Photo by Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy/Qatar 2022 via Getty Images

Qatar still “in campaign mode” to prove worthiness of 2022 WC

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SHEFFIELD, England (AP) The birthplace of modern soccer is now an unassuming site: A couple of pitches with no stands for supporters, and a ramshackle indoor facility where damp rises on the walls and paint peels from the goalposts.

When Sheffield FC formed in this northern English steel city 160 years ago, the wealth awash in the modern game was unimaginable to the founders of the world’s first soccer club. The symbol of how vastly soccer has changed is thousands of miles away in the Gulf, where stadiums are springing up in the Qatari desert and tens of billions of dollars are invested in infrastructure to ensure a tiny nation can host the 32-team World Cup in 2022.

But Olive Grove, where the first rules of the modern game were conceived by Sheffield FC’s founders, was the latest stop this week for Qatar World Cup leader Hassan Al Thawadi on a mission to convince the global football community that his country remains a worthy host of the FIFA showpiece.

Seven years after the controversial vote and five years until kickoff, doubts linger about Qatar’s suitability and right to host the Middle East’s first World Cup.

“I believe we will always be in campaign mode,” Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, said at the self-styled “Home of Football” in an interview with The Associated Press. “Most host nations or host cities suffered from criticism.”

Perhaps, but none on the scale faced by Qatar, which was unprepared for the sharp scrutiny that followed victory in the secret ballot that took the game’s biggest showcase to the smallest country yet.

The greatest threat to Qatar’s hosting status initially came from corruption investigators, who were troubled by some of the bid conduct but ultimately found there was no improper activity that swayed the vote.

Censure came from labor watchdogs who believed a form of modern slavery formed the backbone of World Cup construction, and Qatar was compelled to safeguard rights and conditions for migrant workers. While progress has been made in a region unaccustomed to providing such protections, Qatar still faces demands to be more transparent about the cause of worker deaths and to eradicate exploitative practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system which binds workers to their employer.

“The World Cup is a catalyst and an engine for accelerated reforms,” Al Thawadi said.

Now more powerful forces are at play threatening the World Cup: Four Arab countries have severed diplomatic ties and placed Qatar under a blockade since June in a move claimed to stop the natural-gas-rich country from supporting terrorism – charges denied by Al Thawadi.

“For whoever may want to bring this World Cup into a political debate, that is an action that they are doing unilaterally,” he said.

However sure Al Thawadi is, the World Cup will be played as scheduled from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 2022 – contentiously chosen by FIFA to avoid the fierce summer heat in the usual June-July slot – and he is clearly troubled by attempts to undermine the tournament.

A day after speaking to The AP in Sheffield, Al Thawadi ducked out of the royal box at Wembley Stadium in London just before watching England play Germany to launch a broadside against what he perceives as efforts by Qatar’s regional rivals to bring down the World Cup.

Dubai’s security chief has already said the only way to end “Qatar’s crisis” was to give up the event, though he later said he was referring to the financial impact of hosting. An Emirati minister followed up by tweeting that Qatar’s hosting of the tournament should “include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism & terrorism.”

Lobbying firms backed by the nations opposing Doha have increasingly targeted the World Cup, while Twitter has been promoting anonymous paid posts attacking Qatar’s fitness as a tournament host, citing corruption allegations and worker abuses.

“We refuse to have this World Cup used as political pawn or a political tool because we believe in separating politics from sports … and using sports as a means of resolving conflict,” Al Thawadi said in the Wembley library. “I hope that the blockading nations see reason to be able to participate and join for the sake of the region benefiting out of this World Cup.”

The crisis has exposed the scale of risks associated with taking the World Cup to a region in flux. Stadium costs are rising after Qatar was forced to find alternative routes to import building materials, and security concerns linger.

“You can’t always prepare for a specific incident, but you can always prepare with contingency plans and be ready with a very resourceful and very quick and effective reactionary mindset as well,” Al Thawadi said. “As soon as the blockade occurred, we were able to put Plan B and Plan C quickly in place and address some of the concerns and challenges that the blockade caused.”

Originally pitched to FIFA voters as a World Cup to benefit the Middle East, the idealism appears to have been sunk. The vision could potentially be revived by sharing games with neighbors, a proposition floated externally during the bid and still perceived as an objective in the region.

“Qatar has always been open to dialogue,” Al Thawadi said. “It’s always been open and it’s always supported our brother nations, to the extent that if (sharing the World Cup) was the ultimate goal, all that would have required was a simple conversation.”

For now, England is where Al Thawadi has come to speak to shore up support for his World Cup project.

An association with the trailblazing Sheffield FC, which plays eight divisions below the Premier League, might seem tenuous. But Al Thawadi studied law at the University of Sheffield and this week he returned after 16 years to finally collect his graduation certificate during a brief presentation.

Sheffield FC sought Qatar’s assistance because it was fighting for its future and being overlooked in a country that hosts the world’s richest soccer league. It started in 2009 while Al Thawadi was canvassing for FIFA votes in South Africa, and led in 2015 to 100,000 pounds (then $153,000) being invested by Al Thawadi to help the women’s team. Now Al Thawadi is trying to spur investment from across the English game to allow Sheffield FC to leave its base on the outskirts of the city and build a 6,000-seat venue and museum at its spiritual home at Olive Grove.

“Too often the money takes the lead with Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar,” Sheffield FC chairman Richard Tims said, discussing wealth in the modern game that saw the Brazil forward bought by the Qatar-owned French club for a world record 222 million euros in August. “This project is the other end of the game.”

Clubs are being asked to donate a sum corresponding with their foundation year, and it started with Premier League champion Chelsea agreeing to hand over 1,905 British pounds at a low-key event inside the rundown sports hall at Olive Grove.

Tims flattered his guests, proclaiming: “The new pioneers of football are Qatar.” Al Thawadi then sought to assure the small group of dignitaries that the backing for Sheffield FC is a sign of Qatar’s commitment to the wider game. It is not, Al Thawadi maintained in a later interview, about latching on to Sheffield FC to add a shiny veneer to Qatar’s battered image.

“Sheffield FC represents the start of football,” he said, “but more importantly represents playing football for the love of the game.”

Qatar, though, appears locked into a perpetual struggle, requiring charm offensives like the trip to England to protect its status as 2022 hosts.

“If it means we have to continue every day validating our right to host this World Cup,” Al Thawadi said, “so be it.”

Wigan player races off for son’s birth after scoring 2 goals

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WIGAN, England (AP) It was better than a hat trick.

A player for English soccer team Wigan had a night to remember when he scored his second goal before dashing off the field and to the local hospital, where his girlfriend was in labor.

[ MORE: Chelsea advances to UCL Round of 16 after win over Qarabag ]

A picture of Ryan Colclough holding his new-born baby, Harley, while still in his soccer uniform was shared on social media by Wigan chairman David Sharpe.

Colclough said his father, sitting in the stands on Tuesday for Wigan’s 3-0 win over Doncaster in the second division, “gave me the action that the waters had broken,” but he didn’t want to come off until the ball was out of play.

“My head was a little bit battered, but I went and scored, looked at the manager and he said we’ll bring you off now,” Colclough said Wednesday of his 58th-minute goal, which he celebrated by pretending to rock a baby. “I came off and was straight down the tunnel, grabbed my keys and my phone, and went to hospital.”

Colclough had visited the midwife that day, and was told the baby was unlikely to arrive for “another couple of days.”

Lille suspends coach Marcelo Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) French club Lille has provisionally suspended coach Marcelo Bielsa following a string of poor results in the top tier.

[ MORE: Basel stuns Man United late to keep UCL hopes alive ]

The northern side said in a statement that Bielsa has been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club.” Lille did not elaborate.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but has failed to make the club competitive again, with the team second to last after 13 matches.

The 2 Robbies podcast: PL sides in the UCL, Pulis sacking and more

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In today’s Euro Pod Edition, the Robbies breakdown the latest Champions League action. Man United lose at Basel, Chelsea cruise at Qarabag, Spurs impress against Dortmund, Man City continue to win, Liverpool surrender a 3-goal lead against Sevilla. Plus, the guys weigh in on the Oumar Niasse ban for diving and the Tony Pulis sacking.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

[ Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Europa League preview: Arsenal looks to wrap up Group H and more

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While several teams have already booked their place in the knockout phase, the Europa League reaches its penultimate round on Thursday with many big matches in hand.

[ MORE: Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training ]

Of the two Premier League sides in the competition, only one will advance to the Round of 32, as Arsenal have all but assured themselves of the top spot in Group H. The Gunners can do so tomorrow with a win over Koln or a Red Star Belgrade defeat.

The other end of the spectrum features Everton, who has already been eliminated from reaching the next round after acquiring just one point in its first four matches.

European giants AC Milan can lock up a spot in the knockout phase on Thursday despite the club’s ongoing struggles in Serie A, while fellow Italian side Atalanta can move a step closer to the Round of 32 in Group E along with Lyon.

Here’s the full rundown of Thursday’s UEL matches.

Astana vs. Villareal — 11 a.m. ET
Konyaspor vs. Marseille — 1 p.m. ET
Rosenborg vs. Real Sociedad¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Vitesse¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Viktoria Plzen vs. Steaua Bucuresti¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Lokomotiv vs. Copenhagen¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Zenit vs. Vardar¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Vitoria¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Hertha Berlin¬†— 1 p.m. ET
BATE vs. Red Star Belgrade¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Zorya¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Koln vs. Arsenal¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Nice vs. Zulte Waregem — 1 p.m. ET
Lugano vs. Beer-Sheva¬†— 1 p.m. ET
Ludogorets vs. Istanbul¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga vs. Hoffenheim¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
AEK vs. Rijeka¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Austria Wien¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. Apollon¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Slavia Praha¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Sheriff vs. Zlin¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Partizan vs. Young Boys¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Skenderbeu vs. Dynamo Kyiv¬†— 3:05 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Atalanta — 3:05 p.m. ET