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Russia making little progress on racism before Confed, World Cups

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MOSCOW (AP) Russia has made progress fighting soccer racism ahead of next year’s World Cup, but players, coaches and fans still risk abuse, a new report says.

There were 89 racist and far-right incidents at Russian games in the 2016-17 season, slightly below the two previous seasons, according to Thursday’s report by European anti-discrimination group FARE and Russia-based SOVA.

In one case, an African player complained of racist abuse by an opponent during a Russian Premier League game. In another case, a hardline fan group segregated part of a stadium for people of “Slavic appearance,” the report alleges. Fans of Russian champion Spartak Moscow flew anti-Semitic banners.

The Russian Football Union’s disciplinary committee, however, has said it didn’t detect a single racist incident in any of the top three divisions this season.

The report comes ahead of the Confederations Cup, starting Saturday, and a year ahead of the World Cup.

“The Russian football authorities and the government authorities have realized … the way both of these competitions will be tarnished by the fear of racism occurring and they’ve taken some quite strong measures,” FARE’s executive director Piara Powar told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “There still remains the danger of some isolated incidents taking place.”

Russian authorities have taken measures to blacklist at least 191 fans from attending sports events, while the RFU ejected an influential fan leader, Alexander Shprygin, from its organization. He was deported twice from France last year following violence around Russia’s match with England at the European Championship, and has been accused of posting far-right symbols on social media, a charge he denied.

Shprygin was dragged out of a bathroom at an RFU conference in September by police and detained, reportedly in connection with an investigation into fan violence.

FARE says Russia has made some progress, and that it didn’t observe monkey chants or openly Nazi flags in any top-flight games this season. However, it warns far-right fans instead fly banners with concealed messages such as runes and number codes used by Nazi and ultranationalist groups.

The RFU punished two clubs in the 2015-16 season for such banners, but didn’t pursue any such cases this season – something which Powar says indicates it may be “turning a blind eye.”

That was despite cases of anti-Semitic banners being flown by Spartak fans, including taunts aimed at rival CSKA Moscow, whose club president and then-coach are both Jewish. Another Spartak banner showed a Russian rock singer caricaturized as an Orthodox Jew, accompanied by personal abuse.

CSKA fans also targeted their own coach, Leonid Slutsky – now at England’s Hull City – with a banner linking his Jewish faith to poor results.

FARE says the number of violent racist incidents fell from five to two last season compared to the year before. There was also no repeat of large-scale violent attacks on foreign fans, such as those which took place between Russian and English fans in Marseille a year ago during the European Championship.

However, there are indications that football-related violence between different ethnic groups in Russia is becoming more entrenched, with fans from Russia’s largely Muslim regions in the North Caucasus forming “fan groups which adopt football hooligans’ rules and initiate fights with Moscow teams.”

In another case last month at a playoff game for a place in the Russian Premier League, one fan group from the Yenisei Krasnoyarsk team issued a statement on social media saying that its sector of the stadium was only available to fans of “Slavic appearance.”

A member of the group, Artyom Kirillov, suggested the group had been misunderstood. “A lot was made up” in local media reports of the incident, he told the AP. “We are loyal to all Russian citizens.”

FIFA said Wednesday that Confederations Cup games will use a three-stage process in the event of fan racism. Referees will first request a public announcement, then suspend the game if the behavior doesn’t stop. If racist incidents still persist, they can stop the game.

Facebook, Amazon Prime could bid for Premier League streaming rights

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One day in the not-too-distant future, we could be watching Premier League games on Facebook or Amazon’s streaming services.

That’s according to Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who confirmed that both Facebook and Amazon are expected to to bid for the Premier League’s broadcast rights when they open again in 2022.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

“Absolutely I think they’ll enter the mix,” Woodward said. “Anecdotally there was strong interest in the last cycle, and we’re hearing that around the Premier League table, but we’re also hearing that from a European perspective as well in terms of interest in the Champions League and Europa League rights.

“In the wider picture you have to look at what’s happening elsewhere at the moment.There isn’t any clear European sale to these kind of partners at the moment. But looking at the interest Facebook and Amazon had in the Indian Premier League rights, anecdotally it sounded like very big numbers.

“So I do think we are going to see an increase in engagement from these and we would welcome the interest. I think it’s going to be increasingly important to digitally engage with fans, and we think we can be complementary to partners like this coming in.”

According to reports, Facebook bid $600 million to stream India’s cricket league aptly named the Indian Premier League but lost out to 21st Century Fox’s Star India, which bid for the television and streaming rights together.

Currently, NBC owns the Premier League rights in the U.S., including streaming rights, but perhaps in the future we could see separate deals for television and streaming sites.

However, more than likely, pressure from Facebook and Amazon Prime could drive the cost of the rights up, ensuring an even bigger payout for all 20 Premier League clubs.

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

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Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

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Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

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Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

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Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.