France Fires Blank, Ecuador Eliminated.

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RIO DE JANEIRO: Ten-man Ecuador held France to a 0-0 draw at the Maracana on Wednesday but Didier Deschamps´ side still topped Group E to progress to a last-16 tie against Nigeria.

Through luck, determination, bad finishing and brilliant goalkeeping by Alexander Dominguez, Ecuador resisted even after captain and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia was ordered off early in the second half for a studs up challenge on Lucas Digne.

The result was disappointing for Deschamps but was enough to take first place with seven points and the easier of the possible second-round ties next Monday.

Switzerland´s 3-0 win over Honduras in the group´s other game gave them second place and a tough match against Argentina on Tuesday as Ecuador become the first South American side to be knocked out of this World Cup.

Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda was left to lament the sending-off of his captain as his team came up just short.

“There is nothing to be done about it now but we lost an important player in our structure,” said the Colombian. “Various refereeing decisions went against us and it was difficult to hold on for a draw but the players showed great character.”

Deschamps made six changes for this game and will certainly bring back several of the missing players to take on Nigeria.

Karim Benzema, scorer of three goals in wins over Honduras and Switzerland, kept his place in the side, but France missed the creativity of Mathieu Valbuena and Yohan Cabaye, the latter absent due to suspension and replaced by Southampton´s Morgan Schneiderlin.

Les Bleus controlled much of the first half, but only sporadically troubled Dominguez in the Ecuador goal.

The Ecuadorean ´keeper held a crisply-struck volley from Moussa Sissoko with 15 minutes played and did well to palm the ball over the bar when Paul Pogba got his head to an Antoine Griezmann free-kick.

Ecuador began to threaten as the half wore on, almost breaking through when Enner Valencia rose above Digne to connect with Michael Arroyo´s left-wing cross only for Hugo Lloris to intervene. (AFP)

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Messi double ensures Argentina top group, Nigeria also through

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PORTO ALEGRE: A double from Lionel Messi a day after his 27th birthday inspired Argentina to a 3-2 win over African champions Nigeria and assured them of finishing top of Group F at the World Cup finals on Wednesday.

Nigeria´s defeat — their fourth in four meetings at the finals against Argentina — came with the considerable consolation that they still progressed to the second round as Iran lost 3-1 to Bosnia-Hercegovina in the other group game.

Argentina, who are set to face either Switzerland in the second round, began to turn on the style after low key wins over Bosnia-Hercegovina and Iran. Nigeria, who will be appearing in the second round for the first time since 1998, are to face France next Monday.

The match got off to a stunning start as Messi fired home his third goal of the finals after two-and-a-half-minutes — the fastest goal of his career — to finally crack a Nigerian defence that had not conceded a goal in their previous two matches.

A telling pass by Fernando Gago found Angel di Maria only for the Real Madrid man´s shot to ricochet off the near post.

As the loose ball bounced Messi magically appeared to slam into the roof of Vincent Enyeama´s net.

Argentina´s lead lasted all of 80 seconds when CSKA Moscow striker Ahmed Musa curled the ball artfully past Sergio Romero into the far post. Enyeama then did well to keep the scores level when keeping out di Maria ´s thunderous low drive from 30m out.

On 38 minutes Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella was forced into an unscripted change of personnel when Sergio Aguero limped off to be replaced by Ezequiel Lavezzi.

As the interval approached Messi struck a peach of a free kick from outside the box, only denied by another fine save from Enyeama.

But the Lille stopper couldn´t perform the same heroics when from a near identical position shortly after another Messi free kick thudded into the near corner for his fourth goal of the tournament.Musa levelled only two minutes into the second half when, getting the better of Argentine defenders Federico Fernandez and Marcos Rojo, he clipped the ball past Romero.

In an at times breathtaking encounter Rojo bagged his first international goal three minutes later, knocking the ball home with his knee off a corner after Nigeria failed to clear Ezequiel Garay´s header.

With his work done Sabella rested Messi on the hour, Ricardo Alvarez coming on in his place.

Musa had ´hat-trick´ flashing in front of his eyes in the final quarter of an hour when he cut inside Pablo Zabaleta only for the Manchester City defender to produce a superb tackel to deny him the scoring opportunity.

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Cameroon World Cup Squad Refuse to Board Plane to Brazil

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Cameroonian international players missed their scheduled flight to Brazil on Sunday morning and reports from L’Equipe state that they are staging a protest over promised bonuses that they have not received from the Cameroonian Football Association.

The players who had been on strike suspended their protest on May 23rd in order to get match preparation ahead of the World Cup, but the players have not come to a satisfactory agreement with the CFA since their strike was suspended. The Prime Minister of Cameroon, Philemone Yang, was publicly humiliated by the squad after they refused to accept the Cameroonian flag from him to take to Brazil in a pre-tournament ceremony, as is tradition.

EuroSport is reporting that a deal is on the table where the players would receive up to 50 percent of the Fifa allocated prize money should they reach the final. While that might seem a good deal, players are upset that they would receive only six percent of the prize money should they not get out of the group stage.

The Cameroon FA is no stranger to player protest, having dealt with a similar issue in 2002 and again in 2011 when the squad refused to play in a match that had been scheduled against Algeria.

There is a possibility that the Indomitable Lions will miss out on the tournament altogether, unless an agreement can be reached soon.

De Villiers named Cricketer of the Year

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Just over a day after being passed over for his country´s Test captaincy, AB de Villiers was named South African Cricketer of the Year on Wednesday night.

De Villiers edged out four other candidates, including new Test captain Hashim Amla, for the top award.
The other nominees were fast bowler Dale Steyn, batsman JP Duminy and rising prodigy Quinton de Kock.De Villiers also collected the award for Test Cricketer of the Year.

It was the first time De Villiers, 30, had won the top award. Amla was the winner in 2013.
De Villiers was in prolific run-scoring form during the year which started in June 2013. He was South Africa´s leading run-scorer in Tests, in which he scored 804 runs at an average of 67.00, and one-day internationals, in which he hit 789 runs at an average of 43.83 with a strike rate of 99.24.

De Villiers was pipped for the first time in six years for the One-Day International Cricketer of the Year award, which went to De Kock, who hit three centuries in successive matches against India and racked up 664 runs at an average of 55.33.

Leg-spinner Imran Tahir was named Twenty20 International Cricketer of the Year. He was South Africa´s leading wicket-taker in the shortest form of the game and starred in the World T20 in Bangladesh, taking 12 wickets at an average of 10.91. (AFP)

Costa undergoes Chelsea medical – reports

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Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa has completed a medical examination with a view to joining Premier League giants Chelsea, according to reports in the British media on Wednesday.

The BBC and The Guardian both claimed that the Brazil-born player, who is currently preparing for the World Cup with Spain in the United States, is now close to completing a move to Stamford Bridge.

Costa, 25, is expected to cost Chelsea around £32 million ($53.6 million, 39.4 million euros).The rugged centre-forward scored 27 league goals and eight Champions League goals last season for Atletico, who won La Liga and were beaten 4-1 by Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Lisbon.

He notably scored from the penalty spot during Atletico´s 3-1 Champions League semi-final victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Costa began his European career with Portuguese club Sporting Braga and initially joined Atletico in 2007. After loan spells with Celta Vigo and Albacete and a season at Real Valladolid, he returned to Atletico in 2010, spending another period on loan at Rayo Vallecano in early 2012.

His time in Spain enabled him to acquire Spanish nationality and despite having made two friendly appearances for Brazil in March 2013, he decided to commit himself to Spain later that year.

Costa made his Spain debut in a friendly against Italy in March this year, playing for the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 victory at Atletico´s Vicente Calderon Stadium.

He is expected to lead the line for Spain at the World Cup in Brazil, although he is battling an ongoing hamstring problem that forced him off in the early stages of last month´s Champions League final. (AFP)

Sharapova overpowers Bouchard in Paris

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Maria Sharapova reached the final of the French Open for the third straight year at Roland Garros on Thursday, digging deep to see off the youthful challenge of Canada´s Eugenie Bouchard.

The 27-year-old, seventh seed once again did it the hard way, battling back from a set down to edge the 20-year-old from Montreal 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 in a match full of beefy baseline shot-making.

It was the 19th time in a row that the never-say-die Sharapova had won a three-set match on clay, dating back to a loss against Justine Henin at Roland Garros in 2010.

On Saturday she will take on the winner of the other semi-final opposing fourth seed Simona Halep of Romania and Andrea Petkovic of Germany.

For the fast-rising Bouchard, it represents the second time she has reached a Grand Slam semi-final, after this year´s Australian Open, and the second time she has failed to go a step further, having lost to eventual champion Li Na in Melbourne. “She played an unbelievable match. Her level was extremely high today and I am just fortunate to be the winner,” Sharapova said. “I would prefer to win in two sets, but she started so well. It was tough losing the first set, but that´s not when the match is over.”

Both players had been guilty of slow starts earlier in the tournament, but the quality from both was high from the start as the sunshine returned to light up the centre court.

Bouchard broke first to lead 3-1, but amid some hefty baseline shot-making, the Russian was soon back on level terms at 4-4.Bouchard, the WTA Newcomer of the Year in 2013, then produced an inspired game to stun her girlhood idol Sharapova, breaking serve and then holding to take the first set 6-4 in 44 minutes. But Sharapova is seldom as dangerous as when she is behind, especially on clay, as shown in her two previous matches when she dropped the opening set to Samantha Stosur and then Garbine Muguruza.

Seeking a fifth Grand Slam title, having completed a career Grand Slam sweep in Paris two years ago, Sharapova jumped out into a 4-1 and then 5-2 lead in the second set. But as so often in the past, Sharapova´s wobbly serve let her down and she let slip four set points, twice due to double faults, as Bouchard battled back to level at 5-5.

Sharapova was in big trouble, but once again she found a way of digging her way out of it, holding serve and then levelling the score by bagging her sixth set point in the following game.

Once again, Sharapova´s drive and determination allowed her to dominate the deciding set with Bouchard struggling to stay with the Russian superstar now in overdrive.

Sharapova grabbed a vital break in the third game to lead 4-1 and raced away with the tie as Bouchard wilted, although the Russian still needed five match points to get the job done.(AFP)

Halep sets up Sharapova Paris showdown

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Simona Halep became the first Romanian woman to reach a Grand Slam final in 34 years Thursday when she beat Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 7-6 (7/4) to set-up a French Open title clash against Maria Sharapova.

The 22-year-old fourth seed swept to victory in 90 minutes. The last Romanian in a final at a major was Halep´s manager Virginia Ruzici, who was champion at Roland Garros in 1978 and then finished runner-up two years later to Chris Evert.

The former world junior number one had never previously got beyond the second round in Paris, but the woman voted the most improved player of 2013 has raced through the tournament without losing a set.

Despite her higher ranking, Halep will start as the outsider against seventh seed Sharapova in Saturday´s final.

The Russian is in her third Roland Garros championship match having won the title in 2012 and holds a 3-0 winning record over Halep although the Romanian pushed her to three sets in the Madrid claycourt final earlier this year. “It´s very emotional to win and reach my first Grand Slam final,” said Halep. “Andrea´s a great player but I think I was a little bit stronger. I tried my best and did everything I could to win the match.”

She knows she will have to step up her performance against four-time major winner Sharapova who made the final for the third year in succession with a three-set win over Canada´s Eugenie Bouchard. (AFP)

Fresh ODI rankings announced by ICC

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International cricket council (ICC) has released fresh ODI rankings according to which Pakistan has maintained its sixth position.

As per the list Australia is number one in ODI rankings where as Sri Lanka has now climbed up to number two and India has gone down to number three.

Virat Kohli remains at the summit of the ODI batsmen’s ranking while S.African AB de Villiers is at number two. Pakistan skipper Misbah ul Haq is at number nine.

Off spinner Saeed Ajmal maintained his number one position amongst the ODI bowlers and speedster Daryl Steyn is at number two.

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Irfan not playing Tests, focusing on World Cup ’15

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Irfan no longer wants to play Test cricket so he can manage his health to play in the 2015 World Cup.

The 2.16-metre (7-foot-1) Irfan has been sidelined from international cricket for nearly seven months since injuring his hip during a Twenty20 against South Africa in Dubai last November.

“I have to manage my workload, and playing Test cricket is an added pressure, therefore I have decided to play Twenty20s and one-day internationals only,” Irfan said on Tuesday. “I have to get myself tied up for a longer run this time and ensure that I won´t get dropped.”

Pakistan´s next international assignment is against Sri Lanka in August, then against Australia and New Zealand in the United Arab Emirates.

Irfan made his Test debut against South Africa last year. All four of his Tests have been against the Proteas in 2013, during which he took 10 wickets before injuring his hip when he fell in his follow through.

He bowled around 66 overs in two Tests against South Africa in the heat of the UAE before he broke down.

His rehabilitation has been closely monitored by the Pakistan Cricket Board, and medical reports suggested in April that his hairline fracture could be healed without a surgery.

Irfan took part in a month-long training camp in Lahore, and camp leader Mohammad Akram indicated that the tall fast bowler could make an international comeback in the series against Australia in October.

“I am disappointed for missing a lot of cricket, but I am working hard on my fitness so that I should go a long way without breaking down,” Irfan said.

Last week, former Pakistan seamer Sarfraz Nawaz also visited the training camp and advised Irfan to focus on limited-overs matches instead of tests to maintain his fitness.

Without Irfan, Pakistan struggled in Bangladesh this year when it failed to retain the Asia Cup title and was knocked out in the group stages of the World Twenty20.But the bouncy pitches in Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup could give Pakistan an edge if Irfan competes. He agrees. “Australia pitches … suit me,” he said. “If I managed to get 100 percent fitness, I am sure I could win matches there single-handedly.” (AP)

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Pakistan workers fire ´Brazuca´ ball to Brazil

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SIALKOT: She has no idea who Lionel Messi is and her home country isn’t even playing, but Pakistani mother-of-five Gulshan Bibi can’t wait for the World Cup –because she helped make the balls.

When Brazil and Croatia kick off the tournament in Sao Paolo on June 12 there’s a good chance they’ll be using a ball made by Gulshan and her colleagues at the Forward Sports factory in Pakistan’s eastern town of Sialkot.

Cricket-mad Pakistan might not have much of a football team — 159th in FIFA’s world rankings — but Sialkot has a long history of manufacturing top-class balls.

Forward Sports has been working with Adidas since 1995 and supplies match balls to some of the world’s top football competitions, including the Champions League, the German Bundesliga — and now the World Cup.

In any case, assembling modern match balls is not simply a matter of sitting down with a needle and thread.

The Forward Sports plant stands barely a free kick’s distance from the dust and chaos of the Grand Trunk Road, the great British-era highway that cuts across the subcontinent all the way to Kolkota.

In contrast to the baking, deafening road outside where ancient goods trucks, donkey carts and motorbikes overloaded with families and livestock compete to avoid potholes, order and efficiency reign inside the factory.

On the Brazuca production line, women in headscarves, some with their faces veiled, work briskly.

They start with flat white propeller-shaped pieces of polyurethane, add the Brazuca’s distinctive bright colours and glue the panels to the ball’s rubber bladder.

The seams are then treated with a special sealant and the ball is heated and compressed in a spherical clamp to give it the correct shape. The heat also activates the temperature-sensitive bonding compound that holds the ball securely together. The whole process from flat panels to finished item takes 40 minutes — speed is crucial to prevent impurities getting into the ball — and the factory can produce up to 100 per hour.

It’s a high-tech process for Pakistan, where much of the workforce is unskilled and poorly educated — only around half the population can read and write.

Ninety percent of those working on the Brazuca were women — unusual in Pakistan, where they are largely expected to stay at home with families, but they were more diligent and meticulous than their male colleagues.

Making the Brazuca was no simple matter for Forward, as Adidas gave the order at short notice when they realised their main manufacturer in China was unable to meet demand.

In just over a month, Forward managed to have the equipment it needed to make the Brazuca from scratch.

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