Title-hungry upstart Suns and Bucks meet in NBA Final

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The Milwaukee Bucks bench reacts after P.J. Tucker made a three-point basket during their final game against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
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The Phoenix Suns team celebrate after a 130-103 final game victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on June 30, 2021. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
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Updated 05 July 2021

Title-hungry upstart Suns and Bucks meet in NBA Final

  • The Milswaukee Bucks won their only title in 1971 when legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sparked a sweep over the Baltimore Bullets
  • Phoenix Suns dropped the 1976 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics and then again to the Michael Jordan-sparked Chicago Bulls in 1993

PHOENIX, US: Two long-frustrated franchises, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, will meet in the NBA Finals starting Tuesday and one of them will put an end to an epic title drought.
The Bucks captured their only title half a century ago while the Suns have never claimed the crown since the club began play in 1968.
With star guard Chris Paul reaching the best-of-seven championship series for the first time in his 16-season career, the Suns have reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
A Charles Barkley-led Suns squad lost to the Michael Jordan-sparked Chicago Bulls 28 years ago and the Suns also dropped the 1976 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics.
Many thought Paul, an 11-time NBA All-Star and two-time Olympic champion, was too far past his prime at 36 to spark a title run.
Instead, the poised veteran leader averaged 16.4 points, 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game for the Suns after arriving in a trade from Oklahoma City last November.
“I’ve wanted to be part of this all of my career,” said Paul, who writes “Can’t give up now” on his shoes before every game.
The Bucks had not reached the NBA Finals since 1974 and won their only title in 1971, when legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — still known then as Lew Alcindor — sparked a sweep over the Baltimore Bullets.
Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ new dominating big man, has reached the NBA Finals after taking NBA Most Valuable Player honors the previous two seasons only to suffer playoff disappointment.
Whether or not the 26-year-old will be able to play, however, is another question. Antetokounmpo missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals after hyperextending his left knee in game four against Atlanta.
The Bucks went a league-best 60-22 in the 2018-19 campaign and won a playoff series for the first time since 2001. They reached the Eastern Conference finals and grabbed a 2-0 lead only to drop the next four games and fall to eventual NBA champion Toronto.
The next season, Antetokounmpo sparked the Bucks to a league-best 56-17 mark, but suffered a right ankle injury and missed most of the last two games as the Bucks lost to Miami in five games in the second round.
While they didn’t produce the league’s best record this season, the Bucks did reach the final despite Antetokounmpo’s injury.
“Certainly any time you lose you’ve got to be honest with yourself,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
“When this group hasn’t been able to advance it has hurt, it has been hard and the off-season the guys have put the work in — but there’s still more to be done.”

The Bucks and Suns outlasted teams with more wins to reach the final, but only one fairy tale run is going to have a happy ending.
“This is like a storybook, going somewhere I’ve never been,” Suns star Devin Booker said. “It has been a long time coming to get to this moment. This is nice right here, but we still have work to do.”
Suns coach Monty Williams, who says he likes Booker’s “fearlessness” and killer instinct, is enjoying seeing Paul and others revel in the moment.
“I’m enjoying watching our players enjoy this moment,” Williams said. “I know how badly (Paul) wants to win.”
Booker is averaging 27.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists a contest in the playoffs while Paul is contributing 18.1 points, 8.7 assists and 3.9 rebounds a game in the post-season to make the Suns bright.
Bahamas big man Deandre Ayton has 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds a game.
The Suns will enjoy five days off before the NBA Finals opener while the Bucks will have only two.
“We’ve had kind of long, extended pauses between each round and I’m kind of excited to try it without one,” Budenholzer said. “Maybe we can be the team that’s in a rhythm. It’s a quick turn, but we’ll be ready.”
Antetokounmpo has averaged 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists a game but has had great support from Khris Middleton — with 23.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals a game — and Jrue Holiday with 17.6 points, 8.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game.
“To get to the finals is amazing,” Holiday said. “It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before.”
“Everybody stays ready. Everybody plays together. Everybody stays locked in,” Middleton said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Phoenix won both regular-season games against Milwaukee but only by one point each time.


Barca edge past Dynamo to revive Champions League hopes at half-empty Camp Nou

Updated 20 October 2021

Barca edge past Dynamo to revive Champions League hopes at half-empty Camp Nou

  • The attendance was recorded at 45,968, with several blocks of seating filled by only a handful of supporters
  • Barcelona needed victory to resuscitate their chances of progress and avoid the embarrassment of going out in the group stage

BARCELONA: Gerard Pique sparked Barcelona’s flailing Champions League campaign into life on Wednesday by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev, a victory that was witnessed by a half-empty Camp Nou.
The attendance was recorded at 45,968, with several blocks of seating filled by only a handful of supporters for a game coach Ronald Koeman said the team had to win to have any chance of reaching the last 16.
After losing both of their opening games in Group E 3-0 to Bayern Munich and Benfica, Barcelona needed victory to resuscitate their chances of progress and avoid the embarrassment of going out in the group stage for the first time since 2000.
Pique at least ensured the job was done in that regard, his close-range finish toward the end of a dreary first half enough to get Barca up and running, with a crucial game away in Kiev now to come in two weeks’ time.
Before then, they face Real Madrid in the first Classico of the season on Sunday, when another win would make it a hugely positive week for Koeman, whose future looked bleak when the team lost to Atletico Madrid before the international break.
That game will also be at Camp Nou and it remains to be seen if the number of Barcelona fans in attendance improves.
An early kick-off may well not have helped and there is undoubtedly still some nervousness lingering from the Covid-19 pandemic, both locally and among traveling supporters.
But it is hard not to conclude fans are also less enthused by a team that lost Lionel Messi in the close season and had lost their last three Champions League matches in a row at home, as many as they managed in the previous 74.
Pique’s goal made him Barcelona’s oldest ever Champions League goalscorer at 34 years and 260 days old but the most excitement these days surrounds the 18-year-old Ansu Fati, who is expected to ease fears around his future by signing a new contract on Thursday.
Fati, whose deal currently expires at the end of the season, is still being eased back into action after 11 months out with injury.
He came on as a substitute after starting against Valencia on Sunday and, presumably, with greater involvement planned against Real Madrid this weekend.
Barcelona could have been ahead inside two minutes but Sergino Dest, playing on the right of the front three instead of right-back, nodded over from a yard at the back post.
Luuk de Jong also headed over the kind of chance he is in the team to score but Barca hardly deserved the lead, their play stunted and hesitant, lacking any of the fizz expected of a side trying to stay in the competition.
The crowd were as flat as the team, neither one really encouraging the other, until the sight of Fati emerging down the touchline to warm up suddenly raised the fans from their stupor.
The players felt it too, the buzz reaching them on the pitch, and within moments Pique was left free at the back post to meet Jordi Alba’s cross on the half-volley, the ball flying in.
Fati came on with Philippe Coutinho at half-time and should have scored. He earned the chance by rushing Dynamo goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan but had his back to goal when Memphis Depay hooked it back to him. Fati could have laid back to Coutinho but instead scooped the ball up and flicked wide.
The game drifted and without a second goal, Barcelona briefly grew anxious. A better opponent might have turned the screw in the latter stages but Dynamo never created the decisive chance and Barca sealed a much-needed win.


Boycott calls add to India-Pakistan cricket tensions ahead of World Cup clash in Dubai

Updated 20 October 2021

Boycott calls add to India-Pakistan cricket tensions ahead of World Cup clash in Dubai

  • India has largely refused to play bilateral games against Pakistan since 2008, after deadly attacks in Mumbai which it blamed on Pakistan
  • Indian atheletes say ‘sports and politics should not be mixed’ and the World Cup match between the two countries should go on

Dubai: Cricket tensions between India and Pakistan have been heightened by boycott calls in India ahead of their T20 World Cup clash on Sunday.
A series of killings in the disputed Kashmir region has set off the anger, even though the Indian board has insisted the national team cannot withdraw from the game.
Decades of bitter rivalry between the neighbors often clouds their cricket encounters. India has largely refused to play bilateral games against Pakistan since 2008, after deadly attacks in Mumbai which India blamed on Pakistan.
Now they only play each other in international events. The last meeting was at the 50-over World Cup two years ago but even that was at the center of boycott calls.
The killings of 11 migrant workers and minority Hindus and Sikhs in Indian-administered Kashmir have led to the latest demands made in India, which frequently accuses Pakistan of backing Kashmir militant groups. The hashtag #BlacklistPakistan was trending on Twitter Wednesday.
Rajeev Shukla, the Board of Control for Cricket in India vice president, said earlier that the country had a contractual obligation to take part.
“We strongly condemns the killings. However, under the International Cricket Council’s commitments, you can’t refuse to play any one (game),” Shukla told Indian media.
A cabinet minister, Giriraj Singh, had also urged the government to consider intervening to stop the match.
“I think if relations are not good, then this should be reconsidered,” Singh said when questioned about the match. Other politicians have also joined the calls.
However, India’s badminton great Prakash Padukone said, “sports and politics should not be mixed and according to me it (the India-Pakistan match) should go on.”
India was also urged to boycott the 2019 World Cup game against Pakistan because of a Kashmir suicide bomber attack in February of that year in which more than 40 troops were killed.
Pakistan denied any role in the assault but the two countries came to the brink of war. India won the game which went ahead in June 2019.
India and Pakistan last played a bilateral series in 2013 during a brief thaw in their rivalry.
The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir — divided between the two nations — since their independence in 1947.


Madrid forward Benzema absent for blackmail trial in France

Updated 20 October 2021

Madrid forward Benzema absent for blackmail trial in France

  • Benzema is accused of being involved in an attempt in 2015 to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape
  • His legal team told the court that his obligations as a player made it “impossible” for him to attend the first day of the trial

VERSAILLES, France: The trial of French soccer player Karim Benzema and four others began Wednesday outside Paris, without the Real Madrid forward in attendance.
Benzema, who played in Kyiv on Tuesday against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, is accused of being involved in an attempt in 2015 to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
Benzema’s legal team told the court in Versailles that his obligations as a player made it “impossible” for him to attend the first day of the trial, which is scheduled to last through Friday.
Valbuena was in court on Wednesday. He testified that Benzema spoke to him about the sex tape, telling him “there’s a video, it’s hot,” when they were together at France’s Clairefontaine training camp in October 2015. Benzema also said that he had a good friend who could help and “can solve your problem,” Valbuena testified.
Although Benzema “never spoke to me about money,” Valbuena said he understood that he would have to pay for the friend’s assistance.
“It wasn’t for football tickets. That’s never done for free,” Valbuena testified. He said the conversation left him “really frightened.”
In a subsequent phone call wiretapped by police, Benzema then talked about the conversation with his friend Karim Zenati. The two men had known each other since childhood. When Zenati was released from prison in 2013, following robbery and drug convictions, Benzema hired him as an assistant.
In the wiretapped call, which was played in court, the pair chuckled about Benzema’s talk with Valbuena. Benzema said that he had told Valbuena that “if you want the video to be destroyed,” he should contact Zenati, without involving police, lawyers or others.
“I gave my word that there are no copies,” Benzema said in the call.
Benzema is accused of complicity in attempted blackmail, a charge punishable by up to five years in prison. He has denied wrongdoing.
Zenati and three other defendants are charged with attempted blackmail, also punishable with five years imprisonment. Unlike Benzema, they were all in court.
They included Axel Angot, who first got hold of the sex tape in 2014.
In court, Angot described himself as an odd-job man for soccer players, assisting with their computers, communications and other needs. He said players paid him for help, and that he once got 3,500 euros ($4,000) from a player just for delivering a USB cable to him in Croatia.
“They are soccer players. I have seen them spend 50,000 euros in a front of me in seconds,” Angot said.
Angot said the idea of exploiting the sex tape came in 2015, to pay off a debt of 25,000 euros ($29,000) that he owed to another player for some luxury watches. He said his thinking had been that a thankful Valbuena would pay him “a recompense” if he helped make the video go away.
“I am not Bill Gates but I know my way around computers,” Angot said. “The main goal of this affair was to erase this debt.”
During his testimony, Angot at first denied that his intention had been to blackmail Valbuena but later acknowledged that the scheme was “indirectly the same thing.”
He apologized to Valbuena.
“I’m sorry. But that’s of no value,” he said.
Other defendants denied intent to blackmail. On his way into the hearing, Mustapha Zouaoui told reporters that Angot had given him the video and “we laughed about it” and that he then shared it with others.
“A lot of players from France’s team saw it,” Zouaoui said. “But there hasn’t been any blackmail. We didn’t ask for money. There was no request for money.”
In court, Zouaoui said “the intention wasn’t to make him bleed” but rather to spare Valbuena the indignity of the tape being made public and then be rewarded for that help.
Another of the alleged blackmailers, Younes Houass, testified that he spoke to Valbuena about the video in June 2015, when the player was at Clairefontaine.
After that call, Valbuena filed a police complaint and detectives got to work, identifying defendants and wiretapping calls.
Benzema and Zenati were both handed preliminary charges in November 2015, joining Angot, Zouaoui and Houass under formal investigation.
Benzema was then dropped from France’s national team by coach Didier Deschamps, missing the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, which was won by France.
Deschamps recalled Benzema in May ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and has fielded him 11 times in 2021.
Valbuena, now 37, hasn’t played for France since Oct. 11, 2015, when he came on as a substitute in a friendly match against Denmark.
He said the alleged blackmail attempt hurt him and his career.
“Since this affair, I never set foot again in the France team.”


Infantino says biennial WCups can bring youth back to soccer

Updated 20 October 2021

Infantino says biennial WCups can bring youth back to soccer

  • Infantino said biennial World Cups were needed to keep youngsters interested in the sport at a time when they are increasingly “running after” other activities
  • UEFA member associations also voiced a stream of opposition to his plans to double the frequency of World Cups

DUBAI: FIFA President Gianni Infantino told European football leaders that his governing body was not the “enemy of football.”
He also said biennial World Cups were needed to keep youngsters interested in the sport at a time when they are increasingly “running after” other activities.
The Associated Press obtained a recording of Infantino speaking Tuesday during a meeting that was closed to the media, where UEFA member associations also voiced a stream of opposition to his plans to double the frequency of World Cups.
Infantino was challenged by presidents of national federations on the damage that would be caused to not only club competitions but also national teams if FIFA radically overhauls the international game despite European opposition.
But Infantino pitched the reshaping of world football as being necessary to safeguard the future of the sport.
“I believe as well that the enemy of football is not the World Cup or is not FIFA but it is other activities that young boys and young girls are running after today,” Infantino said in closing remarks to the meeting that lasted more than an hour. “And we need to see how jointly and together we can bring them back to be interested in football. And we want to, as far as I’m concerned, do this all together as we have always been doing in the last few years.”
Infantino did not specify what those “other activities” were. He did not respond to a phone call from the AP seeking comment and FIFA had no immediate comment expanding on the remarks ahead of a council meeting on Wednesday.
Keeping younger viewers interested in watching 90-minute matches has increasingly become a challenge, especially given the rise of gaming. Infantino’s comments come amid a dispute with EA Sports, the maker of the FIFA video game, over the future of the product but FIFA itself still embraces e-sports.
The International Olympic Committee also at the weekend denounced FIFA’s attempt to remodel the calendar which could result in having a men’s or women’s World Cup every year. The IOC has started to embrace sports seen as more appealing to youngsters, with skateboarding debuting at the recent Tokyo Olympics and the 2024 Paris Games introducing the break dance sport.
FIFA’s plans could have a significant impact on the Olympics where the women’s football competition features no age restrictions unlike the men’s event.
“I believe we can still find ways to develop football further,” Infantino told the meeting with UEFA. “The World Cup is huge. It’s a big, big competition that everyone benefits from the World Cup and that we need to be very careful on what we do with the World Cup.”
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that more than a dozen European nations told UEFA they would consider quitting FIFA over biennial World Cups.
“I’m seriously asking you and FIFA not to push for a vote because that could have terrible consequences for football,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin told Infantino on the call.
“I don’t think it would be wise to go for a vote on a matter like that. Not just because there will be severe consequences that we will have to take but also because the stakeholders like clubs and leagues don’t have a voting right and this idea is detrimental to their existence.”
Leaders from the Finnish, Italian, Germany, Portuguese, Romanian, Scottish, Spanish and Swiss federations told Infantino they want to continue having the World Cup every four years.
They cited the impact on player welfare of having more frequent tournaments, the pitfalls of having only one block of qualifiers across October and November, and the potential damage caused to the growing profile of the women’s game by having more men’s competitions.
“We will not go ahead as far as I’m concerned with any proposal if anyone was to be harmed,” Infantino told the virtual meeting with UEFA.
But Infantino also said it wasn’t only the views of UEFA, which features 55 member associations, that counted. Infantino has been pushing to secure approval in December for holding World Cups every two years.
“We cannot just shape new proposals based on feedback from Europe,” he said. “We have to respect the opinions of everyone.”
Tiago Craveiro, the general secretary of the Portuguese federation, proposed that FIFA explores the possibility of not allowing teams to compete in consecutive editions if it pushed ahead with biennial World Cups.
“I welcome as well the idea of Thiago to say, well, we need more participation and maybe there is a way of doing that by having two World Cups, but not with the same teams participating,” Infantino said. “I don’t know. This is something that the technical people will study, but this is certainly something that we have to look into.”
At one point Ceferin pushed Infantino to answer specific questions directed at him.
No country spoke in favor of the plans during the call with Infantino, who was general secretary of UEFA before being elected FIFA president in 2016 in the fallout from the scandals that led to Sepp Blatter and his expected successor Michel Platini being banned from the sport.
“We trusted you to create an organization that transcends the divisions and brings unity,” Răzvan Burleanu, a Romanian member of the FIFA Council, said to Infantino.


UAE to host next Club World Cup in early 2022

Updated 20 October 2021

UAE to host next Club World Cup in early 2022

  • Chelsea will be Europe’s representative after winning last season’s UEFA Champions League, while Al Ahly of Egypt are also confirmed participants
  • South America will be represented by either Palmeiras or Flamengo, with the Brazilian duo meeting in next month’s Copa Libertadores final

PARIS: The United Arab Emirates will host the next Club World Cup early in 2022, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced on Wednesday.
The latest edition of the tournament — which features the champions of the six continental confederations along with the top team in the host nation — was due to be played at the end of this year in Japan before it pulled out as host because of the pandemic.
The Club World Cup is usually played in December but this is the second successive year in which it has been delayed — the 2020 edition in Qatar was played in February this year.
“The Club World Cup will be played in early 2022. There are no precise dates yet, but the host will be the United Arab Emirates,” Infantino said at a press conference following a FIFA Council meeting.
A February start date seems most likely given the Africa Cup of Nations will be staged in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6.
Chelsea will be Europe’s representative after winning last season’s UEFA Champions League, while Al Ahly of Egypt are also confirmed participants.
South America will be represented by either Palmeiras or Flamengo, with the Brazilian duo meeting in next month’s Copa Libertadores final.
Bayern Munich won the most recent edition of the Club World Cup, which has been held in the UAE on four previous occasions, most recently in 2018 when Real Madrid were the winners.
A lucrative, revamped 24-team Club World Cup, including eight sides from Europe, was due to be played in China this year before the pandemic put that project on hold.