UEFA president Ceferin defends Baku final

Berlin (AFP) – UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has defended the decision to host the Europa League final in Baku in an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel to be published on Saturday.

Chelsea and Arsenal are set to play in Baku on May 29, and UEFA has faced heavy criticism, both for the distance of the venue from London and over Azerbaijan’s record on human rights.

Ceferin, 51, told Der Spiegel that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan was a “problem”, but that this was true of other European nations as well. 

The controversy over Baku increased this week, when Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan decided not travel to the final amid concerns for his safety.

The UEFA president said that the decision was Mkhitaryan’s to make, and drew a parallel with the decision to host Euro 2016 in France. 

“If football allows itself to be stopped by such tensions, then we will not be able to organise anything in future,” said Ceferin. 

“We managed to organise a safe European Championships in France when the country was a target of terrorist attacks.”

Ceferin also said that he was in no rush to reform the UEFA Champions League. 

“If you ask me, there is no need to change anything,” he said.

The 51-year-old said that UEFA were in discussions over reforms proposed earlier this year by the European Club Association. 

The proposals envisaged a restructuring of all European club competitions into a three-tiered system with internal relegation and promotion from 2024.

Ceferin said that UEFA had already vetoed a suggestion to hold Champions League games at the weekend, saying that “this will not happen”. 

Neuer to make cup final return for Bayern

Berlin (AFP) – Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer will play in this weekend’s German Cup final against RB Leipzig, coach Niko Kovac revealed on Friday.

Neuer, 33, has been out injured since mid-April after sustaining a calf injury in a Bundesliga game against Fortuna Duesseldorf.

The Bayern number one had hoped to return to the first team two weeks ago, but was still out of action when Bayern wrapped up the league title in Munich last weekend.

Kovac, though, said on Friday that his captain would be back on the pitch at the Berlin Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening.

“Manuel will play tomorrow, because he is our captain and has played well this season,” said the Bayern coach.

Neuer said that the cup final in Berlin was always “something special”. 

“The coach knows that I have missed the last few weeks, but we have played some matches in training so I am well prepared.”

Kovac also revealed that midfielder Leon Goretzka would not be fit for the final against Leipzig.

Neuer, who missed last year’s final due to injury, said  he could sympathise with Goretzka. 

“It is an emotional game tomorrow. I feel for Leon, because he is injured and will miss his first ever cup final,” said the Bayern keeper.

Pope reminds 6,000 youngsters that football ‘is a game’

Vatican City (AFP) – Football is a game, Pope Francis on Friday reminded a gathering of 6,000 Italian youngsters at the Vatican, asking them not be become fanatics who “stain” the game.

“Football is a game: shall we say it together?” the Argentine pontiff told the crowd, who chanted back at him.

“Don’t forget, football is a game,” said the pope, an ardent supporter of Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo, calling on parents to “give this mentality to their children”.

“Many people describe football as the most beautiful game in the world. I think the same, but that’s a personal opinion,” the pope said to thunderous applause in the vast Paul VI audience hall.

Unfortunately, “we see things, on the pitch or behind the touch line, which stain football’s beauty,” the pope said, citing sometimes negative examples of parents who become “ultra supporters, managers or coaches”.

“Don’t forget where you came from,” he said to a handful of stars who also attended the event. It’s up to such stars to help youths become “champions of life,” he said.

Kovac’s Bayern job ‘never in question’ – CEO Rummenigge

Berlin (AFP) – Under-fire Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac will not be sacked at the end of the season, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge revealed on Friday.

“It was never in question that he would be our coach next season,” Rummenigge told the Bild newspaper, at an event in Berlin on the eve of Saturday’s German Cup final.

The 63-year-old has until now been considered one of Kovac’s strongest critics in the Bayern boardroom.

Speculation that Kovac was facing the sack had been growing in recent weeks, amid reports that both senior players and the club leadership are unhappy with his coaching style.

Rummenigge has always been particularly cool on Kovac. In April, a day after Bayern had beaten title rivals Borussia Dortmund 5-0, he went on Sky TV to declare that “nobody had a job guarantee” at Bayern. 

Yet on Friday, he confirmed that Kovac would not be fired before next season, saying that he had “no problem” with the Croatian coach and dismissing rumours that Kovac’s fate was dependent on the outcome of Saturday’s cup final. 

“It would be crazy to make a decision based on one game,” he said, adding that Kovac had already brought success by wrapping up the league title last weekend. 

“I think it is definitely a success to win the league in your first year at Bayern. He is a young and relatively inexperienced coach.”

Rummenigge also denied that he and club president Uli Hoeness had clashed over Kovac’s future. 

“The good thing about my relationship with Uli is that we sometimes have different opinions, but we did not have different opinions about the coach.”

Ghana name Ayew captain ahead of Africa Cup of Nations

Accra (AFP) – Ghana coach Kwasi Appiah on Friday named Andre Ayew as the new captain while the nation’s football federation said former captain Asamoah Gyan had been made ‘general captain’ for the Africa Cup of Nations squad.

Gyan said Monday he would quit the national team, angered by Appiah’s plan to strip him of the team captaincy, but the country’s President Nana Akufo-Addo intervened and persuaded the veteran to stay on.

“Gyan has been elevated to the position of ‘General Captain’,” the Ghana FA announced on its website, in what is being interpreted as a ceremonial role for the star striker.

Ayew, a son of Ghana football legend, Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, made his debut appearance in the Black Stars as a teenager in 2008.

He captained Ghana’s junior side to win the Under-20 World Cup in 2009.

The 29-year-old is replacing Black Stars all-time leading top scorer Asamoah Gyan, who recently had a row with Appiah over the captaincy position.

Italy-based midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah has been named the deputy captain.

A 29-man provisional squad will leave Accra for Dubai on June 1 for pre-tournament preparations, after which a final 23 will be named for the tournament, which kicks off on June 21.

The Black Stars are in Group F with defending champions Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.