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Matches, matches and more matches: Soccer’s road map to 2022 World Cup won’t be easy

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Football had a plan. Qualification for the 2022 World Cup would wrap up by March of that year, with the draw a month later and the tournament itself kicking off on Nov. 21, 2022, in Qatar. Then came the global pandemic and, with it, the scrambling, adjusting and, above all, negotiating between the two souls of the sport: the club game and the international game.

The two sides are united against a common enemy, the coronavirus, but are also mindful of their own share of a global football pie that is smaller than it once was. And only two confederations (UEFA and Africa) have a chance at determining World Cup qualifiers by the originally planned date. The other four (CONCACAF in North America, CONMEBOL in South America, AFC in Asia and OFC in Oceania) have, to different degrees, already been derailed by COVID-19.

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino was optimistic last month, pointing out that the positive aspect of a winter World Cup is that football has a little more flexibility. It still means cramming World Cup qualifying, the Nations League, Euro 2020 (in 2021), the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Africa Cup of Nations, the Olympic football tournament and Copa America in the next 25 months within the delicate footballing compromise that is the FIFA International Match Calendar. All while we hope the pandemic doesn’t wreak more havoc on the world.

Last week, FIFA amended its rules regarding the release of players for international duty for the rest of 2020. Whereas teams were previously forced to release players during international breaks, it’s been made optional until the new year, provided there is a travel restriction with mandatory quarantine in either the club’s location or the national team’s destination and no “sporting exemption” is granted by national governments.

This isn’t a huge issue within Europe, since countries are generally quick to provide exemptions and travel is rarely more than a couple of hours. Yet it’s a much bigger issue in other parts of the world, such as in South America, Africa or Asia, where the bulk of a country’s national team is often based abroad.

There are two sides to this. One is player welfare, particularly with a hyper-congested match calendar. Clubs don’t enjoy releasing players at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Stuffing them onto planes to send them halfway around the world, where medical protocols may or may not be as stringently followed as they are back “home,” keeps them up at night. Throw in the fact that with ever-changing government guidelines around the world as infection rates rise and fall, there’s the risk of mandatory quarantine when they get home. That might be another two weeks of unavailability, plus training time lost, which in turn means they might not be match-fit and available again until early November — just in time to jet off for the next international break.

The above is why representatives of Europe’s top leagues and clubs, as well as FIFPro, the players’ union, met with FIFA last month to hammer out a deal. Professionals from Asia, Africa and South America routinely face multiple intercontinental trips every fall: between international and Champions League travel, Lionel Messi (for example) is set to play games in Spain, Argentina, Bolivia (at altitude), Italy, Peru and Ukraine — all in the next six-and-a-half weeks.

The other aspect, while a bit crude, is nevertheless legitimate: clubs pay the players’ wages and yet, every so often, they have to give them up for international duty without much in the way of compensation. Sending them off for high-risk activities can seem needless or unfair, particularly when cash is tight and the economic effects of missing European football or being relegated because you lost players to the after-effects of international duty are magnified.

Then there’s the obvious flip side: international football. It’s easy to forget these days as we drooled over the Champions League draw, the return of Europe’s big domestic tournaments and the final hours of the transfer window, but for most of the world, the national team is where it’s at, particularly during a World Cup qualifying cycle.

The fact of the matter is that many national teams haven’t played a competitive game in the past year, and there is very little wiggle room in terms of the International Match Calendar.

There are two dates in September 2022 and another two in October 2022, and they’ve been allocated to regional competitions. In a pinch, you imagine they could be reclaimed to settle final World Cup qualifying issues, even if it means kicking the can down the road with regard to other tournaments. If worse comes to worst, you can turn home-and-away fixtures into single-leg events; that worked for the Champions League, but World Cup qualifying is an entirely different animal.

You could look at turning some breaks from double-headers into triple-headers, as UEFA are doing with the next two breaks, partly to satisfy TV commitments. Again, it’s relatively easy to do in Europe, where distances are small and infrastructure is good. Elsewhere it can be a logistical nightmare, and that’s before we get into the player health issue.

“Triple-headers” mean three games in seven days. That’s why, incidentally, Italy (34 players) and England (30) called up vastly expanded squads for this upcoming break: if you don’t rotate, you face the ire of the club sides. That matters, because this qualifying cycle will take place against the backdrop of the most congested club calendar in history. Domestic leagues in Europe, where the majority of World Cup players ply their trade, kicked off late because of the spring shutdown and will end early because of the European Championships.

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Gab Marcotti casts doubt on whether CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying games will be completed.

In England, they decided to go ahead and play the Carabao Cup, while going back to a maximum of three substitutes. Five substitutes were introduced post-lockdown to allow for more rotation and lessen the physical burden and risk of injury. The Premier League voted, by a narrow margin, to go back to three, believing (wrongly, in my opinion) that five subs offers an unfair advantage to bigger clubs. The 2020-21 Premier League season will have the same number of games as 2018-19, but that campaign was nearly 10 percent longer.

You can just about manage it, pandemic permitting. Legislation varies a bit, but so hell-bent are leagues on not rearranging fixtures if a club is hit by a rash of positive COVID-19 tests that, in most cases, as long as you have 13 able-bodied footballers (including youngsters on professional contracts), you won’t be granted a postponement. Why? Because there may be nowhere to put it in the calendar, which is why we’ve already witnessed the absurd spectacle of Tottenham Hotspur being forced to play three competitive matches (a Carabao Cup last-16 game vs. Chelsea, a Europa League qualifier vs. Maccabi Haifa and a league game at Man United) in the space of six days before the international break.

We know why this is happening. European clubs are projecting a revenue shortfall of more than $4 billion over 2019-20 and 2020-21. It could be a little less if fans are allowed back in earlier rather than later (it’s based on a 50% capacity); it could be a little more (or a lot more) if the grounds stay shut or if more sponsors or broadcasters go bust or try to renegotiate their contracts downwards. Soccer needs to squeeze as much as they can out of their product. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not about greed, it’s about survival.

There’s a sense of “cross your fingers and pack in as much as you can while you still can” pervading the global game. Ordinarily, this is where a columnist might point out alternate solutions and lament the ineptitude or avarice of those in charge. I’m loathe to do so, partly because the last 10 months have shown us how much of life is beyond our control and partly because I’m not sure what else they could have done that was workable.

This is already a unique season marked by an asterisk. Let’s hope that it will be a footnote, and not something that ends up defining the next 18 months.

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Lomachenko recovering from shoulder surgery

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Recently dethroned lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko underwent right shoulder surgery Monday, according to his manager, Egis Klimas.

Lomachenko previously had surgery on his right shoulder in May 2018. Klimas said this surgery was a result of both a pre-existing ailment and an injury suffered during the second round of Saturday night’s decision loss to Teofimo Lopez.

Lomachenko was very cautious in the first half of the contest, when Lopez built a significant lead on the scorecards. His late-rounds rally fell short, and Lomachenko lost his WBC, WBO and WBA titles.

He was examined Monday by Dr. Neal ElAttrache (who also oversaw his operation in 2018) and was told he would need surgery that day.

Lomachenko should be able to resume training by mid-January, according to Klimas.

“When he arrived to the States to prepare for the fight, he said in the Ukraine he felt the sharp pain in his right shoulder,” said Klimas, who noted that an MRI didnt reveal any significant injury to the shoulder. “We took him right away to Dr. ElAttrache to examine him.”

At six weeks out from the fight, Lomachenko was given an injection and alerted both the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association and the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

“We lost one week of training. We lost one week of sparring because the doctor forbid him to do much for a week after the injection,” Klimas said.

Klimas added that a few weeks later the pain flared up again during a sparring session. At that juncture, Lomachenko was given another injection and his father and trainer, Anatoly, “wanted out of the fight,” said Klimas.

Vasiliy Lomachenko said he would not pull out of the fight and made it clear to his team that if he dropped out, he would retire.

While news of the injury came out quickly after Saturday’s loss, Klimas insisted: “We didn’t want to look like we were looking for excuses or something.”

When Lomachenko heals up, Klimas says he wants a chance to get back the belts.

“If it’s possible, we would like to have the rematch,” Klimas said. “If they are so tough … are they willing to come back and do that?”

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Tiger considers playing in Houston before Masters

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tiger Woods is defending his Zozo Championship title this week with an eye on the Masters in three weeks.

And the run-up to what usually is the first major championship of the year is strange to say the least, he said.

So odd, in fact, that Woods said he is considering adding another tournament before the Masters, the Houston Open.

What?

“I think my plan is just to play and practice,” he said at Sherwood Country Club, where the relocated Zozo Championship begins Thursday. “I don’t know if I’m going to play Houston or not. I’m not playing next week, and we’ll see how this week goes and make a decision from there.”

It would have been a good bet to figure that this week’s tournament would be the only one before the Masters, simply because Woods has never played the week before the Masters in any year since playing his first as a pro at Augusta National in 1997.

Asked how he would try to replicate his run-up to the Masters, Woods said: “You can’t.”

“It’s not normally this time of year,” he said. “It’s not normally played this way, the configuration of events. We’re not in a Florida swing. This is all different. This whole year’s been different for all of us.

“The fact that the Masters will be held in November, it’s unprecedented, never been done before. I can’t simulate the normal ramp-up that I normally have, and I don’t think anyone else can either. It will be different for all of us.”

Woods is making only his sixth start on the PGA Tour since the resumption of play following a 13-week pandemic shutdown. His best finish is a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship in August. He has slipped from 13th to 28th in the world.

His last start was a month ago at the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut and struggled again with back stiffness.

Woods played nine holes at Sherwood on Tuesday and looked good, something that can be said of many of his practice rounds. What he brings to the course when it counts is what ultimately matters; so far this year, he’s never had a reasonable chance of contending going into the weekend.

He has played only seven times in 2020, his best finish a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in January.

“My game’s definitely better than it was at the U.S. Open,” he said. “I feel a little bit more prepared, a little bit better, and hopefully that translates into playing the golf course.”

His Zozo victory in Japan seems ages ago. Woods went there with low expectations after taking a nine-week break following arthroscopic knee surgery. And after a slow start, he shot consecutive 64s to open the tournament and posted a three-shot win over Hideki Matsuyama.

It was his 82nd victory on the PGA Tour, tying the mark of Sam Snead.

As a past Masters champion, Woods is an honorary member of Augusta National, meaning he can play the course whenever he wants. He has done so numerous times in preparation for the Masters, but said he’s done so only once in November back in the fall of 2001 after the club made numerous changes to the layout.

He recalled cool, difficult conditions. “It can be awfully difficult and long and much different than what we play in April,” he said.

Woods said he has not been back to Augusta National since his stirring 2019 victory, his fifth Masters title. Everything about it this time will be different, from no spectators to different colors and to perhaps a more strenuous golf course.

Another huge difference would be Woods playing the week prior.

“The whole idea is to be ready in a few weeks and whether or not that’s playing one more event, whether that’s Houston or just playing here at Zozo, just making sure that I’m ready for Augusta,” Woods said.

Woods does have a strong history at Sherwood Country Club, which he played 12 times when it hosted his World Challenge charity event that has since moved to the Bahamas. Woods won that tournament five times and was runner-up on five other occasions.

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The Most Competitive Races Aren’t In Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania

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In this episode of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew keys in on the most competitive races of 2020. Spoiler: They’re not in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, even though those states may be the most important ones in deciding the presidential race

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