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    FIFA's Best? Pitso Mosimane Doesn't Fit the Model

    Pitso Mosimane enjoyed a better 2021 than almost any coach in world soccer. Just don’t expect FIFA, or soccer, to notice.Pitso Mosimane has done enough winning in the last year, plus change, to talk about nothing else. In November 2020, only three months after he was appointed manager of the Egyptian club Al Ahly, he won the African Champions League title. He did so by beating Zamalek, Al Ahly’s fiercest rival. The final was cast as the derby of the century. Nobody in Egypt thought it was an exaggeration.Eight months later, he repeated the trick. The calendar contracted and concentrated by the pandemic, Al Ahly returned to the Champions League final in July to face Kaizer Chiefs, the team Mosimane had supported as a child in South Africa. He won again. He was showered with golden ticker tape on the field, then presented with bouquets of roses by government grandees when he returned to Cairo.He places both trophies among his proudest moments as a manager, alongside coaching his country — he was in charge of South Africa for a couple of years after it served as host of the 2010 World Cup — and winning his first continental trophy, with the South African team Mamelodi Sundowns in 2016.And yet Mosimane does not rhapsodize about either victory quite so much as he does the one international tournament in 2021 that he did not win. Between his two triumphs, Mosimane took Al Ahly to Qatar for the Club World Cup. His team was drawn to face Bayern Munich in the semifinals. “They had beaten Barcelona, 8-2,” he said. “I was worried. That was Barcelona with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. If they could do that to them, what would they do to us?”He had no need to be concerned. Al Ahly lost, 2-0, but there was no embarrassment, no humiliation. A few days later, in the third-place playoff, Mosimane’s team overcame the South American champion, Palmeiras, to take bronze. “Africa got a medal,” he said. “The year before, it had not won a medal. That, to us, was success.”That it is the third place, not the string of firsts — two Champions Leagues, accompanied by two African Super Cups — that Mosimane lingers on is instructive. It is a reminder that silver and gold are not the only measure of glory in management; achievement is necessarily relative to opportunity.Mosimane said he considered Al Ahly’s third-place finish in the Club World Cup as important as any of its firsts last year.Noushad Thekkayil/EPA, via ShutterstockMosimane, by that gauge, has enjoyed a year that holds up in comparison to any of his peers. He has not, though, been granted the same recognition. When FIFA published its seven-member shortlist for its men’s coach of the year award a few weeks ago, Mosimane — who had lifted three continental honors in 2021 — was not on it.He was not the only notable omission. Abel Ferreira was not there, either, despite going one better than Mosimane and leading Palmeiras to two Copa Libertadores titles in the same calendar year. He did not make the top seven, let alone the top three. Those spots were taken by Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Roberto Mancini.The pattern held for the women’s prize, too. Bev Priestman led Canada to an improbable Olympic gold in Tokyo, but she did not make the final cut, overlooked in favor of Lluís Cortés, Emma Hayes and Sarina Wiegman.The connection is not that all of these coaches won major honors: Cortés might have led Barcelona Femení to an emphatic treble and Hayes might have won the Women’s Super League, but Wiegman saw her Dutch team knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, then left to take charge of England. The link, instead, is that they all work in Europe.The temptation, of course, is to chalk this up to FIFA’s star-dazzled ineptitude and move along. The problem, though, is more deep-seated than that. FIFA does, of course, choose the initial shortlists of candidates for its so-called Best Awards, and it has a tendency to overlook anyone not competing in the most glamorous, most lucrative tournaments in the game.But, occasionally, one slips through. Djamel Belmadi, of Algeria, was nominated in 2019. So, too, were River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo and Ricardo Gareca, the Argentine in charge of Peru’s national team. Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina coach, was included this year.That none went any further is not just to do with FIFA but with the array of players, coaches, fans and journalists who command a vote on the awards. It is not only the game’s governing body that is in thrall to the famous faces and the glamorous names of the major leagues of western Europe, but the game itself.“It is not only Africa” that is overlooked, Mosimane said. “It is as though it does not mean as much when you win in the competitions that do not generate the most money, that do not have the biggest audiences.”The consequences of that Eurocentrism reach far beyond one prize, one gala. Mosimane was appointed by Al Ahly, at least in part, because the club was “looking for someone who knew Africa, knew the Champions League, had beaten the teams they needed to beat.” His record was impeccable. He was, by some distance, the best man for the job.He landed in Cairo, in September 2020, to be greeted by thousands of fans at the airport; it was then, and only then, that he realized the scale of the job he had taken. “I don’t know if there is another club in the world that has to win everything like Al Ahly does,” he said. “I thought South Africans loved football. But they don’t love it as much as Egyptians do.”In the news media, though, Mosimane detected a note of skepticism. Al Ahly had employed foreign managers before, but they had all been European or South American. He was the first non-Egyptian African to be given the post. “There were people who asked whether I had the credibility to coach the biggest team in Africa and the biggest in the Middle East,” he said.It made sense to him that those doubts proved unfounded. Africa, as Mosimane pointed out, is full of European coaches. They should, really, be at a considerable advantage. Until recently, the African soccer federation, CAF, did not run a formal high-level coaching course, the equivalent of the pro license required of all European managers.Mosimane with Gianni Infantino of FIFA, which has only ever honored Europeans as world coach of the year.Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesMosimane was one of the first coaches accepted for the inaugural qualification. It was supposed to take six months. Three years later, it has still not finished, only in part because of the pandemic. Meeting European coaches in competition, he said, was the equivalent of “being asked to sit the exam but not being given the books to read.” And still, African coaches still found a way to pass. “When the floors are level, when they are coaching teams with the same quality of player as us, we beat them,” he said.It is small wonder, then, that Mosimane is convinced that if he was put in charge of Barcelona or Manchester City he would “not do too badly.” He is resigned to the fact that he will never find out. If FIFA finds it easy to overlook the success of African coaches, if African clubs are wary of the abilities of African coaches, then there is little hope a team from outside Africa will offer him that sort of chance.Part of that, he is adamant, is to do with the color of his skin. He was pleased to see one of his former players, Bradley Carnell, be appointed coach of St. Louis City S.C. in Major League Soccer. He is proud to see another South African doing well. Carnell does not have a fraction of Mosimane’s experience. “So maybe I could get a job in M.L.S. then?” he said. He did not sound hopeful. Carnell, after all, is white.Europe is more distant still. He has noted the almost complete absence of Black coaches — let alone Black African coaches — in Europe’s major leagues. He has spoken with former players of the highest pedigree who feel they are denied opportunities easily afforded to their white counterparts. “That is the reality,” Mosimane said.That is not to say he does not harbor ambitions. His latest Champions League crown has earned him another tilt at the Club World Cup next month. It is the trophy that he would like to win, with Al Ahly, above all others. “There is nothing left for me to win in Africa,” he said.Once his time in Cairo ends, he would like to try his hand at international management again. The “timing” is not right for South Africa, he said, but perhaps Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Egypt might be feasible: one of the continent’s traditional powerhouses.He would cherish the chance to coach the best players in the world in Europe, of course, but he knows soccer has imposed a ceiling between them and him. His ambitions run as high as they can, given the way the world has been constructed around him, one in which opportunity is not always contingent on achievement. More

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    An English Soccer Team's Existential Crisis: Is It Really in Wales?

    Chas Sumner has heard the quiz question in all its forms. There was the one that asked: “Which club has an international border running along the halfway line of its stadium?” Or this one: “Which soccer team gets changed in one country but plays in another?” Or: “Where can you take a corner in England, but score a goal in Wales?”The answer to all three, Sumner knew, was Chester F.C., a one-time stalwart of English soccer’s professional divisions but currently residing in its sixth tier. For 30 years, Chester, the team he served as official historian, had played at a stadium that straddled the largely nominal line separating England from Wales.Not that it seemed especially important to anyone. The stadium’s location was nothing more than a minor claim to fame and occasional inconvenience: two countries sometimes meant paperwork for two local authorities. Other than that, Sumner said, “nobody even knew exactly where the border was.”Welcome to Wales.Carl Recine/Action Images Via ReutersAnd to England.Carl Recine/Action Images Via ReutersThat held true until last Friday, when Chester F.C. suddenly discovered it was occupying contested territory. Summoned to a meeting with both local councils — Flintshire, in Wales, and Cheshire West, in England — and North Wales Police, Chester’s executives were presented with a letter accusing them of breaking Welsh coronavirus protocols.Chester had played twice at home over the New Year period, attracting crowds of more than 2,000 fans. That was in line with the rules in England, where lawmakers have stopped short of imposing new restrictions on public gatherings even as the Omicron variant has taken hold, but it contravened the laws in Wales, where the government introduced more stringent regulations on Dec. 26 that limited crowds at outdoor events to no more than 50 people.Chester did not believe those changes applied in its case. “It is an English club that plays in a stadium that covers both England and Wales,” said Andrew Morris, Chester’s volunteer chairman. “We play in the English league, we’re registered to the English Football Association, the land the stadium is built on is owned by an English council. We’re subject to English governance and English policing.” More

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    Novak Djokovic Tested Positive: A Timeline of What Happened Next

    If a tennis star knew he was positive for the coronavirus, why did he keep making public appearances without a mask?In an interview room at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, an Australian immigration officer sat down across from the tennis star Novak Djokovic.The officer started with a warning.“I am now going to caution you,” the officer said, according to a public transcript both sides have agreed is accurate, “that if you provide false or forged documents or false or misleading information you can be prosecuted under Australian laws.”Even before his plane touched down in Melbourne last Wednesday night, Djokovic’s application for a visa to play in next week’s Australian Open was under scrutiny, and questions swirled about whether he would be allowed into the country. The answer, at least initially, was no. Australia, which requires all foreign visitors to be vaccinated, but grants exemptions in limited cases, canceled Djokovic’s visa after his airport interview, only to have a judge reinstate it on Monday on procedural grounds.“This is his greatest victory, greater than all the Grand Slams that he has won,” his mother, Dijana, said at a news conference on Monday in Belgrade, Serbia.Novak Djokovic trained Tuesday at Melbourne Park, days before the start of the Australian Open.Scott Barbour/Agence France-Presse, via Tennis Australia/Afp Via Getty ImagesNow, as Australia’s top immigration official considers rejecting Djokovic’s visa again and its prime minister calculates the political cost of the fight, published reports and Djokovic’s own social media posts have raised questions about the validity of his visa paperwork and his actions in the days around Dec. 16, when, by his account, he learned he had tested positive for the coronavirus.Even the positive test result, which is at the heart of the medical exemption that Djokovic needed to obtain to play in the Australian Open, has been cast into doubt by a published report.On Monday, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that it had scanned the unique computer code attached to Djokovic’s test result — which was included in court filings related to his visa appeal — and found that it initially reported the test was negative for the virus. But just over an hour later, when Der Spiegel journalists and others checked the code again, the linked webpage said Djokovic’s test was positive. That was still the case on Tuesday morning.Djokovic has not commented on the merits of his case, and his family declined to address specific questions about his activities on Monday, when his brother Djordje declared at the news conference in Serbia that “truth and justice came to the light” when Novak Djokovic was released from detention with his visa restored.Djokovic’s agent and spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.The confusion about Djokovic’s test result, though, only renewed questions about his actions on the day of the test and the week that followed.If Djokovic tested positive Dec. 16, then his actions in the ensuing days — when he should have been isolating — could have endangered the health and safety of dozens of people. On the day of his test and the two that followed, for example, Djokovic’s own social media postings and contemporaneous accounts show him repeatedly appearing at public events without a mask and around children and strangers even after he had recorded a positive test.What has Djokovic said?To obtain a visa to enter Australia, Djokovic and his lawyers submitted documents that said he had tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 16. He cited that positive result when he was interviewed by Australia Border Force officials upon his arrival in Melbourne.Djokovic produced the Dec. 16 test result “unprompted,” the Australians said in a court filing. A transcript of his interview, which was recorded, included the following exchange:INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Have you ever had COVID?DJOKOVIC: Yes.INTERVIEWER: So when did you?DJOKOVIC: I had COVID twice, I had COVID in June 2020 and I had COVID recently in — I was tested positive — PCR — 16th of December 2021.INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Sorry what was the date? 16th of December?DJOKOVIC: 16th of December 2021, I have the documents as well to confirm that if you want I can provide — just as a —INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I’ll just make a photocopy of those documents —The filing also includes the timing of the test, which was collected about 1 p.m. Dec. 16, and of a positive result returned seven hours later.What about the medical exemption?The positive result was used to justify Djokovic’s application for a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open, which requires all tournament participants to be vaccinated but which granted multiple exemptions to the rule.On Jan. 4, Djokovic announced on his Instagram account that he had received the exemption he needed. Alongside a smiling photo, he said he was headed to Australia.It was what he had done in the days after his positive test, though, that now threatened to cause him problems.A public figure, in public.On Dec. 16, the day Djokovic sought a test for the virus, Djokovic was honored with a stamp by the Serbian postal service and toured its facility. In photos from the event, Djokovic appears with the acting director of Serbia’s postal service, Zoran Dordevic. Neither Djokovic nor Dordevic is masked in a photo, or in other pictures from the event.Djokovic also took part in an hourlong panel discussion that day at a tennis center that bears his name. The topic? “The role and establishment of authority in the development of character and discipline.” In a video of the event posted on YouTube, neither Djokovic nor any of the other panelists wears a mask.A day later, Djokovic reportedly appeared at an event to honor youth tennis players at the tennis center that bears his name. None of the dozens of people in a group photo from the ceremony, including Djokovic, whose positive test result was confirmed a night earlier, wore a mask.The next day, Dec. 18, Djokovic took part in a photo shoot with the French sports publication L’Equipe. The newspaper has published the photos repeatedly in its coverage of his visa dispute.Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that if Djokovic attended events after learning he was positive that he would have “clearly violated the rules.”The Novak Djokovic Standoff with AustraliaCard 1 of 4A vaccine exemption question. More

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    For Africa Cup of Nations, Embrace the Unknown

    The Africa Cup of Nations probably will be decided by players who earn their livings in Europe. But the best of the tournament lies in its surprises.It was the No. 8 who first caught the eye. He was tall, languid, just on the border between rangy and ungainly. It was not the way he moved, so much, but the way he did not. In the middle of all the bustle and hurry, he was unusually still. He did not sprint. He did not dash. He did not even run, not really. He strolled. He meandered. He moseyed.He was playing in midfield, but he did not look much like a central midfielder. There are, in modern soccer, precisely three acceptable profiles of central midfielder: slight and inventive; dynamic and industrious; physically imposing.The No. 8 was none of them. He towered over almost everyone who drew close, but he was slender, almost fragile. In another world, he might have been a mercurial playmaker who refused to leave his local team — Robin Friday or Tomás Carlovich — but, while his technique was flawless, his energy was not especially chaotic, particularly magical.But the No. 8 was, in theory, the team’s defensive linchpin. And yet he did not throw himself into tackles or busily chase down opponents. He played simple, unwaveringly accurate passes, and then he stood all but still, waiting for the game to come back his way.To an eye raised on watching European soccer, with its blend of tactical influences and its faintly South American inflection, the initial assumption was that he was not following instructions. But he was. Or, at least, he seemed to be. He was there to occupy space, to act as a fixed point, an anchor. He did it well. It worked, too.His name was Asrat Megersa, and he was, in 2013, a 25-year-old playing in midfield for Ethiopia in its first Africa Cup of Nations in three decades. The team’s first game was a match with the reigning champion, Zambia, in the South African city of Mbombela.Ethiopia midfielder Asrat Megersa, right, against Zambia in 2013.Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images/Getty ImagesOn the surface, Ethiopia stood little chance. Zambia could call on a sprinkling of players with experience in Europe. It had a coach, Hervé Renard, of international repute. Ethiopia did not. All but three members of its squad played in their homeland, for teams like Dedebit and Saint George and Ethiopian Coffee.And yet that was not how the game played out. In the bright summer sun, Zambia found Ethiopia entirely confounding. Megersa and his teammates did unexpected, unorthodox things. Their style was not recognizable, and often, neither were their intentions. They made choices they were not supposed to make.It seemed to unsettle the Zambians. An uncertainty, a doubt crept into their play. Zambia took a delicate lead. Megersa kept standing still, kept passing the ball, kept occupying space. Ethiopia struck back, then held on for a draw. In the stands, the fans who had made the long journey from Johannesburg on packed buses, out to the fringes of the Kruger National Park, blew happily, incessantly on their vuvuzelas.Ethiopia’s fortunes changed swiftly after that. A few days later, Burkina Faso held its nerve, and beat Megersa and his team, 4-0. Defeat to Nigeria in the final group game in Rustenberg meant Ethiopia was eliminated. But that day against Zambia left a lasting impression; eight years on, I can still remember the name of Asrat Megersa.It endures, I think, because it is so rare, in modern soccer, to see something truly different. Special happens all the time; Lionel Messi is beamed into our homes every week. But different is precious. Good ideas travel quickly in elite soccer. Best practice spreads rapidly. Some small advancement made in Argentina one week will have made landfall in Europe the next.The result is not homogeneity, not exactly, but a narrow spectrum of variety. Players fit specific, familiar molds. Teams pass or teams press. They play deep or they play high. There are those who absorb pressure and those who apply it and those who do a little of both. Some do it well and some do it badly, but they are all trying to do the same things.Mohamed Salah is among the dozens of European stars called in to bolster African teams.Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ReutersThat will be true of this year’s Cup of Nations, too. Most of the 24 teams gathered in Cameroon for this year’s tournament, which opens with two games on Sunday, will know that their hopes rest, to no small extent, on how the stars they have called back from Europe perform over the next month.If Algeria is to retain its title, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez will be a central part of it. Egypt will invest much of its faith in Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. The backbone of Nigeria’s team plays in the Premier League. Morocco will lean heavily on Youssef En-Nesyri of Sevilla. Senegal, the paper favorite, can call on Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly and Idrissa Gueye and Sadio Mané.But they are just the headline acts. Their supporting casts have largely been drawn from Europe, too. Every member of Senegal’s squad plays in Europe. Cameroon has called up 22 players who do. It is not limited to the continent’s traditional powerhouses, either. Guinea has 22 players from European teams. Cape Verde has 21. Burkina Faso can call on 18.That is testament, of course, both to soccer’s rampant and to some extent rapacious global reach and to the development of the sport in Africa; the talent has never been spread quite so broadly across the continent as it is now. There are 10 teams, perhaps, who have arrived in Cameroon with a realistic hope of emerging victorious.Algeria won the Cup of Nations in 2019.Suhaib Salem/ReutersBut that intercontinental connection brings with it, too, a risk of losing something valuable. Soccer has long been a common language, the game the world plays, but as it has grown more global it has started to lose its accents. Style and taste no longer shift across borders; everything is subsumed by the Platonic ideal of soccer as preached by the Champions League and the Premier League. An orthodoxy has taken hold: Soccer has become the game the world plays the same way.The Cup of Nations, though, retains just a couple of pockets of resistance. That was what made Megersa, and Ethiopia, special. This was his interpretation, their interpretation, of the game, the game as they wanted to play, not the game as they had been told it was played.Perhaps the same will be true, this year, of Sudan — with only two players drawn from abroad — or Malawi, with just two squad members called up from Europe. Or perhaps it will be true, once more, of Ethiopia. None of its players have come from Europe this time around, either. That diminishes the team’s chances of winning the tournament, of course, but it also makes it a much more enticing prospect.The only sadness is that Megersa is not in the squad. He is 34, now, still playing in his homeland, the place where he played the game as Ethiopia played it, a uniquely bright and joyous memory.Ignorance Is BlissThe first drips of poison came on Tuesday morning, as Manchester United was still absorbing the previous night’s defeat to Wolves into its bloodstream. Apparently, the club’s players were unimpressed by Ralf Rangnick, the bespectacled 63-year-old German coach who replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a couple of months ago.By Wednesday, it was emerging that one or two of the players had not even heard of Rangnick before he was appointed; despite being professional athletes with many cars and houses, they had been forced to Google him to find out who he was, had been required to spend time on Wikipedia with the general public to work out his background. Drip, drip.By Thursday, it was a flood. Chris Armas, the former New York Red Bulls coach hired as Rangnick’s assistant, had yet to teach United’s coterie of international stars how to — and there is a little paraphrasing here, but not too much — play soccer while in possession of the ball, and they were troubled that perhaps he did not know how to do it.There’s still trouble at United? Everyone blame the new guys.Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesRangnick, meanwhile, was reported to be aloof and cold and also making them train at night, or at least in the dark — it is winter in the north of England; it is never anything but dark — and they did not like that at all. He lacked charisma, the whispers went. He lacked authority. He had fallen out with leading figures in the changing room. He had not impressed them in training. Drip, drip, drip.Whether any and all of these complaints — all of them let slip to various journalists on condition of anonymity — are true is, unfortunately, of secondary importance. What matters far more is the fact of their existence, the sad reality that at least a portion of United’s players are already doing what they can to ensure that the finger of blame for any future failure is pointed squarely at the coach who has been there for a few weeks, and not the players who have been there for several years.Those drips are what happens when something in a club — any club, not just Manchester United — has turned, when the atmosphere is toxic, when the strands of accountability and mutual support and collective responsibility that in ordinary times bind a squad and a staff together have snapped. That is always the rule: It is not the content of these pernicious leaks that matter, but the fact of them.Quite how United will proceed from this point is not entirely clear. Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman, announced on Friday that he is leaving at the end of the month. He will be replaced by Richard Arnold, the club’s managing director. Rangnick has six more months before moving on to become a consultant. There will be a new manager, a new regime. The damage done by those drips, though, suggests that may only be the start of the upheaval.Learning LessonsJoan Laporta knows the safest position at Barcelona: right next to the club’s newest signing.Alejandro Garcia/EPA, via ShutterstockThere is, strangely, an answer to how Barcelona — in debt just a few months ago to the tune of $1 billion, as you may remember, and so concerned by the scale of their financial breakdown that they wanted to join a European Super League — could afford, right at the start of the month, to pay Manchester City $60 million or so to sign Ferran Torres.It is not an especially satisfactory answer, admittedly, encompassing as it does a loan from Goldman Sachs, some creative accounting, the sale of some players who have not yet actually been sold, and an odd loophole in Spanish soccer’s financial regulations that nobody had mentioned until Barcelona decided it wanted to pay Manchester City $60 million or so to sign Ferran Torres.But, still, it is an answer. Far more mystifying was the reaction of the Barcelona president Joan Laporta, a man who has spent much of the last year delivering tremulous warnings about the club’s dire finances, to the completion of the deal. “Everyone else should prepare themselves because we are back,” he said. “We continue to be a reference in the market.”This is a man, it should not need pointing out, who said those words at a time when his club could not officially register its new signing because of its ongoing financial difficulties.That Laporta should be feeling a little bullish is understandable: Torres is an astute signing at what is, by modern standards, a startlingly low fee. Laporta is in an elected position, too, and it is never too early to start campaigning.Indeed, in one sense, it is to be hoped that it is little more than hot air, that his refusal to dismiss the idea of signing Erling Haaland in the summer is little more than pride and defiance.The alternative, after all, is much more troubling: that rather than rebuild the team organically around the richly-talented cadre of teenagers it has produced over the last 12 months, Laporta is prepared to mortgage the club’s future once more, all in some quixotic pursuit of immediate success in a game now dominated by teams backed by nation states.Barcelona has been down that road before, and not long ago. It has only been a few months since it stood on the very edge of complete financial meltdown, after all. It is still only just starting to deal with the consequences. Barcelona does not need to be back, not in that sense, not for some time.CorrespondenceThis is the problem with having a little time off. You unwind, you relax, you allow your mind to drift, and then all of a sudden you’re back at work and none of it makes any sense at all. For example, why is Manuel Buchwald emailing me about the shape of the penalty area?“The logical alternative to the rectangular penalty box is the semicircular one, as is used in most other sports,” he wrote. “Field hockey, handball, lacrosse, basketball and ice hockey. In the latter case it’s the area protecting the goalie.” That is a valid point and would work at least as a basis for a new shape of penalty area in soccer, but why tell me?Not all penalties are equal.Kai Pfaffenbach/ReutersThe fact that Will Clark-Shim has also been in touch to complain about the “increased frequency of penalties in the game” jogs a memory. We were talking about something to do with penalties, weren’t we? “The game thrives on open and active play, honest industry, and clever coordination,” he wrote. “Increased penalties seem the result of incidental handballs, manufactured contact, and tedious reviews. They result in unexciting goals.”That’s a good point, too: Not all goals are created equal, and getting more goals through having more penalties is not necessarily a unilaterally positive thing. There is definitely a theme developing, because Bob Rogers has mentioned penalties, too. He is a (self-professed) “low-level referee,” and he would like to confess to calling fouls as outside the box even if they have occurred inside it, “when that is the fair value of the foul.”Ah, yes, that was it. We were discussing whether there are now too many penalties, and whether there might, perhaps, be a way of better distinguishing between fouls that warrant that level of punishment and fouls that just happen to take place in a fairly arbitrary area of the field. It always takes me a while to get up to speed, that’s all. More

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    Novak Djokovic Is Refused Entry Into Australia Over Vaccine Exemption

    The No. 1 men’s tennis player was told to leave the country following a 12-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, ending his chance to defend his Australian Open title.Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s tennis player, traveled all day Wednesday from Dubai to Australia, a journey that was supposed to begin his defense of the Australian Open singles championship.On Thursday, he was told he would need to leave the country, following a 12-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was held in a room overnight over questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine. The exemption was supposed to allow Djokovic, a 20-time Grand Slam tournament champion and one of the biggest stars in sports, to compete in the Australian Open even though he has not been vaccinated.It was not immediately clear whether Djokovic would appeal the ruling in Australia’s courts. A spokesman for the tennis star did not immediately respond to requests for comment.The chain of events represented a startling turnabout for Djokovic, who in a little more than 24 hours went from receiving special, last-minute permission to enter Australia, to boarding an intercontinental flight, to essentially being told by the prime minister of Australia that he was not welcome in the country.At one point President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia even got involved, speaking with Djokovic and criticizing the Australian government for its treatment of his country’s biggest sports star.The pandemic has wreaked all manner of havoc with sports during the past two years. The Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed for a year. Major events took place in empty stadiums. Star players have been sent into isolation just ahead of their competitions after testing positive for the virus.The situation involving Djokovic, one of the most polarizing figures in tennis, was a match for any of them. It turned on a confrontation between a sports superstar and the most powerful leader in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, where government officials, citizens, the media and even some fellow players, criticized the exemption, seemingly prompting the sudden shift.The decision promises to become another flashpoint in the debate about vaccines and how the pandemic should be managed now, especially in Australia, where egalitarianism is considered a sacred principle — and where “the tennis,” as the Open is called, is also beloved by what often seems like an entire nation of sports fanatics.In a statement Thursday, the Australian Border Force pledged to “continue to ensure that those who arrive at our border comply with our laws and entry requirements. The ABF can confirm that Mr. Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently canceled.”For Djokovic, it was the latest and arguably the most wrenching controversy in a career that has been filled with them, nearly all which have been brought on by the behavior of a champion who can be as willful and unbending off the court as he is on it.Djokovic has never been shy about expressing his nontraditional views of science and medicine (he once voiced support for the idea that prayer and belief could purify toxic water), and he has stated on multiple occasions his opposition to vaccine mandates, saying vaccination is a private and personal decision that should not be mandated. However, he had not revealed until this week whether he had been vaccinated.On Tuesday, he announced on Twitter that he had received a medical exemption from the requirement that all people entering Australia be vaccinated or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. He later boarded a plane bound for Australia from Dubai.In a statement later that day, Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, explained that players seeking an exemption had to pass muster with two panels of medical experts. The process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy.“Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone,” Tiley said. “Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration.”Tiley said Wednesday in a television interview that 26 players had applied for an exemption and “a handful” had been granted. According to Tiley, 99 percent of the more than 3,000 people coming to Australia for the tournament were vaccinated. The handful who were granted an exemption either had a medical condition or had Covid-19 during the past six months.Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. By then, he had become the central figure in a firestorm over how he had received permission to enter Australia, which is experiencing a startling rise in coronavirus cases.People wait in line at a walk-in Covid-19 testing site in Melbourne.Joel Carrett/EPA, via ShutterstockThe country has waged one of the most successful battles against Covid-19, but it has come at a steep price. Strict lockdowns have lasted for months. International borders were largely closed until recently. Inbound travelers had to adhere to an expensive, two-week quarantine upon arrival. For long periods, even domestic travel between states was prohibited. The country has experienced about 2,200 deaths, but since opening its borders late last year it is now dealing with more than 30,000 cases a day.As Djokovic flew to Melbourne, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, invoked the government’s authority to deny entry to Djokovic.“Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Morrison said.The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to KnowCard 1 of 6The global surge. More

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    Daniel Sturridge Ordered to Pay $30,000 to Man Who Returned His Dog

    Daniel Sturridge lost his Pomeranian in a 2019 break-in. A man who returned the dog sued for breach of contract after Mr. Sturridge reneged on a promised reward, according to court records.Daniel Sturridge, an English soccer star, has been ordered to pay $30,000 to a Los Angeles man who found the player’s missing dog in 2019 and who went to court to recoup a reward he said he had been denied for the Pomeranian’s return.After announcing that his Los Angeles home had been broken into, Mr. Sturridge said in a video at the time that he would “pay whatever” to get his missing dog back, offering “20 Gs, 30 Gs, whatever” as a reward without specifying the currency.Shortly after that video was posted, Foster Washington of Los Angeles found the dog, Lucci, and returned him to Mr. Sturridge, according to court records. But Mr. Washington, 30, said he had never been paid, and in March, he filed a lawsuit for breach of contract.On Tuesday, Judge Curtis A. Kin of the Los Angeles County Superior Court issued a default judgment, awarding $30,000 in damages to Mr. Washington.Mr. Sturridge, a former England international star who played for Liverpool and Chelsea and is now a striker for the Australian team Perth Glory, said on Twitter on Saturday that “other people are trying to benefit for their own personal gain” and related a story different from Mr. Washington’s about how the dog had been recovered.“Just to let you know the truth on xmas!” Mr. Sturridge said on Twitter. “I met a young boy who found my dog and paid him a reward, which he was delighted with as was I to get my dog back because he was stolen.”Mr. Sturridge and his representatives did not immediately respond to emails on Saturday. Direct messages sent to an Instagram account for Lucci, which has more than 34,000 followers, were not returned.It all started in July 2019, after Mr. Sturridge’s home was broken into and he discovered that Lucci was missing.“I want my dog back,” he said in a video, adding: “How can you break into a house in L.A. and take somebody’s dog? Are you crazy?”Mr. Washington, who earns $14 an hour as a security guard and has three children, said he had been walking home when he and his best friend’s son saw a dog near 88th Street and South Central Avenue. The boy’s family could not afford to have a pet, so Mr. Washington said he had decided to take the dog home.A few hours later, a friend told Mr. Washington that Mr. Sturridge was searching for a dog that looked similar to the one he had taken in.“He was like, ‘Hey, dude, that dog’s famous,’” Mr. Washington said on Saturday. “And I’m like, ‘What?’” He said he had no idea who Mr. Sturridge was at the time.That day, Mr. Washington posted a photo of the dog on Twitter and asked Mr. Sturridge if it was Lucci.Mr. Washington then contacted Kimberly Cheng from the Los Angeles news station KTLA. Mr. Washington said she had connected him with Mr. Sturridge’s representatives. Ms. Cheng did not respond to a request seeking comment on Saturday.The dog had a small tattoo of numbers on his stomach, Mr. Washington said. Mr. Sturridge asked Mr. Washington over the phone to identify the mark to make sure it was indeed Lucci, Mr. Washington said.They agreed to meet, and when Mr. Sturridge retrieved the dog, he thanked Mr. Washington.“I’m like, ‘Hey, dude, what’s up with the reward?’” Mr. Washington said. “He said, ‘There is no reward.’”Mr. Washington tried to contact Mr. Sturridge, who joined Liverpool in 2013 on a contract reported to be worth about 12 million pounds (nearly $20 million at the time), and his representatives numerous times for weeks but to no avail. Mr. Washington said his phone number and social media accounts were being blocked.It was not immediately clear whether anyone was arrested in connection with the break-in or the theft of Lucci, who was described in court papers as a rare Pomeranian worth an estimated £4,000, or roughly $5,300. The Los Angeles police did not respond to messages on Saturday.Mr. Washington went to the police, who “concluded that he was not one of the thieves, or related to the burglary crime in any way,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Washington has never been implicated in any wrongdoing.”The lawsuit added that Mr. Washington “did not receive the benefit of his bargain for supplying the dog safely and in good health.”Mr. Washington said he had received direct messages online from people calling him selfish for wanting to get paid, but during the pandemic, as he struggled financially, he decided to file the lawsuit.“I don’t see how I’m a bad guy by expecting him to honor this reward,” he said, adding: “Thirty thousand dollars is a lot of money. For anybody, that’s a life-changing amount of money.” More

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    The Premier League's Wealth Is Influencing Title Races Abroad

    The outsize wealth of England’s clubs increasingly allows their owners to play a direct role in deciding the champions of other leagues.That first meeting told Alex Muzio all he needed to know. Not long after he and his business partner, the gambling tycoon Tony Bloom, bought Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, a Belgian soccer team, Muzio sat down with the club’s coach. He wanted to discuss potential recruits.Muzio had never been a soccer player. He had never been a scout. He had spent his career working for Bloom’s Starlizard consultancy, the firm many consider to be the largest betting syndicate in Britain.Starlizard’s business model is using data to find an edge. It has information on tens of thousands of players from across the world. Its bespoke algorithms are designed to trawl through it and spot opportunities first, then talent. Starlizard’s plan in team ownership was to do the same. Bloom already owned a team in England: The club he has always supported, Brighton, has been transformed into a mainstay of the Premier League by Bloom’s money and methods. But he and Muzio wanted to see what else their “I.P.” could achieve. “We wanted,” Muzio said, “to win a title.”By May 2018, when Bloom completed his purchase of Union, Muzio was itching to get started. The club, which last celebrated a title in the years between world wars, was at the time mired in the second tier of Belgian soccer. It was staffed largely by volunteers. Its training facility in the suburbs of Brussels did not have showers. Muzio still cannot say with certainty that there was a toilet.Realizing they could compete but not contend in England, Brighton’s owners sought a laboratory for their methods at Union. “We wanted to win a title,” the club’s chairman said.Kristof Van Accom/Belga Mag/Sipa via Associated PressHe did not intend for it to stay that way. The first step was to be promoted to Belgium’s top division within three years, and to do that, Muzio knew, the squad needed to be revamped. He presented the club’s experienced manager, Marc Grosjean, with a list of potential signings, all of them selected and assessed by Starlizard’s data.Grosjean was not impressed. He used an expletive to describe Muzio’s suggestions, and then offered his own alternatives. “He told me that he would much rather sign a set of Belgian players, players that he knew,” Muzio said. It did not take long to find out what Starlizard’s metrics made of them. Grosjean was gone by the end of the month, his abrupt, if mutual, departure announced as “a difference of opinion on the sporting development of the club.”“We have ways that we want to do things,” Muzio said. Resistance would only slow things down.Three years later, his ideas have been vindicated. Union met its target of being promoted last summer. A little more than halfway through this season, it will spend Christmas atop the Jupiler Pro League table, six points clear of Club Brugge. The way Belgian soccer is structured, with a traditional league schedule followed by an end-of-season playoff, means a first domestic title for Union since 1935 remains only a distant possibility. But it is a possibility, nonetheless.That, of course, would not have been possible without the arrival of Muzio, who serves as Union’s chairman, and Bloom, though the latter has no day-to-day involvement with the running of the club.It is not quite fair to describe their presence at Union as a stroke of good fortune. The team was acquired because it met the stringent criteria established at the start of the search: the right sort of club at the right sort of price in the right sort of place. The broader Brussels region, where Union has been based since 1897, is home to more than a million people and only one major team, its traditional rival Anderlecht. It was not just random chance.Union’s glorious past includes 11 first-division championships, but the most recent was won in 1935.Virginie Lefour/Belga Mag/Sipa via Associated PressMuzio, Bloom and Starlizard looked at teams in a host of leagues. Others might have had different priorities, different requirements, different ideas. It just so happened that Union fit their bill exactly, and so it was Union whose existence was transformed, a husk of a club suddenly revitalized.This is a version of a story that has played out across Europe with increasing regularity in recent years: teams either adrift in mediocrity or that had fallen on hard times uplifted, seemingly overnight, by some external force. On the surface, the clubs have little in common. Underneath, they are bound by a single thread, one that can be traced to England.That European soccer has, over the last decade or so, been shaped by the Premier League is beyond doubt. The wealth of England’s top flight has long exerted a gravitational pull on the rest of the continent. English clubs serve as the most reliable market for players, drive up prices in the transfer market and send salaries soaring. Players are acquired across Europe with one eye on future sales to England, and often purchased with money that is a downstream consequence of the Premier League’s apparently pandemic-proof broadcast deals.In recent years, though, the nature of that impact has changed. It no longer exists at one remove; instead, English clubs — or, rather, the international ownership groups behind them — have invested in overseas teams directly, giving them unfiltered influence on championships across Europe, and around the world.The reasons for that vary. Two of Union’s rivals in the Jupiler Pro League have English-inflected ownership: O.H. Leuven is owned by King Power, the Thai company that controls Leicester City, and Ostend is a part of a group of clubs belonging to Pacific Media Group, among them the French side Nancy; F.C. Den Bosch in the Netherlands; and a second-tier English team, Barnsley.While Leuven has, at times, served as something more akin to a farm team — a place to send young players to gain experience — Pacific Media Group believes its approach helps to improve performance and reduce costs across its network of teams. “We don’t need to replicate all staff in all markets,” Paul Conway, the group’s founder, told the Unofficial Partner podcast.Jaime Valdez/USA Today Sports, via ReutersLee Smith/Action Images Via ReutersCity Football Group’s mixed results: New York City F.C., champion of Major League Soccer; Manchester City, leading the Premier League; and Troyes A.C., currently facing a  relegation fight in France.Francois Nascimbeni/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesOstend, Nancy, Barnsley and the rest share not only employees but knowledge. “We have a greater knowledge base than most,” Conway said of his clubs’ recruitment departments. That helps to prevent “leakage,” as he put it. “You spend lots of money on a player and then, at the end of the contract, that player walks away,” he said. “Because we have a uniform style of play as a group, we can spend our life with these players.” If one club does not require a player, in other words, a slot can be found for him elsewhere.A similar approach has helped Estoril, long a makeweight in Portugal’s top division, to compete for a spot in the Europa League after coming under the aegis of a group of teams backed by David Blitzer, the Blackstone executive who is a part of the consortium that owns the Premier League club Crystal Palace.Midtjylland, the Danish champion, shares an owner — another gambling magnate, Matthew Benham, a former colleague of Bloom’s — and a philosophy with Brentford F.C., a data-driven organization newly promoted to the Premier League.And then, of course, there are the clubs that form some of the City Football Group network, centered on Manchester City. The group’s record is, at best, mixed: Though it has enjoyed success in Major League Soccer and Australia — where New York City F.C. and Melbourne City are the reigning champions — its European ventures have been more complex.The group’s Belgian club, Lommel, remains mired at the wrong end of the second division despite a far greater budget than many of its peers, and Girona, its Spanish outpost, was demoted from La Liga in 2019 and has not returned. Troyes, the French team that City’s owners bought last year, was promoted at the first attempt, but is currently struggling against immediate relegation.Union’s relationship with Brighton is not quite so hierarchical. The depth of Starlizard’s knowledge of the game means that its methods are beyond the reach of most of its rivals — “They’re impossible for other teams to do,” Muzio said — but Muzio rejected the idea that Union is any or all of feeder, sister or partner club.“We are so independent,” he said, before referring to Bloom: “Tony is the majority owner, but he is so uninvolved at Union. He doesn’t meddle. We have the freedom to do it how we want to do it.”Much of the methodology at Brighton and Union is inevitably the same, he said, rooted in the way Starlizard has always worked, but the clubs do not share anything beyond that. So far, it has proved more than enough to have Union restored — for the time being — to the pinnacle of Belgian soccer with an expertise crafted and honed and polished in England. More

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    In the Premier League, There’s No Looking Back

    England’s clubs are plowing ahead with their holiday schedule. But amid questions about Omicron and fairness, do they really have a choice?And so on we roll, heads down and teeth gritted, grimly determined to reach the other side, wherever and whenever that might be found. The Premier League had planned to stage a full suite of games on Boxing Day, but as you read this sentence, its best hope is still just to get through as many of them as it can. In midweek, it will try to do it all again, and then, after ringing in the New Year, once more for good measure.That is the plan, anyway. Nobody truly believes it will play out like that. Last weekend, the division lost more than half its schedule to Covid outbreaks. At least one more match, Chelsea’s visit to Wolves, took place despite a request from Chelsea to postpone it because of a rising case count. On Thursday, it lost two more.The chances that every single one of the 30 top-flight games stuffed into England’s holiday season would be completed were always slim. There will be more contagion, more positive tests, more players self-isolating, more games canceled at short notice, more fans left suddenly adrift in unfamiliar town centers, facing an empty afternoon and a long journey home.But as far as the league and its constituent clubs could see, there was no other choice. When they sat down virtually on Monday to discuss how — and if — to proceed, they had three options. One was to play on. One was to reduce the workload from three games in a week to two. The other was to shut down, indefinitely, until the Omicron surge abates.Instinctively, it is easy to assume that the Premier League has done what it always does: followed the money. Boxing Day — and the rest of what is contractually known as “the busy festive period” — is in many ways the centerpiece of English soccer’s calendar. It functions as a test of nerve as much as a test of strength; it is when contenders separate themselves from also-rans, when the outline of the season’s conclusion begins to be mapped out.The Premier League race may hinge on health as much as much as on form.Andy Rain/EPA, via ShutterstockAnd while it is a tradition England cherishes and its rivals envy — the Premier League’s success is the reason that Italy’s Serie A, in recent years, has toyed with the idea of playing games the day after Christmas — it is also lucrative broadcasting.Not just because there is a captive audience at home, waiting to be sold things in commercial breaks, but because much of the rest of life — even in times less strange and unnerving than this — is on hold. The Premier League, soccer as a whole, gets to be just where it likes to be: front and center, the only show in town. Ultimately, it was never going to vacate that slot, not voluntarily.But that reading is, in truth, a little unfair. Neither of the available alternatives could be considered a right answer. Shutting down indefinitely — an idea that attracted no advocates in that virtual meeting — might feel like the moral choice, but it is not something that has been asked of any other industry. It also raises the question of how, precisely, you start again.There was more support for easing the burden, for allowing each club to postpone one of its three fixtures. Liverpool, among others, spoke in favor of that in private, just as its manager, Jürgen Klopp, has done in public. A couple of days later, the Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, made the valid point that nobody seems to have thought about asking the players what they want to do.The counterargument, though, was not without its merits. The Premier League is already facing a severe backlog of games — both Tottenham and Burnley have played three games fewer than some of their rivals — and there is a distinct shortage of space to fit them back in. Adding another whole round of games to that would create a logistical headache.The Champions League fate of West Ham, and of Tottenham, could be decided by the results of several rescheduled Spurs games next year.David Klein/ReutersOf course, to some extent this is the Premier League engaging in its favorite pastime: kicking the can down the road. This is an organization, we should not forget, that was beset by factionalism and fury over what to do with one season interrupted by a pandemic but did not think it worth it, in the aftermath, to draw up a protocol about what to do should another season be interrupted by the exact same pandemic. Thinking ahead is not, if we are honest, a strong suit.Deciding to play on does not preclude more postponements, more games to fit in to an overstuffed calendar drawn up by a whole range of organizations apparently unable to see beyond their own immediate requirements. Further cancellations and complications are almost inevitable. The Premier League is, effectively, simply gambling that there will be fewer than 10, that this is the least bad option.That approach comes with a cost, though. One of sport’s most abiding myths is that the league table does not lie. Every team plays each other home and away and, at the end of the season, all of the fluctuations of fate — the injury crises and the rotten luck and the good fortune and the decision not to send off Harry Kane — are evened out, and a true and, crucially, fair order of merit is established.It is a pretty fantasy, but it is a fantasy nonetheless. A league season is not inherently fair. It is simply unfair in a way that we, as a soccer culture, are prepared to tolerate.It is not, for example, entirely fair that Watford was able to play Newcastle United at home at a time when Newcastle’s squad was a ragtag bunch of journeymen. Three of Newcastle’s direct rivals for relegation — Leeds, Burnley and Norwich — have to play Newcastle at home after it has had a chance to inject $200 million into its team in the January transfer window. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the vagaries of the fixture schedule may determine which of those teams goes down.It is not entirely fair that teams can fire an underperforming manager at any point in the season — in a way not possible with players — giving their subsequent opponents a more challenging encounter than their previous ones, or that some teams get more rest between games than others.That is not to complain; these are trivial inequities, especially when compared with things like the vast financial chasm that exists between teams in the same league. It is simply to point out that no league season can be truly, unwaveringly, incontestably fair, and that it is something we can all accept.Just like fans, Pep Guardiola and his players now face Covid-19 checks at the stadium door.Lee Smith/Action Images Via ReutersThe problem with the Premier League’s decision to push through as best it can, commanding that any and every club with enough uninfected players to fill a team and the requisite number of substitutes must play on, canceling some games but continuing with others, is that it adds an extra — and perhaps excessive — level of competitive distortion.Tottenham, without question, will suffer for having to make up the three games it lost to its Covid outbreak. There will be busy weeks in the spring, and fatigue may weigh heavy. But will it suffer more than — say — Chelsea, which had to play on despite the fact that its manager, Thomas Tuchel, made it very plain that he felt he did not have enough players?Does Tottenham not now have a better chance of winning those games than it would otherwise? And what would a team like Leeds make of that, given that it has a far longer list of absentees but has had to endure simply because they had not — at least until Thursday — been missing because of Covid?It is easy, at this point, to say that the teams at the summit of the Premier League all have enough players to cope, and indeed they do. There is no reason to feel sorry for the poor little rich boys. But what if it happens at the other end of the table? What if Burnley must play through, but Norwich gets to reset? What if it proves the difference between survival and relegation? What if it costs people their jobs? Not the players, but the support staff whose income is dependent on continued access to the wealth of the Premier League?There is, again, no correct answer here, though there are other solutions available. Perhaps clubs should be made to play on — unless they cannot guarantee the health and safety of the opposing team — with whatever group of players they can cobble together? That is the usual sporting punishment for missing players, as Leeds is busy discovering.Or perhaps, as is the case elsewhere, they should be punished for failing to fulfill their fixtures, for not adhering to the coronavirus protocols well enough? Maybe each team that cannot complete a game should just suffer a 3-0 defeat? And yet that, too, is hardly an advertisement for fairness.And so the Premier League has done the only thing it can think of: to hit and hope, to assume that when it emerges from the thick fog of winter there will be something on the other side. What shape it will take, what difference it will have made and what damage it might have done are questions that can wait for later. Until then, it will do what it has always done, plowing on regardless, into the current.CorrespondenceLet’s start with a suggestion from Jeffrey Hoffman as to how to keep UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, from making a huge mess of pulling some balls out of a pot. “Go back to a straight knockout tournament. No seeding. No country protections. No nothing. If Paris St.-Germain plays Manchester City in the first round, so be it. Win or go home.”Now this is, it has to be said, quite a popular idea with — let’s put this diplomatically — a certain demographic: those over 45. It is not, though, one I agree with. Randomness is a welcome addition to the Champions League, but too much randomness is not. It makes sense to try to funnel the best teams toward the final rounds. It just doesn’t make any sense to filter them once they are there.Lionel Messi and Paris St.-Germain are 13 points clear at the top of the Ligue 1 table, the largest Christmas gap in any of Europe’s top five leagues.Christophe Ena/Associated PressBrion Fox, meanwhile, picks up on the idea that there are too many penalties. “There are too many penalties,” he said, “because there are too many fouls. We have so many, they have their own lingo: professional fouls, tactical, strategic, lazy, aggressive, late. Players are criticized for not being tough enough to foul. Some players seem to be on the field solely to provoke fouls. Others, to satisfy the desire of those who seek to provoke. The lack of flow of the game, with the constant starts and stops, is why I prefer the women’s game.”To round this out, maybe there are too many fouls because there are too many things that are considered fouls? Maybe if we decided that some things weren’t really fouls, we could concentrate on eliminating the ones that definitely are? (Statistically, Brion is right: There are fewer fouls in women’s soccer. In England, for example, it’s currently 17.5 per game in the Women’s Super League and 20.2 in the Premier League. So the difference is not vast, but I’d agree it’s probably noticeable.)And because it’s Christmas, we will finish with these gifts to you: two absolutely perfect emails from the inbox this week. First, a prime example of the sort of correspondence I love — questioning and imaginative and beautifully put — from Connor Murphy:“What is the optimal shape of the penalty area? That it’s currently a rectangle seems likely to be nothing more than historical accident, a consequence of our infatuation with right angles. Is a foul just outside of the top of the box and right in the center of the goal more deserving of a penalty kick than one occurring on a goal line corner of the box?”(Great question, don’t know, maybe the shape of a partially deflated hot-air balloon?)The penalty area at Villa Park, still a rectangle. For now.Molly Darlington/Action Images Via ReutersAnd then there was this mildly confessional missive from Dan Portnoy. “My son and I, both low-level referees, jumped out of our seats on the Antonio Rüdiger foul. We’ve been saying for years that players on the edge of the box, heading away from the goal, don’t deserve a penalty, even though they do deserve something.“We’ve called for a referee judgment call as to whether a foul in the box deserves a penalty, or, as an alternative, a free kick from anywhere outside the box that the offended team chooses. When I’m refereeing and a foul happens near the edge of the box, I often award a free kick, not a penalty, declaring that it happened just outside the box (please don’t tell anyone).”Don’t worry, Dan, I won’t.That’s all for this week, and for next week, too, when we take our one newsletter break of the year. If you can’t wait two weeks to be heard, get in touch at askrory@nytimes.com with any hints, tips, complaints or ideas. Twitter can perform much the same function, of course. We’re looking back on the year for the Set Piece Menu podcast this week, first for good, and then for bad. The good episode is heartwarming. The bad one is more fun.For those of you who celebrate, have a great Christmas. For those that don’t, enjoy the fact that everything is a little quieter than normal. More