Eden Hazard eyes Olympics with Belgium, but obstacles ahead

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Eden Hazard is about to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid, but he also eyes another new squad: the Belgium Olympic team.

The star forward told a Belgian coach that he wants to play at the Tokyo Olympics, but significant obstacles are in the way for him to be an overage exception next year.

“Hazard has already asked me if he could come to Tokyo if we qualify,” Belgian Under-21 coach Johan Walem reportedly said last week, according to a Marca translation. “If we qualify, I will stick with the group that played at the [U21 European Championship]. But I already know that picking a squad for an Olympics will be difficult.”

Inherently difficult. Olympic men’s soccer teams are typically under-23 affairs, but each nation is allowed to pick three overage players. These exceptions included Neymar and Ryan Giggs at the last two Olympics.

But adding an overage star typically comes at the expense of a player who helped a nation qualify for the Olympics, such as at the European U21 Championship later this month. The top four at that event will be Europe’s representatives at Tokyo 2020.

Belgium must get out of a tough group at Euro U21s, one that includes Spain and Italy.

But if Belgium’s junior players get out of the group and qualify for the Olympics (for just the second time since 1928), Hazard would have a strong argument to be added for the Olympics. He won the Silver Ball as the second-best player at the 2018 World Cup, where Belgium placed third, its best finish ever.

“Right now, I have more than 30 players and reducing this to 23 for the Euros was a hellish task, and reducing it to 18 [for the Olympics] would be impossible,” Walem said, according to the report.

Hazard’s situation is complicated by the fact he would be a centerpiece of Belgium’s team at the 2020 European Championship, which end 11 days before the start of the Olympic soccer tournament.

In past Olympics, clubs have been under no obligation to release players for the Games. In summer 2016, Neymar did not play Copa America Centenario and in exchange was allowed to play at the Rio Olympics.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

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Sifan Hassan sets marathon debut

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Sifan Hassan, who won 5000m and 10,000m gold and 1500m bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in an unprecedented triple, will make her 26.2-mile debut at the London Marathon on April 23.

Hassan, a 30-year-old Dutchwoman, said she will return to the track after the race, but how the London Marathon goes will play into whether she bids for the Olympic marathon in 2024.

“I want to see what I can do on the marathon distance, to make future decisions,” she posted on social media. “We’ll see if I will finish the distance or if the distance will finish me.”

Exhausted by her Olympic feat, Hassan reportedly went at least seven months after the Tokyo Games between training in track spikes. She finished fourth in the 10,000m and sixth in the 5000m at last July’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon.

“I really needed a break after the Tokyo Olympics,” Hassan said at worlds. “I was mentally crashed. I didn’t even care about running.”

London, billed as the best women’s marathon field in history, also boasts Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, 2016 Olympic 10,000m champion Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia, 1500m world record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia and the two fastest Americans in history, Emily Sisson and Keira D’Amato.

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