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Morocco vows ‘clean’ World Cup bid that won’t exploit Trump

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Instead of trying to exploit Donald Trump’s unpopularity around the world, Morocco is working to distance itself from allegations of corruption as the African country goes head-to-head with North America to host the 2026 World Cup.

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Any attempt to drag American presidential politics into the soccer campaign could be dangerous territory for the north African bidders. Morocco is saddled by its own baggage: bribery accusations against past World Cup bids that were leveled by U.S. prosecutors in the sprawling investigation into soccer corruption.

Those accused implicated in the alleged Moroccan vote-buying plot are yet to stand trial, and the 2026 bid team does not want to be held responsible for any unproven misdeeds in the past.

“We do not have anything to do with the past as Morocco,” 2026 bid chief executive Hicham El Amrani said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Do not make me comment on past bids for which we were not part of. Our bid is clean and will be compliant and this is what counts.”

Morocco has only just launched its campaign, blocking the unimpeded path to victory envisaged by the joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico for the first World Cup that jumps from 32 to 48 teams.

The U.S., which is the dominant partner with 60 of 80 games, has acknowledged the bid could be weighed down by negative global perceptions about the country. During his first year in the White House, Trump has faced international criticism for disparaging countries, including denigrating the African continent in a recent private outburst.

While Trump won’t be in office in 2026, the vote is in June. And for the first time, a winning World Cup bid requires the backing of the majority of the world. Rather than a select group of around 20 FIFA executives voting, all 211 soccer nations cast a ballot.

“I will leave up to voters to decide what they think – our focus is on our bid,” El Amrani said when asked about Trump. “I won’t make comments about the leadership here and there.

“We don’t want to win the right to host because of someone else, but because of our clear advantages … we will stay away (from Trump) because it’s not proper to (comment).”

Instead, Morocco believes it has a positive case to pitch to voters to counter North America’s assertion that it is the “risk averse” option that can replenish the shortfalls in the FIFA finances after sponsors fled during corruption scandals.

“Contrary to what we can hear about potential revenue,” El Amrani said, “Morocco has a fantastic offer from that perspective …. and financial certainty.”

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A proposition that is attractive to television viewers as well as fans and players on the ground, according to El Amrani, who was previously general secretary at the Confederation of African Football.

“We have a unique selling proposition as a very compact country,” El Amrani said.

While the North American bid covers a trio of time zones and nations, no multi-hour flights would be required between venues in Morocco.

“It allows better comfort and less traveling time,” El Amrani said. “That will allow for better quality of play.”

FIFA will earn $300 million more from the North American broadcasters if the 2026 World Cup is played in the region under the terms of contracts negotiated to stave off legal action for shifting the dates of the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

Morocco is predicting any shortfall could be filled because of a time zone that makes games more accessible for global television viewers, particularly in lucrative European market.

“Morocco represents a sweet spot in terms of time zones,” El Amrani said. “Morocco will be a profitable destination for FIFA.”

Morocco will propose 14 potential venues when the bid book is delivered in March, expanding some stadiums with modular designs that can be downsized. El Amrani declined at this stage to forecast the cost of stadium construction, preparing training grounds and securing the nation for the biggest event in its history.

“There are still gaps we need to fulfil to what is required 2026,” We are convinced we will reach it.”

Morocco lost out to the U.S. for the right to host the 1994 World Cup and last bid when South Africa landed the 2010 tournament for the continent for the first time.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP coverage of FIFA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

Sebastian Berhalter signs Homegrown deal with Columbus Crew

Columbus Crew signs Sebastian Berhalter
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The Columbus Crew have signed Sebastian Berhalter to a Homegrown Player deal.

The 19-year-old midfielder is the son of former Crew and current USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter.

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Sebastian played 17 times for the University of North Carolina as a freshman, starting nine of those games. He went 210 minutes in twin extra time matches to close UNC’s season.

Here’s Crew general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, via a team release:

“As a longtime member of the Crew SC Academy, Sebastian is someone who understands the values and ideology of our Club. We are happy to see him join the professional ranks after a successful year at the college level and look forward to his continued development with the Crew.”

Sebastian praised the role of his parents in his development in a video interview. Gregg was a UNC star in his college days before moving to Europe to play for PEC Zwolle, Crystal Palace, and Energie Cottbus amongst others.

“My parents have been very influential on my career,” said the player. “They’ve helped me so much. They’ve always stayed positive to me, but also pushed me in a good way and I cannot thank them enough.”

Sebastian repped the U.S. at the U-16 level. Could dad and he one day join Bob and Michael Bradley as father-son USMNT combos? That’s a long way off and presumes dad turns around the national team, but would be a remarkable achievement.

Manchester United triggers Bailly contract extension

Manchester United triggers Bailly contract extension
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Manchester United has picked up a two-year option on Eric Bailly‘s contract, according to Sky Sports.

The Red Devils now have the giant 25-year-old center back under wraps through the 2021/22 season.

Bailly is nearing full fitness after his latest injury setback, knee and ankle injuries costing him dozens of matches since arriving from Villarreal in 2016. He underwent knee surgery in late July.

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There’s little reason for United not to pick up the option, as Bailly could’ve left for free in the summer and the extension allows for a possible transfer fee.

That said, Bailly has been very good with healthy and in-form, especially in an exceptional debut season at Old Trafford. He has 34 caps for the Ivory Coast, and is nearing the prime age for a center back.

United visits Liverpool at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, and Bailly is not expected to play.

The center back may get a chance to get to know Bruno Fernandes, who is being tipped for a $77 million transfer. He likely won’t see Ashley Young, who’s arrived in Milan ahead of a transfer to Inter.

Report: Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United after Lisbon Derby

Manchester United lands Bruno Fernandes
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Bruno Fernandes may get his move.

The 25-year-old Sporting Lisbon midfielder wants a move to Manchester United, and Sky Sports is reporting that the two clubs are close to agreeing on a fee.

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The move will cost $56 million and could escalate to $77 million with incentives, and that it could happen as soon as the end of Friday’s derby between Sporting and Benfica.

From Sky Sports:

Part of the negotiations over a deal for Fernandes included Manchester United not wanting him to play in Friday’s game but the player and Sporting insist that he was going to play in order to say a proper goodbye to the club and the supporters.

United will be crossing its fingers over Fernandes’ health during the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff is Lisbon.

Sporting is already 12 points off the Champions League places, and 16 off Benfica’s title pace.

Fernandes has been red hot for Sporting, notching 15 goals and 13 assists in 25 appearances, including five and three in five Europa League outings.

He scored 32 times with 18 assists in 2018/19, and could take United’s Top Four push to a whole new level.

Liverpool’s Klopp rips AFCON move, says FIFA needs to step in but won’t

Liverpool's Klopp rips AFCON move
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Jurgen Klopp is furious about Cameroon moving the Africa Cup of Nations to January 2021, something that would hinder the Reds’ likely title defense.

(No, Klopp is not counting his title chickens before they hatch, even if it’s a foregone conclusion).

Cameroon moved the tournament from summer to winter due to its climate, which seems like a decision that could’ve been made ages ago. The nation had hosting rights stripped away for the 2019 tournament, but will host in 2021.

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The Reds could be without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Naby Keita for the better part of a month should Senegal, Guinea, and Egypt all qualify for the tournament. Joel Matip could be there with hosts Cameroon if the federation is successful in convincing him to return to the international fold.

Klopp went on a lengthy and mostly understandable diatribe against the move. We write mostly because there’s something lost in translation regarding the import of the tournament.

He’s upset at how it will tax his squad and how he keeps the players happy if he needs to add players just to deal with one month of the schedule.

“Do we really want to open this book? I couldn’t respect Africa Cup of Nations more than I do, I like it, I’ve watched it a lot. Difficult circumstances a lot of times,” Klopp said, via The Liverpool Echo. “It is another tournament, there are too many of them. Other thing is it doesn’t help African players. We won’t sell Naby, Mo or Sadio because of it but if we bring someone in, it affects the decision. Normal process. We have to think about that. Players aren’t asked. … FIFA, who should [step in] doesn’t look like being involved. It’s a strange situation. If we want lesser games they will say take less money. I will say, I am ready to do so. Yes.”

He continued.

“For us it’s a catastrophe, If we say (a player) can’t go, he’s suspended. How can the club who pay his salary not decide. If he’s injured and we say he cannot play for us, we have to send him to Africa so they can have a look. We don’t have any say. We just plan the route. These are all things that should not be like this. I speak about it now and no one will listen. The moaner from Liverpool again. It’s a complete waste of time. As long as nothing changes, I will keep saying it. It’s about the players, not me.”

Manchester City (Riyad Mahrez), Arsenal (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), and Leicester City (Wilfried Ndidi) are among the many clubs who could lose stars for a month.