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With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

USMNT celebrates winning 2017 Gold Cup – Video

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The U.S. national team won the 2017 Gold Cup title on Wednesday night and the Stars and Stripes celebrated in style.

[ MORE: Recap | Ratings | 3 things ] 

After beating Jamaica 2-1 in a tense final in Santa Clara, Calif. the champagne corks were soon popping as veterans and youngsters danced the night away to celebrate the USMNT’s first trophy since their Gold Cup success in 2013.

This was the USA’s sixth Gold Cup title and for many (Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to name a few) it could be their last piece of silverware for the USMNT.

Watch them drink in the celebrations below as Bruce Arena (celebrating his third Gold Cup title) pulled off a veteran move to remove his suit jacket before getting drenched.

The U.S. are once again champions of the CONCACAF region.


Arsenal confirm Alexis Sanchez will return to training

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Arsene Wenger has confirmed Alexis Sanchez will return to training with Arsenal this Sunday.

Sanchez, 28, is yet to sign a new contract at Arsenal and has just 12 months left on his current deal, but it appears that Wenger isn’t planning on losing his Chilean superstar anytime soon.

Below is what Wenger has to say about Sanchez and Shkodran Mustafi returning to training this weekend after their exploits in the 2017 Confederations Cup which saw both men play in the final on July 2.

“Alexis and Mustafi, their first training session will be on Sunday, the day we play against Sevilla [in the Emirates Cup],” Wenger said. “They are practising on the day. First of all you make a really good check up of where they are, how much they have worked during their break. After, once you know where you stand, they need an adjusted programme and to see how quickly you can fit them in again.

“Of course it depends as well on what is the need in the squad, what is their quality. All of these things together make your decision. Do you put them on the bench when they are not ready [to start]? It is easier to put a striker on the bench than a defender, sometimes. Because in a short period they can make an impact. We’ll see.”

Manchester City hammer Real Madrid in LA

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Manchester City went full Beastmode on Real Madrid in the second half of their International Champions Cup game in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Neymar to PSG on? ]

In front of a record 93,038 fans, City scored four goals in the second half with Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Raheem Sterling all netting before youngster Brahim Diaz finished things off in style.

Kevin De Bruyne was in particularly menacing form with the Belgian at the heart of everything good for Pep Guardiola‘s men.

Despite the hammering Real Madrid did score the goal of the night with youngster Oscar Rodriguez smashing home a beauty into the top corner form distance in the 90th minute.

Click play on the video above to watch the highlights.

City now head to Nashville, Tennessee where they face Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday with both teams finishing off their U.S. tour in style in Music City.

Real Madrid travel to Miami, Florida for the small matter of an El Clasico against Barcelona to finish off the International Champions Cup tournament Stateside.

Report: Neymar agrees five-year deal at Paris Saint-Germain

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Paris, are you ready for Neymar to become the main man?

[ MORE: USMNT win Gold Cup title

The Brazilian has scored all three of Barcelona’s goals during their preseason wins over Juventus and Manchester United in the U.S. but was his game-winner on Wednesday in Washington D.C. his final strike in a Barca shirt?

L’Equipe is reporting that Neymar has agreed terms on a five-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain but that the French giants are now trying to get Barcelona to reduce the $260 million transfer fee which is Neymar’s release clause.

Per the report Neymar will earn over $34.1 million annually while reports in Spain suggest that both clubs want the Brazilian superstar to make a decision and are eager to push the deal through by next week if it’s going to happen.

Neymar, 25, is said to want to leave Barca and be the main man at PSG.

With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez around at the Nou Camp, it’s easy to understand that Brazil’s captain feels a little underappreciated sometimes but with Messi now 30 years old and Suarez 31, surely Neymar can wait it out a few years before he takes over Messi’s throne at Barca?

Hmmm, with the five-time World Player of the Year recently signing a new contract until 2021, Mess is going nowhere and maybe that was the trigger for Neymar and his representatives to look elsewhere as he’s about to enter his prime.

On top of all that the ongoing investigation from the Spanish authorities into his transfer from Santos looms large over the global superstar, but after winning two UEFA Champions League titles, three La Liga trophies and two Copa del Rey’s during his four years at Barca, would he really walk away?

His teammates and manager have been speaking about that posibility during Barca’s preseason tour of the U.S. and nobody seems too sure if he will remain. If anything the word “hope” is getting thrown around a lot rather than a definitive “yes” or “no” and even Gerard Pique had to back track on a social media post where he posed with Neymar and used the caption “he stays” to sum up the situation.

PSG are reportedly working around the clock to figure out how on earth they can finance this deal but it is becoming increasingly obvious that they are the only club who can afford to sign Neymar and their Abu Dhabi owners are doing all they can to make it a reality.