PARIS — They are some of soccer’s biggest names but they won’t be playing at the World Cup next year. A look at five players whose absence will make the tournament in Brazil a lesser spectacle.
ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC: There is no point watching the World Cup because Ibrahimovic won’t be playing in it — at least that’s what he says. While the striker has always been his own biggest fan, he does have a point that the tournament will not be as exciting without him. The 32-year-old is in the best form of his career and has shown his full repertoire of spectacular goals: Martial arts-style volleys, overhead kicks from 30 yards, dipping shots from all angles. In the last calendar year, he has 47 goals for Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden — including four hat tricks. He has also set many up with his clever flicks.
GARETH BALE: The Wales winger will be hoping he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of his illustrious countryman Ryan Giggs — who won everything with Manchester United but never played in a World Cup. The 24-year-old Bale is starting to find his best form with Real Madrid following his world-record transfer from Tottenham this summer. Last season, he scored 21 league goals for Spurs and his combination of power, searing pace and an incredibly hard shot make him a nightmare to defend against. Defenders in Brazil will be thankful that they won’t have to deal with him.
ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI: The Borussia Dortmund striker burst onto the scene in last season’s Champions League when he outshone Cristiano Ronaldo to score four goals against Real Madrid in the semifinals. The 25-year-old Pole has 63 goals in 110 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund and is widely recognized as one of the best forwards in Europe. He is crying out for a chance to showcase his strength but Poland had such a tough qualifying group that it ended up finishing fourth behind England, Ukraine and Montenegro.
PETR CECH: With more than 100 international caps, the Chelsea player has long been established as one of the top goalkeepers in the world and has proved a veritable rock for his country. At last year’s European Championship, he kept the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals with a series of stunning saves against Portugal, until Ronaldo beat him with a late goal. His reliability, stunning reflexes, strength coming out on corners and set pieces, mean that those who score against him truly earn it. Strikers will be happier that he’s not around in Brazil.
CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN: Major tournaments usually reveal a rising star: The 20-year-old Enzo Scifo for Belgium and Michael Laudrup for Denmark in 1986. Laudrup was 21 when he shone in Mexico, the same age as Christian Eriksen is now. His silky skill and quick-thinking brain has drawn comparisons to Laudrup and Eriksen is seen as the future of Danish soccer. However, being pitted in a qualifying group with Italy and the Czech Republic meant Denmark was always going to drop points and it failed to make the playoffs as one of the best second-place teams. Eriksen will never know if he could have emulated Laudrup.
US women’s soccer team opens 2014 vs Canada
CHICAGO — The U.S. women’s national team will open its 2014 schedule with a match against Canada.
The game on Jan. 31 will be held at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, home to FC Dallas of the MLS.
U.S. coach Tom Sermanni says games with Canada are “always highly competitive” and it is “an excellent first match in a year that will end with World Cup qualifying.”
The exhibition will feature two prolific goal scorers — Abby Wambach has a record 163 international goals, while Christine Sinclair of Canada has 146.
This year, the U.S. beat Canada 3-0 at BMO Field in Toronto. The Americans won 4-3 in overtime in the semifinal of the 2012 London Olympics.
The January match will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1.
Long-time MLS goalkeeper Kevin Hartman retires
HARRISON, N.J. — Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman has announced his retirement after 17 years in Major League Soccer.
Hartman spent the majority of his career with the Los Angeles Galaxy from 1997-2006, where he won the MLS Cup in 2002 and 2005. He played for Kansas City from 2007-09, spent three seasons at FC Dallas and last season with the New York Red Bulls, though he didn’t get into any games after signing as a free agent in March.
Hartman says “it was a privilege to have this dream job and watch soccer and the league grow by leaps and bounds” in a statement released by the Red Bulls.
The 5-time All-Star is the only player to start and appear in more than 400 regular season MLS games. Of his 416 appearances, all but five were starts.
He retires with a career record of 180-143-89. The former UCLA player also made five appearances for the U.S. national team. He was voted MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year in 1999.
Croatian player fined for pro-Nazi chants
ZAGREB, Croatia — A Croatian soccer player has been fined $4,300 for pro-Nazi chants after the national team qualified for the World Cup.
Croatia reached next year’s tournament in Brazil by beating Iceland 2-0 on Tuesday. After the match, Joe Simunic took a microphone on the field and shouted to fans: “For the homeland!” The fans responded: “Ready!”
The call was used by the Croatian pro-Nazi puppet regime that ruled the state during World War II.
The prosecutor’s office fined Simunic on Thursday for “spreading racial hatred.” It said he was aware this was the call used by the WWII regime. Simunic has defended his action, saying he was driven by love for his country.
Soccer’s governing body says it is considering disciplinary action against him.
Study: MLS earns B+ grade for diversity hiring
Major League Soccer received an overall grade of B+ for its diversity hiring practices for the second straight year.
The overall grade of 85.4 was up almost a full percentage point from the 84.6 it received last year, according to the annual report released Thursday by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida.
The league received a B+ for its racial hiring practices. MLS received a B for its gender hiring practices, with a 3-percent increase from last year.
Richard Lapchick, principal author of the study and director of TIDES, said he is pleased with MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s commitment to gender hiring practices, calling it “the most significant item in the study.”
“I think the area that almost all of the leagues have the biggest problem in is trying to improve their gender hiring,” Lapchick said. “The fact that Major League Soccer has tried to improve that is the most positive thing we noted. They went down one percent in the racial hiring practices and that is something we take note of. But a variation by that small of a percentage point, we suspend judgment on a year to year basis.”
The league office again received an A+ in racial hiring and A in gender hiring. The league’s overall grade of B+ puts it ahead of Major League Baseball and the NFL, but still behind the NBA.
However, Lapchick said the MLS continued to fall short when it came to senior administration and head coach diversity, with grades of D and C+, respectively.
Lapchick added there is “room for significant improvement” in those areas.
There are only two minorities who hold CEO or president positions in the league — Jody Allen of the Seattle Sounders and Jose David of Chivas USA —while Guillermo Petrei of the Chicago Fire is the league’s only minority general manager.
Likewise, there are only two minority coaches in the 20-team league — Oscar Pareja of the Colorado Rapids and Jose Luis Real of Chivas USA.
According to the study, 85.3 percent of the owners in the league are white.
Minorities held 18.1 percent of all team senior administration positions, a decrease of 1.3 percentage points from the previous year. Women held 20.4 percent of team senior administration positions, slightly down from 20.7 in 2012.
“Unfortunately, the thing that has been consistent in the report cards (in all sports) is the positions at the highest level — the CEOs and general managers and vice presidents — are positions where representation of people of color and women has not been very good,” Lapchick concluded. “That is a concern to me. And when the coaching number is that low, that is also a concern. That is an area Major League has struggled with the most with over the years.”
On the field, the percentage of players of color rose from 50.9 percent to 52.3 percent for the 2013 season, marking the fifth straight year the MLS has set a record for the racial diversity of its players.
World Cup Qualifiers
EUROPE — Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Spain, Switzerland
SOUTH AMERICA — Argentina, Brazil (host), Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay
ASIA — Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea
AFRICA — Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria
NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA AND CARIBBEAN — Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, United States