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Venezuela battle inner demons ahead of Copa America

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Last November, players of Venezuelan first division football team Trujillanos took to the pitch with a banner demanding their long unpaid salaries and then stood still for a minute in protest once the game kicked off.

Since then, the head coach has left to manage the U-20 national team and their three best players moved to clubs in Brazil, Colombia and Canada for next to nothing.

In the first four games of the new season, the 2014 league runners-up have shipped 15 goals without reply, non-payment persists, and they play in a stadium 200 km (125 miles) away after their own failed to meet minimum standards.

“The past year has been very difficult and hard for everyone, but I have never lost hope,” Trujillanos midfielder Jair Andara told Reuters on the bus back from a 2-0 loss away to Deportivo Tachira.

“Here we say ‘bad things don’t last forever’. It’s a great pride to represent the team of my city.”

It is a familiar story across Latin America, where the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with sport, but matters are acutely exacerbated in Venezuela by economic crisis and political strife during President Nicolas Maduro’s rule.

Despite such domestic chaos, the national team are hopeful as they head into next month’s Copa America 10 years on from their greatest ever finish in the tournament: a semi-final penalty shootout exit to Paraguay.

“It’s been 12 very weird months, but an opportunity to grow and evaluate,” said defender Roberto Rosales, who played on that historic night in 2011 and will almost certainly be in the squad again in June, now aged 32.

“We couldn’t play the Copa America last year, but now it has special significance on top of what it means to wear the shirt, which for me is a dream I keep living.”

FIFA INTERVENTION

As it stands, Venezuela will begin the Copa with a leaderless federation. Jesus Berardinelli, then Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) president, died in police custody on Aug. 5 last year, with the cause recorded as acute respiratory failure and COVID-19.

Authorities were investigating him at the time for alleged misuse of public funds, but his family rubbished the accusations and lamented that his death deprived them of a chance to defend him.

His arrest came days after he denounced the possibility of “government intervention” on local radio, referencing the dual occupation of Pedro Infante as Maduro’s minister of sport and FVF vice president: a combination prohibited by world governing body FIFA.

A month later, after calls from former national team manager Dr. Richard Paez and other prominent figures, FIFA appointed a normalisation committee to take charge of the federation and hold elections for new directors by June 30, 2021.

Eight months on, an election date of May 28 has only just been set and Paez believes nothing has changed.

“There is nowhere to turn,” he said from Texas, having left Venezuela at the height of the pandemic.

“Faced with this abnormal situation, we in the Movimiento Venezuela Vinotinto (lobby group) have decided not to endorse or participate … We only hope that the wisdom of the leadership will overcome the immaturity and ineptitude of the past.”

Often in spite of off-field obstacles, however, Venezuelan football has been on the ascendancy for much of the 21st century. From a low of 129th in the FIFA World Rankings in November 1998 to a high of 25th in November 2019, the national team transformed themselves from the mockingly-nicknamed “Cinderella” to a new proud epithet of “The Red Wine.”

No longer were they last to the ball or first to go home. Full-bodied performances in their burgundy shirts became the new norm.

Although La Vinotinto’s standing on the world stage does not always mirror the strength of Venezuela’s league, small but incremental markers of progress are never too far apart, and 2021 began with a quick succession of them.

Two-time World Cup participant and 2011 Copa America winner Alvaro Pereira of Uruguay was a marquee signing for Estudiantes de Merida; Telasco Segovia (Deportivo Lara) and Yerson Chacon Deportivo Tachira) were named in a global list of the top 20 “most promising youngsters” born in 2003 by Swiss-based research group the CIES Football Observatory; and Darwin Machis and Yangel Herrera reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League with Granada CF, only the fifth and sixth Venezuelans to do so.

‘ALWAYS PROUD TO PLAY’

Yet the national team’s current FIFA ranking of 30th is fragile. If they drop lower, work permits to play in Europe’s top leagues become harder to obtain and many players are left at the mercy of access to a European passport to achieve their dreams.

It would be a worrisome predicament for a league less scouted than many of its neighbours, and places an extra need for the national team, for the first time likely to be made up exclusively of footballers playing abroad, to do well in next month’s tournament co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina.

This makes the recent signing of an international TV deal with Florida-based GOL TV all the more important.

After 18 months without an overseas broadcaster, for the first time every league game is being shown live, televised in 16 countries and available to stream worldwide, except for the United States.

Along with much needed revenue, which local media put at $1 million per year, it demonstrates the league’s desire to showcase its talent, as does the recent successful bid from the FVF to host the delayed U-20 South American Championships later this year, originally given to Colombia.

“For us, it’s an honour to host this tournament,” U-20 head coach Martin Carrillo told Reuters. “In this generation, we don’t just have quality, but quantity, too.

“It’s important to give them this international participation so that they can compete and show themselves at a national level to then take a step forward to the senior team or take advantage of this stage to find a foreign club.”

The next six months are full of opportunity for Venezuelan football. With vital World Cup qualifiers, the Copa America, and the U-20 championship, success cannot be expected in all three.

A good showing in one, however, could be enough to keep its profile growing abroad.

“We need to do our best because we do not have much margin for error,” Venezuela international goalkeeper Rafael Romo said from Belgium. “To be in the national team is a pleasure for me, I will always be proud to play for Venezuela, so I will go (to the Copa) and be ready.”

 

(Reporting by Jordan Florit; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Mixed Martial Arts-Door is open for YouTube’s Paul brothers in MMA

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Logan and Jake Paul would make great Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, Bellator president Scott Coker has said as he targets exhibition matches featuring the YouTube personalities such as the former’s boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather.

Logan Paul went the distance, surviving eight rounds against unbeaten (50-0) five-division world boxing champion Mayweather in an exhibition on Sunday at Miami’s Hard Rock stadium.

USA Today reported the fight brought in one million pay per view buys with $50 million generated from sales in the United States.

It was only the second fight of Paul’s career, while his brother Jake has fought in three professional boxing matches, beating former MMA fighter Ben Askren in April.

Critics have labelled the bouts a sideshow due to the lack of sporting credibility of the duo, who made their names as social media personalities and have millions of subscribers on YouTube.

However, Coker told Reuters the brothers have impressive physiques and the door is open for them to move into MMA.

“I met with Logan Paul about two years ago and I’ve spoken to Jake Paul’s manager and Jake on a zoom call recently… The one thing I said was hey, if you want to do MMA we would love to promote you guys,” the 58-year-old said in a Zoom interview.

“These guys are young, athletic, strong and you saw the fight on Sunday night these guys they came and did their work.

“Mayweather couldn’t finish him and I know he tried, I heard he wanted to knock this kid out so bad,” he added.

“When I heard both had high school wrestling backgrounds in Ohio, which is a prominent wrestling state in the U.S., it really made me interested in pursuing them in some super fights in Mixed Martial Arts – and that door is continually open.”

HEADLINE FIGHT

Bellator, owned by Viacom, is gearing up for a busy month of events, starting with Bellator 260 on Friday with the headline fight between reigning welterweight world champion Douglas Lima and the undefeated Yaroslav Amosov.

However, super fights and exhibitions are where Coker is targeting a younger audience.

“My 14-year-old niece, I told her I was going to the Logan Paul fight and she thought that was the greatest thing,” he said.

“She asked me who he was fighting and I said Floyd Mayweather and she said ‘who’s that?’ – I thought wow, she doesn’t know boxing, she doesn’t know MMA, she’s just a 14-year-old girl on the internet doing what they do.”

As the sporting world gears up for the delayed Tokyo Olympics starting in July, Coker believes MMA will feature in future Games.

“When you think about mixed martial arts, what you’re talking about is boxing, wrestling, judo, taekwondo, karate – those are all Olympic sports,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t mixed martial arts eventually get into the Olympics because six out of the seven disciplines MMA is known to use really is already there.

“There’d be a lot of details to work out but to me I think it will happen, it’s just a matter of time.”

 

(Reporting by Christian Radnedge,; Editing by Ed Osmond)

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Montreal will host the 2024 world figure skating championships

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Montreal will host the 2024 world figure skating championships, the International Skating Union (ISU) said on Wednesday, after the 2020 event Canada was to host was cancelled due to COVID-19.

The championships will return to Montreal from March 18-24, marking the 11th time Canada has staged the event.

“Skate Canada has a proven track record of holding successful ISU events and we are looking forward to bringing the world’s best skaters to the fantastic Canadian city of Montreal,” said Debra Armstrong, CEO of Skate Canada, in a statement.

 

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Andreescu splits with coach Bruneau after French Open exit

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World number seven Bianca Andreescu on Tuesday announced she has split with longtime coach Sylvain Bruneau, a week after falling in the first round of the French Open.

The pair had worked together for four years as Andreescu made her breakthrough with three titles in 2019, including the U.S. Open.

“It is with a heavy heart that I would like to inform my fans that my long time coach, mentor and friend, Sylvain and I, have mutually decided to end our incredible coaching relationship,” Canadian Andreescu wrote on Twitter

“Our friendship will live forever … I am very grateful for everything we accomplished together and all of our great memories.

“Sylvain was more than a coach… he is family.”

Andreescu, 20, returned to action at this year’s Australian Open, having missed 15 months due to a knee injury.

A positive COVID-19 test subsequently ruled Andreescu out of both Madrid and Rome before an abdominal injury forced her to pull out of Strasbourg at the quarter-final stage.

Her most recent appearance at Roland Garros ended with a 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 9-7 defeat by Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek.

 

(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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