2018 World Cup

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FIFA worried about government interference in Spain

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation, FIFA said Friday it will send a delegation to the country to investigate government meddling.

FIFA said in a statement written in Spanish that it had recently sent a letter to the federation “expressing our concern for the situation that the federation is going through and reminding (its officials) that, according to the Statutes of FIFA, all member federations must manage their affairs independently and assure that there is no interference by third parties.”

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported earlier Friday that the FIFA letter warned of a possible suspension because of the government’s push to hold elections following the arrest of federation president Angel Maria Villar in July on suspicion of corruption.

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According to El Pais, FIFA is concerned that the government’s interest in federation elections could be considered outside meddling and break its rules. If the national federation were to be suspended, Spain’s team would not be allowed to play at next year’s World Cup.

FIFA’s statement made no mention of a suspension or other punitive measures.

But the scare was big enough for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to say that Spain will not miss soccer’s biggest event.

“I am sure that Spain will go to the World Cup in Russia and that it will win it,” Rajoy said at a news conference in Brussels.

FIFA added in its statement that “in the coming days” it will send a delegation, which will include representatives from UEFA, to Madrid to “observe and analyze the situation” of the Spanish soccer federation.

The federation said in a separate statement that its interim president, Juan Luis Larrea, had spoken with FIFA and UEFA officials at the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 and that he had passed on their “enormous concern” to Spain’s minister of education, culture and sport.

The Spanish federation said it was waiting for the ministry to set a date for a meeting.

Spanish police arrested Villar, his son, and two other soccer officials in July on suspicion of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar was replaced by Larrea, the body’s treasurer for three decades. Critics of Villar argue that elections are needed to make a clean start for the institution that has been tarnished by the scandal.

Germany’s players have big-money incentive to win World Cup

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BERLIN (AP) Germany’s players will each receive $410,000 bonus if the team defends its World Cup title next year in Russia.

The German soccer federation says it has agreed to a performance-related bonus system for the team, as it did for the successful 2014 World Cup campaign and the last two European Championships.

Bonuses will only be paid upon reaching the quarterfinals, when each player would receive $90,000. That will increase to $150,000 for reaching the semifinals, $175,000 for third place and $235,000 for reaching the final.

Only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) have won back-to-back World Cup titles.

FIFA bans Colombia midfielder Cardona 5 games for gesture

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has banned Colombia midfielder Edwin Cardona for five matches for making a discriminatory gesture with his eyes toward a South Korean opponent.

FIFA will allow Cardona to serve the ban in friendly games, so he should be available for Colombia’s World Cup opener against Japan on June 19.

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Cardona has also been fined 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150) because of the incident last month in a friendly in Seoul.

Cardona apologized at the time, saying he “didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, a country or a race, but if anyone felt offended, or interpreted it in that way, I am sorry.”

USA among leading nations buying 2018 World Cup tickets

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We all know the U.S. national team will not play at the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer, but that hasn’t stopped fans in the United States snapping up tickets for the tournament.

Seriously.

In an updated list of the nations to make the highest number of ticket applications for the tournament, the U.S. is among the top 10 with hosts Russia leading the way (obviously) with 66 percent of World Cup tickets requested so far coming from Russian citizens.

FIFA’s random selection draw for World Cup tickets opened up on Dec. 5 and will run until Jan. 31, 2018, with fans able to bid for which tickets they want and they’ll then find out at a later date if they get the tickets they wanted.

Over 1.3 million tickets were requested from the first 24 hours of ticket sales.

Below is a look at the top 10 nations when it comes to making ticket applications with FIFA not releasing specific rankings among the top 10.

  • Russia (hosts, 66%)
  • Argentina
  • Peru
  • Mexico
  • USA
  • Colombia
  • Brazil
  • Morocco
  • Egypt
  • China
  • Poland

Some intriguing geographical information here with 8 of the top 10 nations (excluding hosts Russia) actually playing in the World Cup, but the USA and China are the only nations among the top 10 who will not see their teams play at the World Cup.

Mexico appear high on the list, while fans of Morocco, Egypt and Peru are making the most of their teams being at the World Cup for the first time in decades.

Why is the U.S. so high? Well, it could be down to fans of Mexico and many of the South American nations who now live in the USA and are planning on going to Russia next summer.

Aside from that, a lack of ticket applications from the likes of England, Germany and France is surprising, but seeing Brazil, Argentina and Colombia among this list is not. All three nations take a huge band of traveling fans wherever they go and Russia will be full of South American flair next summer.

Judging by some of the empty seats in Russian stadiums for the Confederations Cup last summer, it would seem like most of the fans applying for tickets will get lucky.

Soccer success: Iceland investment takes tiny nation to WCup

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) Sunrise is still two hours away when 700 boys arrive for a Sunday morning soccer tournament in Reykjavik, the world’s northern most capital.

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It’s snowing and freezing outside but the players have overcome the natural barrier of playing football on a wind-lashed North Atlantic island by gathering at an indoor hall with a full-size artificial grass field.

If they dream of playing in a World Cup they know it can come true because their national team is going. On Friday, Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, was drawn with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.

The latest achievement has left many wondering if the island nation of nearly 340,000 people is benefiting from its investment in the sport, or is it only temporary success?

Speaking with The Associated Press at the national football stadium, Laugardalsvollur, former Iceland manager Gudjon Thordarson said the investment was paying off.

“Place Iceland’s seven indoor halls in Coventry,” he said, mentioning an English city with a roughly matching population, “and just wait and see what happens over, say, 15 years.”

What has already happened, according to Thordarson, is that when Icelanders were able to play soccer year-round, the rest of the sport became more professional. Coaching became a paid part-time job with required qualifications, instead of a volunteer role given to any involved parent.

Iceland has 460 coaches with a UEFA B license for training children up to the age of 16, or one per 740 people.

Hakon Sverrisson, who left his job as a math teacher to become head coach at the Breidablik club, said he wanted the best coaches to stay with the youngest players because “that’s when they learn the most.”

Every child pays the club’s tuition with a 300 euro ($355) voucher provided by the local municipality to support after-school activities.

Public funding toward sport clubs and their facilities mean children need to be provided with equal opportunities. “This means it’s hard for us to select the 15 or 20 best players and train them extra hard,” Sverrisson said.

Iceland’s place at the World Cup in Russia comes after a stunning run at the 2016 European Championship, where the team made it to the quarterfinals, knocking out England before losing to France 5-2.

Vidar Halldorsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, argued in a recent book that in an era of big money the Icelandic team preserves an amateur spirit of friendship and sacrifice “while the elite teams have been weakened by greed and individualism.”

The Icelandic players have relatively modest careers as professional footballers – team captain Aron Gunnarsson, for example, is with second-tier Cardiff in the English League Championship.

“Together the players are ambitious and supportive,” Halldorsson said, “and always willing to put the team first.”

The success is not “sport specific,” he said, pointing to top-class performances by the Icelandic handball and basketball teams.

“Icelanders have not forgotten the `play’ in sports,” Halldorsson said, “and with that they champion the values the larger teams have lost in recent years.”

The matches at the Korinn indoor hall are watched by proud parents, catching up with friends and relatives. Faces are familiar in a country this small, and even Iceland President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson was there to watch his 8-year-old son.

“The kids here, they learn their game and are encouraged to pass the ball to the next player instead of just kicking it as far as you can – tiny things like that give them an understanding of the game,” Johannesson told the AP.

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A father of five and long-time volunteer in youth clubs, the president said the most important thing was that everybody is involved. “We just make sure that everybody has fun, everybody improves himself and everybody has a good time,” Johannesson said.

“That is what matters to me, not that we are creating professional football players 10 years on or something like that.”