Getty Images

Qatar’s unifying World Cup vision erodes as nations cut ties

Leave a comment

Qatar launched its bid for the 2022 World Cup with a powerful vision that soccer could unite the Middle East.

“Just think together of what we can achieve together,” Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the Qatar’s then-ruler, told FIFA voters in 2010. She ambitiously forecast a “culture of peace across our region through football,”

With five years until kickoff, that optimism is rapidly disintegrating after Arab neighbors severed ties on Monday with the tiny nation that turned to sports to buttress its global status.

FIFA is hoping the regional rifts are healed long before world soccer’s governing body might have to contemplate any change of host, a move that would deal a heavy blow to Qatar’s reputation and economy as it is investing more than $150 billion on infrastructure to handle the World Cup.

For now, FIFA is predictably sidestepping detailed questions about the impact of the storm caused by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates casting Qatar adrift diplomatically. FIFA merely stresses that it maintains regular contact with Qatar, whose political leadership is accused of supporting terror groups, interfering in the sovereign affairs of Arab countries and backing groups that undermine political stability.

“One thing is certain, the world’s football community should agree that large tournaments cannot be played in countries that actively support terror,” said Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football federation and a member of FIFA’s ruling council.

Qatar denies funding extremists, but that hasn’t stopped its neighbors from implementing punitive measures that impact people and businesses across the region, including soccer fans.

FIFA was dragged into the backlash against Qatar on Tuesday when state-funded broadcaster beIN Sports appeared to be blocked in the UAE. With beIN holding the broadcasting rights to FIFA events across the Middle East and North Africa, the ongoing Under-20 World Cup in South Korea will now be unavailable for viewers in the UAE.

“FIFA is in contact with beIN Sports regarding the said matter which we continue to monitor,” the Zurich-based body said.

FIFA is also in partnership with Qatar’s flagship carrier. Qatar Airways, which signed up as a World Cup sponsor last month, has been forced to reroute journeys over Iranian and Turkish airspace after Saudi Arabia and Egypt blocked Qatari flights from using their airspace. A soccer sponsorship has already been affected, with Saudi club Al-Ahli terminating its deal with the airline.

The escalation of the crisis in the Persian Gulf will have underscored to FIFA just how precarious the region is, and the geographical weakness of oil-and-gas rich Qatar.

The desert nation is heavily reliant on food imports, predominantly through its border with Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of trucks transporting food and construction materials have now been stopped from entering.

A sustained blockade could hit the construction boom required to transform the sparse nation. An entire city is being built from scratch to stage the final. Not a single stadium was ready at the time of bidding, and only one venue has so far been completed as Qatar prepares to welcome the 32 teams.

Qatar has long been heavily reliant on a massive workforce of migrant laborers from Asia to expand its infrastructure. The Philippines has temporarily suspended the deployment of Filipino workers to Doha, but said there is no plan yet to repatriate the more than 200,000 existing members of the labor force.

Being handed the World Cup made working, living conditions and employment rights in Qatar a global concern like never before. Practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system that bind workers to their employer are in place across the region, but activists have largely only shone the spotlight on Qatar and the human cost of hosting the World Cup.

Qatar has responded to the pressure by compelling companies to adopt labor reforms. It’s one of the consequences of hosting a major sporting event that Qatar did not seem to anticipate amid the joy of stunning Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States in the 2010 vote.

Qatar has got the attention it craved, but it’s largely been unwelcome, with little of the warm unifying sentiment conveyed in the aspirational bid videos.

From the moment then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope in Zurich, the whiff of corruption has hung over Qatar, coupled with concerns about heat that forced the tournament to be shifted to November-December.

Despite being exonerated by FIFA’s ethics investigators, the finger of suspicion has never been lifted by Qatar’s harshest critics. Chatter about Qatar being stripped of the hosting rights or being boycotted by some countries has persisted, without the call coming from any authoritative soccer body or government.

Significantly, the federation of World Cup holder Germany is not endorsing such an extreme move.

“There are still five years before the World Cup kicks off,” Grindel said. “Political solutions must take precedence over threats of boycott in this time.”

The countries currently embroiled in the dispute with Qatar are not World Cup regulars, so there are slim chances of their teams qualifying for the 2022 tournament. But Qatar will be hosting athletes from across the region when it stages the world track and field championships in 2019.

“We are talking to our teams in the region to properly understand the implications for both the short term and long term,” the IAAF said.

In a region that Qatar hoped to bring together through lavish sporting events, the peninsula has never appeared more isolated.

AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Brazil tests Willian up front with Neymar and Jesus

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AP) Brazil’s second pre-World Cup training featured Willian in the attack with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus on Thursday, a hint that coach Tite might change his starting lineup.

Willian played with the two star strikers for about one hour in the first training with footballs at the Granja Comary ground in Teresopolis, outside Rio de Janeiro.

[ MORE: Commisso “hopeful” of $500m USSF deal ]

Tite did not use his starting midfield to play with the trio. He also used defenders Marquinhos and Miranda during the entire hour, suggesting former captain Thiago Silva will be on the bench for the moment.

If Willian is brought on to the team, Tite could remove midfielder Renato Augusto from the starting lineup, put Philippe Coutinho in his place, and open a gap for Willian.

Since last year, Tite has said he needs a “pacemaker,” and considers Coutinho one of his main options for the role.

Beijing Guoan’s Augusto is under pressure after unconvincing performances in Brazil’s midfield.

Augusto’s spot is also eyed by Fred, one of the surprises of Tite’s squad.

The midfielder said he admired Brazil players who began a World Cup on the bench and later became starters, such as Mazinho (1994) and Kleberson (2002).

“We can get inspiration from them, these players worked very hard to get their spot,” Fred said. “But if I have to be out I will keep working hard.”

Fred also said he was torn between a transfer to Manchester United or Manchester City.

Fred said he had an offer from City in January, and both were now talking to his Shakhtar Donetsk club about a transfer.

“Maybe after the World Cup I will make the choice,” the midfielder said. “Now I am only thinking about the World Cup.”

Fred said he believes his future is outside Ukraine, and doing well in the English Premier League like other Brazilians such as Chelsea’s Willian.

Tite is counting on only 18 of the 23 players in his squad at training in Teresopolis.

Winger Douglas Costa and Fagner are still recovering from injury.

Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Real Madrid’s Casemiro and Marcelo will only join on Monday after the Champions League final.

Training on Thursday was attended by four-time World Cup winner Mario Zagallo.

Liverpool owner Henry reflects on history, takes shots at Suarez, Coutinho

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Terrific AP reporter Rob Harris sat down for a chat with Liverpool owner John Henry, and the American businessman didn’t hesitate to unleash some prime quotes.

Liverpool, of course, is preparing for the weekend’s UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid, and feeling its oats a bit.

[ MORE: Ronaldinho marrying 2 women ]

Henry is no exception, saying of departed Reds stars Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho, “They’ll be watching this weekend and could have been playing.”

And his shots didn’t stop with the Barcelona stars. He extended it to all of La Liga. From the AP:

“You don’t want to be in the position where players want to go somewhere else, even if it is a great club like Barcelona,” Henry said. “It’s hard to understand why players would want to go to a league where the competition is so weak. They must play 30 or so meaningless matches per year waiting for Champions League matches.”

Henry also talks about his takeover, selling Fernando Torres, and how Anfield pushes Liverpool past the competition. Read the whole interview here.

Ronaldinho reportedly marrying two women at same time

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ronaldinho always had a knack for making the difficult look simple.

He’d better hope that skill extends to a pretty unique marital arrangement.

The retired 2002 World Cup champion is going to marry two women at the same time, Priscilla Coelho and Beatriz Souza, in August.

[ MORE: Commisso “hopeful” of $500m USSF deal ]

Apparently he’s been living with the pair since December, having dated Coelho since 2013 and Souza beginning in 2016.

Ronaldinho, 38, co-existed in a three-pronged offense with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o, so maybe?

From Yahoo! Sports:

Bigamy and polygamy are illegal in Brazil, but Ronaldinho’s case is a little different. He’s not planning to marry one woman, and then the other; he’s planning to marry both at the same time. That’s considered a three-person civil union, and they do exist in Brazil. The first one, between two women and a man, was recognized in 2012. Another was recognized in 2015, between three women who intended to raise a child together.

After saving German club, Green hopes to revive USMNT career

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Leave a comment

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Julian Green has been the Halley’s Comet of the U.S. national team. He appeared out of nowhere for the 2014 World Cup, scored against Belgium and then pretty much disappeared.

After scoring the goal that saved a German club from relegation to the third division, he’s back with a young American group that has no World Cup to prepare for. And he’s still only 22.

[ MORE: Commisso “hopeful” of $500m USSF deal ]

“It made me much stronger. I’m a different person now. I’m a better player now,” he said Thursday ahead of next week’s exhibition against Bolivia.

Born in Tampa, Florida, Green was 2 when he moved to Germany with his older brother Justin and his German-born mother.

A member of Bayern Munich’s youth system, he was not part of the U.S. pool that qualified for the 2014 World Cup. The winger played for Germany in three qualifiers for the 2014 European Under-19 Championship, then switched to the Americans at the behest of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

He was a surprise pick on the U.S. roster four years ago this week, seemingly to displace Landon Donovan. At 19 the third-youngest player in the World Cup, Green scored in the Americans’ extra-time loss in the round of 16, two minutes after entering. He left Brazil on the list of potential breakout players for the next four-year cycle.

That potential has not yet been fulfilled.

While he played in exhibitions later that year against the Czech Republic and Colombia, his career stalled for club and country. Green was bypassed for the 2015 and 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cups and the 2016 Copa America. His only U.S. appearances were in three friendlies in 2016.

[ MORE: Next USMNT-Mexico date set ]

After Bruce Arena replaced Klinsmann that fall, Green was never brought back. Until now.

“I’m curious just to hear his side of things and see where he’s at,” said interim coach Dave Sarachan, who took over after the U.S. was eliminated with last October’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Green joined Bayern at age 14 and made his first-team debut on Nov. 27, 2013, late in a Champions League match against CSKA Moscow. Bayern coach Pep Guardiola said he expected to keep Green for 2014-15, then reversed course and loaned him to Hamburg. Green made it into just five Bundesliga games that season,

“The coach that wanted me, he gets fired after one week,” Green said. “That was a hard time.”

Green returned to Bayern for 2016-17, and his playing time under coach Carlo Ancelotti was limited to a pair of German Cup matches. He transferred to second-tier Stuttgart in January, had one goal in 10 league games, then was loaned to second-division Greuther Fuerth for 2017-18.

His played regularly, and his career started to revive. On May 13 he scored on a right-footed shot from about 23 yards in a 1-1 draw against Heidenheim, preventing Greuther Fuerth from getting demoted to Germany’s third tier.

“One of the best seasons for me personally,” he said.

He understands why he couldn’t get playing time at Bayern, one of the world’s top clubs.

“At each position there were like three top stars,” he said.

Green started to play a more central role this season, one that could have more of an impact on his team.

“Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, they always told me my best position is in the middle,” Green said. “The first games at Fuerth I started out wide, and then the last games I started in the middle. And for me personally, I think in the middle is a better position.”

Green’s contract with Stuttgart runs through 2018-19, and he’s not sure which club he’ll be with next season. He knows he can’t afford to disappear from the thoughts of coaches on both sides of the Atlantic.

“To his credit, he’s only 22 years old and he’s back here, and he did it by playing his way back in,” U.S. assistant coach John Hackworth said.

If Green becomes a first-division regular, he could become part of the American nucleus for the 2022 World Cup cycle, a roster led by Christian Pulisic that also could include midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, and defender Matt Miazga. Among that quartet, Green is the oldest. He has three goals in eight U.S. appearances and is the only player on this week’s roster with World Cup experience.

“I’d like to see his personality sort of emerge,” Sarachan said. “He’s a quiet kid.”

Green had a hard time believing the U.S. failed to qualify for next month’s World Cup. Given the time difference, he didn’t stay up to watch the match in Trinidad. He figured he’d find out happy news in the morning.

“I took a look at my phone: I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought it was a joke.”

Notes: The U.S. will play Mexico in an exhibition on Sept. 11 at Nashville, Tennessee, the second of what likely will be two home matches during the international fixture period.