Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

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The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

Banker Gaetano Micciche elected Serie A president

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MILAN (AP) Bank boss Gaetano Micciche has been elected president of Serie A.

Micciche, the president of Banca IMI, was chosen unanimously on Monday by the Italian league’s 20 clubs.

He succeeds Maurizio Beretta, who left the position nearly a year ago.

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The league has been under emergency leadership, first by former Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio then by Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago.

Malago recommended Micciche for the position.

The federation remains under emergency leadership following Tavecchio’s resignation in the wake of Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Report: Liverpool to resist all offers for Salah

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Liverpool has a message for any club looking to sign Mohamed Salah this summer: Not gonna happen.

The Merseyside club has reportedly said it will “not sell Salah under any circumstances this summer” as the Reds look to hold off the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, according to The Telegraph. Salah’s four-goal tally against Watford on Saturday took his goal total to an incredible 28 in 32 Premier League games, with another seven goals in cup competitions.

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Liverpool famously kept Barcelona – and Arsenal – off Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan striker wanted to leave in 2013, but Liverpool was only able to stop Barcelona from signing Philippe Coutinho for six months.

As things stand, Liverpool are qualified for the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League with the club sitting in first place, and keeping Salah is absolutely vital if the Reds want to make a deep run in the competition and compete for a Premier League title. It remains to be seen though if Salah is happy to stay at Liverpool or if a big-money offer from Spain or France can tempt him otherwise to set himself and his family financially for life.

Report: Sarachan’s contract with USMNT extended through June

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U.S. Soccer will wait until after the World Cup to decide on a new head coach for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that U.S. Soccer had extended interim coach Dave Sarachan’s contract through June, after his original deal was set to expire this month. Sarachan has led the U.S. since the resignation of Bruce Arena last October. Sarachan was Arena’s long-time top assistant coach with the LA Galaxy and USMNT before taking the reigns.

[READ: Manneh added to USMNT squad]

Sarachan has led the U.S. to a pair of draws with Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with two U.S. starting lineups stocked with youngsters as the preparation for the 2022 World Cup gets underway.

Sarachan and the U.S. are currently holding a training camp in Cary, N.C. ahead of a friendly match next Tuesday against Paraguay. Sarachan will also coach the U.S. against Bolivia, Ireland and France before departing.

By extending Sarachan through June, it makes it more likely that U.S. Soccer will either look abroad for its next coach or pick a coach who is currently a free agent – like Caleb Porter – or already within the system – like Tab Ramos. It’s possible, but unlikely, that U.S. Soccer could sway Peter Vermes, Oscar Pareja or Gregg Berhalter to leave their clubs halfway through the season for the national team job, and it’s equally unlikely that U.S. Soccer would hold the position open until the next MLS offseason.

Joint World Cup bidders: Trump hasn’t sparked voter concerns

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Organizers of the North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup insist FIFA members have not expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s harsh words about foreigners or the U.S. Justice Department prosecuting corrupt soccer officials.

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“Look, this is not geopolitics,” new U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro said Monday during a conference call. “We’re talking about football and what fundamentally at the end of the day, what’s the best interests of football and our footballing community, and we’ve had no backlash. We’re very focused on the merits of our bid.”

A joint bid by the United States, Mexico and Canada was submitted to FIFA on Friday along with a proposal by Morocco. The 207 other members of the international soccer governing body will vote on June 13 in Moscow.

Cordeiro, Mexican Football Federation President Decio de Maria and Canadian Soccer Association President Steven Reed spoke from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they were meeting with members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, a subset of the Asian Football Confederation.

A solo bid by the U.S. for the 2022 World Cup was favored going into the 2010 vote but lost to Qatar. FIFA then changed the vote rules to give the decision back to the entire membership, which chose hosts prior to 1986, when the choice started being made by the roughly two dozen members of its executive committee.

“We believe that the member associations are going to judge us on the quality of the bids, on the merits of our bid, and that’s it,” Reed said. “We’re very confident about what we’re putting forward, and I don’t think that we’re concerned about politics.”

Sixty games would be played in the U.S. under the bid plan, including all from the quarterfinals on. Three cities were included from Mexico and Canada, and both of those nations would host 10 games.

Holding a tournament in the U.S. would subject many of the documents generated to subpoena by U.S. federal prosecutors, who have secured numerous guilty pleas to corruption charges from soccer officials since 2015 and obtained convictions at trial last year against Juan Angel Napout, the former president of South American soccer’s governing body, and Jose Maria Marin, the former president of Brazil’s soccer federation.

“We haven’t had any of those concerns raised by any of the members that we’ve met so far,” Cordeiro said. “The reforms that FIFA undertook some years ago I think were spot on and we feel very confident that ultimately the right decision will be made.”

Morocco’s bid envisions spending almost $16 billion, including $3 billion to construct nine new stadiums, refurbish five others and build or renovate 130 training grounds.

[ MORE: Brazil to face Austria in final World Cup tune-up match ]

The North American bid proposed venues be selected from among 23 stadiums that exist or already are under construction, including three each in Mexico and Canada. Sixteen of the U.S. stadiums are sites of NFL teams.

“The split of matches that we have proposed to FIFA frankly reflects the resources of the three countries,” Cordeiro said. “We in the United States are blessed with some very substantial resources in terms of stadium infrastructure, of cities and so on, and that reflects the 60 matches that we have on the table. But at the end of the day there is a reason why FIFA have asked for or have encouraged joint bids and we do think that our joint bids taken together provide for a vastly superior bid than our competition.”

AP Sports Writer Rob Harris contributed to this report.