Barcelona try to make up for Messi’s lost time

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Barcelona's Lionel Messi walks in dejection at the end of the Spanish Copa del Rey quarter final soccer match between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, Spain, on Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
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Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, is tackled by Athletic Bilbao's Dani Garcia, center, and Ander Capa during the Spanish Copa del Rey quarter final soccer match at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, Spain, on Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
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Updated 07 February 2020

Barcelona try to make up for Messi’s lost time

  • Messi will be 33 in June and has said retirement was “approaching”
  • Messi won the Champions League in 2015 but what followed has been only disappointment

MADRID: Lionel Messi admitted in December he could soon retire but Barcelona’s frenzied attempts to make the most of his final years appear to be having the opposite effect.

As Athletic Bilbao’s players celebrated Inaki Williams’ 94th-minute winner at San Mames on Thursday night, Messi stood still in the center circle, hands on his hips and staring down at the ground in front.

He had missed a chance to win it, his shot saved by Unai Simon, just moments before Williams’ flicked header crept inside the post to send Barca out of the Copa del Rey before the semifinals for the first time in 10 years.

Messi has been the inspiration and savior of this Barcelona team, his fingerprints on their string of La Liga titles more than anyone else’s.

But as Bilbao proved, when Messi misses, Barca are there to be hit, their insecurities known and ready to be exposed.

The political turmoil now engulfing the club stems in part from desperation, not to waste Messi’s final years or at least to be seen to be trying to make the best of them.

He will be 33 in June and said at the Ballon d’Or presentation retirement was “approaching” but a sense of time running out haa long-lingered at Camp Nou.

When Messi won the Champions League in 2015, aged 27, the assumption was there would be more but instead there has been only disappointment, three quarterfinals and one semifinal, the last two tournaments ending in capitulation.

FASTFACTS

  • Lionel Messi has been the inspiration and savior of this Barcelona team, his fingerprints on their string of La Liga titles more than anyone else’s.
  • The turmoil now engulfing the club stems in part from desperation, not to waste Messi’s final years or at least to be seen to be trying to make the best of them.

The fear of a repeat and another year squandered was instrumental in the decision to sack Ernesto Valverde last month, even if players insisted losses to Roma and Liverpool were not down to their coach.

After the clumsy appointment of Quique Setien, in which Xavi Hernandez was approached but not persuaded, and then a botched January transfer window, when strikers were targeted but not signed, frustration grew.

In an interview with Diario Sport on Tuesday, the club’s sporting director Eric Abidal then called out Xavi, who remains close to many in the dressing room, and shifted responsibility onto the players.

As the most powerful among them, Messi was implicated most.

He hit back, insisting “everyone should take responsibility for their actions” and that not naming names “tarnished all the players.”

Jordi Alba joined in the rebuke on Thursday night. “Those facing the music are the players and the coaching staff,” he said. “Enough shit is thrown at us from the outside, we don’t have to throw it at ourselves from within.”

 


Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Updated 16 January 2021

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

  • The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the US
  • The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in Detroit

NEW YORK: Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. “In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
“Welcome to Jersey, brother!”
Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR’s New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He’s optimistic it’s a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.
“For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars,” Mohamed said in an email to the AP. “We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.
Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
“Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”
While Saleh’s focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.
“Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. “But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.
“But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”