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Russia readies tough security measures for Confed Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Terrorists, hooligans and anti-corruption protesters. Those are the main concerns for the Russian security forces ahead of the Confederations Cup.

A week which began with at least 1,750 people reported arrested in protests across the country on Monday will end with the first games of the World Cup’s main warm-up event. Russia is under pressure to showcase a safe host nation, but is facing numerous challenges.

Stadiums will have airport-style security, but there have been teething troubles. In a notable setback, a Russian league game last month was used to test Confederations Cup security, but instead stood out for the many fireworks smuggled in by fans.

[ MORE: Man Utd unveils Lindelof ]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has imposed a package of security measures, but faces criticism from observers who say his order could hamper ordinary Russians’ lives and stifle dissent.

The measures are based on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which had a single host city and sports facilities far from inhabited areas. The June 17-July 2 Confederations Cup has four host cities and next year’s World Cup will have 11.

“Sochi was easier,” argues Russian author Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the security services. “Now we’re talking about many cities. It’s an unusual and dangerous situation.”

Russian officials say the tournament is safe.

“No direct threats against participants or guests” have been uncovered, the senior Federal Security Service official in charge of tournament security, Alexei Lavrishchev, said last week. As for security measures, “law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about.”

TERRORISM

For years, Russia’s security services focused heavily on Islamist groups from the restive North Caucasus, where Russian forces fought two wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A bombing on the St. Petersburg subway April 3 killed 14 and ended a three-year run for Russia without a major attack outside the North Caucasus region. The alleged attacker, however, came from Central Asia and had no apparent links to Caucasus groups. That indicates “the emergence of new players,” Soldatov says. “I’m not totally convinced that Russian law enforcement is ready to deal with this new kind of threat.”

Russia’s major train and subway stations are equipped with metal detectors as standard, but often only a few travelers are examined in detail, and sometimes the equipment is switched off altogether. Procedures have been tightened in the St. Petersburg subway following April’s bombing, and ahead of the tournament, but many Moscow subway stations seem largely unchanged.

Airport security is tight following bombings of two planes in 2004 and a Moscow airport in 2011. By law, passengers and baggage are scanned on entry to the terminal.

Racial profiling is common for Russian law enforcement in major cities, with people of Asian appearance routinely pulled over for document checks in subway stations. Foreign fans wearing team colors are less likely to be approached.

HOOLIGANISM

It’s been a year since Russian fans fought running battles with England supporters at the European Championship in France, and Russia is keen to avoid a repeat.

A repeat seems unlikely, given that few foreign fans are expected at the Confederations Cup and Russia has no rivalry with its group stage opponents New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico.

As they prepare for the World Cup, Russian authorities have compiled a blacklist of 191 fans banned from attending games. To attend a game, a ticket isn’t enough – you’ll need a “Fan ID” issued only after your personal information has been examined by Russian authorities.

There will be a heavy police presence, particularly at stadiums, and restricted alcohol sales nearby.

In a trial of security measures for the tournament, thousands of police staffed a May 17 game between Russian Premier League champion Spartak Moscow and Terek Grozny at Moscow’s Confederations Cup venue.

Police staffed security checkpoints around the stadium, examining bags, patting down fans and checking banners for offensive content. Colleagues in riot gear and on horseback, plus truncheon-wielding National Guard units, lined nearby roads.

The searches didn’t stop Spartak’s fans smuggling in dozens of banned flares and fireworks, as well as shipping flares, which can be used as weapons. At one point, there was so much smoke from pyrotechnics that the game was suspended for several minutes.

PROTESTS

Getting official permission to host a protest in Russia is never easy, and the Confederations Cup makes it even harder.

Putin’s decree means the police must approve any public gatherings in or near host cities. Holding an unapproved event puts organizers and participants at risk of arrest. Monday’s protests were a mix of officially sanctioned and unsanctioned events in different cities, and no major opposition events are planned for the upcoming weeks.

The decree also stipulates foreign visitors must register with the authorities within 24 hours on arrival in a new city, while Russians have three days. Hotels will register guests, but those using room-rental services like Airbnb face more difficulties.

“This decree needs to be seen as proclaiming a state of emergency in a certain part of the country for a period of time,” said Russian human rights activist Pavel Chikov, who filed an unsuccessful Supreme Court appeal against a similar decree at the 2014 Olympics. “The main constitutional rights don’t apply, or they apply with certain limitations.”

Still, authorities may be reluctant to apply the law to the letter to avoid bad publicity, and mass arrests are unlikely. “There will be some kind of freedom,” Chikov says.

NEXT YEAR

The Confederations Cup venues are comparatively straightforward to protect – Sochi’s Fisht stadium is in the heavily-guarded Olympic Park, far from the city center, while St. Petersburg’s stadium is on an otherwise largely-deserted island. The arenas in Moscow and Kazan are in more central locations.

The World Cup will be trickier.

Many of the 12 stadiums for next year’s tournament are in provincial locations with little experience of foreign crowds.

Those include Volgograd, targeted by three bombings in 2013. Nearby cities like Astrakhan, Grozny and Pyatigorsk have also been targeted in recent years – they won’t host World Cup games, but they will contain teams’ training bases.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.