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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.

Day Four: All the action from the U20 World Cup

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South Korea and Venezuela clinched berths in the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup on Tuesday, while Germany and Argentina have surprising work to do after two matches in South Korea.

[ MORE: Allardyce steps down at Palace ]

South Korea 2-1 Argentina

Barcelona B man Lee Seung-woo helped South Korea take a 2-0 lead, then hold on for the win and group lead over England.

England 1-1 Guinea

Chelsea youngster Fikayo Tomori scored a wild long range own goal to cost England the three points, but the Blues are still well-positioned to advance out of the group stage. Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook scored for England, and it was a beaut.

Venezuela 7-0 Vanuatu

Seven different Venezuelans have scored through a pair of shutout wins, with Caracas’ Sergio Cordova the only one to bag a pair.

Mexico 0-0 Germany

Germany has just one point through two matches, thanks largely to Pachuca’s Abraham Romero’s seven saves. Mexico was outshot 12-6.

Porto, Watford, Hull? Marco Silva in demand

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Marco Silva is one of the hottest properties in management, months after eliciting cries of “Who?” following his appointment at Hull City.

While those cries may have been a tiny bit myopic given his time at Sporting CP and Olympiacos, the 39-year-old is now visible to the world despite Hull’s relegation.

[ MORE: Real Madrid nabs $50m teen ]

Silva will be back in England to meet with Hull on Wednesday, but a clause in his contract that said he could leave if the club was relegated gives the Tigers very little hope.

Rumors have him wanted at Watford, and he’s also been linked with a number of other jobs including Southampton (should the club part ways with Claude Puel).

However, the former right back is also reportedly a target of one of the biggest clubs in his home country: Champions League side Porto.

UEFA Europa League Final preview: Manchester United vs. Ajax

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Jose Mourinho’s big European gamble takes center stage on Wednesday in Sweden, when Manchester United attempts to topple young Ajax in the UEFA Europa League Final.

United’s chances for UEFA Champions League qualification, a magnificent opportunity, are overshadowed by the pall cast over Manchester by sinister terrorist attacks at a pop concert that killed and injured many on Monday night.

Alas, there’s soccer to be played, and Mourinho is looking to make it a trio of shiny items in his first year on the job. United beat Leicester City for the Community Shield, then topped Southampton in the EFL Cup Final en route to Sweden.

United’s well-documented dearth of healthy defenders will march out one more time on Wednesday, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones tasked with manning the center of the back line. Expect Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian out wide.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Despite the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho’s attack is going to give Ajax fits. Marcus Rashford has been next level for most of the second half of the season, and United will also likely feature Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba atop Ander Herrera.

If someone is going to break United down, it could be midfield wizards Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone. The creative middle men have a variety of options to find with the ball, including on-loan Chelsea man Bertrand Traore and Danish teenager Kasper Dolberg.

But how will they deal with United’s attack? Sure Ajax has stopped Lyon, Schalke, Copenhagen, and Legia Warsaw, but United and Mourinho? That’s another challenge for Peter Bosz and his men.

Ajax won the 1992 UEFA Cup, and this is United’s first ever trip to this particular final. The Red Devils are heavy favorites, and we expect United to prevail. Don’t sleep on Juan Mata heroics. Call it 3-1.

Allardyce resigns, opening up intriguing vacancy at Palace

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Sam Allardyce is walking away on top outside the relegation zone.

The veteran Premier League manager, 62, resigned his post as Crystal Palace on Tuesday, weeks after leading another team to safety.

The move ends a tumultuous eight months for Allardyce, who was fired as England manager after an undercover sting exposed unethical dealings with agents.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

It also comes about an hour after somebody wrote that Crystal Palace should move on from Allardyce. What a jerk, that somebody.

Rarely at a loss for words, here’s Big Sam from cpfc.co.uk:

I want to be able to savour life while I’m still relatively young and when I’m still relatively healthy enough to do all the things I want to do, like travel, spend more time with my family and grandchildren without the huge pressure that comes with being a football manager.

This is the right time for me. I have no ambitions to take another job, I simply want to be able to enjoy all the things you cannot really enjoy with the 24/7 demands of managing any football club, let alone one in the Premier League.”

All kidding aside — and I’m far from a Big Sam fan — congrats to the man on walking away to enjoy the finer things in life. He had a heck of a run, and we’ll see how long he can resist being away from the fray. Cheers, Sam.