All posts by Joseph Najjar

Women’s basketball is gaining ground in the USA

The NBA is viewed as the pinnacle of basketball, but the sport has also been played by women since its very earliest days.

Women’s basketball in America actually tipped off back in 1892 at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

It was taught by Senda Berenson, who was taking a huge risk in an age when females were deemed to be ill-suited to playing competitive sports.

Even Berenson was reputedly afraid that women would suffer from nervous fatigue if the games became too highly charged.

So in order to keep things civilised, she introduced modified rules; for example, players weren’t allowed to snatch or battle the ball away from each other. The ball had to move from section to section by either passing or dribbling, however, players were only limited to three dribbles and were only allowed to hold the ball for three seconds.

The first-ever women’s basketball college game took place in Berkeley between Stamford University and the University of California in 1896.

However, while the men’s game was added to the roster of Olympic sports in 1936, it took until 1976 for the women’s version to be included in the Games.

This then led to extra funding to promote women’s basketball, and the sport began to grow dramatically.

The biggest development for the women’s game came in 1982 when the (NCAA) National Collegiate Athletic Association came onboard, given an overall structure to college hoops for women.

In professional terms, though, the best players had to wait until 1996, when the NBA founded the Women’s NBA.

Women’s National Basketball Association

Attendance

The WNBA scored its the highest total and average attendances since 2011 last year. The total number of spectators 1,574,078, and the average crowd increased to 7,716.

The biggest rises came at the top teams in the league like the Los Angeles Sparks who had an increase of (+17.8%), Connecticut Sun (+15.3%) and Minnesota Lynx (+12.3%).

Social Media

The WNBA is growing massively on social media as it has nearly reached 14 million likes across all platforms, On Facebook, the WNBA has had now over 1 million likes this season alone. The league is still continuing to break its own records from last year.

Salaries 

The salaries for professional female basketball players are nowhere near what the average male player earns.

On average, the top women make $72,500 a year; a typical contract starts off at $40,00 and can reach up to $75,000. If you compare that to the men’s game, by 2021 the average salary will hit $10m, thanks to TV rights by ESPN.

So there’s still a huge gap that has to filled between the men and women’s game, as the salary cap is nowhere near the same.

Top 5 college basketball stars

A’ja Wilson, South Carolina, F, 6ft 5ins, senior

Wilson was in the running for the Final Four’s most outstanding player last season, and she was also named the SEC’s player of the year for the second campaign in a row.

she will need to step up, though, as three starters from last year’s team have left. So, Wilson, the hometown heroine, will have to inspire her team again after leading them to their first NCAA title.

The next step for Wilson will be moving onto the WNBA, as he has the qualities to make it in the pro league. Last season, she was 17.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG and was able to get 90 blocks.

2. Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State, G, 5-ft 8ins, senior

Kelsey Mitchell is one of the most aggressive players in the country, she is a relentless attacker when the ball is in her left hand.

Mitchell has great shooting from range, but her most dangerous weapon is her explosive first step. Her scoring average has decreased 3.5 PPG from her sophomore to junior season, yet she is still within striking distance. Mitchell has now more help from other players from the team.

Mitchell who is aiming to break the record of 924 points in a single season which was set by Kelsey Plum in 2017.

Even if she isn’t able to set a new mark, no player can take the game in a blink of an eye like Mitchell does. Last year, she averaged 22.6 PPG, 3.9 APG, and also averaged 36.9 3-point field goal percentage, one of the best in the league.

3. Napheesa Collier, UConn, F, 6ft 1in, junior

Collier might be the best in the league at moving the ball around and creating a play, however, only six other players averaged more points per game a season ago.

Collier is a highly efficient shot-maker. For a player to average more than 20 points and miss fewer than four shots per game is remarkable.

Even her own team-mate Katie Lou Samuelson, who hardly misses any of her shots, missed twice the amount Collier did.

Furthermore, she has also added the three-point game to her play, plus averaging two blocks a game means that Collier is far from a one-dimensional player, as she has variety.

Last season, sher was able to average 20.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 67.8 field goal percentage, one of the highest in the league.

4. Gabby Williams, UConn, F, 5ft 11ins, senior

Williams who has an amazing stats sheet was able to get 100 steals and 52 blocked shots last season.

Williams marks the bigger players and is able to outmuscle due to her athleticism.

With new bigger players on the UConn team, it means that Williams will be able to play more freely and operate more around the perimeter.

However, wherever Williams plays she will also make an impact as she is a top talent. In the 2016/17 season, she averaged 14.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 5.1 APG, nearly averaging a double double in each game.

5. Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn, G/F, 6ft 3ins, junior

Another player that makes it into the top five is Samuelson who also plays for UConn. At6ft 3in, she is one of the best defensive players in the league.

It’s hard enough to defend against her due to her size, but she also packs a punch at the three-point line, as she makes them look like free throws.

Samuelson has proved herself to be a powerhouse defender but is also a formidable offensive player. If you take away the three-pointers she makes in each game, she still is able to average 17 points per contest.

That’s more than Louisville’s Asia Durr and almost as many as South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson.

Samuelson who averaged 20.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 42.0 three-point field goal percentage in the 2016/17 season is going to be a dominant force in this season league.

March Madness

During the month of March, female college teams compete in the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. This year’s runs from March 16th until April 1st, with the final four facing off on March 30th and the finals two days later.

On Saturday, UConn showed their class as they eased to an 88 points victory over St. Francis from Pennsylvania. They then played Quinnipiac, who beat Miami on Saturday to advance, UConn went on to beat Quinnipiac 71-46 who now face off against Duke.

The Defending Champions of the tournament South Carolina beat Virginia 66-56 who are ranked 10th in the division. South Carolina will face Buffalo on Saturday, should be an interesting game as both teams are in good form.

Mo Salah Liverpool shirt

Liverpool reaps the dividends as Salah’s star continues to rise

You know a footballer is making waves with his scintillating performances when fans and the media decide that he’s ‘the Messi of [insert country here]’.

Sure enough, Mohamed Salah – with his dribbling skills, lightning speed and goals galore – has become known as ‘the Messi of Egypt’.

After his (bargain) £34.3m summer move from Roma, the 25-year-old forward has become the fastest-ever Liverpool player to reach 20 goals in the Premier League.

Salah was able to achieve it in 25 games compared to Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge, who both did it in 27. He’s currently on 28 goals.

How Chelsea must be kicking themselves that they didn’t persevere with him, after spending £11m to sign him from Basel in 2014.

Egypt’s icon

Salah is also a star on the international scene, where his heroic two-goal display against Congo back in October secured Egypt’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia – their first appearance on football’s biggest stage since 1990.

His status as a hero in his homeland is helped by the fact that Salah cuts a modest and humble figure who cares about the plight of those less fortunate.

‘With the Premier League televised around the world, Salah is fast becoming his nation’s most famous son’

He once donated 30,000 euros to the Veteran Association of Egyptian Players. After his match-winning performance against Congo, he was offered a villa by a rich businessman but declined and asked that the money instead go to help improve living standards in his hometown of Nagrig.

Egyptian football expert Marwan Saeed said: “He is a very down to earth, a quiet footballer and person. He barely interacts with the media in Egypt or abroad.

“He uses social media to a moderate level. He doesn’t like to talk much and that is a good thing as we see many stars saying things they shouldn’t on TV or posting things they shouldn’t.”

His exquisite skills on the field of play, and down-to-earth demeanour away from it, have made him an iconic figure and a source of pride for all Egyptians.

And with the Premier League televised around the world, Salah – having notched 36 goals in 41 appearances for Liverpool – is fast becoming his nation’s most famous son.

Salah steps up

Fans at Anfield feared the worst when favourite Phillipe Coutinho finally departed for Barcelona for £142m in the January transfer window.

 

But the Brazilian’s exit created an opportunity for Salah – who was signed for £39m in the summer of 2017 from Roma – and he has grabbed it with both hands.

Doubts might have lingered in the minds some Liverpool supporters, given he was shown the door at Chelsea in 2016 after just two goals in 13 appearances.

Jose Mourinho had recruited Salah after the Egyptian impressed against the Blues in the Champions League.

But he failed to shine at Stamford Bridge and after a year was loaned out, first to Fiorentina and then to Roma, who signed him permanently in August 2016.

Mourinho’s rigid tactical approach failed to get the best out of the free-spirited Salah, but he blossomed again in Italy, and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp had no qualms about bringing him back to England.

Golden Shoe race 

The German’s decision has been more than justified, and further proof of that was delivered as Salah scored four times in Liverpool’s recent 5-0 win over Watford.

His latest haul put him in the lead for the European Golden Shoe award, and took his goal tally in the Premier League to 28 in 30 appearances.

It put the Egyptian on 56 points, six ahead of favourite Lionel Messi, who scored twice against Athletic Bilbao.

If Salah goes on to win the Golden Shoe he will be the first Premier League player to win it outright, since Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 31 goals in 2007-08 to help Manchester United claim the title.

Can Liverpool keep Salah?

With big performances week in week out, fans and pundits alike are already asking if Liverpool can hold on to Salah, as his exploits spark interest from the likes of Real Madrid.

Even though the player himself looks to have settled at Anfield, no-one knows where a massive offer for him might lead.

At least with Coutinho, Liverpool got five years of service, 142 appearances, 41 goals and numerous assists before the lure of Barca became too strong.

Salah is already well on his way to eclipsing those attacking stats, and may yet help Liverpool to Champions League success this season – if they can first get past Manchester City in the quarter-finals.

If he also stars for Egypt in Russia this summer, expect the club’s resolve to keep him at Anfield to be severely tested…

Djokovic’s struggles continue with an early exit at Indian Wells

After his early exit at Indian Wells, it looks like being a long, hard road for Novak Djokovic to get back to his glory days.

Before his six month break from tennis to undergo and recuperate from elbow surgery, the Serb was the most dominant player around.

He won four straight grand slam titles from 2015 to 2016, but at Indian Wells he showed little of that form as he was upset by Japanese qualifier Taro Daniels 7-6 (7-3) 4-6 6-1 in the second round.

The Serbian, 30, who has won 12 slam titles but is currently languishing at 13th in the ATP rankings.

After his latest defeat, Djokovic said: “For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird”

Djokovic, who let a 5-2 lead slip in the first set, committed 61 unforced errors as he showed just how rusty he was.

He has had great success at the Indian Wells, winning five titles, but this was his quickest exit from the competition since 2006, when he made his debut.

To find the last time Djokovic lost a qualifier, you have to go back to 2008, when he crashed out in Miami.

Soldiering on

Even before the elbow problem worsened, his form had been waning during 2016, and he alluded to off-court issues. Reports at the time claimed his marriage had hit problems.

 

But his biggest problem on the court was coming from his elbow, which eventually required surgery.

Djokovic had soldiered on to Wimbledon 2017, where he reached the quarter-finals against Thomas Berdych but only managed to play two sets before pulling out.

He then had the operation and did not pick up a racket for nearly five months before returning to training, and then playing in January’s Australian Open warm-up event in Abu Dhabi.

For his first match against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic wore a sleeve over his troublesome elbow but beat the Austrian 6-1, 6-4.

Expressing his relief, Djokovic said: “I’m smiling inside and outside. I just love this sport so much.”

Even though Djokovic wasn’t at his best, he moved on to Melbourne, where he’s won six times, but lost in the fourth round to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung.

After his defeat, he said: “It was a good tournament. I mean, it’s disappointing to go out in the fourth round [but] I have to accept it. That’s the reality. It’s frustrating, of course, when you have that much time and you don’t heal properly.”

Del Potro backing

There is one player that knows how it feels like to be out of the game injured, and that’s Juan Martin del Potro.

Once seen as the next dominant force of the men’s game, the 2009 US Open winner was hit by numerous wrist injuries which slowed his progress.

However, the Argentine believes that Djokovic will recover and get back to his best.

 

“I think it’s only a matter of time to get where deserves to be. And if his body feels good, the tennis comes along and the confidence comes along too.”

What next for Djokovic

The next tournament for the Serb will be the Miami Open (March 21 – April 1). Djokovic is a six-time winner in Florida, so this is clearly one of his happier hunting grounds.

Furthermore, with two of Djokovic fierce rivals, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal out injured and still recuperating, and only Federer of the ‘big four’ in action, it’s a great time for the Serb to be playing if he can regain something like his top form.

But his defeat in Indian Wells suggests this is some way off, so the younger generation – especially players like Alexander Zverev ranked 5th and Thiem who’s ranked 6th – will fancy their chances.

Will we ever see the Djokovic of old again, the modern great who combined a powerhouse physical presence and amazing stamina with sublime skills?

As he approaches his 31st birthday in May, maybe we have seen the best of him, but he’ll be fighting to prove otherwise.

Novak Djokovic image by Mirsasha via Flick Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nehme heads for Lebanon to realise his hoop dreams

Ghassan Nehme is a hot prospect in Lebanese basketball, aged 22 and playing for one of the country’s top teams, Club Sagesse.

He was born and raised in America, growing up in Colorado where he started playing in the community YMCA leagues at a very young age.

Nehme told me: “My father played for Champville [a private Christian college in Lebanon] under coach Fouad Abou Charka. I’ve always had a ball in my hand and wanted to be like my dad. He’s my idol and who I thrive to learn from on and off the court.”

The young star has the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“After going through a tough second year of college with injuries I felt like it was time to move on and try something new.

“My dream was to be playing where my family is from and represent the Lebanese blood in me. It’s a true blessing to get to play over in Lebanon.”

The season so far

Nehme is currently in his first year at Beirut-based Club Sagesse, where he is having a very good season to date.

His stand-out performance was against Homenetmen Beirut. Coming on for Dwayne Jackson, he scored 31 points in 15 minutes, hitting 9 of 11 from the three-point line, a new record in Lebanese basketball.

Even though Sagesse went on to lose the 105-97, Nehme was highly praised after the game, and even got labelled the ‘Steph Curry of Lebanese basketball’.

Playing in basketball-mad Lebanon for a major team such as Sagesse, who have won nine national titles, piles a great responsibility on to every player’s shoulders.

So for a 22-year-old to come on, when the team is low on morale and losing by a big margin, and perform so well just shows you that he is a top player who has great ability and character.

Asked about the support of Sagesse, Nehme said: “Playing for Hekmeh [as the team is also known] is the best experience I’ve had playing basketball.

“On and off the court the fans are amazing, and you’re treated like a professional. Nothing compares to Hekmeh fans, and how passionate they are and how much they influence our play. I’m very fortunate to experience such amazing fans.”

Nehme has to put in more great displays like he did against Homenetmen, as Club Sagesse will need him to perform at his best if they want to make it to the finals of the Lebanese Basketball Championships.

The future

Club Sagesse’s next game is against their fierce rivals Al Riyadi, which always is a thrilling match-up, on March 6th.

As well as helping Club Sagesse to glory, Nehme also has ambitions to break into the Lebanese national team, which is gunning for a spot at the 2019 World Cup in China.

Lebanon are just through to the next round of qualifiers, and Nehme knows that consistent good displays at club level will help him to catch the eye of Lebanon’s new head coach Patrick Saba.

But international success can’t come before domestic achievement, and Nehme has one overriding aim as a Club Sagesse player. “I wish to achieve winning the Lebanese League Championship during my career,” he said emphatically.

Ghassan Nehme is on Twitter @gnehme23

New Lebanon coach Saba offers fresh approach for Cedars

Patrick Saba says he is up for the challenge of leading Lebanon’s men’s senior basketball team to the 2019 World Cup in China.

The Lebanese Basketball Federation named Saba as head coach recently, making him only the third Lebanese to fill the post. He replaces the Lithuanian Ramonas Butautas.

It is his second stint in charge of the Cedars, having previously taken them to 2016 West Asia Basketball Association Championship in Amman, Jordan, where they claimed a top-four finish.

Saba told fiba.basketball: “Hopefully, with early planning and the efforts of the many talented local players, Lebanon will have high chances of qualifying for the 2019 Basketball World Cup.”

Lebanon have only previously reached three World Cup tournaments, and their new coach admits changes to the qualifying process won’t make it any easier this time round.

Australia and New Zealand are now included in a joint Asia-Oceania group of 16 teams playing home and away games during six windows – November 2017, February, June, September and November 2018 and February 2019.

Full strength

At the end of those windows, the top seven teams – in addition to the hosts China – will qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 as Asia’s representatives.

“The new competition system is different,” Saba said. “We need to get accustomed to it, but the beauty of it lies in its high competitiveness and high level of excitement.

“It will see a very high level of competition with the participation of the two Oceania countries, especially if they choose to play at full strength.

“I hope they enter the competition in full power because that way the rest of the Asian national teams will have to upgrade their level.”

Lebanon got off to a mixed start in the opening window last November, beating India but losing Jordan in a thrilling encounter.

Saba seems to have the backing of Lebanon’s basketball-loving public. Cedars fan Daniel Youssef told me: ” I believe the appointment is a good one, as Saba is a well-known coach in Lebanon. I also believe he should be given time to carry out his ideas, as everything needs patience.”

Honours

Although Lebanon’s World Cup record isn’t notable, they tend to do much better in Asian tournaments. They have made nine appearances in the Asia Cup, coming second on three occasions back in 2001, 2005 and 2007. They have also made two European Championship appearances.

FIBA Asia Championship – 3 Silver Medals

FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup – 1 Gold Medal

West Asian Basketball Championship – 5 Gold Medals, 4 Silver

Pan Arab Games – 1 Gold Medal

Top players

Seba’s approach promises to be bold and innovative approach as he prefers not to use naturalised players in the most key roles as he wants to bring in more Lebanese talent and give them the chance to show their potential.

Daniel Youssef said: “Saba should use Lebanese and naturalised players, as using both would make the team stronger, plus why shouldn’t we use naturalised players? All the other team use them.

“But in the future, Lebanon should look into concentrating on the younger generations and trying to bring them into the team.”

Lebanon have got the players to make it to the World Cup. One of is Wael Arakji, Lebanon’s captain and point guard.

He started his playing career in 2012 for Sporting AL Riyadi Beirut and has won the Lebanese Basketball League Championship four times.

He is currently averaging 17.0 point per game, 5.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists.

Another top player Saba might utilise is Sam Young, a former NBA player now starring for Homenetmen Beirut.

Young is a prolific scorer who led Al Ahli UAE in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup back in 2016; he averaged an amazing 35 points per game, along with 8.6 rebounds.

Qualifying Format

The 2019 World Cup in China will feature 32 teams.

The format for the Asia-Oceania qualifiers is there are 16 teams split into four groups; this is still the first round of qualifiers. In the second round, the top three teams from each group will be placed in a group with three teams from another group.

All results from the first qualification round are carried over to the second round. The top three teams in each group along with the better-placed fourth team will qualify for the World Cup.

Rivals 

Lebanon’s established rivals in their group are Jordan and Syria. Having lost in Amman, they will get their chance for revenge when Jordan travel to play in Beirut.

The enmity with Syria goes back a long way, and in politics as well as sport thanks to Syria’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War.

Cedars fan Daniel added: “Even though it’s a long shot, I hope Lebanon do make it to the FIBA World Cup.”.

For Saba and the rest of Lebanon, all their focus is on the upcoming game against Syria on February 23rd.

What next for the Eagles and the Patriots?

The 2018 Super Bowl clash between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots was an NFL showpiece to savour.

Guided by veteran quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots were tipped to claim their sixth title since the turn of the century, putting the upstart Eagles in their place.

However, Philly hadn’t read that particular script, and Nick Foles steered them to a stunning 41-33 victory in Minneapolis.

Foles, who only came in for injured starting QB Carson Wentz towards the end of the regular season, became the first man to both throw and catch a touchdown pass in the big game.

A hugely entertaining match-up ended with the Eagles winning their first Super Bowl crown, having failed in two previous NFL finales.

But even as the celebratory ticker-tape was being swept away, thoughts were turning to next season.

Can the Eagles now establish themselves as serial winners? Has Brady still got what it takes to push the Pats to fresh glory in his fifth decade?

Defiant

Under head coach Bill Belichick, New England have reached seven Super Bowls, winning in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2015 and 2017.

The way in which the team played against Philadelphia, especially on offence, suggests that the Patriots haven’t lost their groove just yet.

They gave it their all, but it wasn’t enough against the underdog Eagles, and their defeat will surely have left them shattered.

Shattered but defiant. Franchise owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady have all come out and said that the Pats will regroup and go again.

There were times when the three clashed during the season. For example, allowing second string QB Jimmy Garoppolo to switch to San Francisco – a deal sanctioned ultimately by Kraft – was a shock move, but at 26 he’d clearly had enough of being Brady’s understudy.

Irreplaceable?

The big question is: how long can Brady, who turns 41 this summer, hope to continue?

With Garoppolo gone, the Patriots re-signed Brian Hoyer last November, having released him in at the end of pre-season in 2012.

In an ironic twist, he had been with the 49ers, starting their first six games in 2017, but was released at the end of October, having been replaced by Garoppolo…

So Hoyer was Brady’s back-up in Minneapolis, but is he really the long-term successor to one of the game’s all-time greats?

If he’s a stop-gap, and simply covering for Brady in the twilight of his career, who is Belichick going to go for?

As Super Bowl runners-up, the Patriots have the 31st overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, and only a huge amount of trading will allow them to select from the best QBs available.

Belichick may put off a decision while Brady plays on, or may turn to the free agency market. One thing is for sure: Brady has had an amazing career but cannot go on forever.

Any sign of his powers waning once the new season gets underway in September will surely see the ruthless Belichick take action, despite his strong bond with the player.

Also in the head coach’s inbox is what to do about cornerback Malcolm Butler, the man who denied the Seattle Seahawks a Super Bowl win three years ago with that amazing interception.

Butler, 27, will surely not be playing in New England’s colours again. He was benched for the Super Bowl and becomes an unrestricted free agent this year, and most likely he is going to move on.

Foles v Wentz

What comes next for the Eagles after their first Super Bowl title, and in particular what does the future hold for the game’s MVP Foles?

One man’s misfortune is another’s lucky break, and Foles took full advantage of the ACL injury suffered by starting QB Wentz 13 games into the regular season.

In the play-offs, he threw for 971 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception, an incredible 115.7 passer rating in the post-season.

But the 29-year-old’s role at Philadelphia is the subject of much speculation, even after his role in the greatest moment in the team’s history.

The Eagles moved heaven and earth to select Wentz, 25, as the second overall pick in the 2016  NFL Draft, and he repaid them by setting records galore in his rookie season.

His is clearly the franchise’s marquee talent, which leaves Foles facing uncertainty.

He has a year remaining on his contract, but does he simply return to being a back-up, or should he seek to capitalise on his Super Bowl success with another team?

Foles could certain command a salary of more than the $4m he is set to earn in the remaining season his existing deal.

Surprise package?

Away from this year’s Super Bowl winners and runners-up, which team might create a stir in the new season?

How about the outfit that failed to win a single game in 2017? Yes, the struggling Cleveland Browns.

It might sound far-fetch given their recent history of failure, but last season’s abject showing means the Browns will have plenty of scope for improvement via the Draft in April.

Great things are expected of quarterback DeShone Kizer, picked in the second round last year, but has his confidence been damaged by only the second 0-16 season in NFL history?

The most important thing for the Browns now is patience. Head coach Hue Jackson is 1-31 in his first two seasons, but has surrounded himself with a very solid coaching staff, and should be given time to turn things around.

So maybe – just maybe – the Browns might turn a few heads and cause one or two shocks when the 2018 campaign begins.

Former kings of Europe now live in the shadows of their success

Once the kings of European club football, AC Milan have been looking decidedly less regal in recent seasons.

After 21 games, I Rossoneri currently sit seventh in Italy’s Serie A with 31 points – 23 behind leaders Napoli and 12 off the Champions League positions.

Last summer AC Milan’s new Chinese backers spent over 200m euros on the likes of Leanardo Bonucci, Ricardo Rodriguez, Andre Silva and Hakan Calhanoglu with the aim of building a squad strong enough to challenge for the title and qualify for the Champions League.

However, none of those players have lived up to their price tags, with striker Silva, brought in from Porto for 38m euros, already being linked with a move away from the club.

Centre-back Bonucci, signed from Juventus for 42m euros, has not been able to reproduce his outstanding form for Juve in Milan.

Some would argue that even spending 200m euros on several players in the current market is not enough when judged alongside the astronomical sums paid for the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Philippe Coutinho.

But even with Chinese money behind them, do AC Milan have the financial firepower to compete with likes of Manchester United, PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid?

Instability

Another major issue facing the San Siro-based outfit is a lack of managerial continuity.

Milan have had nine different team bosses since 2009, and only one of those – Massimiliano Allegri (2010-14) – has lasted for more than one full campaign.

For the past decade, the club have been locked in a cycle of new manager inheriting someone else’s players, buying new ones but not being give enough time to revive its fortunes. Then a new man is hired, and so it goes on…

This season they have already sacked Vincenzo Montella and appointed club legend Gennaro Gattuso (pictured) to take his place.

The renowned hard man of the Italian game was running Milan’s youth team and has limited managerial experience.

Gattuso made 387 appearances for Milan between 1999 and 2012, so has plenty of goodwill from the fans on his side. But will his twitchy owners show patience if results don’t improve during the remainder of this season?

Past glories  

Milan’s current struggles are a far cry from their former glories.

They are joint-second with city rivals Inter in the list of Italian league title winners with 18 Serie A crowns, behind Juventus who lead the way with 33. They have won the Coppa Italia five times, and have seven Supercoppas Italiana to their name.

Milan have won the European Cup and Champions League seven times, but have not lifted European club football’s premier trophy since 2007. They have failed to win Serie A since the 2010-11 season. Juve have since reigned supreme.

After their last Scudetto win, followed by a runners-up spot in 2011-12, Milan’s fortunes tailed off dramatically, both domestically and in European competition.

At home, in the past five seasons they have finished in third, eighth, 10th, seventh and sixth positions; Champions League football is no longer a given for one of Europe’s most storied and successful clubs.

Hope for the future?

In 2016, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – who had controlled the club for three decades – finally sold it to the Chinese investment management company Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Co.

The jury is still out among Milan’s supporters on whether the new owners, headed by chairman Li Yonghong, can restore their club to its former status among Europe’s elite.

In the short term, the team are in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia after beating local rivals Inter, and can still qualify for next season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League if their Serie A fortunes fail to reignite.

So, all is not lost for AC Milan even though there are not the same team they were 10 years ago.

But they have new owners who are willing to spend as they seek to recreate their successes under Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello, and Carlo Ancelotti.

Drafts and trades v transfers

When Neymar joined Paris St-Germain from Barcelona in the summer for just less than £200m, it was reported his annual salary would be approximately £28m.

PSG paid out plenty to secure an established world-class talent, but in America, pro sports franchises pay top dollar to sign rookie players straight out of college.

Markelle Fultz of the Washington Huskies university team was the number one pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

He will earn a maximum of $33,727,701 over the course his first contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, including $15,366,120 guaranteed during his first two years.

All that cash for a promising talent who only played one season for the Huskies and may not have what it takes to become a consistent elite-level performer in the NBA.

Welcome to the world of US sport, where money is spent on wages, not transfer fees.

Drafting talent

It’s a strangely egalitarian world, too, given the rampant capitalism which characterises most other walks of American life.

In the NBA and NFL draft system, for example, the previous season’s bottom team get first pick of the potential superstars produced by the US college system.

In reality, teams often trade early picks for more in later rounds of the draft. But in theory, the very best player could join the very worst franchise (according to last season’s standings).

It’s all about balance and trying to avoid one team dominating for years on end, but the other key thing to note is money – as in player transfers – is simply not a factor.

The draft system, in which (technically) amateur athletes join professional teams, sees most of those millions of dollars invested in player contracts and salaries.

The same goes for trades between clubs for established players. Cash rarely changes hands; it’s all about swapping one talent for another (or in some cases several others).

 Level playing field

The biggest trade of the NBA off-season saw Isaiah Thomas signed by Cleveland from Boston, with Kyrie Irving going in the opposite direction (much to his displeasure).

Boston reportedly agreed to give Cleveland a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to seal the deal. Thomas remained on a $30m-a-year deal, with Irving keeping his $20m annual salary.

In football, such exchanges are extremely rare, and even when they do happen usually involve player+cash (or more likely cash+makeweight player).

And any highly-prized footballer in the prime of his career would be looking for a salary upgrade when agreeing to be transferred – and possibly a bonus for signing in the first place.

Supporters of the American system argue it does its job by keeping the playing field relatively level in terms of team strength – although there will still be ‘dynasty’ franchises that rule the roost for several seasons.

The Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers have both dominated in the NBA in recent decades, while the NFL’s New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001.

Education

Proponents of the draft system also claim it encourages young players to get a college education as they seek a career in professional sports. For every player who ‘makes it’, dozens fall by the wayside, and others who join the pro ranks find their careers are short-lived.

‘When they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football’

So gaining a degree, the argument goes, gives those individuals an alternative career to pursue if their dream of playing professionally fails to become a reality.

In truth, the pressure is on young players to turn pro as soon as possible – and maximise their earning potential.

In recognition of this, the NBA now stipulates that they only have to wait a year before becoming eligible for the draft – and don’t even have to attend college in that period.

LeBron James, arguably the game’s biggest star, joined his hometown team Cleveland in the 2003 draft without spending anytime at university.

Released

Footballers are often part of the youth set-up at a professional club from a very young age and work their way through its age-group teams until – if they are one of the chosen few – they are offered a professional contract. More often, they are devastated to find they are not being offered one.

Although education is a mandatory part of their life as young players, critics claim being involved with clubs from early childhood encourages unrealistic expectations that they are already on the path to success, fame and riches, leading them to effectively switch off from gaining qualifications.

So when they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football, and many are at risk of mental health problems or going off the rails.

When it comes to young players being transferred for vast sums of money, the pressure on them to justify their new club’s outlay is immense – and sometimes damaging to their career.

Pros and cons

So which system works best overall?

In theory, football’s transfer system rewards clubs for developing young talent, or getting the best out of players.

‘Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams’

For smaller ones, selling players to bigger clubs offers a lifeline that may be the difference between financial stability and going out of business.

The risk – and reality – is that the very best players tend to end up at the biggest, best-supported and wealthiest clubs, and those clubs form a self-perpetuating elite which tend to win all the titles and trophies.

Is it that different in the US? In the NBA, only five teams have won more than three championships since the league began in 1947. On the other hand, those five account for 70% of the titles, with the Boston Celtics leading the way with 17, closely followed by the Lakers on 16.

However, eight different teams have won the NBA since 2000. In the NFL, the title has been secured by 12 different franchises since the turn of the century.

Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams.

So maybe there’s something in the thinking behind the US system after all…

Lebanon can build on Rugby League World Cup success

Rugby league is not a sport normally associated with Lebanon, but this year’s World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea saw the Cedars qualify for a second time.

So how did an Arab country with no history or tradition of playing rugby’s 13-man code come to be represented at the sport’s showpiece occasion?

Back in the late 1990s, Australian-based players who had Lebanese heritage were able to establish the formation of the Lebanese Rugby League.

In 2000, the Lebanese Cedars where invited to take part in their first-ever Rugby League World Cup. They had a strong qualifying campaign beating Italy, USA and Morocco, but where only able to register a draw against the Cook Island, and lost to Wales and New Zealand.

They missed out on the tournament in 2008 and 2013, but reached this year’s after seeing off the South African Rhinos to win the Middle East/North Africa qualifiers.

Lebanon was then placed in a tough Pool A along with England, France, and co-hosts Australia.

Group Stage

Lebanon’s first game was against France on October 29th, but the Cedars were dealt a huge blow when one of their best players Chris Saab was concussed during the warm-up and had to be replaced by the inexperienced 19-year-old Adam Doueihi.

Even with that setback, Lebanon started the brighter of the two teams and scored first as Mitchell Moses went over, but the French were quick to reply.

Lebanon enjoyed most of the possession but it took until the 39th minute to break the deadlock. A tense start to the second half saw France level again after a mistake by the Lebanese team.

The game continued to see-saw, but with time running out Moses stepped up and scored again. Lebanon continued their late dominance and the game eventually ended 29-18.

This win put the Cedars in prime position to qualify to the quarter-finals of the 14-team competition.

Next up was England, and even though Lebanon lost the game they battled till the very end as their opponents run out 29-10 winners.

Their final pool game was against Australia, and despite the Kangaroos playing at home you were able to hear Lebanese chanting through the whole game.

It didn’t put off the co-hosts, however, as they notched up a 34-0 victory.

But Lebanon still qualified to the quarters, thanks to England, who beat France in their final game, which put the Cedars through.

Lebanon faced Tonga in the last eight in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Quarter-Finals

Now in uncharted territory, they had high hopes after three good performances against France, England, and Australia.

Before the start of the tournament, Lebanon where the lowest-ranked side taking part, and the game looked like it would be a one-sided affair following Tonga’s impressive 28-22 win over New Zealand.

That wasn’t the case, however, as the whole 80 minutes proved that the underdog Cedars were worthy quarter-finalists.

Their robust performance during the first half kept them in the game, and they only trailed Tonga 22-16 at the break.

Lebanon looked to have levelled before the break through Doueihl, however, the video referee overturned a great piece of play due to a controversial obstruction.

The decision would then prove vital as Tonga increased their lead to eight points from a penalty kick in the 53rd minute.

This extraordinary game didn’t end there as Abbas Miski stepped and scored in the 69th minute and made it 24-22 after his conversion.

But those two extra points from the penalty kick proved to be the knife in the heart for the Lebanese team, as the game ended with Tonga winning by that two-point margin.

It just shows that even the smallest of nations can go to the biggest stage and perform, and Lebanon should learn from this extraordinary experience and come back stronger.

 

 

The Lebanese El Clasico: Al Riyadi vs CS Sagesse

Religious and political strife are probably what come to most people’s minds when they think about Lebanon.

But this small, often troubled Middle Eastern nation, bordered by Syria and Israel, is also home to one of sport’s great but unheralded clashes.

Basketball is Lebanon’s most popular sport, and its two most successful teams are Club Sagesse and Al Riyadi. Welcome to the fever-pitch rivalry of the Lebanese El Clasico.

The two Beirut-based clubs have a history of fierce competition that, in its context, is just as intense as the antipathy between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

As you might expect in a nation characterised for many decades by conflict between Christians and Muslim factions, it’s a clash driven by religious and political differences.

Club Sagesse

Established in 1992, Club Sagesse is one of the most successful teams in the region – and beyond.

Its many triumphs quickly saw it overshadow the football team that sprang from the same Beirut sporting club as it dominated the the newly-formed Lebanese League, as well as the Arab and FIBA Asia Championships.

The club is owned and controlled the College de la Sagesse of the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut.

It is backed by the Lebanese Forces political party, one the country’s most influencial Christian organisations, led by Samir Geagea.

Club Sagesse’s roll call of notable triumphs includes:

  • Eight Lebanese Championships
  • Three FIBA Asia Champions Cups
  • Three West Asian Championships
  • Two Arab Club Basketball Championships

Al Riyadi

The Al Riyadi club are based in the Manara district of Beirut where men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are held every year.

The club was founded back in 1934 but was only given the permission to be involved in various sports in the post-war, when Lebanon formally broke away from French colonial rule.

It is supported financially by Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Al Hariri,  who is a Sunni Muslim and the leader of the Future Movement political party.

Al Riyadi has won even more trophies than Club Sagesse, including:

  • 15 Lebanese Championships
  • Two FIBA Asia Champions Cups
  • Two West Asian Championships
  • Two Arab Club Basketball Championships

Tensions

While both clubs rightly celebrate their many triumphs on the basketball court, these have been overshadowed down the years by religion and political tensions between fans.

There have been many instances where games between the two have been halted or even postponed due to fighting between fans and players.

One die-hard Sagesse fan told me: “Politics plays a big part between these two teams as Al Riyadi is supported by Saad Al Hariri. They have pictures of him placed inside their stadium, and most of their players follow his political party.

“Religion plays a role too, as most Club Sagesse fans and players are Christian, whereas Al Riyadi, their fans and players are Muslim, plus it’s very rare for that player who played for Al Riyadi will ever move and play for Sagesse [or vice versa].”

One Al Riaydi fan told me: “Everything [in Lebanon] involves religion and politics.

“When basketball became popular, Sagesse and Al Riyadi were the best two teams so that caused a rivalry between them, and fans started to call it the Lebanese El Classico, as they always played each other in the finals.”

Overlooked

When it comes to the head-to-head record between Al Riyadi and Club Sagesse, the former lead by nine wins since the 2007-08 season.

Club Sagesse over the years has had some problems with players not being paid. For example, Elie Rustom,  a valuable player for Sagesse, left them for Champville Mariste Club due to complications over his contract.

When these two teams meet it’s more like one religion versus another religion, or one political party versus another political party.

The quality of the basketball on display, with both sides determined not to be defeated by their bitter rivals, is often overlooked.

Lebanon, once the playground of the Eastern Mediterranean for the world’s rich elite, is currently enjoying a period of relative political and economic stability.

But peace is unlikely to break out between Al Riyadi and Club Sagesse anytime soon…