European qualifying roundup: Two qualify, while four groups remain tight

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The first two European teams clinched their places in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil by virtue of their victories on Tuesday. While Italy and the Czech Republic celebrate, the day’s results left four groups in which the top two spots are separated by four or less points, while two of those groups have ties at the top.

Russia 3-1 Israel

Russia retook control of Group F in an easy victory. Eran Zahavi scored a consolation goal in the 90th minute for Israel, but Russia scored three goals in the second half after a scoreless opening stanza to take the game.

Armenia 0-1 Denmark

Denmark still has a chance to catch Bulgaria and battle for a playoff spot in Group B. Daniel Agger scored the only goal of this game on a 73rd-minute penalty, which also saw Varazdat Haroyan sent off for Armenia.

Kazakhstan 0-1 Sweden

After falling to third place in Group C, Sweden regained its playoff positioning with a narrow victory in Kazakhstan. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 27 seconds into the game on what is the quickest goal the Swedish team has ever scored.

Norway 0-2 Switzerland

The Swiss needed a result away from home to stave off advances from Iceland and Slovenia at the top of Group E. All three of the top teams in the group won today, but Switzerland still has a five-point lead on Iceland and a six-point lead on Slovenia.

Romania 0-2 Turkey

Turkey’s win in Bucharest not only put the away team ahead of Romania in the Group D standings on goal difference, but it also assured that the Netherlands qualified for Brazil on Tuesday. The next three spots are separated by just one point, as Hungary also defeated Estonia.

Slovakia 1-2 Bosnia-Herzegovina

An away win in Slovakia keeps Bosnia-Herzegovina in first place in Group G, thanks to its plus-15 goal difference. Slovakia can help its opponent in the next match, against the other top team in the group, Greece.

Cyprus 0-2 Slovenia

The tight pack in Group E continues to be the closest race, with all but one team in the group still in the hunt for a qualification spot. Unfortunately for Cyprus, its 2-0 home loss to Slovenia only reaffirmed that it is the odd team out, while first through fifth places are separated by just eight points — and second through fifth have just three points between them.

Andorra 0-2 Netherlands

Robin van Persie’s second-half double sent the Netherlands into the World Cup.

Hungary 5-1 Estonia

After a humiliating 3-0 loss in Romania on Friday, Hungary turned the tables in a 5-1 home win over Estonia. Hungary now sits in second place in Group D by one point over Romania and Turkey.

Italy 2-1 Czech Republic

Italy overcame an early deficit to clinch qualification with a 2-1 win in Turin. Mario Balotelli scored the winning goal on a penalty, extending his perfect record from the spot in competitive matches.

Austria 1-0 Ireland

Austria extended its hopes of earning a playoff spot with a crucial 1-0 win over Ireland. The next match, against current second-placed team Sweden, could be decisive in Group C.

Faroe Islands 0-3 Germany

Germany rolled over last-placed Faroe Islands and remained well on top of Group C. Per Mertesacker, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller provided the German goals.

Ukraine 0-0 England

A scoreless tie was enough for England to maintain its one-point lead on top of Group H in a hostile environment in Kiev. With its final two games at home, against lowly Montenegro and Poland, England will be confident of its chances to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Greece 1-0 Latvia

With a narrow win over Latvia, delivered by a Dimitris Salpingidis goal in the 58th minute, Greece stayed tied atop Group G with Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the Greeks trail by a large margin in goal difference, making its final two games against Slovakia and Liechtenstein ones that it must try to win by large margins to assure automatic qualification.

Iceland 2-1 Albania

Iceland moved into second place, a position it holds by one point over Slovenia, with a 2-1 win against Albania in freezing Reykjavík. Albania struck first, in the ninth minute through Valdet Rama, but Birkir Bjarnason responded in the 14th, and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson secured the win in the 47th minute.

Belarus 2-4 France

France tied Spain on top of Group I with a 4-2 win in Belarus, but Spain has a game in hand, as it played a friendly against Chile. At least a playoff spot seems safe, as third-place Finland trails by five points; the two teams meet in the last qualifier of the group stage on Oct. 15.

Other results: Lithuania 2-0 Liechtenstein, Georgia 0-1 Finland, Malta 1-2 Bulgaria, Luxembourg 3-2 Northern Ireland, Macedonia 1-2 Scotland, Wales 0-3 Serbia, San Marino 1-5 Poland

Croatia fears World Cup chance may never come again

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MOSCOW (AP) The rain hid Croatia’s tears.

After Luka Modric collected his Golden Ball award in a downpour, he shared an emotional embrace with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both wearing the country’s red-and-white checkered uniform.

Croatia knows Sunday’s 4-2 loss to France in the World Cup final was a chance that may not come again anytime soon.

“We were so close and we played the best soccer. We deserved more,” said Modric, who at 32 may have played in his last World Cup match.

Croatia’s first golden generation lost to France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and its second went one better. Besides Modric, goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be 38 at the next World Cup in Qatar, midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be 34 and forward Mario Mandzukic will be 36.

“I wish we are now 24, everyone and Luka especially,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “There is a time when something needs to end.”

Among a crowd of men in dark suits on the World Cup podium, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Grabar-Kitarovic’s team shirt showed her passion for Croatia, a country of barely 4 million people.

While some of the players shed tears on the field, fans at home celebrated in the thousands despite the loss.

“Overall, we’ve been better,” Lovren said, critical of the way France played. “They did it the other way. They didn’t play football. They waited for their chances and they scored. They had their own tactic and you need to respect that. They played the tournament like that every game.”

Croatia went down with the same grit that had taken it through three extra-time matches, all won after conceding the opening goal. When Ivan Perisic scored in the 28th minute after Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal had given France the lead, Croatia looked ready to do it again.

Then came a penalty, called after a video review, which Antoine Griezmann converted.

Trailing 2-1, Croatia conceded two more goals but kept fighting. Mandzukic then took advantage of a goalkeeping error to make it 4-2, becoming the first player to score for both teams in a World Cup final.

“When you want to be the best then you need to win, simple as that,” said Lovren, who lost the Champions League final with Liverpool in May. “It’s not easy to accept that. It’s something that I will carry for my life.”

James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

VIDEO: Juventus unveil Cristiano Ronaldo

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Things are pretty crazy in Turin right now.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been unveiled as a Juventus player after his record $120 million transfer from Real Madrid, the largest few ever paid by Juve or any Italian club in history.

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The five-time World Player of the Year causes  a stir wherever he goes but this was something else.

Ronaldo, 33, signed autographs and posed for photos with fans as thousands turned out to see him arrive in Italy.

The Portuguese star last played on June 30 against Uruguay, as Portugal lost 2-1 and crashed out of the World Cup at the last 16 stage.

Juve are heading on a U.S. tour this summer and their first game is on July 25 against Bayern Munich in Philadelphia, before they play Benfica, the MLS All-Stars and his former club, Real Madrid.

Take a look below at some of the scenes from Ronaldo’s unveiling at the fourth club of his career after his spells at Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United and Real Madrid.


With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory

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PARIS (AP) It was a victory for all of France and the home crowd did it justice, pouring into Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue by the tens of thousands to celebrate in an explosion of joy.

France’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday marked the second time in 20 years that France has won the World Cup, and came at a time when the people feel needy.

“It represents enormous things,” said Goffrey Hamsik, dressed in a hat resembling a rooster – the French national symbol – and a shirt with the No. 10 for Kylian Mpappe, the 19-year-old breakout star who hails from the Paris suburb of Bondy.

“We’ve had lots of problems in France these past years,” he said, recalling deadly terror attacks. “This is good for the morale … Here, we are all united. We mix. There is no religion, there is nothing, and that’s what feels good.”

Troublemakers marred some of the festivities at the top of the Champs-Elysees, breaking the window of a major store, throwing bottles, temporary barriers and even a bicycle at riot police as the celebrations wound down close to midnight. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas. BFM-TV reported that the store was pillaged.

Earlier, people wrapped in flags and dressed in crazy hats, and one man spotted totally nude except for the Tricolor, marched down the avenue where France displayed its military might a day earlier for Bastille Day.

Revelers set off smoke bombs in the national colors – blue, white and red – obscuring Napoleon’s triumphal arch. People climbed atop every newspaper kiosk and bus stop in the area to wave flags and lead the crowds below in cheers. The national anthem, the Marseillaise, rang out, cars honked horns and cherry bombs cracks.

A young man sprayed a fire extinguisher on the crowd on a late hot afternoon.

Hundreds of police in riot gear were discretely lined up on side streets to monitor revelers. Typically, celebrations in France end up with some broken shop windows and other destruction, and Sunday was no exception. Tear gas was lobbed at one point on the Champs-Elysees. About 4,000 police watched over the fan zone – packed to its 90,000 capacity – during the match, then moved to the Champs-Elysees and neighboring streets.

As night fell, The Eiffel Tower flashed 1998-2018 to mark France’s two World Cup titles.

The Arc de Triomphe was awash in the national colors, lit with the rooster, the faces of the winning team and the words “Proud to be Blue,” or French.

The celebrations were spread across the nation.

For all the crazy antics – and some revelers who got out of control – a sense of patriotism and unity was almost visceral.

Antoine Griezmann, the France striker who scored one of the goal’s Sunday, told a news conference two days before the final, televised on BFM TV, that pride in country is in short supply.

“We say it so little … We should be proud to be French,” Griezmann said.

Mahmoud Bourassi was among those taking a longer-term view and he had some sobering thoughts about France’s run to the title and the festivities it has sparked.

Bourassi runs a youth center in Bondy – Mbappe’s home that was among those scarred by riots in 2005 that exposed the fissures of France that have yet to heal – and he knows the teenage star of the tournament.

“All this euphoria and effervescence, it’s positive but it’s emotional and ephemeral,” he said ahead of France’s win. Bourassi said sports is a “catalyst to bring people and nations together.”

But, he added, it must be built on.

“What we’re seeing is magic, exceptional. But what are we going to do with it tomorrow?”

That is a question for President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Moscow celebrating with the team on victory night, and will receive the squad more formally on Monday at the presidential Elysee Palace.

Revelers celebrated the moment.

“We’re happy. It took 20 years … It’s the pride of the nation. It unites everyone. It federates,” Frederique Pourquet said as she and her friend left the Champs-Elysees.

The win “shows that the French people are consolidated and the work of all France,” said Omar Bzi.

Hajar Maghnaoui, of Asnieres, north of Paris, said “It’s a way to bring the French people together, and also the world.”

John Leicester in Moscow contributed to this report.

Sunday league in New York rallies around assaulted referee

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I had to share a nice, feel-good moment from my neck of the soccer woods on this fine Sunday in July.

It starts with something heinous, though.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Let’s begin here: The Buffalo District Soccer League (BDSL) is an 81-team men’s league in Western New York. It also conducts the Tehel Cup, the oldest amateur cup tournament in the United States.

Unfortunately, this post is about neither of the positives associated with those facts, as last weekend saw a player lose control after receiving a red card. The player in question hit referee Mike Crane, leaving the official with a head injury.

It’s not the first time we’ve written about referee assault; Unfortunately, typing the phrase “referee dies” in the PST search tool brings up multiple entries.

Yet the incident understandably caused a stir in the Buffalo soccer community, as the BDSL rallied around Crane and its officials.

Clubs assembled before their matches to take photos with the referee units, tagging each on Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedForCrane.

Let’s hope this post serves as a reminder to all weekend warriors and professional players alike: It’s still just a game.