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Morocco vows ‘clean’ World Cup bid that won’t exploit Trump

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Instead of trying to exploit Donald Trump’s unpopularity around the world, Morocco is working to distance itself from allegations of corruption as the African country goes head-to-head with North America to host the 2026 World Cup.

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Any attempt to drag American presidential politics into the soccer campaign could be dangerous territory for the north African bidders. Morocco is saddled by its own baggage: bribery accusations against past World Cup bids that were leveled by U.S. prosecutors in the sprawling investigation into soccer corruption.

Those accused implicated in the alleged Moroccan vote-buying plot are yet to stand trial, and the 2026 bid team does not want to be held responsible for any unproven misdeeds in the past.

“We do not have anything to do with the past as Morocco,” 2026 bid chief executive Hicham El Amrani said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Do not make me comment on past bids for which we were not part of. Our bid is clean and will be compliant and this is what counts.”

Morocco has only just launched its campaign, blocking the unimpeded path to victory envisaged by the joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico for the first World Cup that jumps from 32 to 48 teams.

The U.S., which is the dominant partner with 60 of 80 games, has acknowledged the bid could be weighed down by negative global perceptions about the country. During his first year in the White House, Trump has faced international criticism for disparaging countries, including denigrating the African continent in a recent private outburst.

While Trump won’t be in office in 2026, the vote is in June. And for the first time, a winning World Cup bid requires the backing of the majority of the world. Rather than a select group of around 20 FIFA executives voting, all 211 soccer nations cast a ballot.

“I will leave up to voters to decide what they think – our focus is on our bid,” El Amrani said when asked about Trump. “I won’t make comments about the leadership here and there.

“We don’t want to win the right to host because of someone else, but because of our clear advantages … we will stay away (from Trump) because it’s not proper to (comment).”

Instead, Morocco believes it has a positive case to pitch to voters to counter North America’s assertion that it is the “risk averse” option that can replenish the shortfalls in the FIFA finances after sponsors fled during corruption scandals.

“Contrary to what we can hear about potential revenue,” El Amrani said, “Morocco has a fantastic offer from that perspective …. and financial certainty.”

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A proposition that is attractive to television viewers as well as fans and players on the ground, according to El Amrani, who was previously general secretary at the Confederation of African Football.

“We have a unique selling proposition as a very compact country,” El Amrani said.

While the North American bid covers a trio of time zones and nations, no multi-hour flights would be required between venues in Morocco.

“It allows better comfort and less traveling time,” El Amrani said. “That will allow for better quality of play.”

FIFA will earn $300 million more from the North American broadcasters if the 2026 World Cup is played in the region under the terms of contracts negotiated to stave off legal action for shifting the dates of the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

Morocco is predicting any shortfall could be filled because of a time zone that makes games more accessible for global television viewers, particularly in lucrative European market.

“Morocco represents a sweet spot in terms of time zones,” El Amrani said. “Morocco will be a profitable destination for FIFA.”

Morocco will propose 14 potential venues when the bid book is delivered in March, expanding some stadiums with modular designs that can be downsized. El Amrani declined at this stage to forecast the cost of stadium construction, preparing training grounds and securing the nation for the biggest event in its history.

“There are still gaps we need to fulfil to what is required 2026,” We are convinced we will reach it.”

Morocco lost out to the U.S. for the right to host the 1994 World Cup and last bid when South Africa landed the 2010 tournament for the continent for the first time.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP coverage of FIFA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

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Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.

Scholes: Pogba didn’t earn Man United spot in 2012 before Juve stint

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Paul Pogba‘s young career has been bright, but a former Manchester United legend suggests that there was a time where the Frenchman struggled to find his way at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup quarters

The 24-year-old Pogba is now in his second stint with the Red Devils, after spending four seasons in Italy with giants Juventus.

Former United midfielder Paul Scholes says though that back in 2012 — prior to Pogba’s move to Juve — that the physical player wasn’t pleased with the fact that he wasn’t getting regular minutes with the first team.

“Ferguson wanted me initially to come back and coach the reserve team with Warren Joyce,” he told BT Sport. “I said in September I’d come back. So I started helping Joycey, and I was training with the reserves.

“I was training every day with the likes of Pogba, Lingard, all these types of players. They were a really good side and I was really enjoying training. I was getting fit, I felt great, and it got to December time and the team was struggling a bit.

“They had a load of injuries, no central midfield players were fit. They ended up playing Phil Jones and Fabio da Silva in central midfield in a game against Blackburn at Old Trafford.

“Funnily enough that was the end of Pogba, because he thought he should have been playing instead of them. But he wasn’t doing well enough.”

Scholes, who had retired briefly in 2011, came back after just six months for the Red Devils, and ended up playing a year-and-a-half more following the decision to end his playing career.

It is widely believed that Pogba’s decision to head to Juventus was largely due to the impact of Scholes in the United squad.

Video: Rochdale puts Tottenham on upset alert at the half

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It’s been a tremendous season for Ian Henderson, particularly in the FA Cup, and now he and his side are one half away from upsetting one of the Premier League giants.

Henderson’s finish on the brink of halftime has put League One side Rochdale up 1-0 against Tottenham Hotspur, as the minnows aim to become the first non-PL side to advance to the quarterfinals in this season’s tournament.

A sloppy giveaway from Spurs near midfield created the attack for the hosts, and allowed Rochdale to capitalize on one of its few attacks during the opening stanza.

Benfica routs Boavista 4-0 to take lead in Portugal

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Benfica routed Boavista 4-0 to move ahead of FC Porto at the top of the Portuguese league on Saturday.

Benfica is one point in front of Porto, which has two games to play.

[ MORE: Man United gets Brighton in FA Cup quarters, Chelsea draws Leicester ]

Ruben Dias opened the scoring for Benfica in the 18th minute when he headed in a pass from Jardel.

Jardel added a goal just before halftime. Boavista’s Nuno Henrique also scored an own goal before Raul Jimenez polished off the victory in the 90th.

Jonas had a penalty saved by Boavista goalkeeper Vagner with the score 0-0.

Porto hosts Rio Ave on Sunday. Sporting Lisbon is three points behind Benfica before visiting Tondela on Monday.