoothly, an experience that paved the way for the equally successful hosting of the Olympics — despite the behind-the-scenes infrastructure and corruption problems. — AFP

Liverpool close in on record 75 million euro deal for Alisson

LONDON: Brazilian international Alisson is expected to sign for Liverpool on a five-year deal worth 75 million euros, a world record for a goalkeeper, media reports suggested Wednesday.

The 25-year-old, who currently plays for Roma in Italy, is cutting short his vacation to undergo a medical on Merseyside after being given permission to talk to Liverpool.

“An official announcement should follow in the next 24 to 48 hours,” claimed the Liverpool Echo.

The deal will cost the Anfield giants 75 million euros (RM354 million), smashing the amount paid to Benfica by Manchester City for Alisson’s compatriot Ederson last summer.

Liverpool is desperate to sign a new goalkeeper to replace Loris Karius following his calamitous Champions League final performance.

Chelsea has also been linked with Alisson who began his career with Internacional before moving to Roma two years ago.

Italian website Forza Roma, which is affiliated to newspaper La Gazzetta Dello Sport, published a video which it said showed Alisson at Rome’s Ciampino airport.

It said he was preparing to board a private jet to Manchester and was on his way to Liverpool for a medical on Saturday.

Alisson spoke in the video, saying: “Greetings to Roma fans. I’m sorry but I cannot say any more, I’ll say everything later”. — AFP

Mourinho confident World Cup heroics will lift Pogba

LOS ANGELES: Jose Mourinho is confident that the euphoria of lifting the World Cup will provide a boost to Paul Pogba’s club career at Manchester United.

Pogba was the subject of criticism from some quarters for his United performances last season and found himself relegated to the bench at times during the second half of the campaign.

However, the 25-year-old was instrumental in France’s triumph in Russia, particularly in the final, when he netted the third goal for Didier Deschamps’ side against Croatia.

Although Mourinho now expects to be without Pogba for the start of the Premier League season next month, the United boss believes the midfielder will inevitably be in an exuberant mood when he does report back for club duty.

“To win the World Cup can only be a positive thing. It’s difficult to say that to win the World Cup is not good for a player’s career. It’s amazing, fantastic,” said Mourinho in Los Angeles, at the start of United’s US pre-season tour.

“So many good players have never had the chance to be world champions or their country is not strong enough.

“For Paul, I think it’s the first World Cup that he has gone to and to be a world champion can only be fantastic.

“It’s a young team, apart from (Hugo) Lloris, they have more Euros and World Cups together. So I think the future for him in the French national team can only be brilliant.

“I hope that he understands why he was so good. That’s the point about his performance level and his contribution to a winning team.

“It’s important for him to understand why he was so good in the second part of the competition. In the final, he was absolutely brilliant.”

Mourinho quiet during World Cup

Mourinho sent Pogba a congratulatory message after the World Cup, yet had no input into his performances when the tournament was underway.

“I did with Paul what I did with all my players. I sent a nice message before the World Cup (but) during the World Cup, I decided not to disturb anyone,” he said.

“When they are with the national team, especially the World Cup, they don’t need their club manager to be on their shoulders saying yes, well done, happy not happy. They just need to focus on the job.

“Then, after the World Cup, I obviously sent a different message to the other guys because he won the competition.”

However, the absence of Pogba and United’s other World Cup players at their US training camp is a major concern for Mourinho.

‘Pre-season is vey bad’

Nine first-team players will miss the entirety of United’s fortnight stay in the States and it won’t be until next week that the trio of Nemanja Matic, David De Gea and new signing Fred link up with the squad.

“Pre-season is very bad, I have to say that. The only positive thing of pre-season is for the young boys that have a fantastic opportunity to train with us and know what it is to be a Manchester United first team player,” Mourinho said.

“I’m worried because I’m not training and then go to the Premier League without lots of players.

“But we have to try to make the best out of it and work with the players we have here. Maybe it’s good for Luke Shaw, Eric Bailly, Andreas Pereira.”

Mourinho, who is unsure if United will bring in any further players this summer, has seen his numbers further depleted by the absence of Alexis Sanchez and £19 million (RM 100.85 million) new signing Diogo Dalot.

Sanchez has been unable to secure a visa to travel to the States, although the club continue their efforts to resolve the issue, while Dalot will miss the start of the season through injury.

“If Alexis is not working with us for 15 to 20 days, it will be very bad,” Mourinho said.

“I know the club is making the effort. I have to respect the US authorities in their process and selection of visas.”

On Dalot, he added: “We knew he was injured, a small injury, a small surgery.

“He’s recovering really well and we think he can start training when we go back to England. Not ready for the start of the season, but I think ready for September.” — AFP