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Being a soccer fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

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CAIRO (AP) Being a soccer fan in Egypt has been a dangerous, sometimes even deadly, passion for years. That may soon change.

The Al-Ahly club’s “Ultras” – hardcore supporters of the Cairo-based team and the country’s largest fan association – have appealed to authorities to negotiate an end to years of tension and violence while disavowing members involved in a recent post-game rampage that had temporarily shattered the prospects for reconciliation.

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Preliminary contacts between the two sides are underway as a prelude to talks to hammer out an agreement allowing fans back in games for the first time since a ban on attendance following a 2012 riot in the coastal city of Port Said that left more than 70 fans, mostly Ultras, dead in one of the world’s worst soccer-related incidents.

The ban on fans attending games was later relaxed for continental games. An attempt earlier this year to introduce a partial and gradual relaxation of the ban on domestic games was aborted at the last minute, with police citing security concerns.

The ongoing contacts to lift the ban are a welcome development that, if fruitful, would give a significant boost to the sport at a time when Egypt is making its return to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

“We are all suffering from the absence of fans and want them back to revive the atmosphere in stadiums,” said Mukhtar Mukhtar, the manager of league club Military Production. “Their absence has undoubtedly impacted on the players’ performance.”

A deal is believed to be possible now because the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appears to be more confident of its control over the country after years of turmoil and a massive crackdown that sent thousands of dissidents to jail.

The riot in Port Said in 2012 was not the only soccer-related tragedy to befall Egypt.

In 2015, 22 fans were killed in a stampede prompted by heavy tear gas fired by police outside a military-owned stadium in a Cairo suburb. Additionally, hundreds of fans have been arrested over the years as the Ultras took part in violent protests, including one in 2013 that torched the headquarters of the Egyptian soccer federation and vandalized a police social club, and others marking the anniversary of the 2012 tragedy.

The violence has over time deepened a sort of vendetta between police and fans, who seize every occasion to taunt the paramilitary force with chants, some of which also have an anti-government slant. Moreover, many fans accuse the police of failing to prevent the deadly Port Said riot or intervene to end it when it first started.

The years of violence, arrests and incessant demonization of fans by the pro-government media have led to the reduction of the number of association members across the country, forcing some to even voluntarily disband. But they have also given rise to a younger and more radical generation whose resentment of authorities is more deeply entrenched and seem more inclined to be involved in acts of violence, according to veteran fan association leaders.

But fatigue from a long, drawn-out conflict may have finally set in.

“We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades,” said Mohammed Saheel, a former Ultras leader from Cairo. “We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown ends.”

Ultras leaders and lawyers representing them say that another idea under consideration is to disband the association as a goodwill gesture they hope the government would reciprocate with a pardon for convicted members or those in detention awaiting trial. Another idea under consideration is to retain a private security firm to police matches, thus removing the possibility of fan-police frictions.

The fallout from the violence of the past years has been catastrophic for the game, by far Egypt’s most popular, hurting mainly the big clubs with a large support base. Club officials complain it has negatively impacted on performances, with games in domestic competitions played before eerily silent terraces.

Not surprisingly, the national squad that qualified for the World Cup in Russia is mostly made up of foreign-based players, led by Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah.

The Ultras and their clashes with police are a potent example of how soccer and politics mix in Egypt. The Ultras played a key role in the uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. They fought police for months in street clashes that followed.

Their battle of wills with the police led to a court ruling in 2015 that outlawed the Ultras, along with other associations, branding them terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.

The pro-government media has claimed they were also linked to a leftist, anti-government group, April 6, which together with the Brotherhood have been declared terrorist organizations in separate court rulings.

The feud endures, prompting calls by some commentators for both sides to sit down and resolve their differences to avoid more violence. These calls followed a statement released April 3 by the Ultras in which they appealed to el-Sissi to start a dialogue between them and police to iron out their differences and to pardon nearly 50 members detained since last month’s rampage in a Cairo stadium.

The statement, issued to mark el-Sissi’s re-election last month, was the clearest peace offering by the Ultras.

“I appeal to the presidency to respond to the statement,” said Mohammed Rashwan, a prominent defense lawyer who has represented members of the Ultras in a series of court cases. “I have already been in contact with the minister of youth and sports and there are initiatives under discussion to allow fans to return to stadiums and lay down a system for that.”

Sessegnon scores 15th as Fulham equals Man City unbeaten mark

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Fulham equalled the longest unbeaten run in the English top four tiers this season as it defeated sixth-placed Millwall 3-0 on the road to increase its streak to 22 games without a loss and moving the club into position for automatic promotion.

The Whites have not lost since December 16th when they fell 1-0 to relegation-threatened Sunderland. The unbeaten streak matches Manchester City’s run of 22 games to start the Premier League campaign before a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in mid-January broke the spell.

Highlighting the match was the game’s opening goal from 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, the young defender’s 15th goal of the Championship season. Just a week ago, Sessegnon was named a finalist for PFA Player of the Year alongside Harry Kane, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Also scoring in the win was Newcastle loanee Aleksandar Mitrovic who has bagged 11 goals in 15 matches since moving to Craven Cottage on Deadline Day of the winter transfer window, sparking talk of a possible permanent move should the Whites find themselves promoted at the end of the season. Fulham has not trailed a single second since he stepped on the field for his club debut.

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team firing on all cylinders, outscoring opponents 49-14 during the unbeaten streak and racking up 56 out of a possible 66 points, with just five draws blemishing an otherwise perfect record. The club has scored first in 15 straight matches, and has not trailed since drawing level in the closing minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hull City on December 30th.

USMNT defender Tim Ream has been arguably the club’s most valuable player during the streak, locking down a defense that has picked up 11 clean sheets during the unbeaten run. Ream has played in all but two league matches this season, completing the full 90 minutes in all 41 of his appearances thus far. He has been voted Man of the Match five times this season by the fans on the team’s official website, most recently in a 1-0 victory over Reading on April 10th. He also grabbed the award in a 2-0 win over Championship title winners Wolves on February 24th, a game that saw the Whites out-possess and out-shoot the league champions.

Fulham still has work to do in the Premier League promotion picture, despite the spectacular form. They sit in 2nd position as it stands, leading Cardiff City by two points, but Cardiff has yet to play this weekend, giving them a massive two games in hand. Fulham could ultimately be done in by a slow start to the season that saw them win just twice in the first nine matches of the season as the squad adjusted to a host of new additions. In addition, Fulham suffered a disappointing draw last time out against Brentford as the Bees scored in the 94th minute to deny Fulham all three points, a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Still, Fulham would be considered favorites in any potential playoff run, with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Millwall currently the other teams in playoff positions.

There’s plenty on the line for the club over the next few weeks. Should Fulham fail to gain promotion, it could be a massive blow to the club as Sessegnon could be lured away from Craven Cottage, with Jokanovic and playmaker Tom Cairney also likely to garner speculation of a departure over the summer if the club was to remain in the Championship.

Espanyol fires former Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Espanyol says it has fired manager Quique Sanchez Flores with the club slumping in the Spanish league and in danger of facing a relegation fight to end the season.

Espanyol announced the decision on Friday, adding sports director Jordi Lardin has also been let go.

Sanchez Flores, a former manager of Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Watford, among other clubs, coached the Barcelona-based club for the past two seasons.

Reserve team coach David Gallego will take over for the remaining five rounds of the season, starting with a visit to Girona on Sunday.

Espanyol hasn’t scored a goal in five matches, and has only two wins in the last 15 rounds. It is in 16th place, nine points from the drop.

Brooks yanked after 29 minutes on return from injury

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USMNT defender John Brooks, whose season has been largely ruined by injuries, made his first start since mid-December after finally returning from a knee injury. It didn’t last long – just 29 minutes.

It doesn’t appear to be injury related, however.

After earning a yellow card just 13 minutes in, Brooks was yanked by new Wolfsburg manager Bruno Labbadia in the 29th minute with the club down 1-0 on the road at Borussia Monchengladbach. Brooks was furious as he came off the pitch, and reports from Germany seem to suggest that his substitution was a tactical decision rather than injury-related.

Brooks has made just eight Bundesliga appearances this season, starting the campaign on the shelf with a thigh injury before his knee problem kept him off the field almost four months through the winter and into the spring.

After his withdrawal, Wolfsburg conceded two more goals before halftime as Monchengladbach grabbed a 3-0 lead via goals from Raffael and Christoph Kramer, with Lars Stindl having already given them a lead eight minutes in.

It’s understandable why Labbadia would be cautious with his more aggressive players. Wolfsburg is in danger of the drop, level with Mainz and Freiburg on 30 points with one of them almost assuredly to finish in the relegation playoff position. Still, it’s an unfortunate turn of events for Brooks after finally making his way back to the field, and he was visibly angry as he came off the pitch.

FA Cup semifinal preview: Can Mourinho win Man United another title?

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It’s been a season of highs and lows for Jose Mourinho, but he could put Manchester United on the precipice of another title this Saturday.

The FA Cup semifinals resume this weekend at Wembley Stadium, with Manchester United facing off against Tottenham and Chelsea battling Swansea. It’s a pair of great matchups with plenty of enticing storylines to watch ahead of and during the games.

[MORE: All our coverage of Arsene Wenger’s decision to step down]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Jose Mourinho lost a lot of the good-will earned after Man United’s win over Manchester City as his side capitulated in a 1-0 defeat to last-place West Bromwich Albion.

Now, with a week to stew on that result, Mourinho is just two games away from raising another piece of silverware for Man United, though it won’t exactly be the trophy the fans were hoping for. At the same time, Tottenham, a team on the up and up, would love to win the FA Cup and take control fully of North London from rivals Arsenal. A trip to the final for Tottenham would be the next step in the club’s climb to greatness.

Chelsea vs. Southampton— 10:00 a.m. ET Sunday

It’s been a disappointing season for both clubs, but on different levels. Chelsea, the defending league champions, has struggled most of the season to consistently score goals and will likely finish outside of Europe – unless they make the final of the FA Cup. So there’s a lot riding on the line for Chelsea heading into Sunday’s match.

For Southampton, with Mark Hughes now in charge, it’s almost a throw-away game. If they win, they could be the first team since Wigan to be relegated and qualify for European football the next season, but it could also be a game in which the beleaguered squad could gain some confidence, beating one of the big clubs in England.