Football and concussion: The ticking timebomb…

There is an argument that America’s gun debate ended after Sandy Hook. In December 2012, Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six members of staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. If that atrocity could not spark a change in gun laws, nothing could. The fight had effectively been lost.

Four years later and thousands of miles away, England’s World Cup-winning team were paraded for the 50th anniversary of their victory. If the occasion was supposed to be triumphant, it failed to strike a chord. Ray Wilson, Martin Peters and Nobby Stiles, three members of that famous team, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in their sixties.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the number of men suffering from dementia in a normal population between the ages of 65 and 69 is one in 75. Yet here were three teammates all with the same condition. In addition, Alf Ramsey suffered with the disease before his death, while Jack Charlton admitted to suffering from periods of memory loss.

If we weren’t going to talk about the links between football and dementia when it was paraded around Wembley, then when?

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It was in 2002 that an inquest confirmed that Jeff Astle’s job had killed him, his brain damaged by the repeated heading of hard, heavy leather footballs. In March 2014, Dr Willie Stewart at Glasgow’s Southern General hospital re-examined Astle’s brain and diagnosed him not with Alzheimer’s but chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition brought on by repeated mild brain trauma.

Fifteen years after Astle’s death, progress has been painfully slow. In March 2017, the Football Association finally invited independent researchers to submit proposals to determine whether footballers and ex-footballers are suffering disproportionately from degenerative brain injuries. That followed an excellent campaign from the Daily Telegraph, with Jeremy Wilson in particular meriting great credit for his continued work.

It remains to be seen just how exhaustive this FA analysis will be, but we can be forgiven for default cynicism. Astle’s daughter Dawn stormed out of a meeting with the PFA in March and branded chief executive Gordon Taylor an “absolute disgrace” after he evaded questions about the problem. In February, FIFA insisted that there was “no true evidence” of the effects of heading the ball or receiving blows to the head having “followed the issue for more than 15 years”.

Yet the evidence is there, both anecdotal and empirical. Speak to the family of Stan Bowles, Jimmy Hill, Bob Paisley, John Charles, Nat Lofthouse, Joe Mercer, Stan Cullis and Gerd Muller. Speak to Chris Sutton, who last week spoke of his sorrow that his Dad, Mike, will never know how his beloved Norwich City have done at the weekend and can barely recognise his own son. As John Stiles, Nobby’s son, says: “It can’t be a coincidence – it seems almost to be of epidemic proportion.”

At the University of Central London, Helen Ling has damning medical evidence. Ling and her team looked at the brains of 14 retired footballers with dementia, with post-mortem examinations carried out on six of them. CTE was identified in four of the six, the first time CTE had been confirmed in a group of retired footballers. This is no longer a question of ‘yes or no?’, but ‘how bad?’.

Football has not ignored the issue of concussion entirely. At the start of the 2014/15 season, rules were introduced so that players suffering head injuries must be assessed by a club doctor before returning to the field. Yet research of Championship players by the Journal of Sport and Health Science in 2016 found that Championship clubs are largely non-compliant with Concussion In Sport guidelines on pre-season testing, evaluation methods and rest periods.

Moreover, treating head injuries in the aftermath, but what of the issue of CTE, whereby repeated heading and repeated knocks threaten a player’s safety in later life? Our treatment of concussion and degenerative conditions is woefully inept. Football is guilty of placing a tiny plaster over a gaping head wound.

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Part of the reason for the sport refusing to acknowledge the issue is a reluctance to concede culpability. Those of us who have played football regularly for a period of 20 years or more may feel uneasy about the impact our own health, but also the health of our heroes. A generation of mentally damaged former players is an uncomfortable thought. “No one in football wants to find out if football is a killer,” as Dawn Astle puts it.

To accept that football’s rules are intrinsically dangerous is to accept that they must change, yet a sanitised version of the game is seen as deeply undesirable. Our romanticised vision of ‘proper’ football – cold winds, strong tackles, battling in the air for a header – is not an image that many will find it easy to shirk, despite the dangers.

Just as damaging is the ‘man up’ culture that exists in men’s football, as in other sport. “If you’re worried about the physical side of any sport, then play chess,” was Roy Keane’s now customary parodical aggression when asked about concussion on Tuesday. The insinuation is that if you aren’t prepared to take a hit, you aren’t a real competitor. It smacks of Piers Morgan’s despicable treatment of mental illness, with “pull yourself together” considered appropriate advice. Both are deeply unpleasant and unhelpful.

There is a risk of injury in any sport, of course. Part of the joy taken in triumph, particularly in individual pursuit, is that it could so easily have been taken away at any time. Yet the desire for sporting contest cannot be allowed to dictate where we draw the lines on safety. For all the enjoyment sporting theatre provides, it isn’t worth this. The families of Sutton, Astle, Stiles and Wilson will tell you as much.

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Football cannot say it was not warned. In 1994, the NFL first formed its Mild Traumatic Brain Committee, which steadfastly denied any correlation between American football and degenerative brain injuries. As late as 2004 they claimed that “NFL players have evolved to a state where their brains are less susceptible to injury”, despite strong evidence to the contrary, and in 2006 they attempted to ban the publication of conflicting reports. This was akin to the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s refusing to accept the carcinogenic properties of their product.

By August 2013, the NFL were legally obliged to contribute $765 million to provide medical help to more than 18,000 former players, although they still refuse to accept legal liability. A player diagnosed with CTE can receive up to $4m in compensation. Let’s hope football’s governing bodies have been saving.

The suspicion is that football is sitting on a timebomb of the sport’s own making. The 15 years since Astle’s death could have been spent funding research and assisting those diagnosed, making changes to children’s football where appropriate. Instead, football followed its own fine tradition of burying its head in the sand.

One thing is for sure: this problem isn’t going away. Keane’s misguided opinion was in response to the immediate retirement of Ireland striker Kevin Doyle on medical advice. Doyle had been suffering repeated headaches to the point that heading the ball was becoming difficult.

The concern is not just for Doyle and the other ex-footballers mentioned above, but the thousands of players around the world still left undiagnosed and still risking their health on a daily basis. The accusation is not that football is directly killing its players, but that football’s governing bodies are dangerously ignoring the possibility.

Daniel Storey

If you have enjoyed this piece, consider buying Daniel’s Portrait of an Icon book and donating to charity.

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No easy answers when it comes to solving injury issues on tennis tour

It’s a fall ritual, as familiar as corn mazes and homecoming football games: an ATP pro complaining about the length of the tennis season, citing the number of players sidelined by injury.

This year, the spokesman is Milos Raonic. He played his first match following a seven-week layoff for wrist surgery Monday in the Japan Open. After his win, he told reporters: “I’ve had more than a dozen different injuries and reasons that have kept me away from tournaments. That hasn’t been fun because I haven’t been able to focus on tennis.”

Raonic pointed out that the top five players of 2016 all missed the 2017 US Open. He was one of that group, and he’s the only one playing this fall. He added, “Maybe it’s a testament to some kind of reform being needed for the sake of players’ careers and being able to provide a certain caliber of tennis for spectators.”

Among Raonic’s suggestions: Give players that “really stand out” mandatory events but keep those within a seven-month period. That, he said, would allow players to focus on their health and also give them ample time to work on improving — presumably in the five-month off-season.

Raonic’s frustration is understandable. But it sounds like a cure that’s a lot worse than the disease.

Tough as life has been for the oft-injured Raonic, why punish and deprive more durable players of opportunities, or rob spectators of the chance to witness top-flight tennis? Plenty of players go through the year more-or-less healthy.

Injuries are a fact of athletic life. It’s impossible to predict who will be most impacted by them over the course of a career, or even where, why and when they will occur. Athletes in every strenuous sport almost all manage injuries, small and large, on a daily basis.

As ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said in a conference call before the US Open, “I’ve been involved in the game for like 37 years. There’s always been injuries. We have been talking about this forever. Good luck on ever getting it solved, or making tournaments go away, or getting all the entities together to make some changes. I’m not convinced by any means if all of a sudden the guys had more time off that all of a sudden that’s going to cure injuries.”

Think of it this way: If the NFL season were cut back to 10 games, would no injuries occur? Of course not. It may not be as far-fetched an example as it first seems, because tennis also is a contact sport of sorts — contact between racket and ball, between foot and hard court. There’s stress, there’s strain, there’s injury.

Moreover, if Raonic thinks the physical grind is demanding now, a seven-month season incorporating Grand Slams and the events he cited as “mandatory” would be brutal.

No, the big thing most critics of tennis’ long season always forget is that the sport has always been an interval one. It doesn’t really have a “season” and shouldn’t be compared to sports that do. There are peaks of intense tennis activity in different parts of the world, and valleys during which the players either idle or chase rankings points in smaller tournaments.

Besides, tennis players largely make their own schedules — as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal amply demonstrated by taking so much time off this year. In 2016, at the peak of his powers, Novak Djokovic took off three weeks after each of the first three Grand Slams and almost a month after the US Open. In what other sport can a player take three weeks to a month off at the very peak of the action?

That luxury would vanish in a seven-month season, as would literally hundreds of jobs for ATP pros. “Ninety, 95 percent of the players in the US Open main draw need to play as much as they can to make a living,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “That’s just a reality. The only players that are making huge money are the top couple of players. If you don’t play, you don’t make money.”

The superstars could survive and perhaps even do better financially with a shorter season, especially because they would inevitably play lucrative exhibition matches during the off-season.

One theory is that starving the people of top competitive tennis for five months would only increase the public’s appetite. Another theory is that starving people will go wherever they can for food, like to hockey or soccer.

Yet there are some legitimate beefs with the way tennis is structured. The incessant travel is a factor that doesn’t impact athletes in other sports nearly as much. Close, exhausting matches on successive days are unique to tennis because of the game’s knockout-draw format.

There’s a constant, relentless hum of criticism surrounding the preponderance of hard courts on the tour. Isn’t tennis sufficiently advanced to embrace joint-and-muscle friendly surfaces everywhere?

Tennis impresarios are forever talking about speeding up the game. Maybe it’s time to embrace the match-tiebreaker at most best-of-three events, at least up until the final. All the majors should play a final-set tiebreaker; nobody will surpass Isner-Mahut anyway (well, let’s hope not).

If nothing else, speed up the hard courts, or the balls, or both. Reward players who show a willingness to attack or serve-and-volley. Those five-hour baseline struggles are like certain songs by the Grateful Dead — more impressive for their length than their content.

Length of match may be a bigger problem for tennis than length of season, but Raonic doesn’t see it that way. He said, “It’s hard to peak four times of the year for Grand Slams. Let alone for other tournaments.”

That may be true, but it’s still difficult to see how it would be any easier to peak four times for critical events compressed into a seven-month period.

Nadal, Cilic Enjoy Festivities In Beijing & Tokyo

Dressed in traditional Chinese attire, Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martin del Potro stopped by the iconic Beijing Bird’s Nest for a photo shoot ahead of the China Open Players’ Party. “Unbelievable place. The Olympic Stadium, unbelievable memories from there, from the ceremony, so very happy to be back out there,” said Nadal.

The group then headed to the top of the Olympic Tower, where they joined other ATP World Tour and WTA stars at a party to commemorate the start of the tournament. Dimitrov took home the award for ‘best dressed’, along with the WTA’s Petra Kvitova. The evening featured a traditional feature show and charity activity to raise money for the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation.

“I’ve never been to Beijing before,” said Kyrgios. “This is the first time for me, so I was really looking forward to this tournament and obviously this is a nice party.”

Nadal helped raise money for the Rafael Nadal Academy and China Soong Ching Ling Foundation, as he teamed up with Chang and Chinese celebrities for a charity activity on Brad Drewett Court. The World No. 1 and his team played points against a group of children in attendance, and then challenged Chinese football star Hao Haidong in a game of football and tennis.

Michael Chang and his family attended the opening ceremony, held in the National Tennis Stadium, as the three-time China Open champion was named an International Tennis Hall of Fame global ambassador.

“I feel like it’s very fitting that we have this announcement actually here in Beijing,” Chang said. “I can recall playing here in Beijing in a much smaller venue. To see how tennis has grown tremendously over these years in and throughout China has been sensational.”

#NextGenATP’s Karen Khachanov commemorated China’s Mid-Autumn Festival on Wednesday, as he made mooncakes with a chef from a popular Beijing restaurant, Flo. The Russian also practised his Chinese and wished fans a Happy Moon Day.

Tomas Berdych assisted with the draw ceremony and also took time to meet up and take photos with fans.

Players showed off their calligraphy skills during the official Welcome Reception at the Palais, in the Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba hotel. Donning traditional kimonos, the likes of Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey tried their hand at writing the Japanese character for ‘Samurai’ or ‘heart’.

Cilic, Thiem, Raonic, Anderson, Querrey and Feliciano Lopez also delighted supporters when they trained in front of hundreds of spectators on Centre Court. The Tokyo tournament organisers have opened the doors to fans for ATP Sunday since 2007.

Dominic Thiem enjoyed a visit to a Tokyo sushi restaurant and the Odaiba-Ferris wheel. The Austrian dressed in traditional sushi chef uniform as he served and ate sushi, and then enjoyed the cityscape from the ferris wheel.

Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, who has been recovering from a season-ending surgery for a torn ACL, came out to help with the draw ceremony at Festival Plaza.

It hasn’t been all about tennis for players this week. ATPWorldTour.com provides a recap of the highlights.

Why Test cricket still needs its fifth day

The long and the short of it

After some weeks in the jungle, Philip Halden decided the best thing to do was teach his kidnappers to play cricket. Halden, a 48-year-old engineering consultant from Stoke-on-Trent, was snatched while he was working in Bogota in 1996. He persuaded one of the guards to lend him a machete, and took what he described as “great pains” to carve a “really heavy Gooch-type bat” and a whole batch of balls, then set about instructing them in the Laws. The guerrillas were Marxist-Leninists and neither they nor his fellow captives, a Dane and a Colombian, particularly enjoyed the game, except in that it took so long to play it killed a lot of time. It was eight months before the three were finally freed.

This, then, was a rare case of strangers to the game finding its length to be the most appealing thing about it. Nothing about Test cricket seems to boggle newcomers to it quite like the fact it lasts so long, which is the very thing those of us who love it like the most. “I hardly think,” Tom Stoppard put it when he first saw live baseball, “that I can be expected to take seriously a game which takes less than three days to reach its conclusion.” Test matches have, of course, been known to go on more than twice as long without finishing. The Beckettian timeless Test between England and South Africa in 1939 lasted 11 days before they finally called it all off.

Time was when Tests were scheduled to last three, four, or many more days. Five days, the length of a working week, has been the standard since 1979. The only exception since the ill-starred Super Test between Australia and the Rest of the World in 2005. That was scheduled to last six, but finished in three-and-a-half. It was supposed to be the first in a series, repeated once every four years, but the idea was abandoned exactly one hour after the inaugural match was over, its only legacy a lingering argument between the ICC and assorted cricket statisticians over whether or not the match should have official status, since the regulations state that “Test matches shall be of five days scheduled duration”.

That’s about to change. Cricket South Africa wants to stage a four-day day-night Test against Zimbabwe this winter. They’re going to petition the ICC for permission at the Chief Executives Conference in New Zealand next week. And given that the game’s many mandarins have been talking up four-day Tests for some time now, it seems CSA is likely to get its way. Officials from England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand have all spoken out in support of the idea in the last year or so. Their thinking is that since so few games last more than 400 overs, you can squeeze them down by stretching play later into the evening and making the players get through more overs in the day. This game is likely to be the first of many.

Between them, the executives have put forward a bunch of reasons, all variations on the seven-letter theme mo’ money. New Zealand’s David White wants to do it because it will mean they can fit a three-match series into 18 days, whereas right now, when you add in the rest days between back-to-back matches, they take closer to 26. Sri Lanka’s Thilanga Sumathipala wants to do it because he thinks that if play stretches on for another 45 overs each evening, then the games will pull in bigger crowds after work each night. England’s Colin Graves, who made his name running Costcutter, believes it will reduce expenditure for the grounds and the broadcasters. All three agree that if matches are cut to four days, then they should always run from Thursday through to Sunday.

The players, fans, and, it seems, pretty much everyone else who has publicly discussed the issue seem to be on the other side of the argument. A couple of South Africa’s players came out against it just this week. “I don’t think you should tinker with something that’s not broken,” said Dean Elgar. “There are other formats that are being experimented with. I don’t see why Test cricket should suffer.” And here’s Faf du Plessis: “I am a fan of five-day Test cricket. I believe the great Test matches have gone to the last hour of the last day on day five. That’s what is so special about Test cricket.”

Add to that the MCC, whose new chief executive, Guy Lavender, came out in support of five-day Tests in the Telegraph, and the ICC’s own cricket committee, who decided just a couple of years ago that “Test matches should not be shorter than five days”, with the caveat that “the game will need to be open to considering proposals in the future that look to enhance the public appeal of cricket’s oldest format.” Aside from the brute economics of it, this seems to be the key argument for shortening Test cricket. Something has to be done! And this it seems, is what the administrators have decided something should look like.

They say that fewer Tests go to a fifth day, which is true, but around six out of every 10 played still do. And the best of them, like the Tests between England and West Indies at Headingley, and Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi, are as good as this game gets, a better advert for it than anything the ICC’s marketing consultants have concocted. There are good arguments for rationalising the calendar and decluttering the fixture list, but the case for cutting off the fifth day’s play is less convincing. Cricket administrators with grand plans are like Greeks bearing gifts. It’s best to be wary.

This is an extract taken from the Spin, our weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

‘Giant tent’ being discussed to end rain delays in cricket

Plans to stop rain delays at cricket matches by covering pitches with a giant mesh tent are being discussed by the sport’s governing bodies.

The Telegraph says an American company has approached the MCC and the English Cricket Board (ECB) with the idea.

The transparent mesh could be held up by wires attached to floodlights and a hot-air balloon in the centre.

An ECB spokesman told the BBC they were looking into “new technologies” but did not confirm any specific plans.

But the new MCC chief executive Guy Lavender says they are in conversation with ECB chief executive Tom Harrison in how they can partner up on the research.

Testing is at a very early stage and the technology is believed to be at least two years away from becoming a reality, with issues such as safety in high winds and water run-off to be considered.

“There are an enormous number of technical challenges and issues, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t look at it seriously,” Lavender told BBC Sport.

“It’s certainly not something that’s going to be viable initially but I think we have a role here at MCC to investigate and look at new technologies.

“It’s signalling our intent to think about new innovations and new technologies that can keep the game being played. This is the start of a journey of seeing what’s practical and what’s possible.”

Jack Harrison: England U21 midfielder on life in New York and leaving Man Utd

Among the current England Under-21 squad is a man who counts Andrea Pirlo and David Villa among his team-mates and is coached by Patrick Vieira at New York City FC.

Jack Harrison was born in Stoke-on-Trent but educated in the United States, leaving Manchester United and England at 14 for a football scholarship at a boarding school in Massachusetts.

This week, he has been given his debut call-up to Aidy Boothroyd’s squad for the European Championship qualifiers against Scotland in Middlesbrough on Friday and in Andorra on Tuesday.

Here he tells BBC Sport how he found out about his inclusion, how he came to be in the US, and his experiences there.

‘I rang my mum, but she wasn’t answering…’

Harrison trained for the first time with his international team-mates on Wednesday. He last played for New York City on Sunday, a 1-1 draw at Chicago Fire. Just before the game, Vieira told him he had been called up, but he ran into a problem when he tried to share the news.

The first person I called was my mum, who was in New York, but she wasn’t answering. She knew I had a game so she was probably thinking ‘why is he calling me right now?’

I finally got on the phone about 15 minutes before I went out to warm up and said: “Mum, I have made the U21s – but I have got to go and warm up so I am off’. It was quick but exciting and we were both very happy.

‘Only one other kid had left Man Utd’

It was Harrison’s mum, Debbie, who floated the idea of moving to America, with the intention being to boost his footballing prospects as well as his education.

When my mum first introduced the idea of leaving the UK to take up a football scholarship in the States, I was really apprehensive. For a lot of the young kids in academies, they just think about making it to the first team, and in a lot of cases they don’t make it.

I’m very lucky my mum helped me to have an open mind about the idea because it was a great opportunity and about much more than the football side. There was an education there as well.

There were a lot of people who doubted the decision to leave Manchester United but I am happy that I stuck with it.

I am very thankful for my time at the club – a lot of the foundation of skills I have is mainly through them. I think they were pretty disappointed that I was leaving – only one other kid had left the academy before and that was to go on a tennis scholarship – but we left on a good note. It wasn’t hostile.

‘Vieira and Lampard have been amazing’

Last year Harrison was the number one pick in the MLS draft, eventually signing his first professional contract with New York City. Since making his debut, Harrison has played 55 times for the first team, scoring 14 goals and providing 10 assists.

When I finally got drafted by New York City FC, I realised then I had no regrets. I would definitely recommend it to any younger player who is not getting as much game time as they would like.

It has been a great opportunity to go out there and get that playing experience under your belt. I am so grateful to be in that position. With the support of New York behind me, it is really special.

Patrick [Vieira, New York City’s manager] has been amazing. He has been so supportive since drafting me. I had an injury at the time. He helped me through that a lot. Frank [Lampard, former England, Chelsea and New York midfielder] has been incredible too.

Even this past year, while he has been in England and not playing, he has reached out to me and congratulated me on a goal. Just little things like that. It might not be much to him but they mean the world to me.

City Football Group [who in addition to New York City also own Manchester City among other clubs] is an amazing organisation to be a part of. They have been so supportive of everything I have done so far. As a player, everyone dreams of playing in the top leagues in Europe. It would be a great opportunity if that was to come up.

For now, I am just focused on being at New York, finishing off the season and hopefully winning something. I will see what happens after that.

Harrison was speaking to BBC Sport’s Simon Stone

World Cup: ‘This is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team’

Syrian midfielder Zaher Midani and his colleagues will have more than football on their mind in tonight’s first leg World Cup playoff against Australia.

“We have a huge motivation: to make the Syrian people happy,” Midani said. “The players and management hope we’ll be able to unify our people.

“Australia may have many big-name players known for their individual talents. But we have the enormous potential that comes from performing as a group.”

Syria have never been so close to a maiden World Cup berth.

To describe the team’s unprecedented qualifying run as improbable is an understatement.

On a shoestring budget and shackled by security concerns that deny them from hosting home fixtures on home soil, the world No75 nation has toppled several rivals that boast significantly greater pedigree and pay cheques.

It has all the trappings of a fairytale, a Cinderella story, of a country ripped to shreds by civil war finding hope in the all-uniting power of sport.

Last month, when Omar Al Somah scored a sensational stoppage-time equaliser against Iran to snatch Syria’s historic first World Cup play-off spot, thousands of jubilant fans danced on the streets of Damascus in a rare celebration.

However, that the giant public screen on which they watched was erected by president Bashar al-Assad’s dictator government underlines the very reason Syrians are so painfully divided over what their national team represents.

Detractors say the team normalises and legitimises the regime’s myriad atrocities while sweeping under the carpet the killings, disappearances and detainments of professional football players.

The government stands accused of using the team as a propaganda tool, another weapon against its own people.

The allegation was epitomised in 2015 when then Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim attended a press conference wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Assad’s image.

They’re all factors that informed captain Firas Al Khatib’s decision in 2012 – along with teammate Somah – to boycott the national team until the country stopped bombing its civilians.

Five years later the 34-year-old – widely considered Syria’s greatest player – accepted a call to return for the Russia 2018 push, but betrayed signs of a man trapped between a grim divide.

“I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” Khatib told ESPN in May. “What happened is very complicated, I can’t talk more about these things.

“Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that. Whatever happen, 12 million Syrians will love me. Other 12 million will want to kill me.”

Indeed, when half a nation’s population is displaced, the chasm cannot expect to be fixed by a sporting team mired in such deep moral conflict.

Regardless, the unlikely success has provided welcome respite to both regime backers and opponents.

Some, like Wafi al-Bahsh, who runs a football club in the rebel-run Eastern Ghoutan near Damascus, attempt to reconcile their feelings by separating sport and politics.

“My dream is to see Syria qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “This team is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team.”

Since you’re here …

Barcelona say Atletico Madrid cannot supply tickets for away fans for Wanda Metropolitano clash

Barcelona say Atletico Madrid cannot supply tickets to away fans ahead of their game at the Wanda Metropolitano due to “logistical problems” in the stadium.

The two sides are due to meet in the Spanish capital on October 14, live on Sky Sports, but Barcelona have released a statement on their website warning supporters that applications for away fans have been cancelled as the hosts can no longer supply tickets previously offered.

Should that remain the case, it will be the second La Liga game in a row in which Ernesto Valverde’s side have played without their supporters in the stadium.

Barcelona had attempted to get last week’s fixture with Las Palmas postponed after violent scenes broke out during Catalonia’s unofficial independence referendum but that request was rejected by the league, leading to a 3-0 home victory being played out in front of an empty Nou Camp.

Katie Nolan Is Headed to ESPN

As first reported by SI.com Wednesday morning, Katie Nolan has been hired by ESPN.

The network said in a statement that she will begin with the company on Oct. 16 and “will appear across multiple platforms in a variety of projects.”

“Katie is smart, dynamic and brings to ESPN a fresh perspective and a great sense of humor. She is a rare talent and will represent our brand incredibly well as we continue to expand across the digital space,” said Connor Schell, executive vice president, content, ESPN.

Nolan said: “I could not be more excited to have a prominent digital presence while also making appearances across ESPN studio programming. When I was a little girl, I always dreamed that one day announcements regarding my specific assignments would be forthcoming.”

The popular personality recently asked for an early release from her FOX Sports contract, which was set to expire at the end of the year.

Nolan got her start at FS1 in 2013 on the short lived, Crowd Goes Wild. She then hosted the weekly Garbage Time beginning in March 2015 and won a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Social TV Experience in 2016.

The show was cancelled in early 2017, with FS1 promising the network was developing a new show for Nolan, but nothing ever materialized and she has been on the sidelines ever since.

It’s been a bad 24 hours for Fox Sports

Fox Sports’ cable network FS1 has been dealt a rough hand over the past 24 hours.

Colin Cowherd is continuing to receive harsh criticism after calling Philadelphia the “dumbest sports city in America.” Katie Nolan, a rising star at the network, is heading to ESPN. And Fox Sports was forced to pull back from an odd advertising campaign in New York City that trashed the hometown Knicks.

Criticism for Cowherd

Fox Sports Radio host and FS1 personality Colin Cowherd is continuing to receive harsh criticism after his factually challenged attack on Philadelphia, calling it “the dumbest sports city in America” for firing former Eagles coach Andy Reid. who has led the Kansas City Chiefs to a 4-0 start this season.

“Maybe Philadelphia fans are so dopey they don’t like the work ‘read,” Cowherd said. “They don’t like to read.”

The responses to Cowherd’s comments… weren’t kind.

Signs that the criticism was getting to Cowherd were apparent Tuesday evening, when he was reduced to responding to message on social media with a middle-finger emoji followed by the word “Philly.”

Considering FS1’s attempt to grow its ratings to compete with ESPN2, it’s hard to see how criticizing the sports fans in one of the country’s top media markets makes much sense. Here’s a look at FS1’s current ratings:

Katie Nolan headed to ESPN

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports media was made official Wednesday: Katie Nolan is headed to ESPN.

Nolan was a rising star at Fox Sports, but she largely went silent after the network canceled her Emmy Award-winning late-night show Garbage Time. Jamie Horowitz, the network’s former president of national networks, called Nolan a “superstar” and was reportedly scheduled to meet with her the week he was fired after an investigation into claims of sexual harassment.

Instead, Nolan negotiated an early release from her contract with Fox and will take her talents to rival ESPN, where she is slated to appear beginning Oct. 16.

“When I was a little girl, I always dreamed that one day announcements regarding my specific assignments would be forthcoming,” Nolan said in a statement from ESPN.

Conner Schell, the executive vice president of content at ESPN, called Nolan a “rare talent” and said she brings a “fresh perspective and a great sense of humor” to the network.

Knicks-trashing ad campaign cancelled

Meanwhile, Fox Sports was forced to pulled back from an odd FS1 advertising campaign on New York City subways that trashed the hometown Knicks, who haven’t made the playoffs the past four seasons, as “Hopeless.” It’s worth noting that FS1 doesn’t have any rights to air NBA games, and the Knicks air locally in New York on MSG, making the ads even more bizarre.

According to SNY’s Adam Zagoria, Knicks owner James Dolan was “furious” about the ads (one was labeled “Nothing Will Change Until Dolan Sells The Team”) and called Fox executive Rupert Murdoch to complain.

While most ads appeared to criticize the team, some of them had more optimistic messaging. One featured an image of Kristaps Porzingis with the caption, “Porzingis Is The Truth.”

“Today, FS1 featured statements on a New York City subway car intended to reflect the distinct emotions and opinions of passionate sports fans,” Fox Sports said in a statement. “We regret the tone and are removing the content in its entirety.”

It’s also not the first time this year Fox Sports has been asked to remove its advertising. In August, Nebraska’s athletic department requested the network stop running a 30-second ad featuring Nebraska players in a scene clearly inspired by the 1984 horror film “Children of the Corn,” based on the novel by Stephen King.

“It’s not really the direction we want the brand to go in,” David Witty, the senior associate athletic director for marketing and communications at Nebraska, told the Omaha World Herald.