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U.S. gets Russia’s World Cup vote as logic trumps politics

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MOSCOW (AP) The United States was able to celebrate a World Cup victory in Russia after all. Thanks to assistance from the host nation at a FIFA Congress addressed by President Vladimir Putin.

For all the geopolitical tensions between the superpowers, Russia had no qualms about pressing the electronic keypads to select the joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico over Morocco in the 2026 World Cup hosting vote in Moscow on Wednesday.

“Football is separate from politics,” said Alexander Alayev, acting president of the Russian football federation. “Morocco prepared a very strong and interesting bid, but the unified bid was much stronger in all aspects.”

Maybe, finally, some sports officials made decisions based on existing merits and what is best for the game, rather than following political agendas.

“This should not be about geopolitics,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro said. “This was not a vote in the United Nations.”

The U.S. may have hoped for a vote from North Korea after the rapprochement between the nations during an extraordinary summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. North Korea instead opted for the Moroccan proposals that were dismissed by FIFA inspectors as high-risk in three areas and overwhelmingly rejected by the football world.

Morocco wasn’t even able to harness unanimous support from Africa, with 11 federations voting against their continental counterpart.

Despite his country voting for Morocco, Cameroon federation official Kevin Njomo accepted the World Cup would be “more profitable in America.”

Morocco also didn’t get full support from other Muslim-majority nations, with Afghanistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among the 134 backers of the North American bid.

Has there really been an outbreak of common sense at a governing body where the specter of wrongdoing has hung over decisions in recent years? The 69 majority for North America meant FIFA avoids a fifth consecutive risky, tricky World Cup after South Africa, Brazil, Russia, which opens on Thursday without a U.S. team, and Qatar in 2022.

Where Morocco needed to spend billions of dollars building or renovating all 14 proposed stadiums, North America could host the World Cup almost immediately if needed.

Ultimately, Morocco’s record on human rights and lack of protections for the LGBT community, which were criticized by FIFA, might have helped to swing the decision.

Unlike the contentious dual votes in 2010 for Russia and Qatar, this time the inspection reports of each bid were a guide for voters from FIFA’s full membership.

In an unexpected late intervention after presentations on Wednesday, FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura gave the North American bid one final push before the ballot when she summarized the review task force’s verdict that saw Morocco fare so poorly.

Not only did she remind delegates about Morocco’s lack of infrastructure but highlighted the North American bid’s ability to deliver double the revenue at $14 billion.

Obviously, money talks.

“We tried to make the case of what’s best for FIFA,” Cordeiro said. That means swelling the coffers from FIFA’s signature tournament to allow President Gianni Infantino to distribute cash to the around the world to member federations.

The only real stumbling block on the campaign for the North Americans was concern about the impact of Trump’s push for immigration restrictions and a leaked White House outburst about African nations.

The bid team believed it wasn’t insurmountable.

“The politics of today may not be the politics of next year or five years or eight years down the road,” Canada’s federation president Steven Reed said.

Indeed, the U.S. passed this global test of popularity, aided by the inclusion of Canada and Mexico on the ticket.

“The unity of the three nations came together to offer what no one nation including my own can provide today,” Cordeiro said. “I think that was a powerful message. That is something we repeated and repeated over again. I think it made the difference at the end.”

No wonder Infantino described himself as a “happy man.” FIFA, it appears, got just what it wanted.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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

Europa League field: Who can Chelsea, Arsenal draw?

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There are 32 teams left in the quest for two spots at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, one of which will earn an automatic spot in the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Europa League wrap ]

The intrigue in the field took a hit when Rangers and AC Milan failed to advance, meaning there will not be an Old Firm Derby or Milan Derby inside of UEL play.

And Maurizio Sarri‘s last two clubs, Napoli and Chelsea, are seeded for the Round of 32 draw, so they will not meet for at least one more round.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal can draw anyone from the group of unseeded teams, with no English teams in the field. Arsenal-Celtic? Chelsea-Lazio?

Seeded teams
Bayer Leverkusen
Red Bull Salzburg
Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Dinamo Zagreb
Arsenal
Real Betis
Villarreal
Eintracht Frankfurt
Genk
Sevilla
Dynamo Kiev
Chelsea
Napoli
Valencia
Inter Milan
Benfica

Unseeded teams
Zurich
Celtic
Slavia Prague
Fenerbahce
Sporting Lisbon
Olympiacos
Rapid Vienna
Lazio
Malmo
Krasnodar
Rennes
BATE Borisov
Viktoria Plzen
Club Brugge
Shakhtar Donetsk
Galatasaray

Emery praises Arsenal teen: “His personality is very important”

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Unai Emery played the kids in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Qarabag on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners claimed the top spot in their group.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag ]

Bukayo Saka, Carl JenkinsonJoe WillockEddie Nketiah, and Zech Medley all got meaningful playing time for the Gunners, and Emery specifically liked Saka (17).

Emery, like Arsene Wenger, believes very much in getting experiencefor his kids.

From The London Evening Standard:

“We have a responsibility to every young player to give them chances to train with us,” Emery told Standard Sport. “We are very demanding of ourselves in his performance. We give them these chances in the games like today when we can do that. They show us positive things in every match.

“Today Saka played with a good performance, with a very big personality. We were speaking at half-time, they were trying one-on-one against the opposition. Not every action was good for us but his personality is very important, continuing in the second half to try to do one-on-ones and break lines with his quality.”

Will anyone have made enough of an impact to get some time in the Premier League? We’ll see, but remember that this Gunners system has sent Reiss Nelson on loan to Hoffenheim.

Also, to put this in perspective: Saka was born six days before Sept. 11, 2001. This class of youngster in the Arsenal system is coming, and coming fast.

Europa League roundup: Arsenal wins; Rangers, AC Milan bounced

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Twenty-four games in about four hours: It’s the Europa League group stage, and it’s reached its conclusion.

[ MORE: Mourinho: “Job done” in UCL ]

A very young Arsenal claimed its group, Celtic bunkered down but couldn’t advance to the knockout rounds, and rivals Rangers couldn’t quite find the offense needed to complete a promising UEL campaign.


Rapid Vienna 1-0 Rangers

Steven Gerrard‘s promising first European campaign as first team manager has ended thanks to a goal from sub Dejan Ljubicic in Austria. A very even game, Rangers could not find a way past Richard Strebinger.

Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag

Alexandre Lacazette‘s 17th minute goal gave the Gunners a leg up on the group lead in a game with a bunch of unusual faces on the pitch. Carl Jenkinson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka Bukayo were among the starters, and Lacazette left for Zech Medley in the 63rd minute as Arsenal saved its best for a trip to Southampton on Sunday (No offense to Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny, who went 90 minutes each).

MOL Vidi 2-2 Chelsea

We’ve already shown you Willian’s terrific free kick, and this match in Hungary was plenty entertaining for a relatively inconsequential outing. Ethan Ampadu scored an own goal two minutes after Chelsea took the lead, and MOL Vidi led 2-1 when Olivier Giroud restored the stalemate in the 75th.

Celtic 1-2 Red Bull Salzburg

The visitors dominated and finally found a way past goalkeeper Craig Gordon through a 67th Moanes Dabbur marker. Celtic went down two with Fredrik Gulbrandsen adding to the score line.

RB Leipzig 1-1 Rosenborg

Matheus Cunha’s goal just after halftime looked to have prodded RBL above Celtic and into the Round of 32, but Tore Reginiussen leveled for the Norwegian side.

Olympiacos 3-1 AC Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s men are out of Europe after a four-goal second half.

Elsewhere
Villarreal 2-0 Spartak Moscow
Lazio 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt
Sevilla 3-0 Krasnodar
Marseille 1-3 Apollon Limassol
Rennes 2-0 Astana
PAOK 1-3 BATE Borisov
Genk 4-0 Sarpsborg
Dynamo Kiev 0-1 Jablonec
Besiktas 0-1 Malmo
Akhisar Belerdiyespor 0-0 Standard Liege
Slavia Prague 2-0 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Copenhagen 0-1 Bordeaux
Dinamo Zagreb 0-0 Anderlecht
Sporting Lisbon 3-0 Vorskla Poltava
F91 Dudelange 0-0 Real Betis
Ludogorets Razgrad 1-1 FC Zurich
AEK Larnaca 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen
Spartak Trnava 1-0 Fenerbahce

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports