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Qatar’s unifying World Cup vision erodes as nations cut ties

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Qatar launched its bid for the 2022 World Cup with a powerful vision that soccer could unite the Middle East.

“Just think together of what we can achieve together,” Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the Qatar’s then-ruler, told FIFA voters in 2010. She ambitiously forecast a “culture of peace across our region through football,”

With five years until kickoff, that optimism is rapidly disintegrating after Arab neighbors severed ties on Monday with the tiny nation that turned to sports to buttress its global status.

FIFA is hoping the regional rifts are healed long before world soccer’s governing body might have to contemplate any change of host, a move that would deal a heavy blow to Qatar’s reputation and economy as it is investing more than $150 billion on infrastructure to handle the World Cup.

For now, FIFA is predictably sidestepping detailed questions about the impact of the storm caused by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates casting Qatar adrift diplomatically. FIFA merely stresses that it maintains regular contact with Qatar, whose political leadership is accused of supporting terror groups, interfering in the sovereign affairs of Arab countries and backing groups that undermine political stability.

“One thing is certain, the world’s football community should agree that large tournaments cannot be played in countries that actively support terror,” said Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football federation and a member of FIFA’s ruling council.

Qatar denies funding extremists, but that hasn’t stopped its neighbors from implementing punitive measures that impact people and businesses across the region, including soccer fans.

FIFA was dragged into the backlash against Qatar on Tuesday when state-funded broadcaster beIN Sports appeared to be blocked in the UAE. With beIN holding the broadcasting rights to FIFA events across the Middle East and North Africa, the ongoing Under-20 World Cup in South Korea will now be unavailable for viewers in the UAE.

“FIFA is in contact with beIN Sports regarding the said matter which we continue to monitor,” the Zurich-based body said.

FIFA is also in partnership with Qatar’s flagship carrier. Qatar Airways, which signed up as a World Cup sponsor last month, has been forced to reroute journeys over Iranian and Turkish airspace after Saudi Arabia and Egypt blocked Qatari flights from using their airspace. A soccer sponsorship has already been affected, with Saudi club Al-Ahli terminating its deal with the airline.

The escalation of the crisis in the Persian Gulf will have underscored to FIFA just how precarious the region is, and the geographical weakness of oil-and-gas rich Qatar.

The desert nation is heavily reliant on food imports, predominantly through its border with Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of trucks transporting food and construction materials have now been stopped from entering.

A sustained blockade could hit the construction boom required to transform the sparse nation. An entire city is being built from scratch to stage the final. Not a single stadium was ready at the time of bidding, and only one venue has so far been completed as Qatar prepares to welcome the 32 teams.

Qatar has long been heavily reliant on a massive workforce of migrant laborers from Asia to expand its infrastructure. The Philippines has temporarily suspended the deployment of Filipino workers to Doha, but said there is no plan yet to repatriate the more than 200,000 existing members of the labor force.

Being handed the World Cup made working, living conditions and employment rights in Qatar a global concern like never before. Practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system that bind workers to their employer are in place across the region, but activists have largely only shone the spotlight on Qatar and the human cost of hosting the World Cup.

Qatar has responded to the pressure by compelling companies to adopt labor reforms. It’s one of the consequences of hosting a major sporting event that Qatar did not seem to anticipate amid the joy of stunning Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States in the 2010 vote.

Qatar has got the attention it craved, but it’s largely been unwelcome, with little of the warm unifying sentiment conveyed in the aspirational bid videos.

From the moment then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope in Zurich, the whiff of corruption has hung over Qatar, coupled with concerns about heat that forced the tournament to be shifted to November-December.

Despite being exonerated by FIFA’s ethics investigators, the finger of suspicion has never been lifted by Qatar’s harshest critics. Chatter about Qatar being stripped of the hosting rights or being boycotted by some countries has persisted, without the call coming from any authoritative soccer body or government.

Significantly, the federation of World Cup holder Germany is not endorsing such an extreme move.

“There are still five years before the World Cup kicks off,” Grindel said. “Political solutions must take precedence over threats of boycott in this time.”

The countries currently embroiled in the dispute with Qatar are not World Cup regulars, so there are slim chances of their teams qualifying for the 2022 tournament. But Qatar will be hosting athletes from across the region when it stages the world track and field championships in 2019.

“We are talking to our teams in the region to properly understand the implications for both the short term and long term,” the IAAF said.

In a region that Qatar hoped to bring together through lavish sporting events, the peninsula has never appeared more isolated.

AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Ligue 1: PSG return to comfort zone, thrash Strasbourg

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PARIS (AP) After falling short in the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain returned to its French league comfort zone and beat Strasbourg 5-2 on Saturday.

Edinson Cavani netted twice, and Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria, and Neymar also scored to ensure PSG stayed 12 points clear of second-place Monaco at the top.

But not without a fright.

Strasbourg took the lead in the sixth minute and pulled back to 3-2 as PSG continued to show alarming signs of weakness at the back. Strasbourg had a late goal incorrectly ruled out for offside after PSG’s defense was again easily breached, although it was already 5-2 by then.

PSG lost at Real Madrid 3-1 on Wednesday in the first leg of the last 16. The way PSG capitulated by giving away two late goals heaped pressure on coach Unai Emery over his team selection.

“The atmosphere was a bit tense. That’s normal,” Cavani said. “We have to look forward now. We played well today, although at times we could have been better.”

Emery was booed by sections of the home crowd when his name was announced over the loudspeaker before the game. Later, Cavani stopped short of giving Emery his personal backing when asked if the under-fire coach has the full support of the players.

“We’re a team and big teams stick together in the important moments,” Cavani said. “That’s the only way you can win.”

Strasbourg beat PSG at home in December, and stunned the crowd at Parc des Princes by taking the lead when midfielder Jean-Eudes Aholou was left completely unmarked near the penalty spot.

PSG hit back hard and was 3-1 up after 23 minutes thanks to Draxler, Di Maria and Neymar’s 19th in 19 league games.

Stephane Bahoken scored against PSG for the second time this season after a quick counterattack. Strasbourg poured forward but the hope didn’t last for long.

Cavani gave PSG some breathing space with an assured finish in the 72nd, clipping the ball over goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja, then lobbed him for his league-leading 23rd goal.

“It was important to win after Wednesday’s match. We have to get our fans ready for the games to come against Marseille (next weekend) and Real Madrid,” Emery said. “We have to show we can maintain this level of play against better sides, with all due respect to Strasbourg.”

To celebrate Chinese New Year, PSG players’ names were written in Mandarin on the back of their shirts and a Chinese dragon paraded around the pitch. PSG says it has 1.3 million Chinese followers.

In order to better serve the soccer market in Asia, the league match between Nice and PSG on March 18 has been moved forward to 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT).


Marseille players will also have their names in Mandarin for Sunday’s home game against Bordeaux at Stade Velodrome. Marseille recently launched an account on Chinese social media site Weibo.

Striker Giovanni Sio’s second-half equalizer gave Montpellier the point it needed to take fifth place after drawing with Guingamp 1-1.

Two goals from newly signed striker Diafra Sakho gave Rennes a 2-2 draw at Caen, which missed two penalties.

Saint-Etienne won at Angers 1-0, Troyes beat last-place Metz 1-0, and Amiens drew with Toulouse 0-0 in another relegation scrap.

In Sunday’s other games, fourth-place Lyon goes to Lille, and Nice hosts Nantes.

Pardew “furious” after 4 WBA players steal taxi in Spain

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At least when you’re bottom of the Premier League table and appear headed for relegation, as West Bromwich Albion now find themselves, you can take the positive approach that “the only way to go from here is up.”

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Alternatively, four of your most senior players — Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Boaz Myhill, in this case — might have other ideas and elect to steal a cab during a late-season training camp in Barcelona. That’s the current state of affairs for the Baggies and manager Alan Pardew, who openly admits he was “furious” and felt “let down” — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is obviously not ideal. They broke the curfew and that’s unacceptable and I feel a bit let down by that.”

“It’s difficult for managers. Obviously, I was furious with what happened but at the same time I’ve got to stay faithful to the players and give them a chance to remedy the situation.”

The night’s timeline reads something like this: the quartet wanted to go out in the city center, but everything was closed late at night; they got a taxi to a McDonald’s by the Barcelona port; the driver left the car, at which point the players decided to drive back to the team hotel around 5:30 a.m.; the care was returned to the cab driver around 8 a.m.

Evans was stripped of his captaincy for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Southampton. The players have since released the following statement through the club’s website:

“We felt it important we identify ourselves as the players involved in an incident which occurred during the training camp in Spain this week out of respect for team-mates who otherwise could be implicated by association. We freely acknowledge and apologize for the break of curfew which we accept represented a breach of the standards of professionalism required of us as representatives of West Bromwich Albion.

“The club has informed us that it will now conduct its own inquiry into the incident and we will cooperate fully. In the meantime, we would like to assure our supporters that this incident does not reflect the determination and resolve we possess to do all we can to recover a difficult season.”

With 11 games left to play, West Brom currently sit seven points adrift of safety; Pardew’s position grows more and more tenuous with each point dropped; and three of their final 11 games are against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

Serie A: Turkish youngster Under fires Roma back into 3rd

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ROME (AP) The rapid development of 20-year-old Turkey winger Cengiz Under is playing a big role in Roma’s revival.

Under scored his fourth goal in three matches and Roma won at Udinese 2-0 for its third straight win in Serie A on Saturday.

Roma moved into third place, two points ahead of Inter Milan, which lost at Genoa 2-0.

It’s a drastic improvement from where Roma was a month ago, when the Giallorossi were mired in a five-match winless streak that risked dropping them out of contention for the Champions League places.

“We’re getting back on track to where we were in the first half of the season,” forward Diego Perotti said.

Roma went ahead when Under unleashed a powerful, rising shot from beyond the area in the 70th.

Perotti sealed the victory in the 90th with an angled effort after Udinese gave the ball away near midfield.

Under is having a breakout month.

First, he scored after 43 seconds when Roma ended a five-match winless streak by beating Hellas Verona 1-0. Then he had a brace and also delivered an assist in a 5-2 win over Benevento last weekend.

All this after not being involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma.

“He plays far more for the team than himself,” Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco said of Under. “His greatest strength is being able to prepare his shot with great speed, making him difficult to close down.”

Added Perotti, “He’s very humble and he doesn’t speak Italian yet but he’s well behaved and is a great kid. He deserves all of this.”

On Wednesday, Roma visits Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

“We’ve got to make the most of the fact they’ve had a winter break and might not be match fit,” Di Francesco said of the Ukrainian side. “They have a lot of quality in attack and are dangerous, but we shouldn’t change our attitude.”


Inter’s defense was in shambles against Genoa.

The hosts took the lead before the break when a failed clearance attempt from Milan Skriniar ricocheted off of a stunned Andrea Ranocchia, who was charged with an own goal.

Then former Inter striker Goran Pandev was left unmarked to score from the center of the area midway through the second half.

Inter hasn’t won at regional rival Genoa in more than seven years.

Chievo Verona took a big step toward avoiding relegation with a 2-1 win over visiting Cagliari.

Emanuele Giaccherini and Roberto Inglese scored late for the hosts before Leonardo Pavoletti pulled one back for Cagliari.

Chievo moved up to 14th, level on points with Cagliari, eight points above the drop zone.

La Liga: Barca’s 31-game unbeaten run ties longest in club history

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FA CUP: Man United advance, drawn against PL opposition in QF ]

Eibar 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona, the last remaining unbeaten side from Europe’s five major domestic leagues, warmed up for Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 clash with Chelsea by dismantling seventh-place Eibar side away from home on Saturday and extending their unbeaten run to 31 games in the league, tying the club’s all-time record in the process.

The Blaugrana took the lead after 15 minutes, when Lionel Messi slotted an inch-perfect through ball for Luis Suarez who rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home (WATCH HERE) for his 17th league goal of the season (20 in all competitions).

Messi played his part in Barca’s second goal, which came three minutes before full-time. The Argentine’s shot was initially saved, but Jordi Alba arrived on the scene moments later to clean up and finish off the 10-man Basque minnows.

The victory sends Barca 10 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid, who play on Sunday, and 20 points clear of fourth-place Real Madrid, who have played two fewer games thus far.

Malaga 1-2 Valencia

Valencia, who spent the majority of the season’s first half as Barca’s nearest title rivals (while never really challenging), fell to third when they recently lost three straight league games, but have since regained their footing with back-to-back wins, including Saturday’s come-from-behind triumph away to last-place Malaga.

Brown Ideye put Malaga ahead just before the half-hour mark, a lead which remained intact for more than 50 minutes. Alas, Francis Coquelin bagged his first goal for Valencia in the 80th minute to draw level, followed by a penalty kick converted by Dani Parejo five minutes later.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 1-2 Sevilla
Alaves 1-0 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Sociedad vs. Levante — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Villarreal — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Real Madrid — 2:45 p.m. ET