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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.

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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Kobe Bryant Is a Finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame

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Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers star whose death last month continues to cast a pall over the N.B.A., was among eight finalists announced on Friday for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bryant, who was 41, retired from the N.B.A. in 2016 after spending his entire 20-year playing career with the Lakers. He won five championships, was an 18-time All-Star and won the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2008. A dynamic and hypercompetitive player, he also helped the league fill the void that was left by Michael Jordan’s retirement.

Former N.B.A. stars Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will join Bryant on the ballot, while Tamika Catchings, a 10-time W.N.B.A. All-Star, was nominated by the women’s screening committee.

Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Eddie Sutton and Barbara Stevens are finalists as coaches.

To gain induction, finalists need a minimum of 18 of 24 votes from the honors committee, which is made up of Hall of Famers, basketball executives and administrators, and members of the news media. The class of 2020 will be announced in April.

Mike Breen, the longtime play-by-play voice for the Knicks on the MSG Network and the lead voice for N.B.A. broadcasts on ESPN and ABC, won the Curt Gowdy Media Award for electronic media. Michael Wilbon, an ESPN analyst and former sportswriter and columnist for The Washington Post, won the award for print.

Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles on Jan. 26. He was widely expected to be on the ballot even before his death, which prompted an outpouring of grief across the country. A public memorial service is planned for Feb. 24 at Staples Center, where the Lakers play their home games.

Bryant’s death continues to affect players from around the league, including LeBron James, whose long relationship with Bryant had developed into more of a friendship over the last two seasons. James has pledged to continue Bryant’s “legacy” this season on the Lakers.



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FIFA, Seeking $1 Billion for Club World Cup, Hires U.S. Firm to Find It

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FIFA largely blamed costs for scrapping the event, but Domínguez reacted with fury, demanding, in a letter to FIFA, a detailed breakdown on how much FIFA spent to host similar meetings recently in India, Rwanda and China.

After finally bowing to the creation of the tournament, UEFA has so far stymied FIFA’s efforts to secure the participation of the continent’s top teams for the inaugural event next year. It has demanded the field should include winners of its second-tier Europa League competition, while FIFA wants only the continent’s best teams.

The clubs are taking advantage of the tensions. As well as talking to FIFA about the quadrennial World Cup, Europe’s biggest teams have also met with the American billionaire Stephen M. Ross, who is seeking to get them to commit more formally to an annual preseason tournament. Ross’s company, Relevent Sports Group, has held talks with both UEFA and FIFA about securing their backing for an annual event in which participating clubs could secure about $10 million per tournament and an equity stake, provided they commit to several editions of the competition.

FIFA hopes the new revenue stream from an expanded Club World Cup will allow it to invest more in developing the game around the world. But the financial demands of the top teams could make that difficult: Those teams want a model similar to the Champions League, where more than 90 percent of the income is paid out in prize money.

Because of the early opposition to its project, FIFA has found itself in a hurry to get the financing it requires. Some groups that showed initial interest in the event, like Suning Holdings Group, which is based in China, owns the Italian team Inter Milan and is one of the biggest Chinese investors in soccer, declined to make an offer after complaining that there was a lack of detail in FIFA’s tender request.

By hiring Raine to manage the process, FIFA is enlisting an organization well versed in securing deals for sports entities, and one with a presence in China. Led by the banker Joe Ravitch, the firm helped the English soccer champion Manchester City sell a stake worth $500 million to the American investment group Silver Lake Partners in November. And City’s Premier League rival Chelsea has directed any parties interested in acquiring the club from its Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, toward Ravitch.



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What we know, updates from public service

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Los Angeles will come to a stop Monday to publicly memorialize Kobe and Gianna Bryant at the Staples Center.

When Vanessa Bryant announced the public service on Instagram earlier this month, she pointed out the symbolism in the date: 2/24/20.

Two for the number Gianna, aka “Mambacita,” wore.  Twenty-four for the number Kobe wore during the second half of his career. And twenty, for the years Kobe and Vanessa spent together.

Kobe and Gianna were buried in a private ceremony on Feb. 7, according to records.

It is sure to be an emotional event.

Follow along with USA TODAY Sports for live updates.

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Jimmy Kimmel introduces Vanessa Bryant for eulogy 

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel was the first speaker at the podium after a Bryant highlight reel. He then introduced Vanessa. 

“Thank you all so much for being here,” she said. “It means so much to us.” 

Vanessa began by talking about Gianna and how she always showed her love with a morning and nightly kiss. 

“Gianna never tried to conform,” Vanessa said. “She was always herself.” 

She also lamented on what “Gigi” will not experience in this life: her wedding day, never driving a car or attending high school, the chance to become the best player in WNBA history. 

“I miss you every day. I love you,” Vanessa said. 

She then turned her eulogy toward Kobe, who she’d been with since she was 17 years old. 

“He was my everything,” she said. “Kobe loved more than I could express or put into words … we balanced each other out. He would do anything for me.

“Kobe was the MVP of girl dads,” added Vanessa, before telling stories about Kobe being a father to Gianna and his three other girls: Natalia, 17; Bianca, 3; and Capri, 8 months.

“God knew they couldn’t be on this earth without each other,” Vanessa said. “He had to bring them home together. Babe, you take care of our Gigi. And I got Nati, Bibi and Coco. … May you both rest in peace and have fun in heaven until we meet again one day.” 

Beyoncé opens Kobe Bryant memorial with song ‘XO’ 

After a short introduction by the public service address announcer, Beyoncé Knowles took the stage and began singing her hit “XO,” which she said was one of Kobe’s favorite songs.

“I’m here because I love Kobe,” she said before encouraging the rest of the crowd to join her in song. 

Beyoncé also sang her single “Halo.” 

“Halos don’t fade away,” she improvised during the chorus. 

About five minutes before Beyoncé took the stage, people gathered inside Staples Center gave a respectful round of applause to Vanessa Bryant after making her way to the arena’s lower bowl. Beyoncé blew her a kiss and mouthed “I love you.” 

LeBron James tweets ‘2/24’ with infinity symbol

James and the Lakers have endured plenty off the court over the last month as they continue leading the Western Conference. 

The infinity symbol was important to Bryant. His production company, called Granity Studios, issued a statement three days after his death: 

“Granity is a word Kobe created that is a combination of greater than infinity. How very Kobe.” 

Luminaries spotted at Kobe Bryant memorial 

Here’s a list of big names spotted at the ceremony so far:

Kobe’s parents Joe and Pam and older sisters Sharia and Shaya; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Lakers legend Magic Johnson, former teammate Brian Shaw, former NBA MVP and teammate Steve Nash, Lakers great Elgin Baylor, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, 10-time NBA champion Bill Russell, Phoenix Suns point guard Devin Booker, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, NBA legend Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls champion Scottie Pippen, former teammate Lamar Odom, former Lakers coach Byron Scott, Metta World Peace, Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers with players Stephen Curry, Ayesha Curry, Warriors forward Draymond Green, Lakers champion A.C. Green, Spurs legend Tim Duncan, Houston Rockets’ James Harden, former teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Derek Fisher, WNBA star Diana Taurasi, Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade, actress Gabrielle Union, rappers Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar, former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook, former baseball player Alex Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, Lakers assistant Jason Kidd,  

Mark Medina and Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports, reporting from Los Angeles

Fans begin to enter Staples Center

Patient and mourning Lakers fans lined up outside Staples Center before the crack of dawn. Then around 8:30 am PT, arena workers opened the doors for those attending Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial service.

Fans that entered the building received a T-Shirt showing Kobe and Gianna Bryant embracing each other in three different images. They also received a program titled “A Celebration of Life: Kobe & Gianna Bryant.” On the back of the T-Shirt read “Bryant” along with the jersey numbers for Gianna (2) and Kobe (24) underneath.

As attendees entered Staples Center, music played — Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Diana Krall’s version of “Just the Way You Are” — and a photo gallery of Kobe and Gianna photos rotated on the video board. 

The program does not indicate the memorial’s itinerary, including any planned speakers. No photos are allowed in the Staples Center seating area. But there is a center stage with red flowers all around, drum set and plenty of mic stands. 

While it required a mobile ticket to enter the arena, attendees were given a commemorative ticket featuring a young Gianna hugging her dad: section 8, row 24, seat 2. 

Mark Medina and Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports, reporting from Los Angeles 

Parking prices hit $40 on Monday

The daily flat rate at public parking lots close to Staples Center has been hiked and street vendors are out in force Monday with three hours before the memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

One parking lot jacked up its daily rate to $40 from the usual fee of $20 and another increased its rate to $40 from $30.

 “That’s the story, right?” a parking lot attendant told USA TODAY SPORTS with a smile while declining to give his name. “Everybody’s making a profit on Kobe.”

Things were more affordable down the street. Vendors were selling Kobe beanies, caps and T-shirts for $10 apiece. 

One vendor said that has been here for 24 hours.

“No shower,” she said with a grin. 

Josh Peter, USA TODAY Sports, reporting from Los Angeles

Kobe, Gianna imagery everywhere 

The image of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna are on omnipresent near Staples Center on Monday as the memorial service for both approaches.

In addition to T-shirts and other merchandise bearing their images, they’re also pictured together on a massive electronic billboard.

And on a retaining wall in front of a car wash, someone has spray-painted, “RIP KOBE & GIGI.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of ticket-holders for the memorial service already are standing in line, with doors to Staples Center expected to open at about 8 a.m. 

Josh Peter, USA TODAY Sports, reporting from Los Angeles

As a condition of providing this live stream, the USA TODAY Network is required to show a graphic directing viewers to Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s foundation.



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