Former Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta has retired from football.

The 35-year-old has been without a club since being released by West Ham at the end of June.

"After 18 years as a professional footballer I took the decision to retire from playing football," Zabaleta said in a social media post.

"These have been wonderful years that gave me the opportunity to enjoy unique and unforgettable moments.

"Forever I will thank all the people that shared the journey with me; clubs, team-mates, coaches and in particular my family and all my friends.

"With a lot of emotions I leave behind one of the best stages of my life. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!"

Zabaleta made 594 appearances at club level, starting with San Lorenzo in Argentina before moving to LaLiga with Espanyol.

He joined City in 2008 shortly before the takeover by the Abu Dhabi investment group and went on to become one of the club's most important players in a nine-year spell, popularly known as a 'warrior' figure.

Zabaleta won two Premier League titles, two EFL Cups and the FA Cup and was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in 2012-13.

He signed for West Ham in 2017 and made a further 73 appearances in England's top flight.

In 303 Premier League games in total, he recorded 953 tackles, the most of any player in the competition since his debut 12 years ago.

A winner of Olympic gold in 2008, Zabaleta won 58 senior caps for Argentina and was part of the side that finished runners-up at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

World champions South Africa have withdrawn from the 2020 Rugby Championship in Australia, prompting the return of a Tri-Nations tournament.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) cited factors including travel restrictions, player welfare, safety concerns and the ongoing effect of the coronavirus pandemic for pulling out.

The Springboks' absence leaves Australia, New Zealand and Argentina to challenge for this year's title.

It is a blow ahead of the tournament, and means the Tri-Nations returns eight years after Argentina joined to extend the competition to a four-team event.

SARU chief executive Jurie Roux said: "SANZAAR [the competition organisers] and Rugby Australia have bent over backwards to make the tournament happen and it would have been unfair on them and their partners and state government to delay a decision any longer.

"This is a hugely disappointing outcome for supporters and commercial partners but the ongoing impacts of the pandemic in multiple dispensations mean we are unable to deliver a Springbok team without seriously compromising player welfare, apart from other logistical challenges."

With a Tri-Nations return, six international matches will be played in Australia across six consecutive weekends.

The Tri-Nations will see each nation play each other twice, with games to be held in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle – starting on October 31 between the Wallabies and All Blacks at ANZ Stadium.

The first two matches involving Australia and New Zealand double up as the final two Bledisloe Cup matches.

SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said: “COVID is just a gift that keeps on giving! Naturally, it is extremely disappointing that the Springboks, due to the continued complexities of operating in and around this COVID environment, cannot fully compete in the previously planned six-round Rugby Championship.

“That said, this now presents us with a unique opportunity, in this our 25th year, to close off 2020 with a Tri-Nations competition."

Lionel Messi said he is less obsessed with scoring goals these days as the Barcelona and Argentina superstar eyes team success.

Messi stands alone atop the all-time goalscoring charts for both LaLiga giants Barca and powerhouse South American nation Argentina.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner improved his record-setting international tally to 71 goals after netting in Argentina's 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Ecuador last week.

But Messi is prioritising team objectives, telling La Garganta Poderosa magazine: "Today I am less obsessed with scoring. I try to do my best for the team."

Messi is Barcelona's all-time leading goalscorer with 635 in total, having debuted for the Spanish club in 2004.

Of those goals, 445 have come in LaLiga – a league record ahead of next best and former Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (311).

The 33-year-old has also scored 115 Champions League goals, to go with 53 in the Copa del Rey, 14 in the Supercopa de Espana, three in the UEFA Super Cup and five in the Club World Cup.

Since debuting against Espanyol 16 years ago, Messi has won 10 LaLiga trophies, six Copa del Rey titles and the Champions League on four occasions.

In 2020-21, Messi has one goal through three LaLiga fixtures as Barca – under new head coach Ronald Koeman – look to bounce back following a tumultuous campaign, which saw the club dethroned by bitter rivals Madrid and humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Messi remains at Barca, despite handing in a transfer request at the start of the season amid strong links with Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

South Africa have been given a 48-hour deadline to decide whether they will compete in the Rugby Championship.

The Springboks are due to start the defence of their title against Argentina at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on November 7.

Rugby South Africa (RSA) last week said "several hurdles needed to be cleared" before the organisation can confirm that the world champions will feature in the four-nation competition.

Concerns have been raised over a lack of playing time for South Africa players due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tournament organisers SANZAAR on Wednesday stated that a decision must be made within two days.

A SANZAAR statement said: "The SANZAAR member unions have agreed to provide South Africa Rugby with an additional 48 hours to finalise its internal stakeholder discussions.

"This will now delay the scheduled departure of the Springboks from South Africa to Australia.

"SANZAAR will provide an update on the resolution of these discussions and a timetable for the Springboks participation in the Rugby Championship when available in the coming days."

Lautaro Martinez lauded Argentina's character after a 2-1 win over Bolivia in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Joaquin Correa scored a 79th-minute winner for Lionel Scaloni's men, who made it two wins from two to begin their qualifying campaign.

It marked Argentina's first victory in Bolivia since 2005 as they claimed an important win in the altitude of La Paz.

Martinez, who became the first Argentina player not called Lionel Messi to score in a World Cup qualifier since November 2016 when he cancelled out Marcelo Martins Moreno's opener, was delighted.

"We knew the game was going to be like this. I think this team today showed a lot of heart and a lot of head," the Inter forward said.

"We are very happy."

Martinez added: "We had thought about what this game meant for us because of the history.

"We are not going to deny that it is difficult to play here, it changes a lot."

Martinez also set up Correa's winner as Argentina backed up their narrow victory over Ecuador.

Argentina coach Scaloni was also pleased with his substitutes, with Correa among them as he netted his second international goal.

"With the changes we always try to improve," he said.

"They gave us freshness and they entered very well."

Joaquin Correa came off the bench to score the winner as Argentina came from behind to defeat Bolivia 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.

Argentina fell behind in the altitude of La Paz, which is situated at 3,650 metres above sea level, when Marcelo Moreno Martins found the back of the net after 24 minutes.

Parity was restored before half-time as Jose Carrasco's clearance cannoned in off Lautaro Martinez, who became the first Albiceleste player not called Lionel Messi to score in a World Cup qualifier since November 2016.

Correa replaced Lucas Ocampos just before the hour mark and fired home the winner with 11 minutes remaining, with Argentina claiming their first victory in Bolivia for 15 years.

Martins had a chance to put Bolivia ahead in the sixth minute but headed Saul Torres' looping delivery wide with Franco Armani scrambling.

Bolivia threatened regularly and got their reward when Martins was left in space by Lucas Martinez Quarta and nodded Alejandro Chumacero's cross beyond Armani.

Leandro Paredes saw a curling 20-yard strike crash back off the post before Argentina drew level in bizarre circumstances when Carrasco's laboured attempt to clear Martinez's cutback ricocheted in off the Inter attacker.

Argentina sat back after the restart and looked to counter-attack as Bolivia went in search of a second goal.

Chances were at a premium until Messi's delightful throughball fashioned one for Martinez in the 75th minute. However, his cross-goal effort from the right side of the area was turned behind by Carlos Lampe.

There was nothing Lampe could do to keep out Correa, though, with the goal allowed to stand after a VAR check confirmed Martinez was onside from Messi's pass, meaning Argentina left with maximum points from their two qualifiers.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has compared playing football in La Paz to "drowning" as he braces his team for the challenge posed by competing at altitude in Tuesday's clash with Bolivia.

La Albiceleste will be hoping to build on their winning start to World Cup qualification on, having beaten Ecuador 1-0 on Friday.

But up next is one of the trickiest tasks on the South American football calendar; getting a result in La Paz.

It is situated roughly 3,650 metres (11,975ft) above sea level, making La Paz the highest capital city on Earth and consequentially causing some visiting athletes to struggle due to the air pressure.

Unacclimatised individuals are known to suffer from breathlessness much faster at such altitudes, giving Bolivia a significant advantage in some home matches.

Never has this been more applicable than when Bolivia thrashed Argentina 6-1 in 2009, despite the visitors having the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Zanetti and Javier Mascherano in their starting XI.

Argentina's last trip to La Paz in 2017 resulted in a 2-0 defeat, and with their squad vastly different this time around, Scaloni – who played in their most recent away win in Bolivia 15 years ago – is preparing the team for a gruelling challenge.

"I am going to talk about it with the players one by one," Scaloni said. "We are going to evaluate everyone.

"Before we get to the pitch, we will not realise how players react. Coming two days before the match, the idea was to notice [the effects on individual players].

"We need the players at 100 per cent. If there is a player who is not at 100 per cent, I will speak and make the best decision for the team. The important thing is the hour and a half before the game.

"There is no formula, whether you come the day before the game or two days before. You have to spend 20 days training to have a physical condition equal to theirs.

"Drowning. All the players are going to drown. The issue is the feeling that each one has. We are doing everything possible so that they can get to the game in the best way."

Scaloni's plan for the match will seemingly hinge heavily on captain Messi, with the Argentina coach emphasising the importance of retaining possession and exploiting set-pieces.

"I spoke with everyone and with Lionel Messi in particular," he continued. "There are players who suffer more, others who suffer less, due to physical and training issues.

"We prepare the game in a way that we think can go well. It is a football match. We have a clear idea, we transmit it. The important thing is the journey of the ball.

"We have to use all our weapons. We try to take away the anxiety. We have enough to come here and be at 3,000-odd metres. The more you have the ball, the better.

"When we won in 2005, we scored goals from set pieces. They were specific situations and the game was defined there. We emphasise that."

Argentina and Bolivia have met 20 times in World Cup qualifiers – all five of the latter's victories coming at home.

Similarly, Argentina have only won on three of their 10 trips to La Paz and that 6-1 defeat 11 years ago is the joint-largest defeat in their history.

Lionel Scaloni sensed anxiety in the Argentina ranks as his team began their Qatar 2022 World Cup mission with a 1-0 win over Ecuador.

Victory came courtesy of Lionel Messi's early penalty after Lucas Ocampos was impeded, with Argentina far from their best at La Bombonera.

A home game in Buenos Aires behind closed doors was an uncomfortable way to start the road to the finals, and Argentina's next game will be no easier as they travel to La Paz to face Bolivia on Tuesday.

Yet Scaloni, who pointed to seven players making their first appearances in World Cup qualifying games, was just happy to get the victory.

"We won, which is the most important thing to start a competition of this calibre," he said. "The conditions weren't easy, with a fast pitch and no fans, added to the difficulties of not having been together for so long.

"There are things to highlight and others to improve. I'm left with the desire, with the sacrifice. We will have time to work. The important thing was to get the result forward.

"There were many players who debuted in qualifiers today. It's not easy to play with this shirt and anxiety is typical of that situation.

"We were clear that this could happen because it was the first game. They took a great step when they made their debut and won."

Bolivia scored a 2-0 home win over Argentina in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, and going to high altitude next week will be a serious test for Scaloni's team.

"We're going to see how the players recover and then we will think about Bolivia. We know that it is a game with conditions different from all the others," Scaloni said.

Argentina are now unbeaten in their last eight matches, while Messi took his tally to 71 goals for La Albiceleste.

Lionel Messi expressed the importance of victory and not the performance after Argentina kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador.

Messi was the hero again for Argentina in Buenos Aires on Thursday, converting a 13th-minute penalty in the country's first match since November last year.

Argentina were scheduled to begin their CONMEBOL qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022 in March, but the coronavirus pandemic scuppered those plans.

The South American giants finally returned to action in a lacklustre display and extended their unbeaten streak to eight games, dating back to the 2019 Copa America in July, thanks to superstar captain and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi.

"We knew it was going to be complicated. but the most important thing is that we won and now we have to work to keep growing," Messi said post-match.

"It was important to start off with a win because we know how difficult the world cup qualifiers are.

"The matches are always tough. We hoped the level of play would be different but it's been almost a year since we played together, this was our first game back and the nervousness makes it complicated."

Messi and Argentina played at an empty La Bombonera – the iconic home of Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors – amid the COVID-19 crisis.

There have been more than 856,000 confirmed cases and over 22,700 deaths from coronavirus in Argentina.

"It was a complicated year for what we are living through," added Barcelona's Messi, whose Argentina meet Bolivia on Tuesday.

"Being able to go back and play with the Argentina national team and give happiness to people with the win, beyond the game, serves to decompress. Much strength to all Argentines."

Lionel Messi was the hero as Argentina opened their CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Ecuador.

Argentina were scheduled to start their road to Qatar 2022 in March, but the qualifiers were postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Messi and Argentina finally took to the pitch at the iconic La Bombonera on Thursday, and the superstar captain's 13th-minute penalty settled the contest in Buenos Aires.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner took his international tally to 71 goals as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to eight matches, dating back to the country's third-place play-off victory over Chile at the 2019 Copa America.

Argentina were playing for the first time since their 2-2 friendly draw with South American rivals Uruguay in November last year, and it was the same situation for Ecuador.

Messi, Lautaro Martinez and Rodrigo De Paul were in the starting XI for Argentina, while star Paulo Dybala was a late withdrawal due to a stomach problem.

Argentina were gifted the chance to open the scoring just 13 minutes in when a wild challenge from Ecuador defender Pervis Estupinan chopped down Lucas Ocampos inside the penalty area, and Messi made no mistake from the spot.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina dictated proceedings but both teams struggled for fluidity in their first international matches in almost a year.

Ecuador had a chance to equalise in the second minute of first-half stoppage time as Erick Ferigra found himself unmarked at the back post following a teasing set-piece, but it would not have counted anyway after the flag was raised for offside.

Ocampos thought he had made it 2-0 for Argentina just three minutes into the second half – a lovely cushioned header from Martinez teeing up the Sevilla star – however Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez produced a stunning one-handed star to tip the ball around the post.

The second half was a largely dull affair as Argentina held on for maximum points in their first appearance of 2020.

 

What does it mean? Argentina building under Scaloni

After a turbulent 2018 World Cup campaign, Argentina's progress with Scaloni at the helm is evident. La Albiceleste have not lost since going down to Brazil at the Copa America in July last year. During that period, Argentina have beaten Chile, Mexico and Brazil, while also drawing with Germany.

Messi does his thing

Scaloni was asked about Messi's mindset following a difficult off-season, which saw the Barcelona superstar request a transfer from Camp Nou. A move away did not materialise and while he was far from his majestic best, the 33-year-old produced when it mattered most.

Toothless Ecuador

Gustavo Alfaro's men, led by Enner Valencia, did not offer much in the attacking third. While they were not outplayed, Argentina were rarely tested as Ecuador – routed 6-1 in the previous meeting – crashed to back-to-back losses after falling to Colombia in November.

What's next?

Argentina travel to face Bolivia on Tuesday, while Ecuador host Uruguay on the same day.

New Zealand will not have to quarantine over Christmas after their second Rugby Championship meeting with Australia was brought forward.

The All Blacks were scheduled to face the Wallabies in Sydney to close out the six-week tournament, which was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, on December 12, meaning that after returning to New Zealand they would still be in a 14-day period of self-isolation on Christmas Day.

However, SANZAAR and tournament hosts Rugby Australia have rescheduled the Bledisloe Cup Test, which will now open the tournament in Sydney on October 31.

South Africa's second Test against Argentina will still be played on December 12 but has been moved from ANZ Stadium to Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium.

"This year has been a year of continued adjustment where the SANZAAR partners have had to compromise on a number of levels," said SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos.

"It is important to further acknowledge the sacrifice of a number of the players and team management that will have been away from home for close to six months by the time the Rugby Championship has concluded. This is again a testament to the strong values that encompass our game.

"The 12-match Rugby Championship is now all set for kick-off. The Argentina Pumas have already arrived in Australia and we all look forward to an exciting and vibrant tournament that will undoubtedly showcase the best of southern hemisphere rugby."

Rugby Australia's interim chief executive Rob Clarke added: "I'm pleased this draw is now resolved and that the SANZAAR joint venture has reached a suitable compromise.

"Each party has had to sacrifice something, and I think that is a true indication of the strength of the SANZAAR alliance."

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni insisted superstar captain Lionel Messi is happy ahead of the country's World Cup qualifier against Ecuador.

Messi's Argentina will begin their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the road to Qatar 2022 to be postponed in March.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi is in the squad following a turbulent off-season, having handed in a transfer request at embattled LaLiga giants Barcelona.

Asked about Messi on the eve of the qualifier in Buenos Aires, Scaloni told reporters: "I spoke with Leo when his conflict with Barcelona was resolved and I noticed him calm and serene.

"Now we have had a fairly long talk and he told me that he is happy to be here and that he is better at his club.

"From a distance, we only wanted him to resolve the situation so that he could start playing and get in shape. For me it is positive that he has stayed because he has started to play and knows the environment.

"As for personal decisions, we do not get in or invade the players' spaces."

Scaloni, whose Argentina have not played since November, added: "Leo will always be a forward no matter how much he sometimes stands at nine and sometimes as second forward. What we try is to always have three options up and tomorrow's game will be the same.

"I don't think Leo has changed so much his way of playing or his position on the court, in the end he is a forward and is always in those positions."

Lionel Messi's influence on the Argentina squad is so strong that his international team-mate Rodrigo De Paul says he would "go to war" for the Barcelona star if he asked him to.

Messi, 33, has been Argentina captain since 2011 and helped them to three successive finals in that time, but each one – two in the Copa America and one in the World Cup – ended in defeat.

He retired from international football after the 2016 Copa America only to make a U-turn, while he then took a prolonged break from Argentina duty in the wake of disappointment at the 2018 World Cup.

Messi returned again in May last year, however, and appears set to remain in the fold until at least the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

De Paul has become a regular in the selection since Russia 2018 under new coach Lionel Scaloni and has witnessed Messi's influence in close quarters.

While the six-time Ballon d'Or winner has been criticised at times in his career for a quiet and reserved nature, traits not generally associated with captaincy, De Paul is adamant the effect he has on people is significant.

Speaking to FIFA, Udinese star De Paul said: "You look up to him, obviously.

"But when you start sharing things with him, he is so transparent that, instead of telling him what you think of him, you feel more like asking him about his little kids or of reminding him of the time he took you out with his studs up in a Valencia-Barcelona game!

"When he becomes your captain, you'd go to war for him if he asked you to.

"The only untouchable one is Leo. The rest of us contribute by doing whatever is asked of us."

Both Messi and De Paul have been included in the preliminary Argentina squad to face Ecuador and Bolivia in World Cup qualifiers on October 8 and 13.

 

Michael Cheika will attempt to plot Australia's downfall during the Rugby Championship after taking up a role with Argentina. 

Cheika, who stepped down as Wallabies head coach following the Rugby World Cup last October, has agreed to work as an external advisor for Pumas boss Mario Ledesma, who served as his assistant during his Australia tenure. 

Ledesma believes Cheika can have a significant influence during the six-week tournament in Australia, which starts on November 7. 

"With Michael, we started talking at the beginning of the year," Ledesma said. 

"I proposed to him the idea of working together again and he was immediately interested. We agreed from the first moment. I noticed [he was] very excited. He always liked Argentine rugby a lot. 

"He is a person who can bring us a lot of experience both to the group of players and to the staff. As was the incorporation of 'Tano' [Marcelo Loffreda], in the first days of August. 

"Undoubtedly, it is an excellent opportunity to continue learning because he is a person who thinks a lot about things outside the box who has an innovative and super creative vision, different from that of many coaches that I could cross. 

"In addition, when the Championship was confirmed in Australia, we were able to dialogue and listen to their recommendations about places to train, schedules and even issues related to the weather. 

"For his part, we have already been conducting several talks with him and the entire staff, about issues of the game, defence, attack, types of exercises, individual techniques and others. So that exchange was spectacular."

Rugby Australia has vowed to do "everything in its power" to find a "reasonable resolution" after New Zealand Rugby (NZR) refused to rule out boycotting the Rugby Championship.

NZR on Thursday stated it had not agreed to a schedule that is due to see the All Blacks play their last match of a six-week tournament on December 12, which would leave the players in quarantine for Christmas.

Mark Robinson, the NZR chief executive, said the fixture list broke a commitment from Rugby Australia and governing body SANZAAR for the All Blacks to play their final game of the competition on December 5 - enabling them to spend the festive period with their families.

Rugby Australia interim chief executive Rob Clarke says there is ample time to reach an agreement over the scheduling and is confident the four-team competition will be a success.

Clarke said: "For absolute clarity - on two formal occasions - Rugby Australia was supportive of altering the draw so that the Rugby Championship could be played over five weeks.

"On both occasions, that proposal was rejected which means there was never an agreement to finish the tournament on Saturday 5 December 2020.

"That being said, no one wants players and team management to be away from their families and in quarantine over Christmas."

Clarke added: "Rugby Australia will do everything in its power to help assist New Zealand Rugby and the team in finding a reasonable resolution, and in urging them to exhaust every possible alternative.

"There are still more than two months to go before December 12 so we have plenty of time to find a solution.

"We will continue to work with New Zealand Rugby and support them however we can, just like we are doing with the Springboks and Argentina in assisting with their travel plans, as well as making their stay in Australia as safe and as comfortable as possible during the tournament.

"There have been a number of sacrifices made by each of the SANZAAR joint venture partners to get this far and I want to thank all of them for their flexibility and adaptability.

"There is obviously a lot to achieve in the coming months but I'm confident that under the leadership of each of the joint venture partners, that the 2020 Rugby Championship in Australia will be a great success."

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