AFP

Amid war, Syria hopes to reach World Cup for 1st time

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) In the midst of a long-running and ruinous war, millions of Syrians may finally have something to be joyful about.

Syria’s national soccer team has a chance to qualify for next year’s World Cup – what would be the Arab nation’s first ever appearance in the sport’s most prestigious event. The team, referred to by many Syrians as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking the capital Damascus, has been on an impressive run despite being forced to play all its games in other countries.

The Syrians beat Qatar 3-1 on Thursday in Malaysia, moving into third place in Group A of Asian qualifying. The top two finishers in the six-team group will automatically qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, while the third-place team will enter a playoff.

If the Syrians beat Iran in Tehran in their final group match on Tuesday, they will be guaranteed to finish at least third. But Syria could finish second and qualify directly depending on the result of the match between South Korea and Uzbekistan.

“Our team is ready to achieve victory and qualify Syria for the first time to the World Cup,” Muwaffaq Fathallah, the chief administrator of the Syrian team, said by telephone from the Iranian capital. “We want the Syrian people to be happy.”

The qualification would come as a welcome surprise for millions across the war-torn country, which has been devastated by the conflict. More than 400,000 people have been killed and half the country’s prewar population displaced since the conflict erupted in March 2011. It will also be a boost for President Bashar Assad, who is eager to project strength and normalcy on the world stage while his forces continue to recapture territory on the ground.

The war has negatively impacted the country’s soccer industry, the country’s most popular sport. As the nation descended into conflict, sports stadiums were trashed and many of the national team’s players moved to Arab or Asian countries to play.

The national team is made up of government-approved supporters, although at least one player was an opposition activist. Striker Firas al-Khatib, who was often seen attending fundraising events for the opposition during his years in exile, returned to Damascus last month for the first time in five years, receiving a VIP welcome at the airport.

“There is no better feeling than returning home,” al-Khatib, who once said he would never again play for the government team until it stops its bombardment of opposition-held areas, said upon his arrival.

Another player who has been outside Syria for years but never expressed support for the opposition is Omar al-Soma, who joined the national team before the match against Qatar last week.

The team’s captain, Ahmad al-Saleh, plays for Chinese club Henan Jianye, while Omar Khribin, who scored a goal in each half against Qatar, plays for Saudi Arabian team Al-Hilal. Al-Soma, who recently joined the national team, plays for Saudi club Al-Ahli.

Al-Khatib, who played for Kuwaiti team Qadsia and later Al-Arabi, will be returning to his mother club of Al-Karamah in the central city of Homs.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the national team began its training in Tehran on Saturday in preparation for Tuesday’s match against Iran.

In the Syrian capital on Monday, workers were setting up giant screens in at least three squares for public viewing, while businessmen will be offering food and drinks for those planning to watch. State-run television, which is planning to broadcast the game live, has lined up special programs for the event.

The politics of Syria’s run has not been lost on anyone.

For Syria to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, its chief international ally, it must defeat Iran, its regional political ally. Both countries have provided crucial political and military support to shore up Assad’s forces in the war.

On social media, some predicted that Iran, which has already qualified for the tournament, may let Syria win the match based on the political closeness of the two countries.

The coach of Iran’s national soccer team, Carlos Queiroz, rejected any match-fixing plans and the state-owned IRAN daily reported Monday that Iran midfielder Ashkan Dejagah said his team is determined to win Tuesday’s match.

Mowaffak Joumaa, the head of Syria’s Olympic committee and sports federation, told The Associated Press in Damascus that “every citizen has become a soldier in his own profession” and the soccer players are doing their best for the country.

“We are hopeful,” Joumaa said, “that they will achieve a good result in the match against Iran and would bring happiness to all Syrians on Tuesday.”

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Terhran, Iran, contributed to this report.

6 clubs fined, risk FIFA transfer bans for debts to players

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ZURICH (AP) Clubs from Russia and Qatar are among six fined by FIFA and warned they risk one-year transfer bans for failing to settle debts to players.

[ MORE: Steffen to England? ]

FIFA says the clubs also face deductions of six league points if they fail to pay the debts in 30 to 90 days.

The clubs are: Kuban of Russia; Al Arabi and Al Kharaitiyat of Qatar; Zamalek of Egypt; Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates; and Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey.

FIFA says all failed to comply with rulings by FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to pay significant overdue amounts of money to players.”

They were fined between 15,000 and 30,000 Swiss francs ($15,000 and $30,000).

FIFA says national soccer federations face disciplinary cases if they fail to enforce the verdicts.

Premier League friendlies: Liverpool meets BVB; Everton in Portugal

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The Premier League is three weeks and one day from opening its 2018-19 slate, when Leicester City will visit Old Trafford for a Friday afternoon match with Manchester United.

The end of the World Cup has eyeballs trained on friendlies, with 19 Premier League teams doing work over the weekend.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

The International Champions Cup has a pair of matches on the docket.

Friday sees Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, sans many of their World Cup stars, mixing it up with Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.

Then Sunday will see Borussia Dortmund switching gears and time zones, tangling with Liverpool in North Carolina as Pulisic renews acquaintances with old pal Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester United takes on San Jose on Sunday, two days after facing Club America.

Other marquee friendlies of the weekend include Bournemouth facing American back Shaq Moore and Levante on Friday, with Fulham hosting Lyon on Saturday, and Everton meeting Lille and Porto on consecutive Portuguese days Saturday and Sunday.

Friday

Bournemouth vs. Levante
Burnley vs. Macclesfield Town
Burnley vs. Curzon Ashton
Cardiff City vs Torquay
Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund (in Chicago)

Saturday

Brighton and Hove Albion vs. AFC Wimbledon
Crystal Palace vs. Oxford United
Everton vs. Lille
Fulham vs. Lyon
Huddersfield Town vs. Real Betis
Huddersfield Town vs. Roy-Weiss Essen or Werder Bremen
Leicester City vs. Notts County
Southampton vs. Derby County
Watford vs. Fortuna Dusseldorf
West Ham United vs. Preston North End

Sunday

Everton vs. Porto
Huddersfield Town vs. Darmstadt
Liverpool vs. Borussia Dortmund (in North Carolina)
Manchester United vs. San Jose Earthquakes (in Santa Clara)
Wolverhampton vs. TBD

Transfer rumor roundup: Japan, South Africa strikers to Premier League

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Percy Tau’s name isn’t yet widely known outside of South Africa, what with Bafana Bafana absent from the World Cup.

But the 24-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns winger may soon get to test his skills on a much bigger stage.

[ USMNT: More accolades for Pulisic ]

Tau, who has five goals in 12 caps, will reportedly join Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League if a medical goes well, with Sky Sports saying it’ll will be the biggest transfer fee yet for a South African Premier League player.


Yoshinori Muto could be bringing his 25 caps to the Premier League.

The 26-year-old striker made just one appearance at the World Cup, but has had a nice run with Mainz since joining from FC Tokyo. He’s bagged 23 goals in 71 appearances.

Bild report says there have been no formal offers for Muto, but that Newcastle United and West Ham are interested in the striker. Newcastle badly needs a striker, but West Ham has been spending money and Magpies owner Mike Ashley hasn’t green lit much in recent seasons.

Open Cup draw postponed as Portland protests LAFC win

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The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup draw is not going as planned, as the Portland Timbers protest the roster of victorious LAFC.

[ RECAP: Four USOC semifinalists minted ]

Philadelphia, Chicago, and Houston were the other sides to get a place in the final four teams.

LAFC’s victory had already been marred by Adama Diomande‘s claims of a racial slur hurled his way, and now their victory may be in question altogether as U.S. Soccer issued a press release saying Thursday’s scheduled draw was postponed.

From a U.S. Soccer press release:

The decision comes as a result of a protest filed by the Portland Timbers in relation to the number of foreign players fielded by Los Angeles Football Club during Wednesday night’s Quarterfinal at Banc of America Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif.

The rule says a maximum five players without green cards can be in the 18. Portland started only two Americans, Jeff Attinella and Zarek Valentin, but have green cards for many others and rules are rules.

Will the Timbers take a semifinal berth via protest?