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At Tennessee Titans Games, the Fiercest Tailgaters Are Kurds



NASHVILLE — The parking lot of Nissan Stadium was mostly empty at 8 on a recent Sunday morning, save for those dedicated few who had shown up early to stake out a spot for the tailgate before the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills. The fans set up their tents, hung their Titans flags, unpacked their packets of hamburger buns and filled their coolers with ice and beer.

One group, though, was doing things a little differently. These tailgaters had the tents, the hamburgers, the flag and the coolers, but they also set out silver trays of biryani. Their coolers contained cans of orange soda and pouches of Kool-Aid, but no alcohol.

Flying alongside the Titans banner were two more flags — one for America, and one for Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region of the Middle East that most of them fled at a young age.

Here in Nashville, home to about 15,000 Kurdish-Americans, the largest population in the United States, many Kurds have fallen in love with the Titans, and come together by tailgating at home games. But they’re not just casual fans. They’re die-hard devotees.

On this October morning, they had purposefully set up their tents near the Buffalo Bills tailgaters to maximize heckling opportunities. About 30 strong, they booed at anyone who walked by in a Bills jersey, and yelled, “Titan up!” (the team’s cheer) at those wearing Titans gear.

“The Bills fans are intense,” said one of the Kurdish fans, Tabeer Taabur. “Hopefully they go home disappointed.”

He and his fellow fans have been deeply shaken by the bloodshed in northern Syria since the United States began withdrawing troops and ending longtime support for its Kurdish allies there.

“It caught everyone off guard,” Mr. Taabur said. “The Kurds have been the most reliable ally to the United States for centuries. We feel a betrayal.”

Some have been protesting, and lobbying the city government to put pressure on their representatives in Congress to support the Kurds and impose sanctions on Turkey. Mr. Taabur and others just set up a meeting with Representative Jim Cooper, who joined in a recent local Kurdish rally for peace. They’ve been giving media interviews to spread awareness of their countrymen’s plight.

And whether too busy or too worried, they have been showing up for games in smaller numbers. But their enthusiasm for the Titans is largely undimmed. And many non-Kurdish friends have approached them to express support.

Most of these Kurdish-Americans came to Nashville as refugees in the 1990s, escaping the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That same decade, the city welcomed its first professional football team after the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee; they became the Titans in 1999.

Mr. Taabur, 34, who arrived here at age 10 and recently received his master’s degree in criminal justice at Tennessee State University, remembers the day he became a Titans fan. It was Super Bowl XXXIV, in 2000 — the only time the Titans have ever made the league’s championship game. They lost to the St. Louis Rams, 23-16, falling just one yard short of a touchdown at the end.

Mr. Taabur was watching at home, and though still getting acquainted with the sport, “I literally cried,” he said.

When Ramadhan Sindhi, 25, who works in commercial cleaning, first came to the United States in 1996, his family was placed in low-income housing. During one holiday season, eight Titans players came to his home as part of a charitable initiative.

“We didn’t even know what the holiday was,” he recalled, “but these big football players, I was so inspired by them.”

In Iraq, his older brothers played soccer. But in Nashville, wanting to be just like those Titans players, Mr. Sindhi became quarterback of his high school football team. “The Titans are the biggest thing we have here,” he said.

“There is a misconception that just because we come from a different background, we can’t like the same things other Americans like,” Ms. Kucher added. “But I’ve been in America for so long. It’s hard not to adapt to the culture. Football is a big part of American culture.”

Although the Titans are having a so-so season (four wins and five losses, putting them at the bottom of the A.F.C. South), this group’s passion for the team runs deep. “We just keep imagining that Super Bowl parade,” said Heleen Tovi, 22, an undergraduate at Tennessee State. “Just once in my lifetime.”

Some of them travel to away games, most recently in Atlanta and Denver. But Areen Mohamad-Ali, 22, a nursing student at Lipscomb University, a private Christian liberal-arts school in Nashville, said her biggest fear was moving to another state “and having to be around fans of another team.”

Mr. Taabur said the home-game tailgates have brought out as many as about 85 Kurds. They come decked out in Titans gear, and carry in a flat-screen television to watch the game. Most bring their young children, who are equally fervent. Even some people who aren’t football fans come just to hang out.

They have attracted some notice. “They are my go-tos when I need energy,” said Spenser Fritz, a freelance videographer for the Titans, though a spokeswoman for the team said she and the staff were unfamiliar with the group.

As the game was about to start that afternoon, a few of the Kurdish fans headed into the stadium, but most stayed in the tents. Mr. Taabur’s brother Nechervan Taabur brought chicken kebabs, which were cooked directly over the charcoals on the grill. People passed the skewers around, sliding off chunks of meat and sandwiching them between hamburger buns.

The Titans scored a touchdown, but their next two were canceled by penalties. The Titans kicker Cairo Santos missed four field goals in a row. There was a lot of cursing, in Kurdish and English. To manage the stress, the fans munched on sunflower seeds, a fixture of Kurdish gatherings, Mr. Taabur said.

At every remotely positive moment — a tackle, a completed pass — the group erupted into cheers. The optimism lasted until the final minute. Mr. Taabur jeered at people in the parking lot who were leaving the game early. “Fake fans,” he growled.

No one seemed particularly upset when the game was over, and the Titans had been defeated, 14-7. The group briskly packed up the trays of leftover biryani and coolers of soft drinks.

“Being a Titans fan is like being on a roller coaster,” Ms. Kucher said. “But being the underdog is fun.”

There’s always the next game, she added. And the next tailgate.


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It’s Time to Ask What Africa Needs




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The ideas just keep coming. From Europe’s leading clubs: a proposal to expand the Champions League, to squeeze four more lucrative matchdays into the competition’s format. From UEFA: a whole new trophy to win, but one for countries that feel (rightly) excluded from the Champions League.

From FIFA: another new tournament, this one in the summer and based on the Club World Cup — the one that was, in itself, an expansion of the old Intercontinental Cup — but bigger, richer, and more in China. And, as my colleague Tariq Panja reported this week, from Stephen M. Ross and his Relevent Sports team: a version of the International Champions Cup that is conspicuously more than a meaningless preseason moneymaking exercise.

They are all, for now, under consideration, despite the endless warnings from FIFPro — the global players’ union — and from a number of leading managers, not least Jürgen Klopp, that players are already facing the risk of burnout, that soccer is in danger of strangling its golden goose. The meetings still go on, in locked rooms and hushed tones in five-star hotels, the workshopping, the brainstorming. There is no such thing as a bad idea.

Last week, it was confirmed that this year’s African Cup of Nations — Africa’s equivalent of the Copa América, or the European Championship — would, in fact, be next year’s African Cup of Nations: Cameroon, the host, has noted that it is far too hot to play the tournament in June and July, and so it has shifted it, quite understandably, to January. (The fact its summer dates would have clashed with the new Club World Cup was a factor, too).

This is, in many ways, not a new idea: the Cup of Nations always used to be played in the (European) winter, until it was decided in 2017 that it should be played, instead, in the (European) summer.

The thinking was flawed — it did not require a meteorologist to work out that temperatures would rule out a swath of countries as potential hosts — but the logic was simple: pretty much all of Africa’s highest-profile players work for clubs in Europe. Switching it to the off-season made sense for them, and for their employers.

The switch back, then, is not exactly popular: Everyone in the corridors of power might be willing to contemplate almost any other proposal for new tournaments or ruining existing ones, but the restoration of a historic, important competition to its usual dates is universally seen as A Bad Thing. Have the African authorities not thought about what effect they will have on the integrity of the Premier League at all?

There will come a point when this Eurocentric thinking has to stop. Yes, that is where all the money is. Yes, that is the economic engine financing the global game. But it is not the limit of soccer’s horizons. It does not own the game.

Making sure everything works well for Europe will, eventually, have damaging consequences elsewhere: in terms of attendance and interest in local competitions (which has already happened across Africa) and, possibly, down the line, in the development of players. Europe has to start thinking of itself as the tip of the pyramid: the summit, yes, but in quite a bit of trouble if the rest of the edifice is not secure.

There is one idea for a new competition that appeals. It came, back in November, from an unlikely source: Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the concept that a stopped clock is right twice in a day fitted out in a finely-tailored suit. On a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Infantino suggested that a Pan-African league should be under consideration.

His theory was, obviously, based on money: he thought that such a competition might be able to command revenues of $200 million a year. But there is a sound logic behind it.

Africa is home to a couple of dozen major clubs: Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in South Africa; Al Ahly and Zamalek in Egypt; Espérance and Étoile du Sahel in Tunisia; DR Congo’s TP Mazembe; and Ghana’s Asante Kotoko, among others. A league of 20 teams, as Infantino suggested, would be of a far higher standard than any of the national competitions they currently call home.

That would be beneficial, of course, for players, and the prospect of selling continental broadcast rights would help improve facilities and infrastructure. It might, even, enable teams to hold on to some of their brightest prospects for just a little longer, delaying the exodus for Europe.

It might, in other words, provide the basis for another pole to emerge in soccer’s firmament: not enough to compete with Europe, but to rebalance things just a little. Soccer is weaker if western Europe has a monopoly on talent, on wealth, on power, as it does now. It is healthier if Africa — and Asia, North and South America and the rest — can make decisions without having to think how Europe will react. This might be a step on that road.

The ire at Old Trafford is mounting. Two defeats in the space of three days — first, painfully, at Liverpool, and then, humiliatingly, at home to Burnley — have brought Manchester United’s fans to the brink of mutiny. They want Ed Woodward, the man who runs the club, gone, and they want the Glazer family, the owner that employs him, out as well.

That neither will happen encapsulates United’s problem. The complaint against the Glazers has long been that the club would have been able to spend far more in the transfer market, strengthening its squad, if the Glazer family had not continually drained its finances to service debts and pay off interest.

And yet, since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, Manchester United has spent more than £1 billion on transfers. That is an eye-watering sum, and not just because it has been so consistently wasted. United’s recruitment in the last seven years has been so bad it’s a leap to believe that all it needed was another few hundred million pounds.

No, the issue is not the lack of spending, it is the lack of culture. The Glazers will not fire Woodward because he is good at making United a commercial powerhouse, at keeping the money rolling in.

They have created a club where sporting decisions have a secondary importance to financial ones, where the rapid decline we have seen in the last few years can be tolerated if the balance sheet remains healthy, and where nobody has the expertise or knowledge even to recognize the causes of the slide, let alone halt it. United lacks a clear on-field vision and a defined, modern off-field structure. It has invested money in players, but not in itself.

At the risk of taking something that is supposed to be lighthearted fun rather too seriously, allow me to address one of the worst developments of this Premier League season: the rise of the League Table Without VAR.

You will, I suspect, have seen one, either on your social media feed or in a variety of publications, both major and minor. The premise is simple: this is how many points each team would have if English soccer had not introduced a video assistant refereeing system at the start of the season.

The premise — and, yes, I know it’s meant to be nothing more than curiosity-as-content, not taken to heart — is also, sadly, deeply stupid, and for two reasons. One is that VAR is merely a method for enforcing the actual rules. It has mostly made decisions correctly (even if we do not always like how correct those decisions are). Would anyone think to publish a league table if the offside rule did not exist? A league table if you were allowed to pick the ball up and throw it? A league table if everyone on the field had a sword? No, they wouldn’t.

The second reason, though, is that this kind of thing encourages a fundamental misunderstanding of causality. Let’s use, as an example, the penalty Manchester City was eventually not awarded against Crystal Palace last week. If it had been given (and scored), it does not necessarily follow that City would have won, 3-2. Maybe Palace would have shut up shop more effectively. Maybe City would have won by 6-1. Maybe Sergio Agüero is not in position to score either of his subsequent two goals.

What’s the phrase? Oh yes. Goals change games. Or, as analysts put it, they affect the game-state. Does any of this matter? Yes and no. That it is intellectually vapid is not important, but the fact that it adds to an atmosphere of suspicion and credulity and conspiracy is not helpful at all.

Writing about Mario Balotelli a few weeks ago, one of his former coaches mentioned one of those age-old tropes you tend to get about players who develop physically more quickly than their peers. Goals had always come easily to him, the coach said, because he was bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else; he never needed to learn the actual craft of the game.

Writing about Adama Traoré this week, an alternative explanation occurred. Traoré, like Balotelli, was always the biggest, quickest kid on his teams. It is what made him stand out as a teenager, what built his early reputation.

But speaking to those who have worked with him, I wonder now if the problem isn’t that he never needed to learn, but that his unique skill-set made it hard for coaches to work out a way to deploy him. Soccer is really good at identifying talent; it is less good at working out how best to accommodate it, especially if you do not fit a pattern. And Traoré, with his sprinter’s speed and powerlifter’s build, really does not fit a pattern.

Last week’s mention of Harry Kane, and Tottenham’s difficulty in identifying suitable cover for him, brought a cascade of opinions, ranging from Steve’s view that “they don’t need a backup, they need a replacement” to the suggestion from Wesley Jenkins that the solution might already be in-house. “What about Troy Parrott? Every commentator I follow has been singing his praises for a year now. Why not let him take the reins while Kane is hurt?”

Nick Adams points out that all of this is entirely predictable. “Every year Harry Kane is injured,” Nick wrote. “As he ages, he clearly needs some respite. Wouldn’t it be sensible to drop him for the F.A. Cup and some Premier League fixtures? Harry Kane should want this, too.”


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Alysa Liu Successfully Defends U.S Women’s Skating Title – NBC Chicago




Alysa Liu watched Mariah Bell put out the performance of her life. Then the 14-year-old defending champion did Bell one better.

Liu needed all of her technical brilliance in her impressive jumping arsenal to hold off Bell at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships title Friday night.

“I was very happy for her,” Liu said. “I said, ‘OK, she did well and I also have to do well.'”

No American woman comes close to the repertoire of jumps the 14-year-old Liu possesses. She hit two triple axels among eight triples overall and attempted the only quad of the event, a lutz she under-rotated. Her 160.12 points by far exceeded the rest of the field and lifted her to 235.52 and up from second place after the short program.

Skating last, Liu had little margin after Bell’s superb skate.

Bell knew after her final triple lutz, her seventh triple jump of the program, that she’d outdone herself. A huge smile spread across her face for the final half-minute as she flew across the ice with spirals and then her last spins.

“I saw how into it the crowd was and I love to share what I do with the audience like that,” she said. “I feel very awesome to have that experience.”

Bell’s program was choreographed by 2018 U.S. Olympian Adam Rippon, who got the first hug from her as she left the ice to a standing ovation.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell explained. “To have that moment here was so special. He deserves to have that moment and to be able to share it.”

But she simply didn’t have the technical numbers to win her first national crown.

Short program winner Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champ, has vastly improved her presentation, and she’s usually the most precise of American female jumpers. Her fall on a triple loop not only was surprising, it dropped her to third place.

Tennell landed six triples, all of them efficiently, and her program flowed nicely, with good pace and dynamic spins. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was among her most interesting routines. And she did it after an infection to her elbow caused “a really crazy week.”

Because Liu is too young to go to senior worlds, Bell and Tennell are likely to get the trip to Montreal in March. Meanwhile, Liu will keep an eye on all competitors.

“I do pay attention to other skaters around the world,” she said. “I’m aware a lot of them are getting these difficult jumps and just trying to keep up with the jumps and keep up with the skating skills for others around the world.”

Two-time U.S. winner and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Gracie Gold wound up 12th in her comeback from battling mental illness. Gold completed a good program down on one knee and teary-eyed as the crowd rose to salute what some called a courageous performance.

“It’s very flattering that could be compared to something that typically the word courage can be used for,” she said, noting soldiers sent to Afghanistan or people who protect others during a mass shooting. “I was excited, relieved, so overwhelmed almost, so existing in the moment.”

Earlier Friday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who won their only national championship at the Greensboro Coliseum in 2015, used a lively performance to win the rhythm dance.

“We are different people than we were five years ago,” Chock said. “We’re very proud of today’s skate. It was free and spontaneous; that was the goal of ours.”

The couple missed the 2018-19 Grand Prix season when Chock underwent ankle surgery. But they returned to finish second at nationals to Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue.

Now, they are on a roll that includes a second-place showing at the Grand Prix Final, where their long-time competitors, Hubbell and Donohue, placed third.

Yes, U.S. ice dance is in good shape with these two veteran teams.

Chock and Bates, a couple off the ice, have been to the last two Olympics, finishing eighth in Sochi and ninth in Pyeongchang. They’ve hung around, hardly unusual in ice dance, and are on the verge of making this season their best. They haven’t been worse than second in 2019-20.

“For a whole year we have been low and high, and now we are on a high,” Chock added. “We are hoping to continue on that trajectory.”

Hubbell, portraying Marilyn Monroe in a fiery red dress, and Donohue, as Joe DiMaggio in a baseball uniform — not a Yankees outfit for fear of copyright infringement — gave a fast-paced and highly energetic performance to “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” They didn’t quite capture the hearts of all the judges, and their 86.31 points were 1.32 behind Chock and Bates.

“We had three trips in the program,” she said with a chuckle. “You are hoping to get the kinks out here so we can perform better internationally.'”

Two-time defending champs and bronze medalists in the 2018 Olympics team event, where they wound up fourth in ice dance, Hubbell and Donohue also own a silver and bronze at worlds and won the 2018 Grand Prix Final.

Third on the scorecards but probably first with the majority of the crowd that caught “Saturday Night Fever” from their routine to the Bee Gees were Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. They managed to cram many of the songs from the John Travolta classic into their program, and even stayed in character as they took their bows.


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Here is the latest Gulf Coast Conference sports news from The Associated Press




EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning has officially retired. The 39-year-old quarterback called it quits on Friday, saying he was leaving the game on his own terms _ as a New York Giant. Speaking at a packed news conference surrounded by family, friends, Giants management and former teammates and two Lombardi Trophies. Manning said he had no regrets and insisisted he was proud he did things his way. Manning said he had no immediate plans. He plans to spend some time reliving the positives memories. A job with the Giants is a possibility, he said. The Giants plans to retire his number 10.


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