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Qatar still “in campaign mode” to prove worthiness of 2022 WC

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SHEFFIELD, England (AP) The birthplace of modern soccer is now an unassuming site: A couple of pitches with no stands for supporters, and a ramshackle indoor facility where damp rises on the walls and paint peels from the goalposts.

When Sheffield FC formed in this northern English steel city 160 years ago, the wealth awash in the modern game was unimaginable to the founders of the world’s first soccer club. The symbol of how vastly soccer has changed is thousands of miles away in the Gulf, where stadiums are springing up in the Qatari desert and tens of billions of dollars are invested in infrastructure to ensure a tiny nation can host the 32-team World Cup in 2022.

But Olive Grove, where the first rules of the modern game were conceived by Sheffield FC’s founders, was the latest stop this week for Qatar World Cup leader Hassan Al Thawadi on a mission to convince the global football community that his country remains a worthy host of the FIFA showpiece.

Seven years after the controversial vote and five years until kickoff, doubts linger about Qatar’s suitability and right to host the Middle East’s first World Cup.

“I believe we will always be in campaign mode,” Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, said at the self-styled “Home of Football” in an interview with The Associated Press. “Most host nations or host cities suffered from criticism.”

Perhaps, but none on the scale faced by Qatar, which was unprepared for the sharp scrutiny that followed victory in the secret ballot that took the game’s biggest showcase to the smallest country yet.

The greatest threat to Qatar’s hosting status initially came from corruption investigators, who were troubled by some of the bid conduct but ultimately found there was no improper activity that swayed the vote.

Censure came from labor watchdogs who believed a form of modern slavery formed the backbone of World Cup construction, and Qatar was compelled to safeguard rights and conditions for migrant workers. While progress has been made in a region unaccustomed to providing such protections, Qatar still faces demands to be more transparent about the cause of worker deaths and to eradicate exploitative practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system which binds workers to their employer.

“The World Cup is a catalyst and an engine for accelerated reforms,” Al Thawadi said.

Now more powerful forces are at play threatening the World Cup: Four Arab countries have severed diplomatic ties and placed Qatar under a blockade since June in a move claimed to stop the natural-gas-rich country from supporting terrorism – charges denied by Al Thawadi.

“For whoever may want to bring this World Cup into a political debate, that is an action that they are doing unilaterally,” he said.

However sure Al Thawadi is, the World Cup will be played as scheduled from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 2022 – contentiously chosen by FIFA to avoid the fierce summer heat in the usual June-July slot – and he is clearly troubled by attempts to undermine the tournament.

A day after speaking to The AP in Sheffield, Al Thawadi ducked out of the royal box at Wembley Stadium in London just before watching England play Germany to launch a broadside against what he perceives as efforts by Qatar’s regional rivals to bring down the World Cup.

Dubai’s security chief has already said the only way to end “Qatar’s crisis” was to give up the event, though he later said he was referring to the financial impact of hosting. An Emirati minister followed up by tweeting that Qatar’s hosting of the tournament should “include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism & terrorism.”

Lobbying firms backed by the nations opposing Doha have increasingly targeted the World Cup, while Twitter has been promoting anonymous paid posts attacking Qatar’s fitness as a tournament host, citing corruption allegations and worker abuses.

“We refuse to have this World Cup used as political pawn or a political tool because we believe in separating politics from sports … and using sports as a means of resolving conflict,” Al Thawadi said in the Wembley library. “I hope that the blockading nations see reason to be able to participate and join for the sake of the region benefiting out of this World Cup.”

The crisis has exposed the scale of risks associated with taking the World Cup to a region in flux. Stadium costs are rising after Qatar was forced to find alternative routes to import building materials, and security concerns linger.

“You can’t always prepare for a specific incident, but you can always prepare with contingency plans and be ready with a very resourceful and very quick and effective reactionary mindset as well,” Al Thawadi said. “As soon as the blockade occurred, we were able to put Plan B and Plan C quickly in place and address some of the concerns and challenges that the blockade caused.”

Originally pitched to FIFA voters as a World Cup to benefit the Middle East, the idealism appears to have been sunk. The vision could potentially be revived by sharing games with neighbors, a proposition floated externally during the bid and still perceived as an objective in the region.

“Qatar has always been open to dialogue,” Al Thawadi said. “It’s always been open and it’s always supported our brother nations, to the extent that if (sharing the World Cup) was the ultimate goal, all that would have required was a simple conversation.”

For now, England is where Al Thawadi has come to speak to shore up support for his World Cup project.

An association with the trailblazing Sheffield FC, which plays eight divisions below the Premier League, might seem tenuous. But Al Thawadi studied law at the University of Sheffield and this week he returned after 16 years to finally collect his graduation certificate during a brief presentation.

Sheffield FC sought Qatar’s assistance because it was fighting for its future and being overlooked in a country that hosts the world’s richest soccer league. It started in 2009 while Al Thawadi was canvassing for FIFA votes in South Africa, and led in 2015 to 100,000 pounds (then $153,000) being invested by Al Thawadi to help the women’s team. Now Al Thawadi is trying to spur investment from across the English game to allow Sheffield FC to leave its base on the outskirts of the city and build a 6,000-seat venue and museum at its spiritual home at Olive Grove.

“Too often the money takes the lead with Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar,” Sheffield FC chairman Richard Tims said, discussing wealth in the modern game that saw the Brazil forward bought by the Qatar-owned French club for a world record 222 million euros in August. “This project is the other end of the game.”

Clubs are being asked to donate a sum corresponding with their foundation year, and it started with Premier League champion Chelsea agreeing to hand over 1,905 British pounds at a low-key event inside the rundown sports hall at Olive Grove.

Tims flattered his guests, proclaiming: “The new pioneers of football are Qatar.” Al Thawadi then sought to assure the small group of dignitaries that the backing for Sheffield FC is a sign of Qatar’s commitment to the wider game. It is not, Al Thawadi maintained in a later interview, about latching on to Sheffield FC to add a shiny veneer to Qatar’s battered image.

“Sheffield FC represents the start of football,” he said, “but more importantly represents playing football for the love of the game.”

Qatar, though, appears locked into a perpetual struggle, requiring charm offensives like the trip to England to protect its status as 2022 hosts.

“If it means we have to continue every day validating our right to host this World Cup,” Al Thawadi said, “so be it.”

Report: No money in January for Mourinho

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Jose Mourinho will have to deal with the squad he has for the rest of the season, according to a report the Guardian.

The report states that Tottenham isn’t making any money available for signings in January, meaning that Mourinho won’t have the chance to add to his Spurs squad. Usually, when a new coach comes in, they’re given at least a transfer window to bring in one or two players, especially mid-season, to stabilize the squad.

[READ: Mourinho speaks for the first time as Spurs manager]

It’s certainly an unusual move from Tottenham. It leaves Mourinho in a bad spot in terms of the five first-team players who will be out of contract in June. If any of them, including Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen, leave on transfer, perhaps Tottenham can use those funds towards new signings. However, it’s more likely at this point that all five will finish the season at White Hart Lane and leave, setting up a massive summer for Mourinho.

At the same time, Tottenham has shown financial austerity for the past few seasons, as it struggles to pay back the loans it took to renovate its stadium. Pochettino didn’t make a single signing for the entirety of the 2018-2019 season and while the club broke its transfer record to sign Tanguay Ndombele, there wasn’t investment throughout the squad.

Considering Tottenham’s financial behavior, it does question why Mourinho took the job in the first place. But with his reported eight-figure salary, and the chance to work with Harry Kane, Mourinho may have decided it’s worth it, even if he can’t sign his players and mold the squad in the way he wants.

Looking Ahead: Mourinho’s first 10 games

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Tottenham’s stunning week continued on Wednesday with the appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager.

Taking in his first day of training, Mourinho can now get to grips with not only his squad, but what’s ahead for Spurs. Here’s a look at what Mourinho will be up against in the next two months.

[READ: 5 things Mourinho must do at Tottenham]


Game 1: Tottenham at West Ham, Saturday, Premier League

Mourinho’s first game in charge is a London derby, which is a pretty tough way to start life at the club. Coming on the road, you can expect a packed house, tons of media attention, and possibly a re-energized squad. That’s what Mourinho will be hoping for, anyways.

Sebastian Haller has struggled recently, and with just four goals in 11 Premier League games, he could be looking at this matchup as a way to get back on the scoresheet. It will be up to Mourinho to re-organize a want-away defense.

Game 2: Tottenham v. Olympiakos, Nov. 26, UEFA Champions League

Game 3: Tottenham v. Bournemouth, Nov. 30, Premier League

Game 4: Tottenham at Manchester United, Dec. 4, Premier League

Mourinho only has to wait three weeks before his first trip back to Old Trafford. Even though it’s coming soon, it’s not a guarantee that it will be Mourinho v. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is under a lot of pressure himself. Things haven’t improved at Man United much since Mourinho was sacked, and a win for him on the road would be the kind of grudge match he lives for.

Game 5: Tottenham v. Burnley, Dec. 7, Premier League

Game 6: Tottenham at Bayern Munich, Dec. 11, Champions League

If the Champions League stopped today, passed Go and went directly to the knockout rounds, Tottenham would be in. Despite all the Premier League troubles, Spurs have done well enough to stay ahead of Red Star Belgrade and Olympiakos in the standings. Should Tottenham beat Olympiakos in November, and Red Star loses to Bayern Munich, it will be set. However, if Tottenham hasn’t secured a place in the knockout round by then, it may need a result against Bayern at home. That will be one of Mourinho’s biggest tasks moving forward.

Game 7: Tottenham at Wolves, Dec. 15, Premier League

Game 8: Tottenham v. Chelsea, Dec. 22, Premier League

Tottenham opens the busy holiday period against Mourinho’s other Premier League former club, and the place where he made his name in England. At this point, Mourinho will have been with Tottenham for an entire month and if things are going well, Tottenham could challenge Chelsea in this match. If Tottenham remain at its current level, Chelsea could certainly win a match like this on the road at the new White Hart Lane. Another side plot will be Mourinho facing his former star midfielder, Frank Lampard.

Game 9: Tottenham v. Brighton and Hove Albion, Dec. 26, Premier League

Game 10: Tottenham at Norwich City, Dec. 28, Premier League

Mourinho will have to navigate some tough matches, including big six derbies against Chelsea and Man United, plus a trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, it certainly could have been worse for Tottenham. Spurs has five home games, along with matches against Burnley, Bournemouth, Norwich City and Brighton and Hove Albion. Despite 10 games in the rest of 2019, and a busy holiday period, Mourinho has a shot to turn Spurs’ season around and put them in contention for fourth place by May.

UEFA investigates player’s claim of racial abuse in Romania

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) UEFA has called for further investigations into allegations by a Sweden player he was racially abused by Romania fans at a European Championship qualifying game.

After Alexander Isak reported his claim to the match referee last Friday, play in Sweden’s 2-0 win was briefly stopped to broadcast a warning to fans in Bucharest. The stadium will host four Euro 2020 games in June.

[READ: How the USMNT found and kept Sergino Dest]

UEFA says it opened a disciplinary investigation, and also charged Romania’s soccer federation for separate incidents of an alleged “illicit banner” and “illicit chants.” Those charges will be judged on Dec. 12.

Romania faces more severe UEFA action because it was already under one year’s probation for previous incidents of offensive fan behavior.

Only accompanied children were allowed to attend Romania’s home qualifier against Norway last month.

The next UEFA punishment could affect Romania’s next game in the Euro 2020 playoffs round in March.

Report: Austin FC hire Reyna as sporting director

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Months after locking in Josh Wolff as head coach, Austin FC is reportedly on the verge of naming one of MLS’ best sporting directors to the same role.

The Athletic reported on Wednesday that Anthony Precourt’s Austin FC has hired Claudio Reyna from New York City FC to be the expansion club’s new sporting director. It’s the second expansion club that Reyna is working for since he joined NYCFC in 2013 as its first director of soccer operations.

[READ: MLS takes big step with All-Star game update]

If true, it’s a shrewd move by Precourt to bring in a man who knows MLS like the back of his thumb, and to pair him with a former teammate from the U.S. Men’s National Team. Wolff’s spent almost his entire career in professional soccer in MLS too, so the club now has two influential individuals who are knowledgable about the league and it’s various roster mechanisms.

Austin FC doesn’t enter MLS until 2021, so locking in Reyna now gives him more than a year of runway towards building an MLS-ready roster. Precourt has surely seen the best-case scenario – Seattle, Los Angeles FC, Atlanta United – where a team loaded with top-heavy talent and good role players can make a deep playoff run in its expansion season. But he’s likely also seen the worst-case scenarios – look at Minnesota United in the past and FC Cincinnati this year.

Bringing in Reyna certainly makes it more likely that Austin FC’s future will lie in the former category.