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    Once an ‘Easy Way Out’ for Equality, Women’s Soccer Is Now a U.S. Force

    Brooke Volza and the other girls who play in the top division of high school soccer in Albuquerque know all about the Metro Curse: The team that wins the city’s metro tournament at the start of the season is doomed to end the year without a state championship.So when Cibola High School defied that fate with Volza scoring the only goal in the team’s 1-0 victory against Carlsbad High School before a cheering stadium crowd at the University of New Mexico last year, it was pandemonium. “I started crying. I started hugging everyone,” Volza, 17, said, describing the experience as “times 10 amazing.”Now the ball she used to score that goal sits on a shelf in her bedroom, covered with her teammates’ autographs and jersey numbers. Across it in large capital letters are the words, “2021 STATE CHAMPIONS.”Fifty years ago, Volza’s experience of sprawling and robust competitive high school soccer was effectively unheard-of in the United States. Yet thanks to Title IX, which became law in 1972 and banned sex discrimination in education, generations of girls have had the promise of access to sports and other educational programs.Brooke Volza at Cibola High School in Albuquerque.Adria Malcolm for The New York TimesAsia Lawyer, a rising senior at Centennial High School in Boise, Idaho.Lindsey Wasson for The New York TimesAnd girls’ soccer, perhaps more than any other women’s sport, has grown tremendously in the 50 years since. School administrators quickly saw adding soccer as a cost-effective way to comply with the law, and the rising interest helped youth leagues swell. Talented players from around the globe came to the United States. And as millions of American women and girls benefited, the best of them gave rise to a U.S. women’s national program that has dominated the world stage.“Once Title IX broke down those barriers, and let women and girls play sports, and said they have to be provided with equal opportunities, the girls came rushing through,” said Neena Chaudhry, the general counsel and senior adviser for education at the National Women’s Law Center. “They came through in droves.”A 50-Year Rise Out of NowhereWomen’s participation in high school and college athletics surged after the passage of Title IX in 1972, and no sport has added more players than soccer.

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    Girls’ Participation in High School Sports
    Notes: Top 15 sports shown. Data is not available for all sports in all years, and comparable data is not available prior to the 1978-79 academic year.Source: National Federation of State High School AssociationsBy The New York Times

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    Women’s Participation in N.C.A.A. Divisions I, II and III
    Notes: Top 15 sports shown. Data is not available for all sports in all years, and comparable data is not available prior to the 1981-82 academic year. Some schools were added to the data in 1995-96.Source: N.C.A.A.By The New York TimesBefore Title IX passed, an N.C.A.A. count found only 13 women’s collegiate soccer teams in the 1971-72 season, with 313 players. In 1974, the first year in which a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations tracked girls’ participation across the United States, it counted 6,446 girls playing soccer in 321 schools in just seven states, mostly in New York. That number climbed to about 394,100 girls playing soccer in high schools across the country during the 2018-19 school year, with schools often carrying multiple teams and states sponsoring as many as five divisions.Mountain View Los Altos stretching during the tournament in Redmond, the Elite Clubs National League playoffs.Lindsey Wasson for The New York TimesIn 2018-19, the most recent season counted because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were 3.4 million girls overall participating in high school sports, compared with 4.5 million boys.Many of those athletes have overcome fears to try out for a team. Some have practiced late into the night, running sprints after goofing off with teammates. Some have found archrivals through competition, and plenty have grappled with the sting of defeat. Numerous girls and women on the soccer pitch have felt the thrill of a goal, and the pride of being part of something bigger than themselves.“We are the heart and soul of soccer at Cibola,” Volza said.Title IX is a broad law, and was not originally intended to encompass sports. Its origins lie in fighting discrimination against women and girls in federally funded academic institutions. But as the regulations were hashed out, they eventually encompassed athletics, and it helped bridge disparities beyond the classroom. Today, Title IX is perhaps best known for its legacy within women’s interscholastic athletics.Despite initial and heavy opposition to the law because of a perceived threat to men’s athletic programs, the N.C.A.A. eventually sponsored women’s sports, including soccer in 1982. Before that, only a handful of teams played one another around the country.The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a dynasty that has won 21 N.C.A.A. championships and produced inimitable players including Mia Hamm, began its run playing against high schoolers.“We didn’t really have anyone to play,” said Anson Dorrance, the head coach of the women’s team since its inception in 1979. He described how he cobbled together a schedule that first season. One travel soccer club, the McLean Grasshoppers, “came down to U.N.C. and beat us like a drum,” he said.Florida Gators Coach Samantha Bohon, left, talking with an assistant coach, Jocie Rix, as they scout players during the Elite Clubs National League playoffs.Lindsey Wasson for The New York TimesThe playoffs are a big showcase for high school players to be seen by top college coaches.Lindsey Wasson for The New York TimesAfter the N.C.A.A. brought women’s soccer into the fold, participation rates went from 1,855 players on 80 teams across all three divisions in 1982 to nearly 28,000 players across 1,026 teams in 2020-21.Now, the N.C.A.A. claims soccer as the most expanded women’s sports program among universities in the last three decades.Current and former athletic directors, sports administrators and coaches attribute the rise of soccer to several factors. Initially, complying with the law was a game of numbers and dollars: Soccer is a relatively large sport, where average roster sizes typically float between 20 and 26 players. The generous roster sizes helped schools meet the requirements of the law to offer similar numbers of opportunities to male and female students.For administrators, soccer was also economical: It needed only a field, a ball and two goals. It was also a relatively easy sport to learn.“At the time schools were interested in, ‘How can I add sports for women that wouldn’t cost me very much?’” said Donna Lopiano, founder and president of Sports Management Resources and a former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She added: “Schools were looking for the easy way out.”The shifts did not begin until the late 1980s and early 1990s. College programs increasingly gained varsity status — often pressured by litigation — which created scholarship opportunities and made soccer a pathway to higher education. The game boomed at the high school level, where it became one of the most popular sports, fourth in terms of participation rates for girls for 2018-19, according to the high school federation (the top three girls’ sports were track and field, volleyball and basketball).An under-14 match in Redmond.Lindsey Wasson for The New York TimesA cottage industry of club teams also sprang up around the country, as athletes jockeyed for attention from college coaches. The youth game grew, and university teams became a farm system for the elite world stage, as women struggled to play the sport in many countries outside the United States.The U.S. women’s national team went largely unnoticed when it played its first international match in 1985. It also got little attention in 1991 when it won the first Women’s World Cup, held in Guangdong, China.Then the United States began to feel the power of Title IX. In 1996, women’s soccer debuted at the Olympics in Atlanta, and the United States won gold. During the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, against China, the Americans secured a victory during penalty kicks before a capacity crowd of more than 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.Michelle Akers, the pillar of the U.S.W.N.T. in the ’80s and ’90s who is now an assistant coach for the Orlando Pride women’s professional team, said Title IX was “game-changing.” “I can’t even understand the amount of time and energy and heartache that took to get that pushed through, and not just pushing it through but enforcing it — making it real for people, and making it real for me,” she said.The national team’s success continued, with a record four World Cup titles and four Olympic golds. And this year, after a six-year legal battle, a multimillion-dollar settlement and eventual labor agreement established equal pay for players representing the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams when competing internationally.“It was a historic moment, not just for soccer, but for sport,” Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer’s president, said.The U.S. women’s national team celebrating its World Cup win in 2019 after a parade in Manhattan.Calla Kessler/The New York TimesSydney Sharts, left, and her sister Hannah, right, are college players. Their mother, Michelle, was on a club team in the ’90s.Alisha Jucevic for The New York TimesIn 1993, Michele Sharts was part of a club team at U.C.L.A. that threatened to sue the school under Title IX for not sponsoring women’s soccer.Sharts, who was cut from the inaugural varsity squad, now has two daughters playing at large university programs. Hannah, 22, started at U.C.L.A. before transferring to Colorado, where she is a graduate student. Sydney, 20, began at Oklahoma before transferring to Kansas State for the coming season.Hannah Sharts has played in front of as many as 5,000 fans. “Being able to gradually see more and more fans fill up the stands throughout my college experience has been very promising,” Hannah Sharts said. Both Hannah and Sydney have dreams to play professionally.Like the Sharts sisters, Volza, the rising senior in New Mexico, plans to play in college. She is looking at Division II and III schools with strong engineering programs.But first, she has her final year of high school ahead. Volza said she wanted to be a leader for the younger players.“I want to motivate them and teach them what it’s like to play varsity soccer for a state-winning championship team,” Volza said.And Volza wants to make history again in her own corner of America, by leading her team to win the Metro tournament and state championship in back-to-back years.Members of the De Anza Force celebrating a win over World Class F.C. in Redmond.Lindsey Wasson for The New York Times More

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    Gareth Bale Will Join L.A.F.C. in Major League Soccer

    Bale, who helped Wales qualify for the World Cup, will prepare for the tournament in the United States. An announcement is expected Sunday.Ever since Gareth Bale helped ensure that Wales would play in the World Cup for the first time since 1958, there has been only one question on the minds of his countrymen: For which club would he sign, and play, to prepare for the tournament?The answer arrived Saturday: After running out his contract with Real Madrid and flirting with a return to his hometown, Bale, 32, has agreed to join Los Angeles F.C. in Major League Soccer in a move that will offer him regular playing time, plenty of sunshine and as many as five consecutive months of matches to sharpen his form before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in late November.L.A.F.C. teased an international signing on its social media accounts on Saturday but did not reveal the player. An M.L.S. official familiar with Bale’s decision to join the league, though, confirmed that an official announcement of his signing was imminent, perhaps as soon as Sunday.Any guesses? pic.twitter.com/hIx1vE967L— LAFC (@LAFC) June 25, 2022
    With his Real Madrid contract expiring this summer, Bale announced his intent to leave Spain and has been available to any team as a free transfer. A five-time Champions League winner with Madrid, which had acquired him in 2013 for what was then a world-record fee of 100 millions euros (just over $105 million), he had become an afterthought at the club in recent years, playing rarely and feuding openly with the team and its fans all while rejecting any effort to move on.Bale had flirted with a move to Cardiff City in his hometown in recent weeks before choosing M.L.S., and Los Angeles, when it came time to put pen to paper.While a return to Wales would have been a popular and symbolic — Bale was born in Cardiff — his choice of Los Angeles may better suit his World Cup preparations. M.L.S. has moved its schedule forward this season to accommodate the World Cup, ensuring Bale a steady diet of games from July through October, and then either a playoff push or a brief break before the World Cup.L.A.F.C. currently leads the Western Conference standings, and it entered Saturday with the league’s best record. Adding Bale and the veteran Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini — whose introduction is set for next week — to a team that already features the Mexican star Carlos Vela could make L.A.F.C. an M.L.S. Cup favorite this fall.Once his signing with M.L.S. becomes official, Bale could be positioned to make his debut for his new team against the crosstown Los Angeles Galaxy on July 8. That derby, known as El Tráfico in a wink at the city’s perpetual headache, has been home to major moments in the past: In 2018, the Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic entered the game, his first in M.L.S., and scored one of the most famous goals in league history.Bale’s main focus, though, will be the World Cup. Wales opens the tournament on its first day, Nov. 21. Its opponent that day? The United States. More

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    Paulo Dybala, Juventus and the Problem With Italy

    The travails of Dybala, whose contract with Juventus runs out this month, are emblematic of a soccer ecosystem that is often a world apart.Paulo Dybala did not, particularly, look as if he were ready to say goodbye. As the lights at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, his home for the last seven years, flashed and flickered, and Tina Turner’s “The Best” began its crescendo, he started to cry. Not in the sense of a single, elegant tear rolling down the cheek. He sobbed. He racked. His chest heaved as he gulped for air.As Juventus’s fans stood as one to applaud Dybala, Leonardo Bonucci, his longstanding teammate, rushed over to put an arm around his shoulder. It was not an act of consolation so much as one of support. His eyes red and his face raw, it looked momentarily as if Dybala might struggle to remain upright.Dybala had not wanted to leave. Not really, not deep down. Instead, his hand had been forced. His contract at Juventus expires next week. He had been set to sign a new one, one to keep him in Turin for four years, last October, but Juventus withdrew it. The club had scheduled further discussions for March, but those never materialized.Things had changed in the intervening months, the team’s executives explained to Dybala’s agents. The Juventus attack was going to be built around Dusan Vlahovic, a Serbian striker signed from Fiorentina in January. There would be no room for Dybala, either on the field or on the salary roll. His time was up. He was free to leave.Dybala in May, after his final game at Juventus.Massimo Pinca/ReutersDybala might, when the tears had dried and he had recovered his composure, have wondered if that was no bad thing to be this summer. Europe’s teams are still recovering from the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Most are not sufficiently flush to pay vast transfer fees, but that has not dimmed their desire for improvement. This is — as it was always going to be — the summer of the free transfer.Antonio Rüdiger has already taken advantage of it, swapping Chelsea for Real Madrid. His former teammate at Chelsea, Andreas Christensen, has done the same, joining Barcelona. Paul Pogba will, in the coming days, announce that he is returning to Juventus after his contract at Manchester United expired. All of them will have made sure that at least some of the money that they might have fetched in transfer fees on the open market now finds its way into their pay packets instead.Dybala might have expected to attract more suitors than all of them. He is 28, in the thick of his prime years. He was, for a while, arguably the most gifted player on one of the most successful teams in Europe. He has won Serie A titles and played in the Champions League final. He scored 113 goals in 283 games for Juventus. He is, by any measure, an elite forward. His signature would be a coup.It has not quite played out like that. With a week to go until he is no longer a Juventus player, Dybala has yet to find a new employer. Inter Milan, for weeks his most likely destination, has suddenly cooled on the idea, having already restored Romelu Lukaku to its ranks. A.C. Milan, the returned Serie A champion, would be an alternative, but no offer has yet emerged.Romelu Lukaku couldn’t wait to leave Chelsea and return to Inter Milan. His move ended one possible exit route for Dybala.Tiziana Fabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesMore curious still is the apparent apathy from outside Italy. Dybala, a player who has previously captured the imaginations of Manchester United, Tottenham, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has received only one serious proposal from abroad, from Sevilla, that great collector of mercurial Argentine forwards. The catch is that it comes with a significant pay cut. One of the finest players in Italy is available at no cost, and much of Europe has barely blinked.In part, that is because of Dybala himself. His salary expectations rule out a vast majority of clubs. His injury record might give others pause. His form, over the last couple of years, has been a little inconsistent, though he would doubtless point out that Juventus has hardly played in a way that might extract his best performances.That, in fact, may be the most apposite factor. In an era when most teams play with some version of an attacking trident — two wide players cutting in, one central forward employed to create space — Dybala does not have a natural home.He is, by inclination and disposition, a No. 10, a position that has all but ceased to exist in modern soccer. Even Juventus, where the role — as much as the number — carries a certain “weight,” as one of the club’s executives said this year, is abolishing it. Elite soccer, now, does not have room for what Italian soccer has long called the fantasista. Dybala may prove to be the last of the line.But the limbo in which Dybala finds himself is part of a broader trend, too. Italian soccer is an increasingly isolated ecosystem, a world unto itself. It is not just that Italian players, as a rule, do not leave Italy: Only four members called to Roberto Mancini’s team for this month’s meeting with Argentina, the so-called Finalissima, played outside Serie A, the same number as he called up to his victorious squad for Euro 2020. It is that the country’s coaches travel less and less frequently, too. Carlo Ancelotti may have won yet another Champions League less than a month ago, and Antonio Conte might have helped Tottenham win back its place in Europe’s elite, but they are exceptions rather than the rule.Gennaro Gattuso was installed a few weeks ago at Valencia — a match made in Jorge Mendes’s idea of heaven — but he is the only other Italian coach in Europe’s big five leagues. The Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and Spain export great numbers of managers, seeding ideas and spreading philosophies. The graduates of Coverciano, Italy’s fabled coaching academy, tend to stay closer to home.Carlo Ancelotti is a rarity: a successful Italian coach working outside of Italy.Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIncreasingly, too, Serie A has drifted free of its moorings at the heart of elite soccer’s economic system. According to the consultancy firm Twenty First Group, 138 players have left France’s top flight for teams in the other big-five leagues in the last five years. Ninety-eight have left Spain. Only 82 have left Italy, fewer even than the Premier League, soccer’s great apex predator.Some, of course, have been eye-catchingly successful: Liverpool plucked Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker from Roma; Paris St.-Germain, a frequent importer of luxury Italian goods, has acquired the likes of Mauro Icardi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Achraf Hakimi from the two Milanese clubs. There have been other, more low-key triumphs, too: Bayer Leverkusen’s signing of Patrik Schick and Leicester’s recruiting Timothy Castagne.But largely, Italian clubs now trade with each other. In the same time period, teams in France, Spain, Germany and England sold around 100 players apiece to their domestic rivals. Italian sides did almost twice as much business internally: 215 players have left one Serie A club for another since 2017.It is that, more than anything, that may have precluded Dybala’s having the choice he might have expected, once his sorrow at seeing his time at Juventus cut short had abated. Italy is no longer a place teams go to shop. One of the best players in Europe is out of contract next week, and only a handful of teams seem to have taken note. Not because of what he can do, or because of what he has achieved, but because of where he has done it, a global star who flourished in Italy’s own little world.Time to Say GoodbyeSadio Mané is happy. It’s OK to be happy for him, too.Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThose of you not regularly exposed to Britain’s soccer content-industrial complex might be blissfully unaware of the fact that a variety of retired players have declared Sadio Mané’s transfer to Bayern Munich a bad one. Michael Owen is “struggling to understand” why a player with one year left on his contract would leave Liverpool for a European giant.Ally McCoist, meanwhile, finds it “very strange.” Paul Merson was equally baffled. Dean Saunders believes Mané, the Senegal forward, will “ruin the best two years of his career.”To some extent, of course, the thing that comes out worst from this whole confected farrago is the soccer media in Britain, thanks to its willingness to lend weight to the words of almost anyone who has ever kicked a ball and its desperate need to drag out whatever thin talking point it can find in a long, slow, balmy June.The reality, of course, is that there is nothing to say about Mané’s departure from Liverpool. Indeed, it is something of a unicorn: a player swapping one major club for another with absolutely no acrimony whatsoever.The rationale behind Mané’s decision is blindingly obvious: He has spent six years at Anfield, won everything, and now wants to try something new. Bayern Munich offers not only a guarantee of trophies but a consistent place in (at least) the Champions League quarterfinals and the sort of salary that Liverpool was not prepared to pay.It is so simple that even the one faction that might be expected to have criticized Mané’s decision, Liverpool’s fans, seems satisfied. There is a disappointment that the club’s beloved front three is no more, of course, but there has been no fury, no resentment and no accusations of greed or treachery.That has partly to do with the affection and esteem in which Mané is held, but it also has to do with the timing of his departure. Mané goes having achieved everything he set out to achieve at Liverpool. There are no unanswered questions, no sense of what might have been, no reason to regret. There is also no feeling that he lingered too long. Perhaps that is what has caused the confusion. Perhaps that is what that legion of former players is struggling to understand. Transfers are not meant to happen like this. Someone is meant to be angry. Everything falls apart if they are not.Welcome to FIFA’s Party. B.Y.O.Gianni Infantino and FIFA’s golden goose.Eduardo Munoz/ReutersEnvironmentally, it borders on the criminal. Logistically, it will be a nightmare. There are too many teams and too many games and, as begrudging as it sounds, too many venues. If this year’s World Cup threatens to be too compact, too tight, then the 2026 iteration seems too sprawling, too vast.Still, for all of that, it is hard not to find the prospect of a World Cup scattered across North America tantalizing. A final in Los Angeles, Miami or (the correct answer, for reasons not quite as partisan as they might seem) New York? A debut for the men’s tournament in Canada? A return to Mexico, to the Azteca, the quintessential World Cup venue? Soccer at Arrowhead? All of it is perfect.That, of course, is not why FIFA awarded the tournament to North America. It did so because it will be the most lucrative World Cup in history. It might well be the most lucrative World Cup there could ever be. The North American bid team’s own projections estimated that FIFA will leave the United States, Canada and Mexico with an $11 billion surplus.Not that FIFA needs the money, of course. The organization’s cash reserves already run into the billions. And yet it still felt the need to demand various tax breaks from candidate cities, simply to make the whole exercise more money-spinning for itself.All of that, though, simply makes the question more urgent. What, precisely, does it intend to do with the infusion 2026 will bring? Will there be a sudden, dramatic improvement on the amount of money it can pump into the game in less-developed soccer nations?A FIFA employee may well have provided the answer. Earlier this month, Arsène Wenger — a little ham-fistedly — suggested that soccer was missing out on talent because the infrastructure to find it was not as advanced in Africa as it is in Europe. There are no prizes for guessing whose responsibility that is. FIFA already has the money to redress the balance between Europe and, well, everywhere else. After 2026, it will have no excuses for failing to do so.CorrespondenceShawn Donnelly has a question. “It’s easy to find out how much money athletes are making during the season. Why is it so difficult to get the same information for European soccer players? It seems like these figures are state secrets. As a fan, it’s tough to get a full picture of how much the players are making, and so to know the real cost to the clubs.”This is meat and drink for the correspondence section: an Atlantic cultural divide. There is, as a rule, traditionally a greater degree of transparency in American sports. (I always enjoy American journalists who complain, understandably, that teams increasingly won’t let them into the locker room; try shouting a single question at Harry Winks in a parking lot, only for him not to answer it.) That seems the most obvious explanation.But I might be tempted to flip the question on its head, too. Why are American sports and American athletes so willing to divulge their salaries? As a journalist, obviously, I’d encourage it. As a fan, too. Fans have a right to know these things. But I’m not sure any of us especially enjoy talking about how much, or how little, we earn, just as I’m not sure any of us like being questioned about our performance at work while in our underwear.Speaking of asking questions, there were plenty of submissions for commentary bugbears, too. Karl Thompson pitched, “well, there was contact,” when discussing whether something should or should not be a penalty. Benson Lieber dismissed my suggestion of “interrogating” because it has “become one of the most prominent buzzwords in the literary humanities,” which is more than enough to rule it out. And Josh Curnett volunteered, “showed a clean pair of heels,” which feels evocative enough to be allowed a pass.And special mention to Andrew Melnykovych, who wondered: “Are you asking questions of asking questions?” More

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    The Stranded Sons of Shakhtar Donetsk

    One of Ukraine’s top soccer teams rushed its youth academy players out of the path of war in February. Months later, many of the boys are stuck in a lonely limbo.SPLIT, Croatia — It was in their moment of triumph, when they had beaten their opponents and come together to collect their medals, when some of the boys were overcome with sadness, when the tears welled in their eyes.The teenagers, a mix of 13- and 14-year-olds representing one of the youth squads of the top Ukrainian soccer team Shakhtar Dontesk, had just won a tournament in Split, the Croatian city that has provided them with a refuge from war. Each boy was presented with a medal, and the team received a trophy to mark the victory.The lucky ones got to celebrate and pose for pictures with their mothers. For most of the others, though, there was no one — just another vivid reminder of how lonely life has become, of how far away they remain from the people they love and the places they know. It is in these moments, the adults around the players have come to realize, when emotions are at their most raw, when the tears sometimes come.“As a mother I feel it,” said Natalia Plaminskaya, who was able to accompany her twin boys to Croatia but said she felt for families who could not do the same. “I want to hug them, play with them, make them feel better.”Many of the Shakhtar academy players, in orange, are entering their fourth month away from their homes and families in Ukraine.Shakhtar DonetskIt has all happened so fast. In those first frantic days after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Eastern Europe’s powerhouse clubs, moved quickly to evacuate its teams and staff members out of harm’s way. Foreign players gathered their families and found their way home. Parts of the first team wound up in Turkey, and then Slovenia, setting up a base from which they played friendly matches to raise awareness and money and kept alive Ukraine’s hopes for World Cup qualification.But scores of players and staff members from Shakhtar’s youth academy needed sanctuary, too. Phone calls were placed. Buses were arranged. But decisions had to be made quickly, and only about a dozen mothers were able to accompany the boys on the journey. (Wartime rules required that their fathers — all men of fighting age, in fact, ages 18 to 60 — had to remain in Ukraine.) Other families made different choices: to stay with husbands and relatives, to send their boys off alone. All of the options were imperfect. None of the decisions were easy.Three months later, the weight of separation, of loneliness — of everything — has taken its toll.“It’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare,” said Edgar Cardoso, who leads Shakhtar’s youth teams. He repeats his words to underline how fragile the atmosphere has become within the walls of the seaside hotel that has become the Shakhtar group’s temporary home. “You see that emotions are now on the peak.”“I’m not a guy to lie and to show too much optimism and say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we will be back soon,’” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”Shakhtar DonetskNo one knows when all this will end: not the war, not the separation, not the uncertainty. No one can say, for example, even if they will remain together. More than a dozen top clubs across Europe, teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have already cherry-picked the most talented of Shakhtar’s stranded sons, offering to train the best 14- to 17-year-olds in the comparative safety of Germany and Spain.Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine WarHistory and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here are some of the sanctions adopted so far and a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.Stay Updated: To receive the latest updates on the war in your inbox, sign up here. The Times has also launched a Telegram channel to make its journalism more accessible around the world.Those players’ departures have left Cardoso with mixed feelings. On the one hand, their absence hurts the quality of the training sessions. But there is also pride that others are so interested in the boys Shakhtar has developed.When, or if, they will return is not clear: The rule change that had allowed Ukrainian players and prospects fleeing the war to join other clubs was supposed to end June 30. But FIFA on Tuesday extended the exemptions until the summer of 2023.For Cardoso, a well-traveled Portuguese coach who moved to Shakhtar eight years ago after a stint developing youth soccer in Qatar, the implications of the war mean he has now been thrust into a new role: father figure and focal point for dozens of teenage boys dislocated from their families and everything they knew.Once the club had spirited him, his young charges, a handful of their mothers and a few staff members out of Kyiv to Croatia, where they had been offered a new base by the Croatian team Hajduk Split, Cardoso, 40, decided to create an approximation of normality with whatever, and whoever, was available.Natalia Plaminskaya with her twin sons. Shakhtar DonetskWhile in Ukraine, each generation of young players had two dedicated coaches, doctors, access to dedicated fitness instructors and analysts. In Split, the setup is considerably more rudimentary.Now a single female fitness coach looks after all the boys. One of the team’s administrators, a former player now in his 60s, helps run the daily training sessions. Mothers help set up cones, oversee meal times or accompany the children on excursions, which typically means a short walk down a dusty track to the local beach. About halfway down the path, a piece of graffiti written in black letters marks the boys’ presence in Croatia: “Slava Ukraini,” it reads. Glory to Ukraine.Along with Cardoso, perhaps the figure with the most outsize importance in ensuring things run smoothly is Ekateryna Afanasenko. A Donetsk native in her 30s and now in her 15th year with the club, Afanasenko was working in Shakhtar’s human resources department in 2014 when the team first fled after Russian-backed separatists attacked Donetsk, the club’s home city in eastern Ukraine.Back then, Afanasenko was a part of the team’s emergency efforts, charged with shepherding 100 members of the club’s youth academy to safety. Once the team eventually settled in Kyiv, Afanasenko’s role evolved to include oversight of education and administration of a new facility where many of the displaced children lived.The players fill their ample downtime by playing card games and taking turns on two video game consoles recently donated to the group by the Red Cross.Shakhtar DonetskNow in Split after another escape from another Russian assault, the responsibilities for both Afanasenko and Cardoso have grown to such an extent that Afanasenko has a simple explanation for what they do: “We are like mother and father.”Shakhtar has extended an open invitation to relatives of other boys to travel to the camp.Elena Kostrytsa recently arrived for a three-week stay to ensure her son Alexander did not spend his 16th birthday alone. “I haven’t seen my son for three months, so you can imagine how this feels,” said Kostrytsa, as Alexander, dressed in training gear, looked on. His younger sister Diana had also made the 1,200-mile trip. But even this reunion was bittersweet: Ukraine’s laws meant Alexander’s father could not be present.The makeshift soccer camp is now as much of a distraction as an elite-level education for a career in professional sports. Doing the best he can, Cardoso has divided the players into four groups, separating them roughly by age, and works out half at a time.He holds two sessions simultaneously, using the time on the field with half the players to send the team bus — emblazoned with Shakhtar’s branding — back to the hotel to collect the rest of the trainees. On the field, Cardoso barks orders in a voice made raspy through the daily sessions, and without his translator.Ekateryna Afanasenko with a team of Shakhtar boys after they won a tournament in Croatia.Shakhtar DonetskYet an air of uncertainty pervades everything for Shakhtar’s staff and young players, heading into a fourth month in their Croatian exile.“I’m not a guy to lie and to show too much optimism and say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we will be back soon,’” Cardoso said. “I try to be realistic.”For the foreseeable future, all he, Afanasenko and the others holed up at the Hotel Zagreb can do is provide a safe environment for the players, preserve the connections they share and reunite them with their families as soon as they can. There will be more waiting, more worry, more tears.“Every day in the morning and in the night, I start my day calling my family and end my day calling my family,” Afanasenko said. “I think every one of these boys is doing the same. But what can we change?” More

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    Erling Haaland, Darwin Núñez and Rediscovering the No. 9

    It took Erling Haaland a couple of seconds to notice something had changed. Late last month, Haaland, the Norwegian striker, was inside the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance, patiently and quietly going through the many and monotonous steps of the medical exam that was part of his move to Manchester City.At one point, stripped down to nothing but a pair of briefs, Haaland was asked to take a deep breath and stand perfectly still, so that the club could get an accurate read of his height. He did as he was told. “OK, 1.952 meters,” the physician guiding him through the exam said, jotting down the figure on a piece of paper.That, Haaland thought, was not right. Everyone knows their own height. He checked what the doctor had recorded. There was the answer again. 1.952. “Wow,” Haaland said, sounding genuinely pleased with himself. “I’ve grown. Almost a whole centimeter.” A meaningful one, too: those extra few millimeters had tipped Haaland over a threshold. At the age of 21, he was now, officially, 6 feet 4 inches.Size is significant when it comes to Haaland. That is not to diminish his rich array of other qualities as a striker — his technical ability, his movement, his intelligence, his capacity to drop deep and build play, the power and precision of his finishing from either foot — and it is not something that exists in isolation.Indeed, watching Haaland in the flesh, what stands out first is his speed. Haaland is quick. He accelerates almost instantaneously, and then eats up the ground in front of him, his stride long and elegant. It is only after a beat that it is possible to realize that what makes that speed so striking is that it is unexpected, that it is being produced by a man with that frame.Erling Haaland’s mix of size, speed and strength makes him a test for any defender.Andrej Isakovic/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesNor is it to pigeonhole the type of player he is, or to ponder how he will fit in to the intricate, delicate style of play preached by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Haaland has not been bought as some sort of battering ram. He is far more than a target man. It is just that, at first glance, that is how he is built.On a very basic level, Haaland is large, undeniably so. He is especially large in context. Elite soccer is populated, these days, by slight, almost elfin figures. Haaland is a head taller than most forwards. He towers over most fullbacks and wings. He has aerial clearance over central midfielders. He might even find the majority of central defenders a little diminutive.Darwin Nuñez, the Uruguayan forward added to Liverpool’s ranks by Jürgen Klopp this week, is similar. He is not quite so tall — only 6-foot-1, unless he, like Haaland, still has growing to do — but he possesses a similar profile. He drifts wide, rather than deep, to find space. He accelerates rapidly. He moves smartly.But he is, as Klopp noted, “powerful,” too. Liverpool’s forward line, these last few years, has been constructed around three players — Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah — who fit the accepted mold for modern forwards. They are nimble, fleet-footed, technically flawless. None, though, could be described as “powerful,” not in the sense that Nuñez is powerful.Klopp did have a more robust option at his disposal, in the form of Divock Origi, when he felt it was required — such as when needing a goal in a Champions League final, or playing Everton. Origi was, though, viewed more as a chaos agent than anything else; he was deployed almost exclusively as a Plan B. Like Guardiola, Klopp seemed to have moved beyond the idea of what might be called a “traditional” center-forward.The Uruguayan striker Darwin Núñez joined Liverpool from Benfica this week.Armando Franca/Associated PressThat both have, this summer, committed considerable proportions of their transfer budgets to inverting that mode, then, is significant. The explanations may be distressingly straightforward. City creates a plethora of chances every single game; adding Haaland is a surefire way to ensure more of them are turned into goals. Liverpool has, in Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a precise aerial supply line. It makes sense to exploit it.Or it may, perhaps, hint at a shift that has ramifications outside the rarefied air of the Premier League’s top two. Strikers — pure, thoroughbred strikers — have become vanishingly rare over the last decade. Between the generation represented by Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Sergio Agüero and Luis Suárez — all in their mid-thirties now — and the one spearheaded by Kylian Mbappé, Haaland and, possibly, Nuñez, the No. 9 almost died out.True, there have been occasional oases in the desert: Harry Kane, a late bloomer at Tottenham Hotspur, and Romelu Lukaku, who flowered sufficiently early in Belgium that despite being five years younger than Suárez, both made their debuts in the Premier League in 2011.As a rule, though, soccer’s journey over the last 10 years has been away from what might be termed focal point forwards. The tendency, instead, has been to engineer more fluid, more dynamic attacking lines, built around players who can drift and roam and transform, depending on the situation: a generation encapsulated by generalists like Mané and Neymar and Raheem Sterling, rather than specialists.There is, most likely, no single explanation for why that might be. It may partly be philosophical: Guardiola, in particular, pioneered an approach in which a fixed No. 9 was optional and an aerial approach was deemed unsophisticated, while the German school that produced Klopp prioritized a player’s dynamism in the press. The rest of the sport followed suit.Haaland’s arrival could change the look of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.Lynne Cameron/Manchester City FC, via Getty ImagesBut the drift away from target men may have its roots, too, in the race to industrialize talent production over much the same time period. Soccer’s elite academies respond, in part, to what is being asked of them: If first-team coaches do not have much need for strikers, their counterparts in youth systems will not provide them.They will, instead, pour their energies into finding the types of players — ball-playing midfielders, inverted wingers, creative fullbacks — that the professional game now cherishes above all others.That pattern holds not only in Europe. Presciently, Arsène Wenger declared the better part of a decade ago that the old world, reliant on its academies, was no longer producing forwards. Only in South America, he felt, were the predatory instincts necessary to excel in the position still being honed on the street.Now even that no longer holds. In Brazil, clubs respond to the demands of the European market. They craft the raw materials into something they feel can be sold. And, for some time, pure strikers have not sold all that well.There is another relevant factor, though. Academies naturally place greater weight on the sorts of players they can produce. A well-honed youth setup, full of dedicated and talented coaches, can take gifted teenagers and turn them into neat, clever midfield players, or inventive inside forwards. What it cannot do is make them 6-foot-4.Haaland wearing soccer’s new favorite number for Norway last week.Ntb/Via ReutersIt is, then, difficult to be entirely certain what came first: Did Europe, in particular, stop producing strikers because soccer’s elite coaches felt they had moved beyond them? Or did soccer’s elite coaches move beyond strikers because none of the requisite level were emerging from the ever-more-prolific academies?What Guardiola and Klopp have spotted, then, is a competitive edge. Only a handful of teams possess a high-quality powerhouse center-forward. Only one or two boast one that is not already well into the autumn of their careers. Perhaps that is the next step in the evolution of the related, but distinct, styles both coaches have crafted: the repurposing of old virtues to fit the new game.That, in turn, will have a profound effect on soccer’s incessant pipeline. If the perception is that center forwards in the style of Haaland and Nuñez are back in fashion, then there will be value in producing them: if not the target-men of old, perhaps, then certainly a modern version, players able to fit into complex counter-pressing systems but also, in a very basic, very real way, extremely large. Size may matter once more. The No. 9 may yet have another day in the sun.Brick WallsZinedine Zidane: Next manager up?Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThe last few weeks have passed in a curious limbo for Mauricio Pochettino. He is still, officially, the coach of Paris St.-Germain, in the sense that he has not yet been fired. There has been no announcement, no expression of gratitude and regret, no statement offering him the club’s best wishes for the future, no mournful image of a drooping corner flag posted on social media.At the same time, though, Pochettino is very much not the coach of P.S.G. If he has not been fired by the time you read this, then he will be fired very soon indeed. His tenure can be measured in days, maybe. Weeks, at the absolute outside. He knows it. The club knows it. The fans know it, and so do the players.It is hard to say it is cruel, this Schrödinger status, because it is only soccer, and because there are plenty of prospective employers out there for a coach of Pochettino’s caliber, but it is a little undignified. It does not suggest a club that has a concrete plan of action, a crystal-clear foresight.More damning still are the identities of the two coaches competing to replace him. Zinedine Zidane makes sense: not just a glossy name for a superficial club, but a coach with a proven ability to take a motley collection of superstars and turn them into a cogent force. He certainly has a more compelling case than the alternative, Christophe Galtier, who might have won the French title with Lille last year, but his specialism is in helping the overmatched punch above their weight.But then does appointing Zidane as coach fit with the hiring of Luis Campos as P.S.G.’s de facto sporting director? Campos’s expertise is in spotting young talent, the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Bernardo Silva and Victor Osimhen. Those are not the kinds of players P.S.G. allows to flourish. They are not, particularly, the kind of player Zidane has worked with before.Such is the modern P.S.G., though, a club that remains happy to throw as many ideas as possible against a wall and see what sticks. Whoever replaces Pochettino, it seems a fair bet that in a year, maybe two, they will find themselves in exactly the same position, waiting to be put out of their misery, doomed not by their lack of ability but by a club unable to commit to a direction, to choose where it wants to go, what it wants to be.Draw Your Own ConclusionsShould this man still be running soccer clubs?Julien De Rosa/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesBy the time Gérard López relinquished his ownership of Lille, the club was both on its way to the French title and drowning in debt. Despite bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in player sales on a reasonably regular basis, two of his main lenders, JP Morgan Chase and the activist investment fund Elliott Management, were growing concerned that López would not be able to meet his loan obligations. Eventually, late in 2020, they forced his hand.Six months later, López was back in French soccer. He had bought Bordeaux, a national champion only a little more than a decade previously, at a reduced price after its previous owner, an American investment firm, had placed it in administration. López had, it was said, saved the club from bankruptcy.Last month, Bordeaux was relegated from Ligue 1 after finishing last in the table. Things, though, may still get worse: This week, citing the club’s precarious finances, French soccer’s licensing body demoted Bordeaux again. The team has said it will take up its right of appeal against a “brutal” decision, but as things stand, Bordeaux will begin next year in France’s third tier.Still, at least it has not suffered the same fate as Royal Excelsior Mouscron, a team across the border in Belgium. In May, Mouscron was stripped of its license and relegated to Belgium’s fourth tier. Last week, saddled with debts of $4.5 million and unable to find a willing investor, it filed for bankruptcy. Mouscron is — was — owned by López.Last year, the Portuguese side Boavista was banned from registering new players by FIFA. This year, Fola Esch, a team in Luxembourg, was implicated in a suspected money-laundering scheme involving Lotus, a now-defunct Formula 1 team. The common thread in all the stories, again, was their owner: López.Doubtless, there are differences in each of these cases. The roots of the problems will vary from club to club. But one question hovers above all of them, a question that should be addressed not to López but to soccer’s authorities: Why has he been allowed to keep buying clubs? How could he be deemed a suitable owner for Bordeaux six months after being forced out Lille because of the club’s debts? Who, exactly, is looking after the game?CorrespondenceA couple of bugbears requiring attention in this week’s correspondence section. Bruce Tully, for example, is perhaps slightly unreasonably aggravated by “stutter-step penalty kicks.”“They look ridiculous, and they’re not in the spirit of the game,” he wrote. “Penalty takers already have a tremendous advantage. They don’t need to resort to silly gimmicks that serve only to embarrass the goalkeeper. Neymar and Jorginho are perhaps the worst offenders.”His suggestion — to limit the number of steps a taker is allowed in the run-up — is a sensible one. I have a deep-seated distrust of the stuttering run-up, based on the entirely woolly logic that you’re more likely to lose your rhythm. I suspect we will see it less frequently in the next couple of years, on the grounds that goalkeepers have now worked out, both with Neymar and Jorginho, that standing still is the best approach.If anything, David Krajicek has identified an even more obscure irritant. “Is there a more overworked cliché in Premier League broadcasting than the worn-out trope of teams ‘asking questions’ of the opposition’s defense?” he wrote. “Are Brits contractually required to use it? Did they learn it in school?”This is difficult for me to share, because “asking questions” is part of soccer’s lexicon to me. It encapsulates what analytical types might refer to as a game state, in which one team is enjoying the majority of the attacking possession but is not, necessarily, taking lots of shots or scoring lots of goals. (The stage after “asking questions” involves “peppering” or “laying siege to” the goal.) An alternative might be useful, though. I’ll start the bidding with “stress-testing.” More

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    In Qatar’s World Cup Summer, the Mercury Rises and the Clock Ticks

    DOHA, Qatar — The sun comes up before 5 a.m. and immediately puts the entire city on convection bake. By lunchtime, the temperature has finished its methodical climb up the scale, from unusual through uncomfortable to unbearable and then, finally, to unhealthy. The wind off the bay offers no relief; in June in Doha, even the summer breeze blows hot.This was to be the summer the World Cup came to Qatar, an idea that seems as preposterous now as it did a dozen years ago, when the tiny Gulf country, let’s just say, acquired the hosting rights to soccer’s biggest championship. FIFA’s own evaluators had labeled a summer World Cup in the Gulf as “high risk,” and a single morning’s walk this week confirmed that assessment. Still, for years, Qatari organizers promised to deliver what they had proposed, whatever FIFA asked: new stadiums, new hotels, new cooling technologies, a new frontier for soccer.Organizers, of course, eventually came to their senses, or at least to that one sense that lets humans differentiate hot from sun’s anvil hot, and in 2015 moved the tournament to the winter. The past week, though, offered a glimpse of what might have been.Peru fans seeking shelter from the sun in the Souk Waqif, top, and a rare sight on the streets of Msheireb in midday: humans.Over eight days, Qatar hosted three intercontinental playoff games that determined the final two teams in the field for this year’s World Cup: Australia and Costa Rica. Like so many of the marquee events hosted in Doha in recent years, the matches were a chance for Qatar to test-drive its facilities, its infrastructure and its tolerance for all the disparate guests.How did that glimpse into the future look this week? Both reassuring and incomplete, depending on one’s perspective.Five months from the World Cup’s opening match, Qatar appears to have gotten the big things right. Seven of the eight air-conditioned stadiums built or refurbished for the World Cup have hosted matches, and the largest (and last) will have its first test events in the coming months. All but one of the arenas are reachable by one of the three gleaming new subway lines that speed under and through the capital, and work continues on office towers, apartment blocks, roads and sidewalks every day. Even with so much ready to go, though, to see Qatar this summer, so close to its big moment, is to see a place that is a work in progress rather than a completed vision.Some Peru fans from California took their own World Cup trophy to Qatar. Their team, alas, won’t be going.World Cup messages dot plazas and open spaces across Doha. Qatar bid for a summer event, but will host in the winter instead.Peru brought the most fans of any country playing this week, a raucous army more than 10,000 strong, but every morning it was possible to walk long city blocks without seeing a soul. Many residents and visitors emerged only in the evening, to sip coffees, to stroll the parks and green spaces and to wander the Souk Waqif, the capital’s rebuilt marketplace — filling its tables, disappearing into its warren of stalls and shops. But even as the locals, the Qatari families and South Asian workers, pulled out their phones to snap photos and record videos of those fans enjoying this place they probably never thought they’d visit, one couldn’t help but feel that none of them could yet be sure what November would bring.Organizers expect that more than a million fans overall will enter Qatar during the World Cup — 32 cheering sections, just like Peru’s, but neutrals, too, all of them crowding the same spaces, competing for the same hotels and cafe tables, all waving their own colors and carrying their own hopes.The stadium in Lusail, Qatar’s largest venue, is equipped with individual cooling vents under each seat.A new turf field growing under artificial light at Lusail; different blends of grass are installed depending on the season.Questions persist about where all those guests will sleep, eat, shop and drink. Cruise ships and tent camps may help with that first problem, which remains the biggest unanswered question for fans and organizers. Qatar’s decision to require those attending the World Cup to have proof of a ticket purchase to enter the country or book a hotel room could help keep the numbers down. Saudis and Emiratis who love soccer could pour across the border to bring those numbers right back up. But the tournament also is four full days shorter than its predecessors in Brazil and Russia; if it turns into a chaotic mess, then at least it will be a shorter one.There are still a few months to sort out the final details, to find the room and rent the buses and the boats, for Qatar to produce the smooth-running showpiece it promised, to flex all that shiny new soft power.The heat? That’s so low on Qatar’s list of concerns that officials and engineers now dismiss it with the wave of a hand. Anyone who has spent time in the Gulf in the winter, they will tell you, knows the mercury drops into the 80s by then, and it is cooler at night. Could that lower the temperature, literally and figuratively, in the fan zones and elsewhere? Maybe.The World Cup stadium in Lusail is decorated with collages of photographs of the workers who built it.For others, the preparations rarely stop. Outdoor work is prohibited in the heat of the summer day.On game days it won’t have to. The stadium air-conditioning systems functioned as advertised all week; on Monday, during Australia’s shootout win over Peru, blowers and vents built into the 40,000-seat Al Rayyan stadium cooled the match to a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius), even though it was still well over 90 degrees outside the stadium’s open roof and swirling metalwork shell.In a few months, the last and most elaborate system built into the 80,000-seat showpiece stadium in Lusail, which will host 10 matches, including the final, will get its final tests. The engineer who designed it promised this week that it would work. He had, he noted with a laugh, done the calculations himself.To see Qatar this summer, so close to its big moment, is to see a work in progress rather than a completed vision. More

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    World Cup Will Allow Five Substitutes and Bigger Rosters

    A rule change means coaches will for the first time have the option to make as many as five changes per game, and draw them from deeper benches.DOHA, Qatar — The use of extra substitutes in matches, a change to longstanding soccer tradition brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, was formally written into the sport’s rules on Monday, only five months before the start of this year’s World Cup in Qatar.Under the revision to soccer’s purposely brief rulebook, the Laws of the Game, approved by its rule-making body, the International Football Association Board, coaches at this year’s tournament — and in any other competition — will be allowed to use as many as five substitutes per game instead of three.The expansion already had been in place on a temporary basis, introduced in 2020 and framed as an effort to protect the physical and mental health of players. But it had been widely adopted in domestic leagues around the world and by top competitions like the Champions League, and praised by coaches who welcomed the tactical flexibility it offered. Chelsea Coach Thomas Tuchel, for example, called the change “brilliant” for big teams and small ones alike.Making it permanent sets the stage for another change: FIFA now can expand rosters for the tournament, to 26 players instead of the former limit of 23.Both of Monday’s decisions mean that, for the third straight cycle, the World Cup will kick off with a major rules change: Goal-line technology made its debut at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the replay system known as video-assistant review was approved in time for the 2018 tournament in Russia.The use of five substitutes was approved by IFAB as a temporary measure in 2020. At the time, leagues were rushing back into a compressed schedules of matches — sometimes in the heat of midsummer, and without their customary preseasons — as they scrambled to make up games and fulfill multimillion-dollar television contracts.But the temporary measure has been retained in many of the world’s top leagues, and like their club colleagues, national team coaches — welcoming the flexibility and options the extra subs and bigger rosters will offer in the biggest event on the soccer calendar — are expected to agree with the change being made permanent.Club coaches may favor it, too, especially if it eases the strain on their top players even in modest ways: To accommodate the scorching summer heat in Qatar, this year’s World Cup was moved to the winter months, meaning it will arrive in the midst of most club seasons, and put an added hardship on elite players already weary from soccer’s nearly nonstop schedule since the game’s pandemic pause in 2020.Added substitutes are now common from Europe to leagues like Major League Soccer in the United States. The Premier League — which used five subs initially and then reverted to three subs the past two seasons, will make the change back to five beginning with its coming season.Expanded rosters are also not new. Europe’s governing body allowed teams to name 26-player rosters for last summer’s European Championship, and South American officials approved 28-man teams for last summer’s Copa América in Brazil. In those cases, coaches were still allowed to name only 23 players to their active rosters for each game. But the decision to allow gameday rosters to include 15 subs instead of 12 will give coaches wiggle room at the time when the coronavirus could still decimate a team in a matter of days. More

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    Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich and the Bitter End

    A star striker is eager to move to Barcelona, and his club doesn’t seem to realize it might be its own fault that he wants to go.Robert Lewandowski does not, in his own words, like to make “too much show.” He is, and always has been, a touch more impassive than the average superstar. He does not greet his goals, the ones that have come for so long in such improbable quantities, with a roar, or a leap, or a scream. Instead, he grins. For the really good ones, he might go so far as a beam.He is the same off the field. Lewandowski is warm, smart, immediately likable, but his charisma is more subtle, more steady than that possessed by his peers, the finest players of his generation. He does not have the bombastic streak of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He does not relish the spotlight quite like Cristiano Ronaldo.His Instagram account encapsulates it. There are, of course, occasional glimpses of yachts and supercars and picture-postcard tropical vacations — he is still a millionaire soccer player, and it is still Instagram — but they are interspersed with images of Robert Lewandowski, the purest striker of the modern era, pushing a child’s stroller at Legoland, and Robert Lewandowski, serial German champion, tickling a small dog.The impression he has cultivated, over the years, is of a player who regards all of the attention, all of the glamour, all of the noise not as an unavoidable consequence of his work, or even as an unwelcome distraction. Instead, he has always treated it as an active hindrance. Lewandowski’s job is to score goals. He is good at it, and he is good at it because he takes it extremely seriously.All of which has made the last two weeks something of an outlier. For perhaps the first time in his career, at the age of 34, Lewandowski has suddenly gone rogue.It started last month, not long after the ticker-tape that accompanied Bayern Munich’s 10th straight Bundesliga had been cleared away, when he declared — publicly — that he wanted to leave the club where he has spent eight seasons, the peak of his glittering career, immediately. “What is certain at the moment is that my career at Bayern is over,” he said.Friedemann Vogel/EPA, via ShutterstockThat was unexpected enough, the silent, reluctant superstar suddenly leveraging all of his renown, all of his influence, all of his clout to make as much noise as possible. But it did not end there. Instead, Lewandowski has doubled down, again and again. He has insisted that he does not want to “force” his way out of Bayern. As ever with Lewandowski, his actions speak for themselves.In a series of interviews — at almost any given opportunity — he has chastised Bayern for its lack of “respect” and “loyalty,” its apparent refusal to find a “mutually agreeable solution,” its failure to “listen to me until the very end.” He said that “something inside of me died, and it is impossible to get over that.”Perhaps most seriously, he intimated that his treatment might make other players reluctant to join the club. “What kind of player will want to go to Bayern knowing that something like this could happen to them?” he asked. Of all the sideswipes, all the jabs, that felt the most damaging, the most irretrievable. “I want to leave Bayern,” he has said, in various formats, over and over. “That is clear.”From the outside, it is not immediately apparent why that should be, why Lewandowski — with a year left on his Bayern contract — would have taken such a provocative path in order to secure his release.After all he has achieved in Germany — eight league championships in a row at Bayern, to go with two he won at Borussia Dortmund, a Champions League title, sundry domestic cups, and more than 40 goals across all competitions in each of the last seven seasons — he would be forgiven for wanting a change of scenery, a different challenge, to end his career at Barcelona, say. His approach, though, suggests something deeper is at play.Lewandowski has led the Bundesliga in goals in each of the past five seasons.Kai Pfaffenbach/ReutersAs is traditional, soccer has tried to answer that question by imbuing trivial details with tremendous narrative power. A few weeks ago, a report in the German outlet TZ revealed, Lewandowski had exchanged angry words with Julian Nagelsmann, Bayern’s young coach, when it was suggested that the latter might like to change his striker’s positioning when competing to win headers.Lewandowski, not unreasonably, pointed out that his career statistics rather suggested that he knew what he was doing. Yet when the inevitable meta-analysis of the incident was conducted, it was concluded that not only did Lewandowski not respect Nagelsmann — whose playing career extended no further than his teens — most likely the rest of the Bayern squad did not, either.It is not with Nagelsmann, though, that Lewandowski’s relationship has collapsed. Such encounters are not exactly rare. Nagelsmann is, by all accounts, broadly popular with Bayern’s players, who admire his verve and his ideas, even if they remain slightly skeptical about his effectiveness after his first season.Instead, the problem has its roots elsewhere in Bayern’s hierarchy. Amid the blizzard of words produced first by and then about Lewandowski, the most incisive came from his agent, the not-exactly-wildly-popular Pini Zahavi. “He hasn’t felt respected by the people in charge for months,” Zahavi told the German outlet Bild. “Bayern didn’t lose the player Lewandowski. They lost the person, Robert.”The source of that tension can be found in Bayern’s ill-concealed, and ultimately futile, pursuit of Erling Haaland. Hasan Salihamidzic, a decorated player in Munich at the turn of the century now installed as the club’s sporting director, had earmarked Haaland as Lewandowski’s eventual replacement. When it became clear to Lewandowski that the club was contemplating his demise even as he closed in yet another record-breaking season, he felt an unspoken covenant had been broken.Bayern’s sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic.Andreas Gebert/ReutersIt may not soothe Lewandowski’s ego, but it would be remiss of Bayern not to be considering who will, at some point, step into his shoes; no matter what order you eat your meals in, at some point time comes for us all. Where Salihamidzic erred was in allowing his vision to become public; or, more accurately, in allowing it to become public and then not succeeding in signing Haaland. All of a sudden, Bayern had a disaffected superstar and no replacement.That may have ramifications beyond Lewandowski’s immediate future: As he has made abundantly clear, barring an unlikely change of heart, that will now lie elsewhere. “Breakups are part of football,” he said.For Bayern, though, that may only be the first issue. For a club that has spent the last decade collecting trophies so serenely that it has become possible to imagine a world in which it wins the Bundesliga in perpetuity, this is a delicate time. Not in terms of its domestic primacy — that, sadly, is now hard-wired into the system — but most certainly in its attempts to compete in Europe.Bayern has been able to ride out the rise of the petro-clubs, Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain, better than the likes of Juventus, Barcelona and to some extent Real Madrid not only because of its commercial potency, its operational expertise and its corporate appeal, but because it functions essentially as a Bundesliga Select XI.Every year, Bayern has cherry-picked the best talent from the rest of Germany — often using the lure of guaranteed trophies and an inevitable place in the latter stages of the Champions League as leverage to pay a lower price — to fill out its roster. This has a twin benefit: It weakens domestic competition, and enables Bayern to match, and occasionally to overcome, the arriviste elite elsewhere.Lewandowski collected his eighth Bundesliga title with Bayern this season.Ronald Wittek/EPA, via ShutterstockLewandowski, plucked on a free transfer from Dortmund, stood as a symbol of that approach when he arrived; at the moment of his departure, he may well signal the need for its abandonment. The Bundesliga’s clubs, after all, have never wanted to sell to Bayern, and now, given that Germany is the cash-soaked Premier League’s bazaar of choice, they do not have to. English teams pay more, and they do not insist on beating you twice a season afterward.Bayern will, instead, have to plot another course. It may have to start to offer more lucrative salaries — its approach for Liverpool’s Sadio Mané suggests that realization has arrived — and it may even need to identify other markets, other demographics, from which to source its recruits.It will have to do that at a time when its institutional knowledge is in the hands of Oliver Kahn, an intelligent, imposing figure but still relatively inexperienced in his role, and Salihamidzic, whose record in the transfer market was mixed even before his part in the impending loss of Lewandowski.Bayern has weathered the changes in soccer’s ecosystem by sticking, unabashedly, to an approach that produced results, and by entrusting its fate to a grizzled, respected set of executives. For a decade, it has worked. Without much fuss, without too much show, Bayern Munich has constructed the most successful period in its history. The public, toxic departure of Lewandowski is the first hint of rust at the heart of the big red machine.Endless, ShamelessQuick question, Karim: Would you rather have two weeks off, or four more games?Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesYou may not have noticed — you may, in fact, have taken very deliberate steps to avoid it — but, even deep into June, soccer refuses to be stopped. As well as a raft of exhibition games and qualifying matches for the next African Cup of Nations, there have, at the time of writing, already been two rounds of Nations League games in Europe.And the good news is, if you missed them, there are two more to come: After a long, arduous season that came on the back of another long, arduous season and a sprawling European Championship, Europe’s elite men’s players will finally get a vacation starting on June 15.All of this was deemed necessary, of course, because someone decided to squeeze a World Cup into the middle of the traditional European season. They did it for entirely honorable reasons, though, so that’s all fine. Likewise, it is hard to begrudge the coaches of the planet’s various national teams for feeling that they might like to have at least a bit of time working with their players before they decide who will, and who will not, be part of their plans for Qatar in November.The decision to plow on with the Nations League, though, feels counterproductive. The tournament is UEFA’s nascent pride and joy — at least at the international level — and, when the season’s schedule was being mapped out, it made clear that it was not prepared to place it on hiatus in order to afford the players a rest. Doing so, the organization worried, would stifle all the momentum the event had built.Sadly, the alternative may be even worse. The Nations League is being played out to a backdrop of complete indifference from fans and barely-concealed irritation from the players; Kevin De Bruyne, for one, has made it clear he thinks it is a complete waste of his, and everyone else’s, time. All of a sudden, the Nations League has become exactly what it was meant to replace: a series of meaningless games that are met with apathy or resentment.CorrespondenceA French soccer federation official, Erwan Le Provost, said this week that closed-circuit video footage of events outside the Champions League final had been automatically deleted, as required by law, because judicial officials did not request the footage within seven days.Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesIt seems that there is a broad range of views among the On Soccer Newsletter community about the fiasco that marred last month’s Champions League final, and I’ll do my best to represent them.Let’s start with Christopher Smith. “At the African Cup of Nations, there was a stampede at the Olembé Stadium in which eight people died,” he wrote. “I don’t recall seeing anything like the indictment of France and UEFA being leveled at Cameroon and C.A.F. In fact, at least in your newsletter, this event doesn’t seem to have merited a mention at all.”These are valid points. I would suggest that there was plenty of condemnation of both Cameroon and African soccer’s authorities, but I would agree that UEFA attracted more. This is not an easy sentiment to express, but I suspect that is simply because the Champions League final is a far more high-profile event. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it is (most likely) the determining factor.That the Olembé tragedy did not appear in this newsletter was an oversight, but I would at least direct you to the coverage of both the disaster and the tournament elsewhere in The Times.Others focused, instead, on the tension between the French authorities’ version of events near Paris and the experiences of the fans themselves. “My only thought is how close we came to another Hillsborough,” wrote Alicia Lorvo. “The fans were traumatized at what was supposed to be a happy, fun event. The people who were there with real tickets must be compensated. France must be forced to hold an independent inquiry. The situation is intolerable.”Teresa Olson, sadly, was not surprised. “It was not the fans, but the utter indifference to accommodating the sellout crowd effectively,” she wrote. “We had the same experience during the Women’s World Cup in 2019. Gates were not opened until there was physically no way they could process everyone, and there was complete indifference as to whether the fans could get to their seats in time for the games.”It is important to remember that, I think: The way the Champions League final was policed is not unusual in France. The authorities followed their playbook, with one slight twist, explained by Javier Cortés. “With all due respect, most of us still think that English fans are (for the most part) unbearably arrogant who tend to violence once they have a few beers in their bellies,” he wrote. “English fans are generally not well-liked outside their islands.”Or inside them, as it happens. Nobody enjoys criticizing the English more than the English, Javier, and there is no question that the behavior of some English fans on foreign trips can be abominable. That clearly played into the thinking of the French authorities.The Euro 2020 final was not England’s finest hour (and a half).Andy Rain/EPA, via ShutterstockThe counterargument would run that Liverpool has been to two other Champions League finals in recent years, in Kyiv and Madrid, with no trouble at all. Problems do not trail in its fans’ wake. More important, that line of argument prompts the question as to whether funneling all of these risk factors into one place, and then locking them outside of a stadium, is really the best way to allay your worst fears. I’d suggest that it is not.Larry Machacek saw the situation along similar lines. “I conjure up images of drunk and cocaine-fueled young men, particularly the one with a flare lodged in a personal space, and the stories of Italian fans kicked in the head,” he wrote. “A few bad apples can and do tarnish the lot. France has successfully hosted many major sporting events and will continue to do so. How about advising readers of the outcomes of last year’s Euro 2020 fiasco at Wembley? Are there any profound learnings from the U.K. you would recommend?”My instinct on the first point is similar to my response to Javier: I’m not sure there is any evidence of gaggles of Liverpool fans engaging in the sort of mayhem we saw in London, and I’m not convinced that it is fair to decree them guilty until they have arrived. Doing so belies an ignorance of the differences between fans’ following a club and (a minority of) fans who follow England. They aren’t the same people, and they don’t behave in the same way.On the second, it is indisputable that what happened at Wembley last year was no more or less appalling than what happened in Paris. The problem, in both cases, was with the manner of response: Where the French were too heavy-handed, the English were too laissez-faire. There was no attempt to control the crowd whatsoever until it was too late.The lesson, then, is that neither of those approaches work, and that UEFA needs to recognize that. It should have a sense of best practices for how these occasions are managed, and central to it should be the principle that fans, wherever they are from, are welcome guests to be treated with respect, rather than a problem to be faced. More