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Category Archives: soccer

FanDuel Fantasy Soccer: UCL Quarterfinal Targets

MATCHES (EDT)

Tuesday, 2:45 p.m: Borussia Dortmund v. Monaco
Tuesday, 2:45 p.m: Juventus v. Barcelona
Wednesday, 2:45 p.m: Atletico Madrid v. Leicester City
Wednesday, 2:45 p.m: Bayern Munich v. Real Madrid

PLAYER RECOMMENDATIONS

GOALKEEPER

Marc Andre ter-Stegen, BAR at JUV ($6,800): Ter-Stegen’s price seems a bit high, but he’s actually the second-cheapest expected starting goalkeeper, as long as Manuel Neuer($7,400) returns from his foot injury and starts ahead of Sven Ulreich ($5,800). The matchup against Juventus in Turin isn’t the easiest, but the Italian giants actually have the lowest expected goal total among the home teams, which means the odds of ter-Stegen getting lit up and not making enough saves to compensate is low. With so many great high-priced options on the slate, saving where you can will be key.

DEFENDER

Nacho, RMD at BYM ($5,700): Nacho is expected to start in place of the injured Raphael Varane (thigh) and Pepe (ribs), and he should get plenty of opportunities for clearances, blocked shots and interceptions while trying to slow down a Bayern attack that is at full throttle of late. He may not have the highest upside, but his price certainly helps fit in some of the starts of the slate.

Jerome Boateng, BYM v. RMD ($5,200): Boateng also fits into the mold of a cheap fill-in center-back who will help free up salary cap room for other players. With Mats Hummelssidelined with an ankle injury, Boateng is expected to line up alongside Javi Martinez($5,800) and try to slow down the vaunted Real Madrid attack, one that will be looking for that all-important away goal. Like Nacho, his upside isn’t all that high, but he should get opportunities for blocked shots and other defensive stats.

Filipe Luis, ATL v. LEI ($6,000): Luis is a do-it-all defender who has been packing the stat sheet of late in both defensive and attacking stats. He showed his attacking prowess against Real Sociedad a week ago when he had one goal on four shots (three on goal) while also creating three chances, and he showed both ends in their prior match, which came against lowly Malaga, when he had one goal on his only shot while also adding three tackles, three interceptions, two clearances and two blocked shots. The matchup against Leicester should allow him to move forward more than he did in the Madrid derby this past weekend, giving him solid upside at the defender position. Teammate Juanfran doesn’t have quite the same upside, though his $5,500 cost is certainly attractive.

MIDFIELDER

Arjen Robben, BYM v. RMD ($9,200): Robben is in flying form, as he’s coming off an excellent eight-shot, one-goal performance against Borussia Dortmund this past weekend, one that also included two chances created. In fact, he’s gotten multiple shots on goal and/or created multiple chances in six consecutive Bundesliga starts, and he’ll be attacking a Real Madrid defense that will be down two center-backs. Fellow midfielder Franck Ribery($7,400) has also been playing well, as he has one goal, two assists, 12 chances created and seven tackles won in his last three league starts.

Casemiro, RMD at BYM ($7,500): Casemiro is more of a defensive pick, as he’s excellent at racking up defensive peripheral stats from his holding midfield spot. With Bayern Munich’s attacking flying of late, Casemiro will have plenty of interception, tackle and clearance chances, something he’s shown very capable of doing by scoring over 20 fantasy points in each of his last four Champions League matches. His goal upside is very low, but his floor is incredibly solid.

Koke, ATL v. LEI ($7,000): Koke is expected to take most set pieces for the biggest favorites on the slate, one that is expected to dominate possession as well. While he’s not a high-impact goal scorer, he has found the back of the net twice in the past six league games while also adding two assists, 10 chances created, 15 tackles, nine interceptions and 11 fouls drawn over that span. Teammate Yannick Carrasco ($7,100) has much better goal-scoring odds, but his fantasy floor is considerably lower.

Joao Moutinho, MCO at DOR ($5,500): With Tiemoue Bakayoko ($5,900) suspended, Moutinho looks slated to start in the defensive midfield against a Dortmund attack that has forced the fourth-most clearances, fifth-most interceptions, third-most blocked shots and sixth-most tackles in the Bundesliga this season. The upside isn’t too high despite 10 chances created in his last six Ligue 1 games, but Moutinho’s opportunities for defensive stats and low salary could be very helpful.

FORWARD

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, DOR v. MCO ($12,300): Aubameyang has been red hot in Bundesliga play, scoring eight goals on 29 shots (17 on goal) in his last seven games, with last weekend’s 4-1 loss to Bayern Munich the only time he was kept off the score sheet. He has the best anytime goal scoring odds among a slate packed with the world’s best goal scorers, and only Lionel Messi has more Champions League goals this season among players still left in the competition.

Kylian Mbappe, MCO at DOR ($8,900): Mbappe found the back of the net in both round of 16 legs against Manchester City, and he’s scored nine goals on 18 shots (15 on goal) in his last five Ligue 1 starts. Monaco may not be favored, but they have the highest expected goal total among away teams, and Mbappe looks primed to play a big part.

Fernando Torres, ATL v. LEI ($8,100): Paying up for Antoine Griezmann ($12,100) is obviously a solid strategy, though doing so with Aubameyang really cripples the rest of the lineup. Enter Torres, who has three assists on seven chances created in his last three La Liga matches. He’s also taken eight shots (two on goal) and won five fouls over that span. You’re unlikely to get a major fantasy score from Torres, but it’s worth noting he has better anytime goal scoring odds than Luis Suarez ($9,900), Karim Benzema ($11,000), Arjen Robben ($9,200), Gareth Bale ($10,700), Neymar ($11,200) and Paulo Dybala ($10,500).

Gunmen Kill Soccer Player in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia — Angry at Colombia’s elimination from the World Cup soccer tournament, gunmen Saturday shot and killed Andres Escobar, the player who accidentally scored a goal against his own side in a match with the United States and helped seal the team’s fate, police said.

Escobar, 27, was shot to death outside a restaurant in Medellin barely 48 hours after returning home from Los Angeles, where Colombia fell 2-1 to the United States on June 22.

The unidentified gunmen confronted Escobar around 3 a.m., and one said, “Thanks for the auto-goal,” a witness told local radio stations. Then, the men opened fire, shooting Escobar 12 times as the group shouted “goal” after each shot. The gunmen then fled in two vehicles.

Drug traffickers reportedly lost millions of dollars in bets on the Colombian team, which went into the World Cup a favorite but performed miserably. Police said they suspected disgruntled bettors may have ordered Escobar’s murder.

One group of bettors is said to have lost $10 million on Colombia’s upset loss to the U.S. team, and an anonymous group called the television news program QAP last week threatening revenge.

The Colombian team also received death threats during the World Cup, forcing Coach Francisco Maturana to change his lineup minutes before the U.S. match at the Rose Bowl last month.

“This is a loss that plunges Colombia into mourning and fills us with pain,” President Cesar Gaviria said in a nationally broadcast address.

Authorities announced a reward of more than $60,000 for information leading to the capture of the killers. Additional bodyguards were assigned to each member of the Colombian team. Because of the threats, players already had protection, but it was not known if Escobar’s guards had accompanied him to the restaurant where he was slain.

Two suspects, including the alleged driver of one of the getaway cars, were arrested later Saturday.

The young defenseman’s body lay Saturday in the sports coliseum of Medellin, his hometown city 150 miles northwest of Bogota, and a funeral was scheduled for today. Escobar was to marry in December.

Hundreds of mourners crowded the stadium while police set up barricades in an effort to trap Escobar’s killers.

The subdued crowd filed past Escobar’s open casket, flanked by dozens of bright bouquets and a dozen police standing at attention, and gazed at Escobar’s pale face under his mop of dark, curly hair.

“Justice!” someone in the crowd shouted.

Colombian soccer has long been connected to drug traffickers. Pablo Escobar, the most ruthless of the cocaine barons until his death in a shootout with police last December, was a major contributor to Medellin’s professional team, Atletico Nacional, for which Andres Escobar played. The two Escobars were not related.

In a country accustomed to brutal drug wars that have claimed the lives of presidential candidates, journalists and hundreds of innocents watching from the sidelines, Colombians were nevertheless shocked by Escobar’s murder.

The national team, none of whose members is believed to have direct links to drug trafficking, was considered by experts to have a shot at winning the World Cup, thanks in part to its grace and precise style. And players had expressed hope in interviews before the tournament that their athletic virtuosity would cleanse Colombia’s image and win honor for it on the international stage.

“Soccer is only a game, and there is no justification for Andres to have been killed for having committed an auto-goal,” Coach Maturana said.

From Dallas, headquarters of the World Cup, Andreas Herren, spokesman for soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, said, “Everybody at FIFA is deeply shocked.”

Escobar’s mistake was an “auto-goal”–he accidentally knocked the ball into his own team’s net, scoring the opening goal for opponent United States. Many Colombians blamed the mistake for rattling the team so badly that it never recovered and went on to lose. That, combined with an earlier loss to Romania, eliminated Colombia from the World Cup.

But Escobar sought to deal with his error, which he called the worst moment in his sports career. In an open letter to his country, published in a Bogota newspaper, he asked fans to “maintain decency.”

He added, “Please tell everybody that (playing in the World Cup) was the most rare, phenomenal opportunity and experience I have ever had, so see you soon, because life doesn’t end here.”

La Liga Gets Tough on Piracy of Its Content

La Liga needs every possible source of income to compete financially with the Premier League. So it is taking its rivalry with the mighty English organization online by starting a campaign to crack down on illegal streaming of games.

Studies indicate that digital piracy robs Spanish soccer of nearly $186 million each season, keeping it from profiting fully from clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona and players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

La Liga is using a proprietary tool to monitor the internet and has deployed a group of “online guards” to denounce illegal broadcasts of games. It also gets help from Google, Facebook and Twitter in finding, and blocking, unauthorized streaming of its matches.

It works with the authorities to have those caught stealing its content arrested, and it seeks to prosecute them in court.

The league’s latest antipiracy campaign — titled “When piracy appears, football disappears” — was recently introduced in several countries where its games are broadcast. It displays game highlights and players being gradually blocked out by black images.

La Liga has also worked with several international antipiracy groups, and it even joined forces with the United States government and other sports leagues to step up its fight against the problem. League officials visited the White House last year to discuss antipiracy solutions with members of the United States intellectual property office.

The league’s goal is to wipe out digital piracy.

“We are taking all the necessary measures to make sure that La Liga’s content is commercialized legally,” said Melcior Soler, the league’s director of antipiracy and audiovisual content. “We need to protect our content to guarantee the value and the future of our competition.”

Bolstering revenue from television rights has been a priority for the Spanish league in its fight against the commercial domination of the Premier League, which has been getting the most lucrative television deals in European soccer. La Liga said part of the reason for that was that the Premier League had access to a larger base of subscribers in England, with about 10 million more than the Spanish league has in Spain.

Preventing the loss of subscribers to piracy is seen as crucial to closing the financial gap between the leagues.

Many people turn to the illegal broadcasts in Spain because the majority of games are on pay TV, especially the important ones.

Studies by a local antipiracy group indicate that one in five internet users in Spain watches games through illegal broadcasts. In 2015, a total of 141 million matches were watched through illegal means in two million homes, according to the Coalition of Creators and Content Industries. The market value of the retransmissions was estimated at more than $437 million.

About 40 percent of those consumers would be willing to pay for legal broadcasts, the coalition said, which would add 16 percent — or nearly $186 million — to the Spanish soccer industry’s revenue. La Liga said recently that, for the first time, it had surpassed the mark of $3.2 billion in total revenue for a season.

“Piracy seriously damages La Liga, but also the clubs and the fans,” Soler said. “It puts our growth model at risk.”

La Liga said its antipiracy actions had yielded positive results.

The league said it had helped close streaming websites such asRojadirecta.com and had successfully blocked links offering unauthorized access to its matches. This season alone, it said it had been able to eliminate 98 percent of links to illegal broadcasts of its games.

It also recently helped the authorities dismantle a ring that sold illegal cable-television decoders, one of the most common piracy threats to La Liga. The ring sold decoders that allowed consumers to view more than 100 channels for $8.50 per month through card-sharing technology.

The online tool developed by La Liga, called Marauder, has been crucial to its monitoring efforts. It allows the league to continuously analyze — and automatically denounce — web content and servers that could be retransmitting illegal content. During games played in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, monitors scan social media and mobile applications to determine if content is being shared illegally.

The other top soccer leagues in Europe have also been taking steps to combat piracy. The Premier League recently started its own campaign to crack down on the problem, and the Bundesliga in Germany has been taking actions to protect its product.

“It is crucial that La Liga takes on this fight to continue its defense of the integrity of the game in all levels,” Soler said.

Is Paulo Dybala the Next Lionel Messi? ‘He Can Go as High as He Likes’

As soon as the tears started to come, Paulo Dybala buried his face into his jersey. Lionel Messi tried to offer an arm around the shoulder as he trudged, bereft, from the field; so, too, did Angel Di Maria. For a few seconds, the defender Emmanuel Mas stopped Dybala in his tracks, swaddling him in a tender, consoling hug.

All to no avail: As Dybala would say later, his anguish was too intense for solace. All his life, he had dreamed of representing his homeland, Argentina. On Sept. 1, in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in Mendoza, Argentina, he was given his first start. Forty-five minutes later, he was sent off after receiving his second yellow card. His dismay and his disappointment, he said, “overwhelmed” him.

It was only once he was back in the sanctuary of the dressing room that he stopped crying. But it was another hour or so before he could muster a smile, and even then only after the intervention of Marcelo D’Andrea, the team masseur known to all of the Argentine national team as “Daddy.”

After the game — Argentina won 1-0; Messi scored — D’Andrea pulled Dybala, still distraught, to one side. “Calm down,” he told him. “That’s what superstars do: They get sent off for the national team. Messi did it against Hungary. You’ve already passed the test: You got sent off, so you must be a star.”

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The parallel was an apposite one, and the coincidence curious, to say the least. In Budapest in 2005, Messi made his Argentina debut as a 63rd-minute substitute. In the 65th minute, he was shown a straight red card. For the growing number of observers who believe Dybala could be Messi’s heir apparent, his red card in Mendoza was not so much a shortcoming as a sign.

That meeting with Uruguay represented the completion of a dream for Dybala. He had, he said, always wanted to “play a one-two with Messi.” That night in the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, he managed it.

On Tuesday night in Turin, Dybala will reach another milestone: When Juventus hosts Barcelona in the first leg of its Champions League quarterfinal, Dybala, the Italian team’s 23-year-old forward, will play against Messi. For the first time, he will have a chance to see how close the resemblance between the two players has become.

Messi casts a long shadow. For many years, every quick-witted, fleet-footed playmaker from Argentina had to labor under the weight of being labeled “the next Maradona,” a tag that was variously applied to players as diverse as Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tevez.

Only when Messi matched and, in some lights, surpassed Maradona’s achievements was the search called off — or, more accurately, reconstituted. Now, whenever an Argentine of delicate touch and impish acceleration starts to rise, he is instantly called “the new Messi.”

Little wonder, then, that Dybala does all that he can to play down the comparison. His line is clear: There will only ever be one Messi. He does not want to be the new anything; he simply wants to be Paulo Dybala and to see how far that takes him.

Sadly, others are not so obliging. His teammate for club and country, Gonzalo Higuaín, has described Dybala as “looking like Messi.” Arrigo Sacchi, the former A.C. Milan manager and now a sort of freelance agent provocateur for Real Madrid, drew the same parallel. At least Maradona stopped short of joining the acclaim, simply suggesting Dybala is a “phenomenon.”

The comparison, though, is tempting. Their careers have followed different arcs — Messi was taken from his hometown, Rosario, to Barcelona before his teens, only ever donning the colors of one club, while Dybala broke through at Instituto, a club in Córdoba, before moving to Italy’s Palermo and on to Juventus — but there are common threads.

Like Messi, Dybala was a scrap of a child. His first club, in his hometown, Laguna Larga, had only one set of jerseys, which players shared regardless of age. Photographs of Dybala show him drowning in his one-size-fits-none kit.

Like Messi, Dybala’s size did not detract from his ability. “We were taken to see the youth team train, because we thought there might be some players we could use,” said Dario Franco, Instituto’s coach in Dybala’s only season there. “As soon as we saw him, we knew we could use him.” He made his debut for the club a week later, at 17.

And like Messi, Dybala has leaned on his family to shape his career. He has said he would not have made it as a professional had his father, Adolfo, not been determined that he should do so. His brother Gustavo, acts as a sort of consigliere, a pattern shared with Jorge and Rodrigo Messi.

“His family was always around him,” Franco said. “He lived in club accommodation when he was in Córdoba, but one of his brothers was always there, too.”

Where the two players diverge, of course, is the speed of their ascents. At 17, Messi was playing for Barcelona; Dybala was still at Instituto, in Argentina’s second tier.

Even when the chance to move to Europe came, Dybala did not move straight to a superclub.

“Palermo had a great system of scouting in South America,” said Giuseppe Sannino, Dybala’s first coach in Italy. “There were a lot of teams looking at Paulo — I remember Inter Milan, in particular — but Palermo had a good record of signing players like Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani. We had a number of South American players there when Paulo arrived, too: Abel Hernández, Arevalo Rios. That makes it easier to adapt.”

Those first few months were, Sannino said, tough. “There was a lot of physical work to be done,” he said. “He was very small, very slight. And it is Italy, so there was a lot of focus on teaching him tactical things, too.”

Throughout, though, one thing was apparent: “His class,” Sannino said. “He has a shimmering ability.”

Franco agreed: “He does not have a ceiling. He can go as high as he likes.”

Dybala’s goals at Palermo made believers of Juventus; his goals at Juventus have convinced almost everyone else. Real Madrid’s interest has been piqued; so, too, has that of Manchester City and Chelsea. His most intriguing suitor, though, is the one he faces in the Champions League on Tuesday evening. This is Dybala’s chance to show he might not be the new Messi — nobody is, after all — but that he could well be the next best thing.

Mexico and Canada Likely to Affirm Joint World Cup Bid

Top soccer officials from the United States, Mexico and Canada have scheduled what they billed as a “historic announcement” for Monday in New York — the clearest indication yet that the countries will mount a joint bid to host an expanded 48-team World Cup in 2026.

For several years, plans for a joint bid have been the worst-kept secret in Concacaf, the regional confederation to which all three nations belong. The United States lost out to Qatar in bidding for the 2022 tournament when that vote was taken in 2010, and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati has worked tirelessly in the years since to cultivate the support and the personal relationships inside FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to bring the event back to the United States.

The United States last hosted the World Cup in 1994, a 24-team tournament that still holds the tournament’s attendance record (just over 3.5 million), despite a later expansion of the field to 32 teams.

The tournament will expand again for 2026, to 48 teams, under a plan approved by FIFA’s governing council in January. That plan has drawn scorn from critics who fear it will water down the field, and praise from countries that rarely get to take part. But nearly everyone agrees that an expanded event, especially one held in North America, would be the most profitable in the history of the world’s most popular sporting event.

The United States, which had considered bidding alone, is expected to take a leading role in any 2026 campaign by virtue of its existing stock of stadiums, training facilities and infrastructure. Sites in Mexico and Canada most likely would host a smaller number of matches.

It is unclear if all three countries would be granted direct entry into the field. Under a proposed allocation of the places for the 2026 tournament announced in late March, Concacaf’s allotment of guaranteed World Cup berths would double — to six from three. The proposal, which is subject to FIFA’s approval in May, would still give a guaranteed place to the host country, at the expense of its confederation’s full allotment. But in the event of co-hosts, the decision of how many automatic places to give to host nations would be left to the FIFA council.

Either path should be of little worry to the United States and Mexico: The Americans have played in every World Cup since 1990, and Mexico in every one since 1994. They routinely finish near the top of qualifying under the current format. But Canada last qualified in 1986, and its recent performances suggest that barring some drastic improvement, it may require a guaranteed place to take part in its own party.

The bidding process will last about three years under a four-phase planannounced in 2016. The process will culminate in a decision in May 2020, but the Concacaf bid will be an overwhelming favorite. Last year, FIFA affirmed rules that will bar Europe and Asia from bidding for the 2026 event because their confederations will host the next two tournaments.

That rules out challenges from England and China, among other potential rivals, and FIFA’s other confederations — representing South America, Africa and Oceania — would be hard-pressed to put together a plan that could challenge the resources available to a Concacaf campaign.

The Apps That Make Keeping Up With Soccer Easier

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Rory Smith, chief soccer correspondent for The Times, who is based in Manchester, England, discussed the tech he’s using.

As a soccer reporter, you must be savvy about video-streaming apps and gear like antennas. What are your favorite tools for staying on the ball, so to speak?

The ones I use the most are Virgin Anywhere and Sky Sports Mobile TV, the two official apps from the two major cable networks in the U.K. Sky holds the rights to most Premier League games; subscribing to Virgin means I can watch the rest of the major European leagues, too.

I have friends, more technologically minded than me, who prefer streaming matches through a Kodi box (a set-top device that runs an open-source media app that can be used to stream pirated content, including illegal sports streams). I can see why they’re tempted: The cost of subscriptions is considerable. I can justify it — to my wife, and to myself — as a professional necessity, but many can’t.

It is worthwhile only because of the apps, though: I use them not only when I travel, but increasingly often at home, too. My wife, Kate, would rightly regard herself as something of a soccer (well, a soccer journalism) widow; being able to watch a game on an iPad while she reads or watches something else has soothed a regular source of low-key domestic disharmony.

What do you like about the tools, and what could be better?

The Virgin app, certainly, needs work to iron out various bugs.

In the early days of streaming — before these apps were commonplace — I’d quite often have to find matches on websites of dubious provenance and even more uncertain reliability. It was always kind of a crapshoot as to how much of the game you’d actually see in between all of the buffering and pop-ups and losses of connection.

Virgin has not yet quite escaped at least two of those problems; Sky is better, but not perfect. I would imagine that’s a problem that applies to whatever the United States equivalents of those apps are, too.

Do you think it’s feasible for avid sports fans to cut the cable cord or is cable still the way to go?

It’s feasible, but it depends on how avid you are and how patient you are prepared to be. I know Kodi and its equivalents are becoming ever more popular, and there are plenty of people I know who consume as much soccer as they want without paying very much, if anything at all, for the privilege.

I can’t condone doing things that aren’t entirely legal, of course, but at the same time the cost of watching sport is rising all the time, and if there comes a point where that is out of reach for a substantial number of people, you almost have to accept that they will try to find ways around it.

That said, the Premier League — like the N.F.L. and others — are doing all they can to combat streaming, so it remains, by all accounts, somewhat time-consuming and not entirely reliable. It is definitely easier to have cable, but I’m not sure, especially to a younger, digital native generation, that it is still an absolute necessity.

What tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

In my mid-30s, I’ve found that I’ve pared down the tech I use to what I’m comfortable with. Twitter and Instagram, but not Snapchat. An iPhone and iPad, but only occasionally Apple TV (we still watch DVDs in our house, on a PlayStation 3, like cave men). Lots of my friends use Strava or wear a Fitbit, but I lack the competitive instinct for the former and the inflated sense of self-worth for the latter.

The last thing to be added to my little tech bubble was Spotify; that’s the one that may have made the biggest difference. About 10 years ago, I found that discovering new music had become almost impossible. Music stores were becoming rarer and rarer, and ever harder to navigate, because they were full of achingly hip teenagers; the radio offered nothing but indecipherable millennial pop. This sounds extreme, but Spotify has stopped — well, delayed — my journey into middle age. I’ve not decreed that all music nowadays is terrible yet; without Spotify, I’m pretty sure I was on course to do so by 2014.

What do you and your family do with Spotify?

Together with a welter of podcasts, it provides the soundtrack to our lives. I drive a lot — to and from games, interviews, stories — and fly a lot, too. It keeps me awake and sends me to sleep (respectively). It sounds a little excessive, but it’s helped both me and my wife do something we had forgotten how — or been disenfranchised from being able — to do. I would never have found the Rural Alberta Advantage without it, or been able to relearn the words to “Regulate,” and what sort of world would that be?

What could be better about it?

I’m not sure I’d be able to pinpoint any one thing. I’m sure it’s not perfect. And there are times when the recommendations list makes me think someone in some uber-trendy West Coast lair is judging me. Oh, you liked this? Well, maybe you should be listening to Mansun then, you recidivist throwback.

How West Ham’s Transfer Scandal Upended English Soccer

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League’s chief executive, was in a hurry as he took a cab to West Ham’s Upton Park stadium in a scruffy part of East London in the first week of September 2006. The club had its heyday in the 1960s, when it produced a string of talented young players. It was in the era before the transfer market took off, when commercialism had yet to take hold in the game. In 1964, the club’s manager, Ron Greenwood, had wrapped the F.A. Cup trophy in cloth and taken it home on a London Tube train after the Hammers had beaten Preston North End in the final. Two years later, three members of his team — Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters — helped England win the World Cup, snapping the dominance of Pelé and Brazil.

However, West Ham had dropped out of the Premier League in 2003, the same year that Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and — although it returned two years later and continued to produce talented players — it did not have the financial clout to compete with the biggest English clubs. Its latest generation of talented players — such as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole — had one by one left for bigger-spending clubs. The club’s song, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” featuring the line “fortune’s always hiding,” was now more apt than ever.

Scudamore’s car made its way down Green Street, where pie-and-mash restaurants stand next to shops selling Indian saris and samosas. Scudamore darted out of the car and strode into the club’s offices to be welcomed by the team’s managing director, Paul Aldridge, who apologized for the absence of the owner, Terry Brown. Scudamore wasted no time, getting straight to the point of his visit. “These players, what’s the story? How have they got here?” he snapped.

The West Ham players Carlos Tevez, left, and Javier Mascherano warming up for a match against Aston Villa in 2006. CreditGlenn Campbell/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A few days earlier, in late August 2006, the Argentine stars Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano had themselves arrived at West Ham. Flanking Alan Pardew, the team’s manager, Tevez and Mascherano held up claret-and-blue shirts and smiled for the news media. How on earth had this struggling Premier League team managed to sign two of the world’s most sought-after players? The story has its roots in South America, but was also tied to the riches that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and to an Israeli dealmaker called Pini Zahavi, who was never far away from soccer’s biggest transfers.

Scudamore was already aware of wealthy individuals buying the transfer rights of players as early as 2000, a year after he took the job at the Premier League. Zahavi had told him all about it.

Zahavi was suave and smooth-talking, and had parlayed a career as a soccer journalist in Israel into being a transfer broker. His first deal, while still working as a reporter, had been to take Avi Cohen to Liverpool from Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1979. After 20 years as an agent, he had turned his attention to acting as a dealmaker to help a small group of wealthy individuals, some of them from the former Soviet Union, to invest in the transfer market. He called the business Soccer Investments & Representations.

Zahavi’s office was on a tree-lined boulevard near the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, but he spent much of his working life in five-star hotels across the globe or in his apartment in London’s Marble Arch. He had learned how this South American business model worked from his partners in Argentina: Fernando Hidalgo and Gustavo Arribas. Together they had founded the HAZ agency, which took its name from the first letters of their surnames and used a series of companies domiciled in Gibraltar, Luxembourg and Malta to buy and sell transfer rights. The business was so successful that the three men set up their own motor-racing team in 2006, and even considered entering the Nascar series before one of their drivers died in a 120 m.p.h. crash at the Autódromo Juan Manuel Fangio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The sudden and shocking death had ended their appetite to pursue the racing adventure.

Zahavi was well known in the Premier League’s offices in London. At Christmas he would send a box of oranges to Scudamore from back home. Over a cup of tea one day, Zahavi told Scudamore that he was moving into owning transfer rights. “He said, ‘I’m not an agent anymore. I own players. I actually own them,’” Scudamore recalled. “That’s the future.”

In 2001, Zahavi had helped Gustavo Mascardi, the first registered FIFA agent in Argentina, earn as much as half of the $12 million transfer fee Aston Villa paid River Plate for the Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel. Mascardi owned 50 percent of Ángel’s transfer rights through a company called Siglo XXI (21st Century). Aston Villa almost pulled out of the deal at the last minute after hearing of the unorthodox arrangement, but in the end the signing went ahead.

In the spring of 2003, Zahavi was introduced by another soccer agent, Jonathan Barnett, to Chelsea’s chief executive, Trevor Birch, at Les Ambassadeurs, a private club in London’s Mayfair, in a move that would help Zahavi — with his contacts in the former Soviet Union — become a broker in the takeover of the then struggling club.

While Zahavi and Barnett loved the high life, fine clothes and trappings of success — like Les Ambassadeurs, which served French Champagne, Belgian chocolates and Cuban cigars — Birch was a more low-key character. He had a first-class degree in accounting from Liverpool Polytechnic and specialized in corporate restructuring. He was an employee of Ken Bates, a gruff Londoner who had bought Chelsea for 1 pound in 1982.

Birch had briefed Zahavi on Chelsea’s financial woes, how it could barely pay the players’ salaries and how Bates wanted to sell up. Zahavi relayed the information to Abramovich. A few weeks later the Russian billionaire, dressed in jeans and accompanied by a Citibank banker and a lawyer from Skadden Arps, came to meet Birch in one of the executive boxes overlooking the pitch at Stamford Bridge stadium. The rendezvous lasted less than an hour and ended with an outline for a deal, which was agreed on a handshake.

Manchester United Defeats Chelsea to Open Up Premier League Race

 Ander Herrera scored one goal, set up another and executed the perfect man-marking job on Eden Hazard to set upManchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea, which opened up the Premier League title race on Sunday.

United didn’t even need rested top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to consign the leaders to their fifth league loss of the season, which left them only four points ahead of Tottenham with six games left.

Marcus Rashford — Ibrahimovic’s replacement up front — ran onto Herrera’s through-ball to give United a seventh-minute lead. A constant menace for Chelsea’s defense all game, Rashford ensured that Ibrahimovic wasn’t missed at Old Trafford.

Herrera shadowed Hazard in a tactical plan by United manager Jose Mourinho that limited the effectiveness of Chelsea’s main attacking threat. On a rare occasion he left Hazard’s side, Herrera popped up in Chelsea’s area in the 49th minute to smash a deflected shot high into the net from 18 meters.

The result didn’t just blow open the title race; it also left the battle for Champions League qualification intriguingly poised. United moved up to fifth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, and is six points behind third-placed Liverpool having played two fewer games.

United had conceded five goals and failed to score in its two losses to Chelsea this season — one in the league and one in the FA Cup — but Mourinho got his tactics spot on against his former team this time.

Rashford excelled, stretching Chelsea’s center backs with the kind of movement and pace that Ibrahimovic would not be able to offer. Winger Jesse Lingard was played out of position in attack and added more mobility alongside Rashford. Herrera and Matteo Darmian did brilliant stifling jobs in man-marking Eden Hazard and Pedro, respectively. And United center backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly succeeded in riling the combustible Diego Costa, who was booked in the first half and played on the edge throughout.

In the build up to Rashford’s goal, Herrera blocked with his hand a pass from Nemanja Matic but the infringement wasn’t picked up. The United midfield anchorman ran forward and split the defense with his through-ball to Rashford, who got in behind David Luiz and bobbled a finish past Asmir Begovic — starting in place of the injured Thibaut Courtois.

Fans in the Stretford End chanted Herrera’s name as he frustrated Hazard time and again in the first half, and they did so again after he made it 2-0 with a shot that clipped off the heel of Kurt Zouma and span beyond an unsighted Begovic.

Chelsea is still the favorite for the title, with the only obvious stumbling block being a trip to Everton on April 30. Tottenham doesn’t seem to be letting up, though, after winning its last seven games and scoring 22 goals in the process.

A Night to Remember, Except for the Referee

 Viktor Kassai was probably still walking off the field at the Santiago Bernabeu when someone, somewhere, decided it was time to update his Spanish-language Wikipedia page.

At the end of a brief list of the highlights of what has been a long, distinguished refereeing career — his appointments in European Championships and World Cups, his distinctions in officiating Olympic and Champions League finals — Kassai’s electronic assailant decided a postscript was needed.

“He was also appointed to the quarterfinal of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich,” it read, before describing Kassai as Real’s “best player” and the “game’s MVP.”

“At the end of the game, Florentino Perez, the president of the Madrid team, awarded him a diamond pin, the greatest honor the club offers to referees who help them in big games,” the passage concluded. There followed a brief, bitter explanation for the malicious edit. “And that is how I lost my bet.”

It is a shame indeed that, at the end of one of the most absorbing games in recent Champions League history — won by Real, 4-2, after extra time — the performance of the referee should attract such attention.

In an ideal world, it would warrant no mention whatsoever. Kassai would be afforded the anonymity that in his chosen profession indicates excellence. The focus would instead rest solely on those players who had produced a game of the very highest quality, two hours of grueling, enthralling, breathless entertainment between two of soccer’s true heavyweights.

All of the questions directed at Zinedine Zidane, the victorious Real Madrid coach, in the immediate aftermath would have been about the brilliant ruthlessness of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose hat trick eventually finished off Bayern; about the energy of Marcelo, Real’s unstinting fullback; about the poise and panache of Toni Kroos.

Zidane would have been asked about Real’s seventh straight visit to the semifinals in this competition, about the chances of the club that lionizes the Champions League more than any other would become the first to retain it since its reinvention in 1992.

His counterpart, Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, would have been given the chance to pay tribute to his Bayern team’s refusal to be beaten, and forced to consider whether this defeat represented something close to the end of an era. Philipp Lahm, his captain, will never play in the Champions League again; neither will Xabi Alonso, one of the finest players of his generation. Both have said that they will retire this summer. The likes of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben will, sadly, not be too far behind.

Kassai, though, obscured all of that Tuesday, denied the game the epilogue it deserved. With one exception, all of the questions Ancelotti faced were about the performance of the Hungarian referee. Ancelotti is a good-humored man, not given to unnecessary exaggeration. When asked if he had spoken to Kassai after the game, if he had made his unhappiness known, he simply cocked an eyebrow. “I told him ‘good job,’” he said.

His fury, though, was evident. The red card that saw Bayern deprived of Arturo Vidal for extra time — arguably the game’s pivotal moment — was not “a foul,” Ancelotti said. Two of Ronaldo’s three goals were offside, he said.

He might have added that Robert Lewandowski lost a clear run at goal when he was adjudged, incorrectly, to be offside; that Casemiro, the Real Madrid midfielder, might have been sent off long before Vidal was. It was no surprise that Ancelotti declined to mention that Bayern’s first goal, a penalty, was, at best, debatable, or to expand on Zidane’s claim that Bayern’s second goal stemmed from another offside.

He did not need to, though, to prove his point that “the decisions penalized Bayern a lot.”

“In a quarterfinal, there has to be a referee with more quality,” he said. “They are trying, but it is the moment to bring in video referees. There are too many errors. In some decisions, there is a lot of doubt, but there was no doubt here. You did not need to see a video to see that Vidal got the ball. I saw it straightaway.”

He was not the only one simmering with anger. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chief executive, said Kassai had left the German champions “distraught.” Claudio Bravo, the Manchester City goalkeeper and an international teammate of Vidal’s, pointed out that — although there were six officials on the field, per UEFA’s regulations — they all appeared to be “blind.”

Such criticism — in general — is the last thing the referees deserve. Soccer gets quicker every year; the players are faster, stronger, and the rules ever more intricate; as Robben demonstrated amply here, there are plenty out there committed to hoodwinking them, too.

And yet this level of controversy is unsustainable. After Barcelona’s miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in this tournament last month, P.S.G. sent a dossier to UEFA, which runs the tournament, detailing its grievances about the referee’s performance in that game. Now another high-profile fixture has been stained by the same problem, and the same complaints.

As Ancelotti acknowledged, video referees will be a reality in the near future; experiments have already taken place to see if they can be used effectively to adjudicate on penalty decisions. That, though, has to be merely the start; a more comprehensive system is required if there is to be any hope of these situations being avoided in the future.

For Barcelona, the End of a Campaign, but Not of an Era

 The 87th minute came and went. The moment when the last miracle began was the point at which any hopes of another were definitively ended.

Barcelona won a free kick. Neymar did not, as he had against Paris St.-Germain last month, fizz it into the top corner. Camp Nou did not roar. AJuventus head cleared it, instead, into the sky once more. The ball came back in. It collided, yet again, with a body clad in black and white.

This was not to be another of those nights. There would be no comeback. Barcelona believed, right until the end, that it was possible. Three goals had come in the dying minutes against P.S.G. last month, after all, so why not against Juventus? If anyone could, then Barcelona could: Lionel Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez, the finest attack ever assembled, the spearhead of a team that can touch the stars.

This, though, was a step too far; this was too much to ask. There were moments when it seemed as if it might happen, as if the magic might return, particularly in a first half when Messi and Neymar both carved out openings, raised the pulse, shredded Italian nerves. But Juventus held firm, jealously guarding the 3-0 advantage it had gained in the first leg last week, and out Barcelona went, absent from the semifinals of the Champions League for the third time in four years.

The temptation, of course, is to declare this the end, to suggest the sun has now set on Barcelona’s golden age. Such a prognosis, though, would be misleading, just as declarations of the demise of Bayern Munich after Real Madrid’s elimination of the German team on Tuesday are hopelessly exaggerated.

When the Champions League group stage rolls around again in September, both clubs will resume their place among the three favorites to win the competition. Barcelona will still have an attack built around Messi, the greatest player of his generation, and Neymar, his heir apparent.

Whoever replaces Luis Enrique as coach will have the pick of reinforcements this summer, too. There will be no especially relevant financial limit on recruitment plans; the only players who might refuse a move will be those destined for one of the game’s other superpowers.

Only a startling loss of form would deprive one of those teams a place in the knockout rounds. Only another exceptional team, or a breathtaking performance from a merely excellent one, will be able to prevent one of them winning it.

Barcelona and Bayern — and Real Madrid, too, for that matter — are simply too big now to fail in the conventional sense. Their squads are too stocked with talent, their accounts too swelled with cash, their brands too appealing to fans and players alike for them ever to drift into mediocrity.

They might fall short of their own lofty expectations now and again — by definition, in the Champions League, two of the three have to be disappointed every single year — but they will do so on a bungee cord, destined always to return to the skies, far above the teeming masses. It is anachronistic to talk about the end of Barcelona. Barcelona is not finished, nor will it be, not for the foreseeable future. Like Bayern, it is inoculated, financially and otherwise, against failure.

But if it is not the end of an era, it is nonetheless a watershed moment for the Champions League. For the first time since 2009, only one of Europe’s Big Three — Real — will be present in the semifinals. This is as close to a transition year as is conceivable in the era of the superclubs.

It is, in truth, more a changing of the guard than a revolution. Juventus played in the final in 2015; Atlético Madrid, very much the Ringo Starr of the quartet that has dominated this tournament for the last few years, is now in its third semifinal in four seasons. Both must now be considered peers, if not quite equals, of their bigger, richer rivals.

They are no less welcome for it, however. Predictability, in sport, is a carcinogen. The appeal of this competition, the most glamorous club soccer can offer, was starting to wither under the unassailable hegemony of Barcelona, Bayern and Real. This has been the most enthralling edition in some time.

Much of the credit for that should go to teams like Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and, in particular, Monaco, and to the set of vibrant young attacking players — Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, Paulo Dybala, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic — who have illuminated the competition.

For the first time since the Messi/Ronaldo era dawned in the mid-2000s, it is possible to list the players who will shine when those two are, eventually, gone. This season may well be remembered, for example, as the one in which Neymar and Monaco’s Mbappe — on a breakneck upward trajectory — emerged as their regents, ready to rule as soon as the kings vacate their thrones.

Equally significant, though, is that Barcelona and Bayern, in particular, find themselves forced to consider a question they have not needed to ask for close to a decade: What comes next?

The issue is most pressing in Munich, where Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso are scheduled to retire this summer and Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, both on the wistful side of 30, will doubtless be wondering when it will be time to join them.

“Big clubs always have transitions,” Bixente Lizarazu, a former Bayern defender who is now an ambassador for the club, said last week. “And they can always manage them.”

Bayern has proved that before; Barcelona less so, but it must start to contemplate how to do so now. Messi will be 30 in June; Suárez, Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano have all passed that milestone already. Yet this team is not finished by a draw against Juventus. Barcelona’s elimination, like that of Bayern, does not herald the dawn of an age of giants diminished.

Financial power, and global recognition, means this is merely the turning of a page. This is not the end of Barcelona. It is, in many ways, something more complicated: time to start again.