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FOOTBALL

Spain to start Euro 2016 bid under sex-scandal cloud

Defending champions Spain kick-off their Euro 2016 against the Czech Republic on Monday, bidding for a third straight European crown, under a sex scandal cloud.

Spain to start Euro 2016 bid under sex-scandal cloud
Spain's national team training ahead of Monday's match. Photo: AFP

Accusations against Manchester United shot-stopper David De Gea have thrown Spain's preparations into turmoil as they prepare to face the Czechs in Toulouse in Group D.

Elsewhere, the battle to survive the pool dubbed Euro 2016's 'group of death' begins when Ireland play Sweden at the Stade de France, before Belgium play Italy in Lyon in Group E.

Vicente del Bosque's Spain are chasing a treble of European championship titles when they start their campaign against the back-drop of their off-field woes.

De Gea is vying with 167-cap veteran and captain Iker Casillas, a hero of Spain's three consecutive major championship triumphs between 2008 and 2012, for a starting place.

The 25-year-old has strongly denied allegations that he organised a party at which two women were forced to have sex with two footballers. The storm has taken the focus of Spain's arrival in France away from football.

The team say they are backing De Gea but he will not find out if he has a place until just before the game.

Spain have won their last three meetings with the Czech Republic and Del Bosque's side are on an eight-game competitive winning streak.

Spain have a crop of young talent coming through and Andres Iniesta says the team has the quality to go all the way to the July 10th final.

“Times change and players move on but it's always about quality and we have tons of that – enough to do well in our objective of retaining the trophy,” said Iniesta, whose goal won the 2010 World Cup final.

Belgium's star-studded attack will come up against Italy's dogged defence, but Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini says his team have the weapons to make a winning start.

Marc Wilmots' Belgium have shot up the world rankings from 66th in 2009 to second coming into the European Championship finals and are amongst the favourites in France.

Now the Red Devils boss is urging his side to live up their billing as favourites in the crunch Group E clash as Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon prepares to play in his 11th tournament.

“A win would give us confidence, but a defeat would shake everyone up, so we have to be on form right from the outset,” said the 47-year-old Wilmots.

“We need our '12th man' behind us, if we are here it's because of the Belgium supporters being behind us through the good and bad, they are the heart and soul of the team.”

His counterpart Antonio Conte expects a battle royal.

“There will be warriors on the pitch for both sides, these games are so important you feel the breath on the back of your neck,” said the Italy's boss, who steps down after Euro 2016.

The Republic of Ireland have the task of containing Sweden's superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the Stade de France.

Irish manager Martin O'Neill says his side have nothing to fear, but Ibrahimovic comes into the match on the back of dazzling form.

Now 34, the Manchester United target appears to be getting better with age having scored 50 goals in all competitions in his final season with Paris Saint-Germain.

The Irish qualified for Euro 206 by beating Bosnia and Hercegovina in a play-off and defeat in their first game would present them with an uphill task as Belgium, then Italy follow.

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FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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