AFP

Amid war, Syria hopes to reach World Cup for 1st time

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) In the midst of a long-running and ruinous war, millions of Syrians may finally have something to be joyful about.

Syria’s national soccer team has a chance to qualify for next year’s World Cup – what would be the Arab nation’s first ever appearance in the sport’s most prestigious event. The team, referred to by many Syrians as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking the capital Damascus, has been on an impressive run despite being forced to play all its games in other countries.

The Syrians beat Qatar 3-1 on Thursday in Malaysia, moving into third place in Group A of Asian qualifying. The top two finishers in the six-team group will automatically qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, while the third-place team will enter a playoff.

If the Syrians beat Iran in Tehran in their final group match on Tuesday, they will be guaranteed to finish at least third. But Syria could finish second and qualify directly depending on the result of the match between South Korea and Uzbekistan.

“Our team is ready to achieve victory and qualify Syria for the first time to the World Cup,” Muwaffaq Fathallah, the chief administrator of the Syrian team, said by telephone from the Iranian capital. “We want the Syrian people to be happy.”

The qualification would come as a welcome surprise for millions across the war-torn country, which has been devastated by the conflict. More than 400,000 people have been killed and half the country’s prewar population displaced since the conflict erupted in March 2011. It will also be a boost for President Bashar Assad, who is eager to project strength and normalcy on the world stage while his forces continue to recapture territory on the ground.

The war has negatively impacted the country’s soccer industry, the country’s most popular sport. As the nation descended into conflict, sports stadiums were trashed and many of the national team’s players moved to Arab or Asian countries to play.

The national team is made up of government-approved supporters, although at least one player was an opposition activist. Striker Firas al-Khatib, who was often seen attending fundraising events for the opposition during his years in exile, returned to Damascus last month for the first time in five years, receiving a VIP welcome at the airport.

“There is no better feeling than returning home,” al-Khatib, who once said he would never again play for the government team until it stops its bombardment of opposition-held areas, said upon his arrival.

Another player who has been outside Syria for years but never expressed support for the opposition is Omar al-Soma, who joined the national team before the match against Qatar last week.

The team’s captain, Ahmad al-Saleh, plays for Chinese club Henan Jianye, while Omar Khribin, who scored a goal in each half against Qatar, plays for Saudi Arabian team Al-Hilal. Al-Soma, who recently joined the national team, plays for Saudi club Al-Ahli.

Al-Khatib, who played for Kuwaiti team Qadsia and later Al-Arabi, will be returning to his mother club of Al-Karamah in the central city of Homs.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the national team began its training in Tehran on Saturday in preparation for Tuesday’s match against Iran.

In the Syrian capital on Monday, workers were setting up giant screens in at least three squares for public viewing, while businessmen will be offering food and drinks for those planning to watch. State-run television, which is planning to broadcast the game live, has lined up special programs for the event.

The politics of Syria’s run has not been lost on anyone.

For Syria to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, its chief international ally, it must defeat Iran, its regional political ally. Both countries have provided crucial political and military support to shore up Assad’s forces in the war.

On social media, some predicted that Iran, which has already qualified for the tournament, may let Syria win the match based on the political closeness of the two countries.

The coach of Iran’s national soccer team, Carlos Queiroz, rejected any match-fixing plans and the state-owned IRAN daily reported Monday that Iran midfielder Ashkan Dejagah said his team is determined to win Tuesday’s match.

Mowaffak Joumaa, the head of Syria’s Olympic committee and sports federation, told The Associated Press in Damascus that “every citizen has become a soldier in his own profession” and the soccer players are doing their best for the country.

“We are hopeful,” Joumaa said, “that they will achieve a good result in the match against Iran and would bring happiness to all Syrians on Tuesday.”

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Terhran, Iran, contributed to this report.

Juventus president Andrea Agnelli banned for 1 year

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Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was banned for one year by the Italian soccer federation on Monday for his role in selling tickets to hardcore “ultra” fans that encouraged scalping.

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The court also fined Juventus 300,000 euros ($350,000).

The ban comes less than three weeks after Agnelli was elected to chair the 220-member European Club Association.

“Having taken note of today’s decision by the FIGC’s National Tribunal, Juventus preannounces its appeal to the FIGC Court of Appeal in the full conviction of its own good arguments, which have still not found adequate recognition,” the Serie A club said in a statement.

“The club expresses its own satisfaction because today’s sentence, even though it inflicted heavy bans on the president and other people involved, has “after extensive evaluation of the evidentiary material” (page 11 of the sentence) excluded all alleged links with representatives of organized crime.”

Federation prosecutor Giuseppe Pecoraro also said he would appeal for a harsher sentence. Pecoraro requested a 2 1/2-year suspension, a fine and an order to force Juventus to play two home matches behind closed doors.

“I am partially satisfied because we managed to prove everyone’s guilt but the facts are so serious that I think they should be punished more,” Pecoraro told Italian news agency Ansa. “The judgment of another court would be useful, taking into account that the resources coming from the ticket scalping went to a criminal organization, and that is very serious.”

The ban means Agnelli remains Juventus president but cannot represent the club in any official matter governed by the FIGC. He cannot, for example, go into the dressing room during matches or have transfer dealings with players’ agents.

However, the ban has not been extended to UEFA and FIFA – and there is no chance of that happening until all the appeals have been heard. Agnelli’s position as head of the ECA is not at risk for now.

Agnelli allegedly authorized the sale of season passes and other tickets. He has acknowledged meeting with Rocco Dominello, an “ultra” fan linked to the Calabrian `ndrangheta crime mob who has since been sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for scalping.

But Agnelli said the meetings came only with large numbers of other fans at celebratory occasions and that the club never intended to engage in illegal activity.

Juventus security director Alessandro D’Angelo has been banned for 15 months while ticketing director Stefano Merulla and former marketing director Francesco Calvo have also been handed one-year suspensions.

Each of the four has also been fined 20,000 euros ($24,000) for violating sporting integrity and illicit relations with fans.

The 41-year-old Agnelli has led Juventus, the club his family has owned for nearly a century, since 2010. Agnelli has also been a non-voting member of the UEFA executive committee since 2015. He received full voting rights last week at a UEFA meeting in Geneva.

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Dominello’s father, Saverio Dominello, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a court in Turin in June for his role in the scalping case.

Anti-mafia prosecutors said the `ndrangheta was involved in scalping among Juventus ultra fans for at least 15 years, guaranteeing order in the stadium in exchange for open ticket access.

Juventus has denied any wrongdoing.

Report: NYCFC seeks stadium project near Belmont Park

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New York City FC has found its feet pretty well in MLS, and the club could finally be closing in on a location for its own stadium moving forward.

Newsday Sports is reporting that NYCFC is prepared to bid on land at Belmont Park as the club continues its search to find a permanent stadium for its future.

[ MORE: Which players should be up for MLS MVP honors? ]

The report also states that Belmont isn’t NYCFC’s preferred destination to play matches, with the stadium in Elmont — roughly an 18-mile distance from the club’s current venue, Yankee Stadium.

In the past, Flushing Meadows has been one of many sites discussed as a location for NYCFC to build its own venue, which would make sense given the fact that the land currently houses the New York Mets as well as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

NYCFC has shared Yankee Stadium with MLB franchise, New York Yankees, since the MLS side entered the league in 2015.

A move to Belmont could hinge on what the New York Islanders of the NHL do moving forward as well because the hockey team is reportedly looking at options outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where they currently play.

UCL Tuesday preview: Dortmund hosts Real; 3 PL sides in action

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Round two of the UEFA Champions League is back on Tuesday, and while clubs cannot book their place in the Round of 16 just yet it’s just as easy for them to put themselves out of contention.

Three Premier League sides will be action on the afternoon, including Tottenham — who has the chance to start Group H play with six points.

Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City will also take the pitch in Group E and F, respectively.

The day’s biggest clash of the day though comes in Germany as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid meet in the other Group H fixture. Dortmund will be looking for a positive result after falling to Spurs in their opening day loss in the competition.

[ MORE: Who is the most complete striker in the Premier League? ]

Here’s the full rundown of matches on Tuesday’s UCL docket.

All games kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

Group E

Spartak Moscow vs. Liverpool
Sevilla vs. Maribor

Group F

Manchester City vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Napoli vs. Feyenoord

Group G

Besiktas vs. Red Bull Leipzig
Monaco vs. Porto

Group H

Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
APOEL vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints take in Arsenal match

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The New Orleans Saints will be playing a different sort of football on Sunday at historic Wembley Stadium, but the NFL franchise took in Arsenal’s match today during their trip to London.

[ MORE: PL playback — Who is the most complete striker in the PL? ]

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees posted a picture on Instagram with several of his Saints teammates taking in the Arsenal-West Brom fixture at the Emirates Stadium six days before the NFL team plays the Miami Dolphins.

The Saints-Dolphins matchup is the second NFL game to take place in England thus far in 2017, after the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 44-7, on Sunday at Wembley.

Headed to the Arsenal game in London. Our first Premier League game! Pumped

A post shared by Drew Brees (@drewbrees) on