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Blatter: North American bid ‘afraid’ to lose 2026 World Cup

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ZURICH (AP) The North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup now seems “afraid” of losing to Morocco, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Thursday.

A change in strategy this week gave the leaders of the American, Canadian and Mexican soccer federations equal status in a bid that has been heavily favored to win the hosting rights on June 13 in Moscow. The reshuffle reduced the role of previous bid chairman Sunil Gulati, the most senior American in FIFA who served on the soccer body’s executive committee under Blatter.

[READ: Tottenham crumble on cusp of glory]

“They give the impression that they are not any longer very sure that they will win, that’s my impression,” Blatter said. “But I don’t know why they are afraid.”

Last month, Blatter wrote on Twitter that Morocco was the “logical host” of the 2026 tournament. FIFA preferred single-nation World Cup hosts under Blatter’s leadership.

Still, Blatter declined to fully endorse Morocco’s ability to host a 48-team tournament alone. The 2026 edition will have the 16 extra teams wanted by Blatter successor Gianni Infantino, who supports multi-nation bids.

“I don’t know if the Moroccans are able to organize a World Cup of 48,” Blatter told invited reporters at a briefing in Zurich related to his own legal issues.

Both bids will formally submit plans next week. A FIFA-appointed panel will then evaluate the candidates and publicly score them for potential organizational and commercial risks.

Two days ahead of his 82nd birthday, Blatter said he was “a happy man.” He is still seeking to challenge a six-year ban from soccer for unethical conduct, a punishment that followed Swiss federal prosecutors opening criminal proceedings against him in September 2015. He has yet to be charged.

The Swiss official has long blamed an executive committee vote in December 2010 that picked Russia and Qatar as future World Cup hosts for sparking American and Swiss federal investigations of FIFA officials that ultimately forced him from office.

Though Blatter says he voted for the United States bid that lost to Qatar for the 2022 hosting rights, he said that doesn’t mean the country deserves to get the 2026 edition.

“I was in favor of the U.S. for 2022. To say now they must have 2026 …,” he said, pausing to add: “History will show if it’s right or wrong.”

Blatter acknowledged he once thought the 2026 contest was “a decision that was taken” in favor of North America.

Last May, the three co-hosts pushed FIFA to give them preferential status before Morocco joined the contest by an August deadline with little bid structure in place.

Blatter said the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup – which led to Gulati not seeking re-election as soccer federation president – complicated the leadership issue. The bid calls for the United States to host 60 of 80 games in 2026, with Canada and Mexico hosting 10 each.

“They have put all the three together in order to show that it is a combined organization. They should have taken the decision at that time (of the World Cup exit),” Blatter said. “The USA is big and the decisions are not always easy to understand.”

Report: Liverpool agrees to terms for Roma keeper Alisson

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Liverpool has been in search of a new first-choice goalkeeper for several months, and now it appears that Jurgen Klopp and his side have their man.

[ MORE: Schedule for PL giants on U.S. tours ]

The Reds reportedly have a deal in the place for Roma shot-stopper Alisson in excess of $84 million, which would make the 25-year-old the most expensive goalkeeper in football history.

Chelsea had also been viewed as a potential landing spot for the budding star in net, however, it seems likely that Liverpool has beaten their Premier League rivals for the player.

The previous transfer record for a keeper came 17 years ago when Italy legend Gianluigi Buffon completed a $69 million move from Parma to Juventus.

Alisson started in all five of Brazil’s World Cup matches this summer in Russia, including the team’s 2-1 defeat to Belgium that knocked the Selecao out of the competition in the quarterfinals.

He managed to keep three clean sheets in the tournament.

The move for Alisson will likely spell the end for Loris Karius at Anfield, after starting 33 matches in all competitions last season for the Reds, including the team’s UEFA Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid.

Iceland coach steps down after 7 years in charge

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) The coach that led Iceland to its first World Cup has stepped down.

The Icelandic Football Association says Heimir Hallgrimsson has decided to leave at his own request, ending seven years in the role.

[ MORE: Schedule for PL giants on U.S. tours ]

Hallgrimsson was the co-coach with Lars Lagerback of Sweden at the European Championship in 2016, when Iceland reached the quarterfinals after beating England.

After Lagerback left, Hallgrimsson assumed sole control of the national team, which became the least populous team to ever play at a World Cup. Iceland drew with Argentina in its opening group game but failed to advance to the knockout stage.

Hellgrimsson is a part-time dentist.

Report: Real Madrid close to Courtois, Hazard deals

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According to radio network RMC Sport in France, Real Madrid has an agreement with Chelsea for the transfer of Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

The report states that Courtois would cost Los Blancos $41 million, and the transfer is imminent. That would be significantly cheaper than Liverpool’s widely reported bid for Roma goalkeeper Alisson, who is supposedly costing the Reds $81 million, which would be a record for a goalkeeper.

This could likely be attributed to the player’s contracts, with Courtois’s set to run out at the end of the coming season, while Alisson’s contract at Roma is good through the summer of 2021.

Courtois has been at Chelsea since 2011 when he arrived from Belgian club Genk, but spent the first few years out on loan at Atletico Madrid in Spain. He won the Golden Glove at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the award for the top goalkeeper in the tournament.

Meanwhile, the same RMC Sport report states that Real Madrid is close to an agreement for Courtois’s Chelsea teammate and Belgian countryman Eden Hazard. The 27-year-old has spent six years at Stamford Bridge since his move from Lille, and has heavily been speculated to be Real Madrid’s preferred replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Both players are currently on holiday at different vacation destinations inSpain following the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup.

Cazorla returns to field for first time in almost 2 years

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Arsenal fan favorite Santi Cazorla saw his time with the Gunners come to an unceremonious end this summer. He had struggled for almost three full seasons with an ankle injury that continued to baffle doctors.

At one time, it got so bad that doctors told him he was lucky to walk again. Now, Cazorla is doing much more than walking.

The 33-year-old Spaniard, who is training with his old club Villarreal this summer after the expiry of his Arsenal contract, returned to the field for the first time in 636 days when he entered in the 67th minute of Villarreal’s friendly against Segunda B side Hercules.

Beaming with a massive smile, Cazorla received a hearty reception from the home Villarreal fans at the Mini Estadi on his enterance to the match. The match eventually ended in a 1-1 draw.

Cazorla posted on Twitter a week ago to say how happy he was to “feel like a footballer again” while training with Villarreal and said while there’s “much more work ahead” he has “more enthusiasm than ever.”

The Spaniard made 180 appearances for Arsenal across all competitions during his six-year stint in the Premier League, providing fluid creativity at the front of the Gunners’ attack, but the last three seasons were a nightmare. First a knee injury kept him out nearly the entire second half of the 2015/16 season, and then he ruptured his Achilles in October of 2016. It was not a standard recovery, eventually requiring a total of eight operations. A nasty infection required more surgery, forcing doctors to graft tendons from his left arm into his foot.

Gunners fans may not see him at The Emirates again, but they will be happy to know Cazorla has crossed a major hurdle in his attempt to return to the field competitively.