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Infantino channels Blatter rather than marking clean break

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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) Regardless of his intentions, Gianni Infantino’s rhetoric and actions at his second congress leading world soccer did little to signal a clean break from the discredited Sepp Blatter era.

And that’s after having more than a year to re-shape the tainted FIFA presidency in his image and the chance to banish Blatter’s acolytes.

Critics contest that, the appearance at least, is of a governing body slipping back into the murky traits of the Blatter regime, with opaque backroom dealings, decisions taken within closed circles, and debate appearing to be suppressed.

The FIFA ethics prosecutor ousted by Infantino this week was explicit when asked how the past and present presidents differ: Only their Swiss birthplaces.

“One comes from Brig,” investigator Cornel Borbely said. “The other from Visp.”

There is a clear difference. Infantino is not accused of financial wrongdoing like Blatter, who ruled the game for 17 years before being banished from power in disgrace after it became clear how he enriched himself through leading FIFA.

Their thirst for power seems comparable at times, though, in the clandestine way decisions are made.

The manner in which Infantino has accumulated power is at odds with the recommendations of the reforms he helped to craft after the 2015 scandal. The presidency, crafted into an executive position by Blatter, was intended to become more ambassadorial in the new era with the secretary general gaining the authority of a CEO. At the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, Fatma Samoura marked her first year as secretary general by being relegated to a bit-part role.

The executive committee, so discredited under Blatter as members were led away in handcuffs and toppled on FIFA ethics violations, morphed into the council last year with a membership swelling to almost 40.

And far from the body becoming more transparent, members were warned about speaking publicly about the decisions immediately after Tuesday’s meeting in Manama. The need for clarity was heightened by the uncertainty over why Borbely was jettisoned along with ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert. FIFA’s hierarchy sidestepped requests for detail, taking almost 24 hours to formulate a partial response.

“(FIFA) has already lost the battle of public opinion, we had a good chance to rebuild that and we need to,” former presidential candidate Prince Ali said. “Things cannot be conducted behind closed doors. Everyone wants to know what is going on.”

The void gave Eckert and Borbely a clear run for a day to elevate their own importance to the ethics process and issue hyperbolic – but unchallenged – warnings about the fate of soccer.

The credentials of their replacements as head of the ethics chambers – a Colombian lawyer and Greek judge – have not been disputed. What remains a mystery is exactly why Eckert and Borbely were not only deemed inadequate but discovered their fates only as they flew to Bahrain where they were up for re-election.

After Borbely said his removal will stall the progress of hundreds of ethics cases, Infantino turned on his investigator by asking why the backlog was so big.

FIFA officials evaded questions for weeks about whether rumors Eckert and Borbely were being ditched were accurate, with the German council member indicating that he was misled by Samoura on the eve of Tuesday’s meeting. Reinhard Grindel demanded a “more transparent” process.

The need for more gender equality and geographic diversity was the reason eventually delivered by Infantino on Thursday. Although Borbely was replaced by a Colombian woman, Maria Claudia Rojas, the judge’s role passed from a 69-year-old white German to a 69-year-old white Greek in Vassilios Skouris.

Then there’s the curious case of Miguel Maduro, who was removed as head of the governance committee less than a year after being appointed at a time when Infantino was already on a mission to bring a wider geographic spread.

The 211 soccer federations have the final say approving committee members in the congress and could have rebuffed Infantino. It’s rare, however, to find any debate in the open parliament of soccer. Dissent isn’t encouraged.

“Bear in mind the majority of the congress are totally dependent on FIFA,” Prince Ali said, “so it is very hard to take an opposing view to a president.”

When there was an open clash of views on Thursday – between the Israelis and Palestinians – Infantino engineered a way to prevent the motion being voted on. The president, however, introduced a new proposal that handed power to his council to resolve the matter over settlement teams in the West Bank. Once again, Infantino secured the overwhelming backing of congress in a move Prince Ali branded undemocratic.

“The way business is conducted is the same,” Prince Ali, the Jordanian federation president, said as he compared the Blatter and Infantino administrations. “I don’t see the refreshing change, the openness, the transparency that everybody talks about really taking effect on the ground.”

Infantino counters that the “new FIFA is a democracy, it is not a dictatorship.” And there was refreshing messaging from Infantino – notably embracing corruption investigations publicly in a manner often deficient within the International Olympic Committee leadership.

But a strident warning to corrupt officials to leave soccer was eclipsed by the off-the-cuff attack on “fake news” and “FIFA bashing” he blamed for undermining his presidency

In blaming the messenger – before later backtracking in genial exchanges with reporters – Infantino was channeling the divisionary rhetoric of Blatter. And Blatter is the last person Infantino should be trying to emulate.

After a second congress was overshadowed by criticism of his use of presidential power, Infantino has two years remaining of his mandate to truly lead FIFA into the new, open era promised.

Everton announce lifetime ban for fan involved in altercation with Lyon player

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On a night when UEFA unveiled a new campaign for respect, there wasn’t enough of it shown both on and off the field.

Everton has followed up on UEFA opening up disciplinary proceedings against them by banning a fan from Everton matches after the fan was seen to punch at an Olympique Lyon player in the second half of Lyon’s 2-1 win at Goodison Park.

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“Club Officials have reviewed the footage of an incident that occurred in the 64th minute of the game against Olympique Lyonnais where supporters towards the front of the lower Gwladys Street End became involved in a confrontation between players,” Everton said in a statement. “We have identified one individual whom action will now be taken against. This will include a ban from attending future Everton fixtures and the Club registering a formal complaint with Merseyside Police.”

The video below shows a fan – amazingly, holding onto a small boy in one arm – throwing some punches at Lyon players after a fracas on the field.

The punch and ban is yet another dark moment for Everton, which has just one point from its first three Europa League matches and sits in 16th place in the Premier League with eight points from eight games.

Russia glad to welcome Blatter, Platini as World Cup guests

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MOSCOW (AP) President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Russia “would be glad” to see banned former soccer leaders Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini in Russia next year at the World Cup.

Though banned from soccer duty for six and four years, respectively, Blatter and Platini were the presidents of FIFA and UEFA when Russia won the 2018 hosting contest seven years ago.

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FIFA ethics rules allow Blatter and Platini to attend games but not engage in official soccer business.

Blatter publicly accepted Putin’s World Cup invitation in March 2016, before his ban for financial wrongdoing with Platini was upheld on appeal.

Peskov says Friday, “Putin has a long and, you may say, friendly relationship with Blatter. He knows Platini well, too.”

Rapinoe, Morgan, Ertz lift US past South Korea, 3-1

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Alex Morgan scored in a fourth straight game, Julie Ertz scored for the fourth time in five games, and the United States women beat South Korea 3-1 on Thursday night.

Megan Rapinoe added her 34th international goal and her 42nd assist.

Having assisted on Ertz’s diving header in the first half, Rapinoe scored on a penalty kick she drew in the 49th minute when pounced on a loose ball about 12 yards in front of the goal and was tripped by Ji Sohyun.

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Han Chaerin scored her first international goal in her South Korea debut to make it 2-1 just before the end of the first half.

U.S. forward Mallory Pugh had to leave the game late in the first half with a right hamstring injury. There was no immediate word on the severity of her injury after she was helped off the field by trainers.

Meanwhile, Carli Lloyd returned from a nine-week absence because of ankle injury, entering the game as a substitute in the 77th minute.

Midfielder Andi Sullivan started for the U.S. about 11 months after having reconstructive knee surgery. Her third minute shot narrowly missed the far post from about 18 yards. She was substituted out, as planned, at halftime.

South Korea began the game in a defensive posture and the U.S. maintained a decisive edge in possession, forcing Kang Gaae to make several sprawling saves before breaking though on Ertz goal in the 24th minute

Ertz dove in front of two defenders to redirect Rapinoe’s hard, low corner kick between the legs of Kang as the goal keeper tried to respond at the near post.

Morgan scored in the 40th minute, using her right foot to settle Kelley O’Hara’s bouncing pass from the end line, then pivoting and whipping her left foot through the ball from point-blank range. The goal was the 28-year-old Morgan’s 78th for the national squad.

Han scored against the run of play with a hard shot from about 25 yards that sailed beyond U.S. goal keeper Alyssa Naher’s reach before dipping under the cross bar.

Lloyd’s introduction drew an enthusiastic response from nearly 10,000 spectators in the Superdome. The two-time FIFA World Player of the Year missed a pair of U.S. exhibition wins over New Zealand last month because of an Aug. 13 ankle sprain in a National Women’s Soccer League match.

Forward Tobin Heath, who has an ankle injury, and defender Taylor Smith, who has an injured shoulder, were not in the lineup and are not expected to play in a second friendly scheduled between South Korea and the U.S. on Sunday in Cary, North Carolina.

Both women were hurt in the NWSL championship match.

UEFA charge Roma after racist chanting witnessed

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AS Roma and its fans could face severe penalties after alleged racist chants were hurled in the direction of Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger.

It appears via broadcast footage from Chelsea’s 3-3 UEFA Champions League draw with Roma at Stamford Bridge this week that after shepherding a ball out of play, Rudiger was subjected to monkey noises and other racist abuse from the away end where the AS Roma fans were congregated.

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In the past, UEFA has ordered either partial or full closures of stadiums and announced fines to the clubs, though it doesn’t seem to have stamped out the problem of racist chanting in Europe.

Hopefully, UEFA will investigate this fully and ban the individuals who allegedly committed the chants.

Rudiger signed for Chelsea this past summer for a reported $44.8 million.