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.

Retailer removes T-shirt from sale over Hillsborough links

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LONDON (AP) A British retailer has withdrawn a T-shirt from sale in its stores and online following complaints that its design could be associated with the Hillsborough soccer disaster.

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Topman had on sale a red shirt with a large “96” on the back and the phrase “what goes around comes around” underneath. The word “Karma” is written on one of the sleeves.

Ninety-six people were crushed to death in the Hillsborough stadium disaster, which happened in Sheffield in April 1989 at an FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Topman said it “apologizes unreservedly for any offense caused by this T-shirt” and that the “garment has been removed from sale online and in stores.”

The retailer said the design was inspired by a Bob Marley track, with the number referring to the year of the re-release.

Cosmos, Miami FC petition USSF for 2018 U.S. Open Cup entry

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NASL’s decision to cancel the 2018 regular season has caused significant ramifications, with the latest forcing several clubs to be excluded from the U.S. Open Cup.

The New York Cosmos and Miami FC — both of whom participated in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup have not been named among the eligible teams for the 2018 edition following NASL’s cancellation of the league season.

Now, the two teams have petitioned to U.S. Soccer and its new president, Carlos Cordeiro, to rethink its decision and allow the clubs to play despite not belonging to a professional league.

Both clubs do boast reserve teams though — New York Cosmos B and Miami 2 — which is the lead argument from each organization as to why U.S. Soccer should grant the teams an exemption and a spot in the tournament.

Cosmos B and Miami FC 2 will both play in the NPSL once again in 2018, with both rosters largely comprised of senior team players.

As it stands, 94 teams have been placed in the 2018 Open Cup field, as announced by U.S. Soccer on Wednesday.

Both open letters from the respective clubs can be found below.

Brazil’s Luis could miss World Cup after leg fracture

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MADRID (AP) Brazilian left back Filipe Luis has a leg fracture that could stop him going to the World Cup in Russia.

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Atletico Madrid said Friday that Luis sustained the injury to his left leg in the second half of the Spanish team’s 5-1 rout of Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League round-of-16 match on Thursday.

The club did not say how long Luis will be sidelined. Similar injuries have required at least six weeks of recovery time and longer if surgery is required.

The 32-year-old Luis was called up by Brazil coach Tite for friendlies against Russia in Moscow on March 23 and against Germany in Berlin on March 27. Brazil’s first game at the World Cup is against Switzerland on June 17.

Luis was injured while trying to prevent Lokomotiv forward Eder taking a shot from inside the area in the 60th minute. He successfully cleared the ball but his leg was hit from behind.

Luis left the field on a stretcher and tests Friday in Madrid confirmed the fracture in his lower leg.

Atletico advanced 8-1 on aggregate after the victory in Russia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage:

Casemiro: Neymar “would get along very well with Cristiano” at Real

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The speculation (transfer) train keeps chugging along as domestic seasons near their conclusion, and one rumor continues to be fueled linking one of the world’s top players to Real Madrid.

[ MORE: FA Cup preview ]

Neymar’s time at Paris Saint-Germain has been short, less than a season to be precise, but the Brazil international could be moving on from the Parc des Princes sooner rather than later after his side crashed out of the UEFA Champions League recently against Real.

Nothing concrete has been determined about Neymar’s future, but Real Madrid continues to be linked with the South American star, and one current Real player feels Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo would get along “very well.”

“[Neymar] has always been spectacular, since he was 11 years old. He does crazy things,” Real midfielder Casemiro told El Partidazo .l”I don’t think there is any chance that he will come to Real, but you have to ask [Madrid president] Florentino Perez.

“He knows that the door is always open for him in Madrid, but he is happy in Paris. He always says that he is happy there, that he is comfortable in Paris. There are many Brazilians there too, it is very quiet there, but whether it’s possible you have to ask Florentino.

“With the quality that he has, I would sign him for sure. I hope he comes this season.

“He is a great player, one of the top three in the world. He can do whatever he wants off the pitch if he continues to do what he does on it.

“He would get along very well with Cristiano, very well.”

Real is currently in the midst of a historic run in the Champions League, having won the competition three times in the last four seasons.

Casemiro isn’t the only Real player eager to bring in a talent such as Neymar though.

Defender Dani Carvajal also recently told the media that he would be ecstatic to have a teammate like the Brazilian come into the fold at the Santiago Bernabeu.