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Emotions run high as Syria’s divisive World Cup bid ends

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BEIRUT (AP) Millions of Syrians at home and abroad cheered, shouted and were ultimately left frustrated Tuesday as they watched their chance to qualify for their first ever World Cup soccer tournament end in disappointment.

The country’s impressive showing had brought hope and a rare chance to celebrate among Syrians living with a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people. The “Dream,” as a Syrian TV announcer described it Tuesday, ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.

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President Bashar Assad, who has benefited from a Syria team thrust onto the world stage, saluted the players, known as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking Damascus.

“You were heroes and drew smiles on the faces of all Syrians,” Assad said in remarks carried on the presidency’s Telegram page.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the Umayyad square in Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, cheering and waving Syrian flags as they watched the game on giant screens.

“The Syrian team played in a mythical way. Although it lost the game, it has gained the respect of the entire world,” 25-year-old Dima Al-Sawas said as she struggled to hold back tears.

The team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games abroad. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year war, the country’s World Cup bid was not supported by many Syrians opposed to Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.

After the match on social media, some cheered while others derided the team, largely seen as being controlled by the Syrian government.

Many among the opposition called it the “Assad Team” or the “Barrel Bomb” team, in reference to the helicopter-borne explosive barrels dropped on civilians that became a trademark of Assad’s military during the war. Images of the players wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Assad’s face at news conferences reinforced the image of a national team controlled by a dictator.

“Congratulations on the defeat of one of the most dangerous attempts by the criminal Assad to promote himself,” tweeted opposition activist Osama Abu Zeid, an adviser to rebels fighting to topple Assad.

The government had ordered Syrian schools closed to allow students to watch the game, and universities closed early to avoid traffic jams and possible roads closures. Most Syrian cafes also made preparations for the game and set up big TV screens for customers. The crowd burst in excitement and shouts of happiness when Omar al-Soma gave Syria the lead in the sixth minute.

“It was a hard luck for the Syrian team that has wasted no chance to win,” said Maher Awad, a 20-year-old university student.

The game was beamed on large screens in city squares across provinces controlled by Assad.

“We got used to victories, come on guys!” said the announcer on state-run Syrian TV, in reference to a string of military victories by Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed forces. “Twenty-three million Syrians are watching you.”

Syrian refugees in neighboring countries also rallied around TV screens in tented settlements or cafes to watch.

“Hard luck to all Syrians who were in need for happiness after seven years of war,” said Seifeddine Wannous, a Syrian who works for Iraqi TV and who fled the country to Lebanon in 2015. “Maybe its bad luck that … we were not able to play on our land. Maybe we would have made a difference.”

Associated Press writer Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.

Real Madrid come from behind to win in Club World Cup semis

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Real Madrid made things on Wednesday a bit more complicated than they would have preferred, but the two-time defending European champions are through to the final of the Club World Cup for the second straight year.

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Zinedine Zidane’s men came from behind to beat United Arab Emirates side Al Jazira (winners of the U.A.E. Pro League, the tournament’s host country), courtesy of second-half goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, 2-1 at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Al Jazira held a 1-0 halftime lead, thanks to Romarinho’s opening goal in the 41st minute. The advantage lasted just a dozen minutes, though, as Ronaldo used Madrid’s first genuine chance of the game to bring Los Blancos back onto level terms in the 53rd minute. Luka Modric slipped the Portuguese superstar through, and the recently crowned Ballon d’Or winner finished with ease to make it 1-1.

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The winner didn’t come for quite some time after that, as Madrid were made to wait — and work — for their place in Saturday’s final, where they’ll face Brazilian side and Copa Libertadores winners Gremio. Bale had only just come off the bench seconds earlier, when Lucas Vazquez cut the ball back for Bale to hit it hard and low past the goalkeeper.

The Welshman nearly made it 3-1 with four minutes to go in regular time, but his scissor from the edge of the box was saved to deny Madrid a stunning insurance goal very late on.

Madrid are aiming to become the first side to win back-to-back Club World Cup titles after beating Kashima Antlers, 4-2 after extra-time, in the 2016 final.

Watch Live: Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs in action

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Seven Premier League games are coming your way from 2:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday, and you can watch them all live online.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Manchester City head to Swansea looking to extend their winning streak to a record-breaking 15-straight in a season, while Manchester United host Bournemouth and Tottenham welcome Brighton to Wembley. There’s a big London derby between West Ham and Arsenal, while Liverpool host West Brom, in-form Leicester head to Southampton and struggling Newcastle clash with Everton.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for the seven games on Wednesday is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


Wednesday’s Premier League schedule

2:45 p.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Manchester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Newcastle United vs. Everton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Southampton vs. Leicester City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM

3 p.m. ET: Liverpool vs. West Bromwich Albion – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Brighton & Hove Albion – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: West Ham United vs. Arsenal – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Copa Sudamericana finals, leg 2: Flamengo vs. Independiente

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SAO PAULO (AP) Independiente, relegated for the first time in its history in 2013, can complete a remarkable turnaround by winning the Copa Sudamericana at the Maracana Stadium on Wednesday.

The Argentine team will go into the second leg of the final holding a 2-1 lead over Brazilian club Flamengo from the first leg.

Independiente, which has won multiple titles in South American tournaments, will be counting on 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco, one of the best players in this year’s competition.

Flamengo is also seeking to restore some pride in Rio de Janeiro. The big-spending Brazilian club, playing in its first Copa Sudamericana final, finished its domestic championship in a disappointing sixth place.

The Rio team will be without Peru striker Paolo Guerrero, who is serving a one-year doping ban.

Instead, veteran midfielder Diego will be the key player as Flamengo looks to claim its first regional title since winning the now-defunct Copa Mercosur in 1999.

After Independiente won the first leg, the club posted on its social media channels a picture of its players celebrating at the Maracana in 1995 when the two teams played for the Supercopa.

If the Argentines lose 1-0 on Wednesday, there will be a penalty shootout to decide the winner.

Last year, Brazilian club Chapecoense was awarded the title before the final after 19 players, plus club directors and several members of staff, died in an air crash.

The Copa Sudamericana is the continent’s second most prestigious tournament after the Copa Libertadores.

Germany’s players have big-money incentive to win World Cup

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BERLIN (AP) Germany’s players will each receive $410,000 bonus if the team defends its World Cup title next year in Russia.

The German soccer federation says it has agreed to a performance-related bonus system for the team, as it did for the successful 2014 World Cup campaign and the last two European Championships.

Bonuses will only be paid upon reaching the quarterfinals, when each player would receive $90,000. That will increase to $150,000 for reaching the semifinals, $175,000 for third place and $235,000 for reaching the final.

Only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) have won back-to-back World Cup titles.