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Being a soccer fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

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CAIRO (AP) Being a soccer fan in Egypt has been a dangerous, sometimes even deadly, passion for years. That may soon change.

The Al-Ahly club’s “Ultras” – hardcore supporters of the Cairo-based team and the country’s largest fan association – have appealed to authorities to negotiate an end to years of tension and violence while disavowing members involved in a recent post-game rampage that had temporarily shattered the prospects for reconciliation.

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Preliminary contacts between the two sides are underway as a prelude to talks to hammer out an agreement allowing fans back in games for the first time since a ban on attendance following a 2012 riot in the coastal city of Port Said that left more than 70 fans, mostly Ultras, dead in one of the world’s worst soccer-related incidents.

The ban on fans attending games was later relaxed for continental games. An attempt earlier this year to introduce a partial and gradual relaxation of the ban on domestic games was aborted at the last minute, with police citing security concerns.

The ongoing contacts to lift the ban are a welcome development that, if fruitful, would give a significant boost to the sport at a time when Egypt is making its return to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

“We are all suffering from the absence of fans and want them back to revive the atmosphere in stadiums,” said Mukhtar Mukhtar, the manager of league club Military Production. “Their absence has undoubtedly impacted on the players’ performance.”

A deal is believed to be possible now because the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appears to be more confident of its control over the country after years of turmoil and a massive crackdown that sent thousands of dissidents to jail.

The riot in Port Said in 2012 was not the only soccer-related tragedy to befall Egypt.

In 2015, 22 fans were killed in a stampede prompted by heavy tear gas fired by police outside a military-owned stadium in a Cairo suburb. Additionally, hundreds of fans have been arrested over the years as the Ultras took part in violent protests, including one in 2013 that torched the headquarters of the Egyptian soccer federation and vandalized a police social club, and others marking the anniversary of the 2012 tragedy.

The violence has over time deepened a sort of vendetta between police and fans, who seize every occasion to taunt the paramilitary force with chants, some of which also have an anti-government slant. Moreover, many fans accuse the police of failing to prevent the deadly Port Said riot or intervene to end it when it first started.

The years of violence, arrests and incessant demonization of fans by the pro-government media have led to the reduction of the number of association members across the country, forcing some to even voluntarily disband. But they have also given rise to a younger and more radical generation whose resentment of authorities is more deeply entrenched and seem more inclined to be involved in acts of violence, according to veteran fan association leaders.

But fatigue from a long, drawn-out conflict may have finally set in.

“We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades,” said Mohammed Saheel, a former Ultras leader from Cairo. “We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown ends.”

Ultras leaders and lawyers representing them say that another idea under consideration is to disband the association as a goodwill gesture they hope the government would reciprocate with a pardon for convicted members or those in detention awaiting trial. Another idea under consideration is to retain a private security firm to police matches, thus removing the possibility of fan-police frictions.

The fallout from the violence of the past years has been catastrophic for the game, by far Egypt’s most popular, hurting mainly the big clubs with a large support base. Club officials complain it has negatively impacted on performances, with games in domestic competitions played before eerily silent terraces.

Not surprisingly, the national squad that qualified for the World Cup in Russia is mostly made up of foreign-based players, led by Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah.

The Ultras and their clashes with police are a potent example of how soccer and politics mix in Egypt. The Ultras played a key role in the uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. They fought police for months in street clashes that followed.

Their battle of wills with the police led to a court ruling in 2015 that outlawed the Ultras, along with other associations, branding them terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.

The pro-government media has claimed they were also linked to a leftist, anti-government group, April 6, which together with the Brotherhood have been declared terrorist organizations in separate court rulings.

The feud endures, prompting calls by some commentators for both sides to sit down and resolve their differences to avoid more violence. These calls followed a statement released April 3 by the Ultras in which they appealed to el-Sissi to start a dialogue between them and police to iron out their differences and to pardon nearly 50 members detained since last month’s rampage in a Cairo stadium.

The statement, issued to mark el-Sissi’s re-election last month, was the clearest peace offering by the Ultras.

“I appeal to the presidency to respond to the statement,” said Mohammed Rashwan, a prominent defense lawyer who has represented members of the Ultras in a series of court cases. “I have already been in contact with the minister of youth and sports and there are initiatives under discussion to allow fans to return to stadiums and lay down a system for that.”

Puel insists Chelsea hasn’t inquired about goalkeeper Schmeichel

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Chelsea could very be in the market for a goalkeeper over the summer, but Leicester City’s manager insists that their number one isn’t being targeted by the Blues; or at least not yet.

[ MORE: Klopp discusses Christian Pulisic, Liverpool’s spending ]

With the Blues likely set to lose Belgium international Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid, new manager Maurizio Sarri would have to look elsewhere to solidify the team’s goalkeeping situation.

One player that has drawn significant interest after a strong World Cup performance for Denmark is Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, who played a big role in the Foxes’ 2015/16 Premier League title.

Although Schmeichel would be a viable replacement for Courtois at Stamford Bridge, Leicester boss Claude Puel says Chelsea hasn’t expressed its interest to this point.

“No, there is no problem with this,” the Frenchman told Sky Sports. “There is a lot of speculation at this moment, it is normal.

“I think he [Ward] can bring more competition to the squad and more possibilities. It is a good thing to have competition between players in the squad to develop desire.

“It gives good focus and concentration.”

The Foxes recently brought in young Liverpool keeper Danny Ward, which raised further questions about the future of Schmeichel at Leicester.

FC Dallas, Houston play to 1-1 after scoring early goals

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HOUSTON (AP) FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo each scored early goals in a 1-1 draw Saturday night.

Matt Hedges put Dallas (11-3-6) ahead 47 seconds into the game with his first goal of the season, converting a header off a cross from Santiago Mosquera.

Houston (7-6-6) tied it in the eight on Mauro Manotas’ 10th goal of the season. He scored on a header off Romell Quioto’s cross.

Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis stuffed Roland Lamah‘s penalty kick at the 61st minute to keep the score knotted. Ten minutes later, Lamah missed an open look and sent a short shot high that ricocheted off the top of the post.

In stoppage time, Houston’s Alberth Elis missed high and wide to the right just outside the box.

Houston is unbeaten in four games.

MLS 3 Things: Resurgent Zardes, Toronto up, New England down

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A busy Saturday in Major League Soccer sees three interesting results bolstering the story lines of the final few months of the season.

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1) Imagine a world with the reigning champs as your reward for finishing first.

With 14 matches to play, Toronto FC has Jozy Altidore back in the fold and has pulled to within eight points of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot after a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday.

Sebastian Giovinco looks like Sebastian Giovinco in scoring another outstanding goal, just his fifth of the season, while Jonathan Osorio also scored in the win.

Before you watch Seba’s goal, picture you’ve won the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now picture TFC as your semifinal reward.

2) New England is well and truly slumping

Brad Friedel‘s Revs are slipping after losing a third-straight league match, and New England has gained a solitary point since the calendar turned to July following a 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena.

Fourth through ninth in the East are separated by nine points, and New England is very much in that mix now. Friedel is certainly at the most trying time of his tenure.

Second half goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer did the trick for RBNY, who have claimed 15 of the last 18 points available to them (The lone blemish is the Hudson River Derby).

The Red Bulls are now 8-1-1 at home this season, while New England is 1-4-4 away from Foxboro.

3) Gyasi Zardes’ return to form is surprising and wonderful

Columbus has its second win since May 19, and will be feeling much better about itself following a 3-2 comeback win over Orlando City which included a pair of equalizers.

One of those came in the 88th minute, as Gyasi Zardes completed his brace by converting a penalty won by new arrival Patrick Mullins.

The Crew won late via a rare Wil Trapp goal — the USMNT midfielder has just two in 161 matches — but let’s focus on Zardes.

Zardes’ 13th goal of the season continues an amazing turnaround under striker whisperer Gregg Berhalter. It’s Zardes’ second double-digit season, and his first since 2014. He is firmly in frame for another USMNT look, this time as a center forward, but first there’s plenty to like about the big man.

Surging Galaxy ride Ibrahimovic magic to 3-1 win (video)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man on fire, and the LA Galaxy are rounding into form.

The Galaxy overcame an early deficit in Chester to clobber the Philadelphia Union 3-1 on Saturday behind a goal and an assist from their world-class striker.

[ MORE: Neymar on diving ]

Romain Alessandrini had two assists, while Michael Ciani and Ola Kamara also scored for LA. CJ Sapong scored for Philly, assisted by Borek Dockal.

Unbeaten-in-seven LA moves into fourth in the West with the win, while Philadelphia remains three points back of sixth in the East.

Ibrahimovic has now scored in six of his last seven matches, and has 12 goals and two assists in 21 matches overall.

Let’s start with the assist, which we must’ve seen two dozen times when the big Swede was with Paris Saint-Germain.

Ibrahimovic takes a difficult pass out of the air with absurd touch, then waits for the right time to send an impeccable through ball into the path of Kamara.

As for the goal, you almost feel for Mark McKenzie.

The Union’s Homegrown defender has to choose between Alessandrini darting into his box and allowing Ibrahimovic a lick of space.

He gives it, understandably, then rushes to close down Ibrahimovic.

It wasn’t fast enough. Boom.