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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

Newcastle to pry $15 million Praet away from Sampdoria

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Reports in Italy say Newcastle’s nightmarish start to the season may get a prime reinforcement in former Anderlecht midfielder Dennis Praet, now of Sampdoria.

Praet, 23, has a single cap for Belgium and played 34 times for Sampdoria during his first season with the Serie A club. He played 84 minutes of the Genoese club’s 2-1 season-opening win over Benevento this weekend.

[ MORE: Wood to Burnley; Clucas to Swans ]

He arrived from Anderlecht last season for just under $12 million, and Newcastle’s reported cost for his services will be right around $15 million.

More than capable in his own end and productive in moving play along, he’d play a bit deeper in Newcastle’s midfielder.

With Jonjo Shelvey suspended, Isaac Hayden had a feast or famine partner in on-loan Borussia Dortmund mid Mikel Merino in the Magpies’ disappointing 1-0 Sunday loss at Huddersfield Town.

Stream Live: Manchester City host Everton

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Manchester City welcome Everton to the Etihad Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with two Barcelona legends colliding on the sidelines.

[ LIVE: Stream Man City-Everton ] 

Both teams will be looking to make it two wins from two to kick off the season as their new-look, expensively assembled squads have plenty of expectation on their shoulders.

Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman will put their friendship to one side for this game.

In team news Man City bring in Leroy Sane for Danilo, while Everton move Davy Klaassen to the bench and have new club-record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson alongside him.

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Geoff Cameron reaches Premier League milestone

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Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron has become just the sixth American in history to make 150 appearances in the Premier League.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Cameron, 32, started at center back as Stoke beat Arsenal 1-0 at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday with the Potters defense holding firm to seal a big early-season win.

The U.S. national team star has been a mainstay at Stoke since arriving from the Houston Dynamo in 2012 and he is now only behind Clint Dempsey in terms of appearances made by an outfield player in the Premier League.

Selected 46th overall in the 2009 MLS draft by Houston, Cameron’s career has gone from strength-to-strength since joining Stoke and the USMNT center back signed a new two-year contract extension at the end of last season which will keep him with the Potters until at least the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

Therefore it is not inconceivable that given his great recent form and his versatility to play at center back, in central midfield or a right back, that he will rack up close to another 90 appearances over the next two seasons to overtake Dempsey’s total of 218 appearances.

Cameron has quietly moved ahead of the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and other U.S. legends in terms of appearances and his longevity in the PL, at perhaps its most competitive era in history, should be applauded.

With only Danny Williams and DeAndre Yedlin likely to play consistently elsewhere in the PL this season, Cameron is one of the few players still flying the American flag.

Here’s a look at who is ahead of him and when he can move further up the list of Americans to appear in the PL.

  • Brad Friedel – 451 appearances
  • Tim Howard – 399 appearances
  • Clint Dempsey – 218 appearances
  • Kasey Keller – 201 appearances
  • Brad Guzan – 153 appearances
  • Geoff Cameron – 150 appearances

PL Playback: Man United ready to roam freely

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MAN UNITED’S MOMENTUM

So far this season Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United look ready to bolt from the barn whenever matchday rolls around.

In a good way.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

United blew away Swansea City 4-0 on Saturday, using an explosive 3 minute and 41 second period to score three times at the end of the game.

Mourinho’s stable of powerful attacking players are on the pitch and on the bench, with Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial running riot late in the game.

“I had players on the bench who could help me. Happiness in our play. It happened to me so much with my teams, you’re winning 1-0 and you can can concede. There was no need to close the door, just let the horses run freely,” Mourinho told the BBC after the game.

The depth in this United squad is considerable with Martial coming off the bench to score twice and assist on another goal in the opening two games of the PL season. Lukaku has scored four goals in his first three official games for United, while Pogba has a goal in each of his first two PL games this season. Everything is looking rosy for United who sit top of the table after two 4-0 wins to open the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

But hold your horses. No disrespect to West Ham and Swansea, but United should beat them convincingly. Yet they seem to have put aside their problems from last season where they dominated teams but couldn’t put them away, which led to a league-high 15 draws from 38 games. They’ve kept more clean sheets than any other PL team in 2017, so conceding hasn’t been the issue.

The balance is now better with attackers able to roam freely and interchange further up the pitch. In truth, they played similarly for large spells of last season but they couldn’t finish. Now the confidence is flowing and scoring goals seems like the easiest thing in the world.

Mourinho seems to have instilled newfound confidence in his team and with the players now having a whole season of the Mourinho experience under their belt, they understand what he wants. Also, the second-season syndrome (we all know what happens in year three) under Mourinho always seems to get the best out of his methods. There is a real feel-good vibe around United right now and their early-season schedule will allow this to build.

Despite all of the positives surrounding United’s opening victories, what if Romelu Lukaku goes down injured? Can Marcus Rashford, who has looked dangerous out on the left, fill his void up top? Maybe Zlatan Ibrahimovic will arrive on a short-term deal but the forward issue is one which will still concern Mourinho, even though his attacking unit is purring right now. Injuries hit United hard last season but they had more games with their Europa League campaign, EFL Cup success and deep run in the FA Cup. This season should be easier to manage.

Mourinho’s team now seem able to shut opponents down and limit their chances and the balance of this team is spot on. Nemanja Matic‘s arrival has been lauded and he allows Pogba to roam free in support of Lukaku, Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was sublime once again, taking his assist tally to four in 173 minutes for the season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

The diminutive duo of Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan perfectly compliment the powerful trio of Pogba, Lukaku and Rashford in attack and all of a sudden you can see why Mourinho was shown pretending to smoke an imaginary cigar before the game when the cameras caught him chatting with Swansea boss Paul Clement.

So chill.

Mourinho will let his horses roam free for the opening months of the season as United do not face a top six opponent until Oct. 14 when they head to Liverpool and then they face Chelsea and Tottenham in two of their next three games, while the UCL group games will also come thick and fast around that time.

That’s when the real tests will start to arrive but United already have a ruthless streak about them which wasn’t there last season.


CHELSEA’S WEMBLEY GRIT

It wasn’t the best display Chelsea will put in, but it had buckets of desire and determination as they became the first team to beat Tottenham at home (yes, it was Wembley) in 19 Premier League games.

[ MORE: Can Spurs get over Wembley jinx? ]

After being at the London derby, the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley, I wrote about Spurs’ struggles at their temporary home, and that was a big part of this.

Chelsea rode their luck but without the injured Eden Hazard, exiled Diego Costa, the suspended duo of Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, plus new signings Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko all taking time to settle in as they made their first starts for the club, it was one heck of a result.

[ MORE: 3 things learned from Chelsea’s win ]

Tottenham were wasteful in attack against Chelsea’s revamped 3-5-2 system which saw David Luiz become a colossal in central midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen more than hold his own in central defense. They hit Spurs on the counter expertly as Willian hit the post and then Marcos Alonso scored a late winner which sent the 3,000-plus away fans wild at Wembley.

Antonio Conte ran to the away section after the game punching the air with delight as the Italian coach looked to be unloading plenty of the pressure which had been piling up on his shoulders over the summer and the early weeks of this season. That was understandable following the Costa saga, Nemanja Matic being sold to Man United, the FA Community Shield defeat to Arsenal and a shock loss to Burnley.

“This is a perfect response of the champions,” Conte said. “We won the league last season, winning 30 games, and that is not easy. We lost in the final of the FA Cup. We have arrived in some problems with bans and injuries but we must be ready to work and focus on the pitch. The club is trying its best in the transfer market to improve our squad but I must be happy.”

With the chips down, Sunday’s London derby win proved the reigning champs won’t give up their crown without a fight.


EARLY SEASON HEROES, STRUGGLERS

We are only in Week 2 but there are already plenty of heroes and vllains around the Premier League.

Huddersfield Town have won their first two Premier League games with David Wagner‘s side beating Newcastle United 1-0 on Sunday at a raucous John Smith’s Stadium.

Aaron Mooy was the hero as the Australian midfielder cut inside and bent home a beauty into the far corner to become Huddersfield’s hero. In truth, every Terriers player was a hero, just like they were in Week 1 at Crystal Palace.

Wagner’s men are six points closer to the magic 40-point marker to avoid relegation and the Yorkshire club are loving life in the big-time. They are the new darlings of the PL.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are five teams at the bottom of the Premier League table who have yet to grab a point this season, and four of those have yet to score a goal.

They aren’t panicking, but a slow start is far from ideal.

Newcastle United were lackluster in attack in their defeat at Huddersfield and Rafael Benitez looks frustrated on the sidelines with funds from owner Mike Ashley not as forthcoming as he’d hoped. The Magpies need major work in the final weeks of the window.

So do fellow new boys Brighton & Hove Albion and Chris Hughton‘s side barely created anything at Leicester City in their second 2-0 defeat to open the season. Bournemouth, surprisingly, have lost two games to open the campaign with Eddie Howe‘s men also yet to score as Watford dominated the game at the Vitality Stadium. The alarm bells are ringing in Dorset.

Crystal Palace put in a dogged display away at Liverpool but Christian Benteke missed a glorious chance and Frank de Boer’s men conceded late on with Sadio Mane grabbing the winner and West Ham have now conceded seven goals to open the season with two defeats from two for Slaven Bilic‘s side.

At least West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez hasn’t had a slow start to the season even though his team lost 3-2 at Southampton in a dramatic game. Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer netted two typical close-range goals but his side were undone by giving away two penalty kicks and having Marko Arnautovic stupidly sent off.

Like the other teams struggling at the start of the season, the Hammers are creating problems for themselves. How would Hernandez sum up their start and the current mood at West Ham?

“Difficult, we knew that with three away games. The last two with Manchester United and then at Southampton we played a really good game in the second half with 10 men, we had a lot of effort and were so close to getting one point and maybe even three points, you never know. It has been a little bit sad but we are getting there,” Hernandez said. “We need time to keep working, to keep improving. We need to look forward, we need to be positive. We can not stay in the good memories or bad memories. That’s the good thing about football, you have a chance of revenge every weekend.”

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here