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World Cup Viewer’s Guide: Ronaldo and Neymar seek history

Source image: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-womens-soccer-sports-africa-ad680cf1958cae64e5e20aa1475112bd

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Two of the best players in soccer start World Cup competition Thursday as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar both seek history in Qatar.

Ronaldo is attempting to become the first male soccer player to score in five different World Cups when he leads Portugal against Ghana. Marta of Brazil has scored in five Women’s World Cups.

Neymar, meanwhile, is the leader of a Brazil team seeking a record-extending sixth World Cup title but first in 20 years. Brazil plays Serbia in its first match.

All attention is on Ronaldo, though, following his messy but mutual split this week with Manchester United.

The 37-year-old forward, likely playing in his final World Cup, gave an explosive interview only days before traveling to Qatar that criticized manager Erik ten Hag and United’s owners, triggering the split. And on Wednesday, Ronaldo was banned for two Premier League matches and fined 50,000 pounds ($60,000) for hitting a phone out of a fan’s hand at Everton last season.

The ban will follow Ronaldo to whatever new club he joins in any country but does not apply to the World Cup.

Ghana captain Andre Ayew cautioned against assuming Ronaldo’s headlines will be a distraction for Portugal.

“It is not our problem what is happening within the Portuguese team,” Ayew said Wednesday. “They are all great professionals playing at top teams and they will be ready for the World Cup, whatever else is happening.

“We go into this game with Portugal favorites on paper,” he added. “But we have to show that it is more important what happens on the pitch. We are playing a big side with top players, but we believe in ourselves and will make it very difficult for them.”

Ghana is the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup at No. 61 and is a massive underdog in a group that also includes Uruguay and South Korea.

Ronaldo said before his Manchester United departure that the drama has nothing to do with the World Cup. Teammate Bruno Fernandes agreed.

“Our focus is 100% on the national team and we are 100% focused on what we have to do,” Fernandes said.

Neymar, meanwhile, has been deliberately quiet since arriving in Qatar with his only public statement a social media post with a sixth star photoshopped onto his shorts around Brazil’s logo — a clear indicator his only goal is another World Cup title for his country.

“This is our dream,” Brazil forward Richarlison said. “Neymar posted that photo because it’s his dream, too. He wants to win that and we know how willing he is to win that. He can do whatever he wants. It’s his dream. If Neymar is happy here, we will be happy. That’s the most important thing.”

Neymar has five goals in six games this year for Brazil, all on penalty kicks.

Serbia has yet to advance out of the group stage in three previous World Cup appearances as an independent nation. It has also failed to qualify for the European Championship in five tries.

MASKED MAN

Son Heung-min, who ended last season tied as the Premier League’s top scorer, will likely be a masked man when South Korea plays Uruguay in Group H.

The forward fractured his left eye socket in a collision while playing for Tottenham earlier this month in a Champions League match and hasn’t played since Nov. 1. He’s worn a Batman-style protective mask while training in Qatar and likely will have it on again for the match.

Son runs South Korea’s offense, which is based on his ability to shoot with both feet and his accuracy on dead-ball plays.

Uruguay is led by Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, both playing in their fourth World Cup. Suárez’s seven World Cup goals is one short of national record holder Óscar Míguez, who played on the 1950 team that won the title.

SWITZERLAND-CAMEROON

Two teams meet for the first time when Switzerland and Cameroon play, with the Swiss trying to make it to the knockout round for the third consecutive World Cup.

Xherdan Shaqiri, who plays for the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, is in the World Cup for the fourth time and is Switzerland’s offensive leader. He’s been directly involved in 48% of its 23 goals in its last four major tournaments, with eight goals and three assists.

Cameroon finished third at the African Cup of Nations but has won only one of its last five matches, and that victory was against 141st-ranked Burundi. The Indomitable Lions are the fourth-lowest ranked team in the tournament, but after Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina earlier this week, the five-time African champions have hope.

It is Cameroon’s eighth World Cup, the most among African countries, but the national team has lost its last seven matches — a record only beaten by Mexico’s nine consecutive losses between 1930 and 1958.

GERMANY SHOCK

Germany arrived in Qatar as one of seven European nations planning to protest the host country’s discriminatory laws against homosexuality and human rights violations.

But soccer’s governing body threatened to give an immediate yellow card to any player wearing the “One Love” rainbow-colored armband, so the Germans found another way to protest: The 11 starters covered their mouths in their pre-game formation photograph as a rebuke to being silenced by FIFA.

Then Germany was silenced on the field.

Japan shocked the four-time champions with a come-from-behind 2-1 upset in which substitutes Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano, both of whom play for German clubs, scored late goals in Wednesday’s victory.

That came a day after Argentina’s 2-1 upset loss to Saudi Arabia.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Source: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-womens-soccer-sports-africa-ad680cf1958cae64e5e20aa1475112bd

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Stewart heads to New York on 1st day of WNBA free agency

Breanna Stewart couldn’t turn down a chance to play in New York and potentially help the Liberty win their first WNBA championship.

The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt on Wednesday. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her No. 1 overall in 2016. She won championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.

“I decided to go to New York as I wanted to continue to be great. And I wanted to go to the place where I think I can help this league become better, to raise the standard,” Stewart said in an interview on ESPN. “I feel like why not go to the biggest market in all of sports. I’m excited to go after their first championship.”

The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tendon injury.

“New York is a basketball city and I can’t wait to be a part of it,” Stewart said.

Coming to New York brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse, which is an hourlong flight away. She’ll also have a shorter flight to Spain to visit relatives of her wife, Marta.

New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and co-owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.

The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York, one of the WNBA’s original franchises, has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

“I think this group has a ton of potential, a lot of amazing players,” Stewart said. “The selflessness helps us set ourselves apart from everyone else.”

The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.

Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team. Candace Parker said last weekend she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and did so on Wednesday.

“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” said Parker, a longtime Southern California resident. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign contracts. Other moves announced included:

— Brittney Sykes and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough with Washington.

— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles.

— Teaira McCowan with Dallas.

— Alysha Clark and Cayla George with Las Vegas.

— AD Durr and Nia Coffey with Atlanta.

Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot announced on social media late Tuesday night that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.

“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”

Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.

“My message to Sloot is she knows I love to play with her, but I’m going to support her in any decision she makes,” Stewart said. “Free agency is hard. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody. It’s not only basketball these decisions are made behind. It’s life.”

While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Pat Riley: Kareem never had potential, ‘only greatness’

Pat Riley remembers just about every detail surrounding the events of Dec. 29, 1961. It was a cold night in Schenectady, New York. A little snowy, the roads a little icy. And when the bus carrying the opposing team from New York City arrived, all of Riley’s Linton High teammates peered out the window.

They saw a giant.

Long before Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were winning NBA championships together as coach and player with the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, they were opponents. Riley and Linton beat Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor — Abdul-Jabbar’s name before converting to Islam — 74-68 that night.

Abdul-Jabbar, then a 6-foot-10 freshman, was held to eight points because he spent virtually the entire game in foul trouble. He has told Riley several times over the years that Linton won because Riley’s father — a lifelong baseball man — had his umpiring friends refereeing the game.

“Which we did,” Riley acknowledges.

Riley knew it then and came to appreciate it even more years later — there were only a few ways to stop the player who would eventually spend nearly four decades as the most prolific scorer in NBA history. Abdul-Jabbar is on the verge of being passed by the Lakers’ LeBron James, the 38-year-old who was nearly nine months from being born when the unforgettable center made one of his signature sky hooks on April 5, 1984 to overtake Wilt Chamberlain and become the league’s scoring leader.

“Kareem was a guy that never had any potential. He just had greatness,” said Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat and one of the few who has worked with both Abdul-Jabbar and James. “You could see that. When you can bypass potential and you move right to greatness as a high school player, and then college and then the pros … there are very few like him. There’s a handful. Two handfuls, at the most.”

James is one of them, going from high school straight to the NBA, and now in his 20th season, he is now just 89 points away from passing Abdul-Jabbar’s record. The Lakers play Thursday in Indiana, then Saturday at New Orleans.

The most realistic target for the record-breaker is Tuesday in Los Angeles against Oklahoma City or — perhaps symbolically — next Thursday in L.A. when the Lakers play host to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that Abdul-Jabbar started his NBA career with.

This past October, Abdul-Jabbar — on his Substack page where he discusses and offers opinion on a variety of topics, often nothing to do with sports — wrote that when James passed Kobe Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in 2020, he “knew it was just a matter of time before he passed me too.”

Abdul-Jabbar added that every time a record is broken, all people are elevated.

“When I broke Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record in 1984 — the year LeBron was born — it bothered Wilt, who’d had a bit of a one-sided rivalry with me since I’d started doing so well in the NBA,” he wrote. “I don’t feel that way toward LeBron. Not only will I celebrate his accomplishment, I will sing his praises unequivocally.”

The relationship between Abdul-Jabbar and James seems complicated. Abdul-Jabbar was outside of the Cleveland locker room during the 2016 Eastern Conference finals as James was jogging by; the two embraced and shared a few kind words, prompting James to discuss the respect he has for Abdul-Jabbar and others who paved the way in his postgame remarks.

Abdul-Jabbar also has lauded James “as a community leader and athlete.” But he criticized James for not doing more with his platform to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And earlier this season, James said he has “no relationship” with Abdul-Jabbar.

There are ties that bind them, though. Both are champions. Both have worked to promote social justice and spoken out against racial inequality. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 years in the NBA; James is in Year 20. Abdul-Jabbar set the record while playing for the Lakers; James will do the same.

And If nothing else, James’ pursuit of the record may have exposed a generation or two that never saw Abdul-Jabbar play to how great he was.

“We have to always acknowledge those who come before us, those who’ve paved the way,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You think of all those points Kareem scored and he had, what, one 3-pointer? You think about all of that, and these kids get to learn about a different era. It’s high, high-level education in the game of basketball, particularly NBA basketball.”

When Abdul-Jabbar broke the record, Riley said Magic Johnson — then the Lakers’ point guard — made sure he was the one who got the assist on the play. Johnson nearly put himself back into the game against Utah in Las Vegas that night when Abdul-Jabbar was two points away.

Years later, when the Lakers from those championship teams of that era gathered in Hawaii last summer for a reunion, Abdul-Jabbar was a day late because of personal matters. The Lakers in 2022 celebrated his arrival the same way they did the record-setter in 1984.

“He felt special because he was special, because he is special,” Riley said of the man who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside an embattled Muhammad Ali during the boxing champ’s legal troubles in the late 1960s, and counted Bill Russell — another basketball giant and social-change champion — as a mentor. “He was treated as the patriarch by all the players. It was a great week for him. He was engaged, came to everything we did, gave some spontaneous talks. And he’s a shy guy, but he felt very comfortable in his group.”

Riley coached Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles and later lured James to Miami for a four-year run starting in 2010. He sees in James much of what he saw in Alcindor when that bus pulled into Schenectady in 1961.

“It’s all about LeBron right now, and it should be, with his unique career and unique opportunity to do this,” Riley said. “Training, travel, personal chefs, personal trainers, all that stuff has come into play since Kareem. I hope people realize Kareem’s story as well and how different it was. He went to college for four years; LeBron came out of high school. But they both dominated from Day 1. They both turned potential into greatness from Day 1.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Eagles reserve lineman accused of rape ahead of Super Bowl

CAMBRIDGE, Ohio (AP) — Josh Sills, a reserve offensive lineman for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, has been indicted on rape and kidnapping charges that stem from an incident in Ohio just over three years ago, authorities said Wednesday.

Sills, an undrafted free agent who appeared in just one game this season, was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. That means he can’t practice, play or travel with the team as it prepares for the Super Bowl.

The NFL announced the move Wednesday and said the issue is being reviewed under the league’s personal conduct policy.

The rookie, who played at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, was indicted Tuesday by a Guernsey County grand jury in Ohio and ordered to appear in court on Feb. 16, four days after the Eagles are to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

His attorney, Michael Connick, said the allegations are false and that Sills will be aggressively defended.

Sills was listed as a backup guard and played just four snaps on special teams against the Cardinals on Oct. 9, the one game he played. He was on the inactive list for most of the year, including this past Sunday in Philadelphia’s conference title victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

“The organization is aware of the legal matter involving Josh Sills. We have been in communication with the league office and are in the process of gathering more information. We have no further comment at this time,” the Eagles said in a statement.

The indictment accuses Sills, who is from Sarahsville, Ohio, of engaging in sexual activity that was not consensual and holding a woman against her will on Dec. 5, 2019.

A statement issued by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the incident was immediately reported, and that the county sheriff’s office conducted a detailed investigation.

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