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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

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.