Man City owner wants to invest in Malaysian club

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – The owners of Premier League champions Manchester City are eyeing a stake in a Malaysian team to add to their growing portfolio of clubs, a sports official said Friday.

Ferran Soriano — chief executive of City Football Group (CFG), which is bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family — raised the possibility when he met Sports Minister Syed Saddiq in Malaysia on Thursday.

CFG already owns or has stakes in New York City, Melbourne City, Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos, Atletico Torque, Girona and Sichuan Jiuniu, as well as star side Manchester City.

City are flying high after winning the FA Cup last week, completing a domestic treble with the English league title and the League Cup. 

“They are looking at the possibility of co-owning a Malaysian club,” Ahmad Shapawi Ismail, director-general of Malaysia’s national sports council, told AFP.

The official, who was present at Thursday’s meeting, said he was “delighted and excited” at the news, adding: “We need (their) expertise.”

He said that no specific side was discussed. 

But Syed Saddiq said CFG would be meeting with some presidents of local clubs soon, and he wanted them to make Malaysia “their base in Southeast Asia”.

Malaysia’s main divisions are the top-flight super league and the second-tier premier league. 

At Thursday’s meeting, Soriano said he saw great possibilities in Malaysia.

“We would like to talk to all of the Malaysian football stakeholders to find ways to collaborate,” he was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times newspaper.

“We see Malaysia has an opportunity for football… the level of enthusiasm of the fans is obvious. The development of Malaysian football and the league in the last year with investment by the government shows that there’s great opportunity.”

It is the latest Asian country being considered by CFG — in March, Soriano said the group wanted to invest in India.

Football is popular in Malaysia but the country does not perform well on the international stage, and is currently ranked 168th in the world. 

Population 1.4 billion, but China women’s football scraping the barrel

Shanghai (AFP) – Her grandmother never wanted her to play football so 11-year-old Liu Chang’s father sneaked her out of the house when grandma wasn’t looking.

China qualified for next month’s Women’s World Cup for a seventh time in eight editions and boast a record that their men’s team can only envy.

But you do not have to scratch far below the surface to see that women’s football in China is struggling for recognition.

“China has a lot of people but there aren’t many playing football,” said Qian Hui, who is renowned for developing girl footballers in Shanghai.

“I think the people we choose to join the team are not necessarily the best, the best ones don’t always want to be selected,” said Qian, overseeing coaching at Jinshajiang Road Elementary School, which specialises in girls football. 

“So we feel quite troubled.”

Liu, a skilful left winger, is among more than 100 girls aged seven to 18 who train five days a week under Qian and her fellow coaches. Matches are on Saturdays.

Underlining Qian’s point, Liu said she only got into the sport because her football-mad father wanted her to realise the dream he never fulfilled.

With no son, the onus fell on a reluctant Liu.

“I didn’t want to play at first but my dad sent me here,” she said.

“My grandma used to say girls shouldn’t play football and should dance or play piano.

“There was a time when my grandma went elsewhere to work and my dad sent me here while she wasn’t looking.”

– ‘Poor treatment’ –

President Xi Jinping has grand ambitions for Chinese football, including winning a World Cup.

China, 16th in the FIFA women’s rankings, are more likely than the men to achieve that — the men languish at 74th and reached the World Cup only once, when they exited without a point or a goal in 2002.

Yet women’s football gets little notice in China.

In contrast to large crowds and rabid fan followings enjoyed by some clubs in the men’s Chinese Super League, the domestic Women’s Super League receives scant publicity and games draw meagre attendances.

Qian paints a bleak picture for the development of the women’s game, saying parents often worry sport will get in the way of their daughters’ studies.

While that also applies to boys in China, some people, like Liu’s grandmother, simply don’t see football as something girls should play.

In Bosnia, women footballers play against the patriarchy

Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) – As a young girl, Irena Bjelica had to furtively sneak to football training in defiance of a family who thought she would be better suited as a dancer or model.

Today the 24-year-old is a defender for one of Bosnia’s top women’s football clubs, a team that is winning matches but still trying to win more fans as it battles gender norms in the patriarchical Balkans.

“My relatives were all against it,” recalled Bjelica, adding that only her grandfather supported her love of football as a youngster in neighbouring Montenegro, where she grew up.

As she proved her prowess on the pitch, the rest of her relatives eventually came around. But she has also found a different kind of family in Emina, a club founded three years ago in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar.  

“The coach and the president are like our parents…while the other players in the club are like my sisters,” explained Bjelica, who lives with her teammates in the house of the club’s founders, who sleep in the living room so that the players can share bedrooms upstairs. 

Emina is part of a small sporting scene for women in Bosnia, a conservative country where many still see football as a man’s game. 

Their sporting infrastructure also pales in comparison to many of the countries competing in the Women’s World Cup in France, which Bosnia did not qualify for. 

Only 1,264 women — compared to 41,625 men — play in registered clubs in the Balkan state.

The 31 women’s clubs mostly owe their existence to football enthusiasts, such as Emina’s founders Sevda Becirovic Tojaga, a 56-year-old pharmacist, and her husband Zijo, 57.

The idea was born in May 2016 while Sevda was watching an international women’s match on TV and called her husband to say: “We are going to start a club.”

They have ignored the boys who look at female players with an “evil eye” or call them “lesbians,” she added.

Sponsorships from suppliers of Sevda’s pharmacy help cover each player’s 200 euros ($223) of monthly “pocket money”.

– ‘There to be looked at’ –

“In our country, people still consider football to be exclusively male,” explained the coach Zijo, a former player and coach for Velez Mostar.

Parents still “try to keep their daughters away from football,” he added. 

Some prominent Balkan football players and coaches have welcomed their female counterparts to the sport. 

‘World Cup dreams’ – Lippi back as China coach, four months after leaving

Shanghai (AFP) – Marcello Lippi was back as coach of China on Friday, four months after the World Cup winner quit and following a failed stint by fellow Italian Fabio Cannavaro.

The 71-year-old Lippi’s return to the top job in Chinese football had been widely tipped in domestic media and will be welcomed by fans.

Lippi, who vacated the role after China were dumped out of the Asian Cup quarter-finals 3-0 by Iran in late January, is tasked with guiding the team to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

China have reached the World Cup only once, in 2002, when they exited without a point or scoring a goal. 

“Since Lippi coached the national team, they have shown a positive and tenacious fighting spirit,” the Chinese Football Association (CFA) said.

“We believe that in the days to come, under the leadership of Lippi and his coaching team, the national men’s side will make a full impact on their World Cup dreams.”

China sit a lowly 74th in the FIFA rankings, a rung above Cape Verde — whose population is 550,000, compared with China’s 1.4 billion.

But under football-fan President Xi Jinping, China have ambitions to host and even win a World Cup.

The reappointment of Lippi, who took Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, follows four months of confusion and speculation.

The former Juventus, Inter Milan and Napoli boss was succeeded by his World Cup-winning captain Cannavaro in March.

The 45-year-old former legendary defender combined the job with being coach of Chinese Super League (CSL) title-contenders Guangzhou Evergrande.

However, China lost to lower-ranked Thailand and Uzbekistan in Cannavaro’s opening two matches and he quit, saying that he could not do two jobs at once.

Re-enter his mentor Lippi, who was a three-time CSL champion with Guangzhou and among the best-paid coaches in football during his first spell in charge of the national side.

He will earn similarly well in his second spell, with Evergrande subsiding his wages, Chinese media said.

Lippi, who is surely in his last job in football, marginally improved China last time, winning 13 of his 32 games in charge and losing 11.

He failed to take China to Russia 2018 following his appointment in October 2016, although qualification was already in doubt following a poor run under Gao Hongbo.

Lippi’s first match back at the helm will be a home game against the Philippines on June 7, followed by another home friendly, with Tajikistan, four days later.

Cup final means damage limitation for Barca against rejuvenated Valencia

Madrid (AFP) – Damage limitation, and a fifth consecutive Copa del Rey, will be the prize if Barcelona beat Valencia on Saturday as their rejuvenated opponents eye a final flourish to their remarkable comeback season.

Victory for Barca would only slightly alleviate the disappointment of failing in the Champions League but another defeat, less than three weeks after the collapse at Anfield, would plunge the club back into crisis.

For Valencia, the possibilities are more positive, given a loss in Seville is expected, while a win would turn a decent campaign into a sensational one. 

The numbers favour Barcelona. Twenty-six points separate the two sides in the table, with Barca scoring more goals than Valencia have scored and let in put together. 

Valencia’s captain Dani Parejo finished their top scorer on nine goals, the same number Lionel Messi had hit before the middle of November. 

And Valencia have beaten Barcelona only once in 14 attempts, without a success in any of their last eight meetings.

But the records ignore trajectory and momentum. Barca look like a side still hurting, eager to end the season and begin recovering over the summer. Valencia are flying high, fresh from a late surge that saw them snatch fourth place on Saturday.

After beating Real Valladolid, Valencia’s players celebrated like they had won a trophy. 

“It wasn’t easy to turn it around,” said coach Marcelino. “But we did it.” 

A day later, Barcelona ended with a 2-2 draw away at Eibar. 

“We weren’t playing for anything and it showed,” said Ernesto Valverde. “In Seville, we will be completely different.” 

Barcelona are depleted. Luis Suarez and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are out with knee injuries. Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Arthur Melo are all struggling. Nelson Semedo and Kevin Prince-Boateng might not have started, but they are unlikely to make it either. 

When the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu was asked for his reaction to winning La Liga last month, with three games to spare, he said: “We want to win the treble”. 

The idea was the Copa del Rey would be the easy part, a warm-up for winning the Champions League final in Madrid seven days later. 

“It was said we had given up in the Copa de Rey, that we didn’t want it,” Messi said after they reached the semi-finals. “But in no way is this the case. This team wants to fight for all three titles as is the obligation of Barca every year.”