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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.

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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.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday