Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today in Europe, where Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola may soon be looking for a new job and where clubs in Germany and Portugal combined to give a clinic on the right way and the wrong way to respond to racism.
Guardiola’s future was tossed into uncertainty last week when UEFA handed down one of the stiffest penalties in its history, banning Manchester City from European competitions for two seasons and fining the club $32.5 million for violations of financial fair play regulations.
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UEFA essentially said the two-time defending Premier League champions were guilty of cooking the books, overstating the sponsorship revenue it reported between 2012-2016 so it could spend more on players. It was the second time in five years City has been sanctioned by UEFA for violating fair play guidelines but the latest punishment, which the team is appealing, will be far more painful because it prohibits the club from playing in the Champions League, the most prestigious club competitor in soccer and one City has never won.
The Champions League is also the most lucrative club tournament in the world, making it an important source of revenue for top European clubs. Last year Liverpool earned more than $120 million for winning the competition.
Guardiola has won it three times – once as a player and twice as a manager. So City’s inability to even play in the tournament for the next two seasons will likely have him searching for a way out.
And I’m not the only one thinking that way.
“I can understand [if Pep leaves] because he wants to play Champions League,” former Dutch international Ruud Gullit, a two-time European champion with Milan, told BBC Sport. “That is the Holy Grail for him. He wants to win the Champions League again.”
The coach may not be alone. Gullit said the ban will have an impact on the club’s ability to retain and attract top players.
“What you are thinking is ‘no Champions League’, it’s the worst thing,” Gullit said. “You will not [want to join City] because you want to play Champions League. It is not a scenario you want to be in.”
Guardiola is likely to get through that door first however. For starters his contract, which has just a season left, reportedly has a break clause that would allow him to leave this spring.
Plus it’s not like Guardiola was setting down roots anyway. His first coaching stop, at Barcelona, lasted four seasons while his second, at Bayern Munich, lasted three. He’s finishing his fourth season at City this year.
Guardiola, 49, is expected to discuss his future with City after Wednesday’s game with West Ham. In the meantime expect the team and its coach to make an all-out push to win this year’s Champions League.
Unbeaten Liverpool has a 25-point lead over City in a Premier League race that is all but over however Guardiola’s team is unbeaten in Champions League play entering next week’s knockout round game with Real Madrid. Winning the tournament this year and banking the $100-million winner’s check could help the team through the financial strain of a two-year European ban.
It has been nine years since UEFA, the ruling body for European soccer, adopted a series of rules to safeguard the finance health of the sport. At the time most clubs were operating in the red so UEFA said teams could only spend what they earned from things like ticket revenue, sponsorships, media deals and through transfers.
City was found in violation of the rules in 2014, the year it won its second Premier League title, with UEFA limiting City’s roster size and fining the club $69 million — more than half of which was suspended. UEFA latest penalties come after it was alleged that owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family personally funded the $88-million annual sponsorship of the City shirt, stadium and academy that was said to have be paid by his country’s airline, Etihad.
LAFC will play the first international game in franchise history Tuesday when it faces León in the first leg of a two-game CONCACAF Champions League playoff. And while the team has been pointing to the CCL for more than two years, the timing of Tuesday’s game isn’t ideal.
Although LAFC finished its preseason schedule unbeaten, it wasn’t until last week that it saw three key starters – defender Eddie Segura, midfielder Eduard Atuesta and forward Diego Rossi – return from international duty. None has played a minute for LAFC since last November’s playoff loss to Seattle.
The team is also missing midfielder Mark Anthony-Kaye to what appears to be a lingering hamstring issues and forwards Adama Diomande and Bradley Wright-Phillips to more serious injuries that will keep them out until at least mid April.
León, meanwhile, is six games into its Liga MX season.
Liga MX begins its season in January, two months before MLS, a scheduling difference that has always favored Mexican teams, who have won the last 14 tournaments.
“If we look at the numbers and at previous tournament, you can see that Mexican football is still a little ahead of the MLS,” León manager Nacho Ambriz said Monday in Spanish. “Today it seems like things are beginning to even out.
“On the field it has to be shown that this advantage has been maintained. But the games are very complicated. I told the players it’s on the field that the difference has to be demonstrated.”
LAFC will have a healthy and fit Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP and scoring champion. A two-time World Cup player for Mexico, and the player Ambriz said is Mexico’s best, Vela has never played a club game in his native country.
“Obviously it’s my country. I love Mexico,” he said. “I’m happy to have the chance to play there. I hope it’s a great game.
“I hope I score some goals. And I hope we win.”
The second leg of the playoff who take place Feb. 27 at Banc of California Stadium with the winner, to be determined on aggregate goals, advancing to next month’s tournament quarterfinals.
Good news, bad news
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández put in a solid, if scoreless, 78 minutes in his first appearance in Dignity Health Sports Park’s main stadium last weekend in the Galaxy’s 2-1 preseason loss to Toronto FC – a game in which the Galaxy played the final 57 minutes with just 10 men.
And while the chemistry between the team’s biggest offseason acquisition and winger Cristian Pavón remains a work in progress, Hernández said it’s getting better.
“There are a lot of things we need to improve, like always, and a lot of things we need to pay attention to try to maintain that. It is preseason,” he said. “The most important thing here always is the performance, the things to improve and the results are going to be the key thing when we start the season.
“There is no perfect game in any sport. That is the cool thing, that you always need to learn and to adapt and to get focused for the next one. I think the chemistry is getting very good and the most important thing is that, in this game in particular, we adapted ourselves with 10 men. That is not an easy job.”
Pavón scored the Galaxy’s only goal in the 37th minute after a brilliant individual effort that saw him avoid three tackles and at least five defenders on a run that ended with a long right-footed shot from outside the box.
The Galaxy played without defenders Daniel Steres (injury) and Rolf Feltscher (immigration issues) as well as midfielder and captain Jonathan dos Santos. All but Dos Santos could play in Saturday’s final preseason game.
But the team got bad news Monday when left back Danilo Acosta, who came out of the game early in the season half with a knee injury, took to Instagram to report he has an ACL injury. He will probably miss all or most of the regular season.
Even before Acosta’s injury Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese was closing in on a complicated deal that could bring bruising center back Alan Franco to the Galaxy from Argentina club Independiente. Negotiations were reportedly progressing late Monday but even if an agreement is reached this week, Franco may not arrive in Carson until after the MLS regular season has started.
Global soccer really needs to solve its growing problem with racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, three enormous sins that continue to stain the game everywhere.
The situation has become increasingly intolerable in Europe, with at least two shameful incidents taking place in Germany over the last two weeks and one more Sunday in Portugal. However the way these events unfolded offer textbook examples of the right way and wrong way to handle racist fan behavior.
In Germany, Leroy Kwadwo, a German-born defender of Ghanaian heritage, was targeted by monkey chants, an unfortunately common slur used against black players, late in a third-division game last Friday in Munster.
Kwadwo, who plays for the Wurzurger Kickers, notified referee Katrin Rafalski, who immediately halted the game. Munster fans quickly rallied to the side of the visiting player, identifying to security the 29-year-old man who had been making the offensive chants. The man was then led out of the stadium while many in the crowd applauded and shouted “Nazis out! Nazis out!”
On the field Rafalski, who handled the incident flawlessly, checked on Kwadwo during a lengthy chat, after which Munster players came over to hug and encourage Kwadwo, who also got a pat on the back from a sideline official.
Munster officials said Monday they would seek to have the offending fan banned from all German stadiums for three years, the toughest penalty possible. Local police said the man would be charged with incitement and could face fines as well as a jail term of three months to five years.
Watch the events unfold by clicking here.
The German soccer federation praised the fans while Munster president Christoph Strässer issued a statement saying his club “will not tolerate racism or any form of discrimination. Human dignity is sacrosanct. That goes for everyone in this country.”
Compare that with the reaction 10 days earlier in Schalke’s German Cup match with Hertha Berlin. Late in that match Berlin’s Jordan Torunarigha, another German-born player of African descent, was targeted with monkey chants. Hertha officials said they informed referee Harm Osmers of the abuse at the end of regulation time but Osmers – in contrast to Rafalski -- ignored them and did not pause the match or ask for a PA warning to be made.
Ten minutes into extra time Torunarigha, who was clearly angered by the abuse, was given a second yellow card and expelled. Afterward Schalke manager David Wagner appeared to doubt Torunarigha’s claim he heard chants.
In a visible show of support, Schalke’s Amine Harit, a Moroccan consoled Torunarigha as he left the match. Hertha, playing shorthanded, lost in extra time
The reaction was even worse in Portugal where Porto striker Moussa Marega, who is from Mali, didn’t even receive the support of his own teammates after hearing monkey chants during an away match with Vitoria de Guimaraes, for whom Marega once played.
Nine minutes after scoring what proved to the winning goal, Marega, who journalists said had been subject to clearly audible monkey chants throughout the match, became further enraged when fans began ripping plastic seats out of throwing them at him. But rather than halting the match or asking officials to make a PA announcement, referee Luís Godinho allowed the game to plunge into chaos by instead punishing Marega with a yellow card for his reaction to the abuse.
Incensed, Marega tried to walk off the pitch but rather than supporting him players from both sides – some of whom later said the verbal abuse began during warm-ups -- fought to keep him in the game, pulling on his jerseys and physically blocking his path to the dressing room.
Watch the ugly incident by clicking here.
Carlo Ancelotti, now at Everton, set the standard for how managers should act last season at Napoli when he promised to pull his team off the field in response to racist chants “even if that means forfeiting the match.”
Taking a stand against racism, Ancelotti rightly determined, is more important than three points. The Munster example further shows how effective a unified approach can be while the disgraceful response by Schalke and in Portugal proves that, in circumstances without clear-thinking referees such as Katrin Rafalski, managers like Ancelotti and opponents like Amine Harit, players may need to take matters into their own hands by standing up, showing solidarity and saying the show will not go on under these circumstances.
“I would like to express myself to all the people in the stadium, the perpetrators and players from Munster and especially I want to thank my team and the Kickers who immediately stood by my side. Your reaction is great -- you can’t imagine what this means to me and also all other players of color. We must all continue to stand against it how you did and nip it in the bud. Thank you for every single message! I hope that this finally has an end. Thank you for your humanity.”
Wurzurger Kickers defender Leroy Kwadwo, after fans, clubs officials, players and local police rallied to his side after a racist incident in a third-division game in Germany