Internationals meet once more before ‘real work’ starts
Theo Walcott: injured
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico ● The world’s top national team finds itself in a strange place this week: an island where baseball is more popular soccer.
Spain, the defending World Cup and European champion, takes on 138th-ranked Puerto Rico on Wednesday night in the first soccer meeting between the nations.
“This will be good for the national players who are currently in preseason training with their professional clubs,” Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas said Tuesday.
While the Real Madrid contingent had a relatively easy trek following Saturday’s exhibition against Glasgow Celtic in Philadelphia, Barcelona’s players were in Romania last weekend to play Dinamo Bucharest.
Both Spanish powers are scheduled to open their La Liga seasons at home Sunday, with defending champion Real Madrid hosting Valencia and Barcelona playing Real Sociedad.
Spain’s national team will be playing for the first time since routing Italy 4-0 on July 1 for its second straight European title.
“We hope the team is in optimum shape,” said winger Santi Cazorla, who could make his Arsenal debut Saturday against Sunderland.
A Spanish colony from the 1500s until 1898, Puerto Rico has been trying to boost its soccer status. Its national team already has been eliminated in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, finishing second to Canada in a group that included St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia. The Puerto Rico Islanders of the North American Soccer League are in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“This is a great chance for us to let the world know that take football seriously in Puerto Rico,” national coach Jeaustin Campos said. “After all, this is the first time in our history that we will play against the reigning world champions.”
The match is being played on the Islanders’ home field at the 20,000-seat Ramon Loubriel Stadium.
Spain, preparing for its opening World Cup qualifier at Georgia on Sept. 11, is without Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, David Villa and Jordi Alba. Sevilla forward Alvaro Negredo also was left out.
“We are thrilled with this game,” goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said. “We hope it is an unforgettable show.”
● Germany coach Joachim Loew will use Wednesday’s friendly against Argentina to assess his side’s strength in depth before starting its qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup.
Established internationals including Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gomez and captain Philipp Lahm will all miss the match in Frankfurt, as will Arsenal pair Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker, allowing Loew a rare opportunity to experiment against an opponent at full strength and featuring Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
Loew has signaled his intention to make “a lot of substitutions to see a lot of players” against a “class team.”
“It’s a good measure for the upcoming qualification games in September and October,” the 52-year-old coach said.
Meanwhile, Argentina hopes to avenge its heaviest defeat to Germany in the sides’ last meeting – a 4-0 loss at the 2010 World Cup.
Mesut Oezil and Sami Khedira were instrumental in that quarterfinal win, their performances for Germany earning them lucrative transfers to Real Madrid, and they will be expected to lead Germany in the absence of influential regulars.
● The Football Association says Arsenal forward Theo Walcott has withdrawn from the England squad to play Italy with a bruised thigh.
He has returned to his club as precautionary measure, while the rest of the international side flies to Switzerland Tuesday, where they will play Euro 2012 runner-up Italy in Berne.
The FA says on its website that Walcott had “a slightly bruised thigh and was unable to train fully” and that “no replacement will be added to the squad.”
Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge, Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart and and Walcott’s Arsenal teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have already withdrawn from the England squad with injuries.
● Bruised by its loss to Mexico in the Olympic final, Brazil begins its journey to the 2014 World Cup with a friendly against Sweden.
The match – the last to be played at Stockholm’s Rasunda stadium – offers a chance for coach Mano Menezes to return home from Europe on the back of a win.
The Brazilian football federation hinted before the Olympics that a disappointing result in London could cost Menezes his job, but a decision is not expected until the team returns to Brazil later this week.
Brazil is bringing most of the players in the squad that lost the final 2-1 to Mexico, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a doubt for the Swedes. The Paris Saint-Germain striker’s right foot is swollen after a knock during the team’s French league opener Saturday against Lorient.
“We haven’t made a decision yet. We’ll have to see how it develops,” Ibrahimovic said Tuesday.
“It’s of course special to play Brazil,” he said. “Everyone wants to play them. They have some of the world’s best players. Also as a team they are one of the best in the world.”
Sweden coach Erik Hamren on Tuesday called up striker Tobias Hysen as a late addition to the squad.
“I hope that everyone is healthy and available to play in Wednesday’s match, including Zlatan, but we don’t want to take any unnecessary risks with any player and we don’t want to be one man short on the bench,” Hamren said.
For some in the Brazil team, the disappointment of losing the gold medal match has started to fade.
“Life goes on. I am satisfied with the Olympics and we won a silver medal after all and I’m happy that I was there,” said forward Neymar.
Wednesday’s friendly is a farewell bid to Rasunda, an aging stadium that hosted the 1958 World Cup final between Brazil and Sweden. Several of the players from both squads will be present, including Pele, who scored two goals as Brazil won 5-2 to clinch its first of five World Cup titles.
“It’s going to be a special match,” Neymar said. “Many great players have played there, not least our own team that won the 1958 World Cup there. Although I don’t have any memories of that, I wasn’t even born.”
Rasunda is set to be demolished as the Swedish national team adopts a new stadium being built nearby as its main hub.
Most of Brazil’s Olympic squad is in Stockholm, though Paulo Henrique Ganso, Bruno Uvini and left back Marcelo are missing. The latter was ruled out because he was sent off in Brazil’s latest friendly. Thiago Silva, Ibrahimovic’s PSG teammate, joined the Brazil squad in Stockholm.
Sweden is missing injured midfielder Kim Kallstrom and winger Emir Bajrami, who will be replaced by Alexander Kacaniklic of Fulham in his first call-up to the national team.