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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.

USMNT celebrates winning 2017 Gold Cup – Video

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The U.S. national team won the 2017 Gold Cup title on Wednesday night and the Stars and Stripes celebrated in style.

[ MORE: Recap | Ratings | 3 things ] 

After beating Jamaica 2-1 in a tense final in Santa Clara, Calif. the champagne corks were soon popping as veterans and youngsters danced the night away to celebrate the USMNT’s first trophy since their Gold Cup success in 2013.

This was the USA’s sixth Gold Cup title and for many (Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to name a few) it could be their last piece of silverware for the USMNT.

Watch them drink in the celebrations below as Bruce Arena (celebrating his third Gold Cup title) pulled off a veteran move to remove his suit jacket before getting drenched.

The U.S. are once again champions of the CONCACAF region.


Arsenal confirm Alexis Sanchez will return to training

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Arsene Wenger has confirmed Alexis Sanchez will return to training with Arsenal this Sunday.

Sanchez, 28, is yet to sign a new contract at Arsenal and has just 12 months left on his current deal, but it appears that Wenger isn’t planning on losing his Chilean superstar anytime soon.

Below is what Wenger has to say about Sanchez and Shkodran Mustafi returning to training this weekend after their exploits in the 2017 Confederations Cup which saw both men play in the final on July 2.

“Alexis and Mustafi, their first training session will be on Sunday, the day we play against Sevilla [in the Emirates Cup],” Wenger said. “They are practising on the day. First of all you make a really good check up of where they are, how much they have worked during their break. After, once you know where you stand, they need an adjusted programme and to see how quickly you can fit them in again.

“Of course it depends as well on what is the need in the squad, what is their quality. All of these things together make your decision. Do you put them on the bench when they are not ready [to start]? It is easier to put a striker on the bench than a defender, sometimes. Because in a short period they can make an impact. We’ll see.”

Manchester City hammer Real Madrid in LA

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Manchester City went full Beastmode on Real Madrid in the second half of their International Champions Cup game in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Neymar to PSG on? ]

In front of a record 93,038 fans, City scored four goals in the second half with Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Raheem Sterling all netting before youngster Brahim Diaz finished things off in style.

Kevin De Bruyne was in particularly menacing form with the Belgian at the heart of everything good for Pep Guardiola‘s men.

Despite the hammering Real Madrid did score the goal of the night with youngster Oscar Rodriguez smashing home a beauty into the top corner form distance in the 90th minute.

Click play on the video above to watch the highlights.

City now head to Nashville, Tennessee where they face Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday with both teams finishing off their U.S. tour in style in Music City.

Real Madrid travel to Miami, Florida for the small matter of an El Clasico against Barcelona to finish off the International Champions Cup tournament Stateside.

Report: Neymar agrees five-year deal at Paris Saint-Germain

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Paris, are you ready for Neymar to become the main man?

[ MORE: USMNT win Gold Cup title

The Brazilian has scored all three of Barcelona’s goals during their preseason wins over Juventus and Manchester United in the U.S. but was his game-winner on Wednesday in Washington D.C. his final strike in a Barca shirt?

L’Equipe is reporting that Neymar has agreed terms on a five-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain but that the French giants are now trying to get Barcelona to reduce the $260 million transfer fee which is Neymar’s release clause.

Per the report Neymar will earn over $34.1 million annually while reports in Spain suggest that both clubs want the Brazilian superstar to make a decision and are eager to push the deal through by next week if it’s going to happen.

Neymar, 25, is said to want to leave Barca and be the main man at PSG.

With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez around at the Nou Camp, it’s easy to understand that Brazil’s captain feels a little underappreciated sometimes but with Messi now 30 years old and Suarez 31, surely Neymar can wait it out a few years before he takes over Messi’s throne at Barca?

Hmmm, with the five-time World Player of the Year recently signing a new contract until 2021, Mess is going nowhere and maybe that was the trigger for Neymar and his representatives to look elsewhere as he’s about to enter his prime.

On top of all that the ongoing investigation from the Spanish authorities into his transfer from Santos looms large over the global superstar, but after winning two UEFA Champions League titles, three La Liga trophies and two Copa del Rey’s during his four years at Barca, would he really walk away?

His teammates and manager have been speaking about that posibility during Barca’s preseason tour of the U.S. and nobody seems too sure if he will remain. If anything the word “hope” is getting thrown around a lot rather than a definitive “yes” or “no” and even Gerard Pique had to back track on a social media post where he posed with Neymar and used the caption “he stays” to sum up the situation.

PSG are reportedly working around the clock to figure out how on earth they can finance this deal but it is becoming increasingly obvious that they are the only club who can afford to sign Neymar and their Abu Dhabi owners are doing all they can to make it a reality.