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Emotions run high as Syria’s divisive World Cup bid ends

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BEIRUT (AP) Millions of Syrians at home and abroad cheered, shouted and were ultimately left frustrated Tuesday as they watched their chance to qualify for their first ever World Cup soccer tournament end in disappointment.

The country’s impressive showing had brought hope and a rare chance to celebrate among Syrians living with a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people. The “Dream,” as a Syrian TV announcer described it Tuesday, ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.

[ VIDEO: Is Harry Kane “world class?” ]

President Bashar Assad, who has benefited from a Syria team thrust onto the world stage, saluted the players, known as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking Damascus.

“You were heroes and drew smiles on the faces of all Syrians,” Assad said in remarks carried on the presidency’s Telegram page.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the Umayyad square in Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, cheering and waving Syrian flags as they watched the game on giant screens.

“The Syrian team played in a mythical way. Although it lost the game, it has gained the respect of the entire world,” 25-year-old Dima Al-Sawas said as she struggled to hold back tears.

The team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games abroad. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year war, the country’s World Cup bid was not supported by many Syrians opposed to Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.

After the match on social media, some cheered while others derided the team, largely seen as being controlled by the Syrian government.

Many among the opposition called it the “Assad Team” or the “Barrel Bomb” team, in reference to the helicopter-borne explosive barrels dropped on civilians that became a trademark of Assad’s military during the war. Images of the players wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Assad’s face at news conferences reinforced the image of a national team controlled by a dictator.

“Congratulations on the defeat of one of the most dangerous attempts by the criminal Assad to promote himself,” tweeted opposition activist Osama Abu Zeid, an adviser to rebels fighting to topple Assad.

The government had ordered Syrian schools closed to allow students to watch the game, and universities closed early to avoid traffic jams and possible roads closures. Most Syrian cafes also made preparations for the game and set up big TV screens for customers. The crowd burst in excitement and shouts of happiness when Omar al-Soma gave Syria the lead in the sixth minute.

“It was a hard luck for the Syrian team that has wasted no chance to win,” said Maher Awad, a 20-year-old university student.

The game was beamed on large screens in city squares across provinces controlled by Assad.

“We got used to victories, come on guys!” said the announcer on state-run Syrian TV, in reference to a string of military victories by Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed forces. “Twenty-three million Syrians are watching you.”

Syrian refugees in neighboring countries also rallied around TV screens in tented settlements or cafes to watch.

“Hard luck to all Syrians who were in need for happiness after seven years of war,” said Seifeddine Wannous, a Syrian who works for Iraqi TV and who fled the country to Lebanon in 2015. “Maybe its bad luck that … we were not able to play on our land. Maybe we would have made a difference.”

Associated Press writer Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE