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Russian hopes, fears tied up in Putin’s showcase World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin claims soccer and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he kicked off Thursday is about much more than sports.

It’s about proving to the world that Russia is a global power broker and not an outcast, that it’s an open, confident and generous nation – and not an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.

And the beleaguered Russian team’s stunning 5-0 victory in the tournament opener Thursday against Saudi Arabia was just what Putin needed to make the point that Russia is ascendant again. He promptly called the much-criticized coach personally to congratulate him on the unexpected win.

Sidestepping deep divisions between his strongman worldview and that of many Western countries, Putin welcomed fans to his “hospitable” nation by inviting them to “make new friends with people who share the same values.”

But critics fear the World Cup will legitimize Putin’s autocratic policies at home and Russia’s actions abroad, from alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election to annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. Moscow vehemently denies any interference in the American vote or involvement in the attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Portugal 3-3 Spain ]

Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine – “all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Today the soccer dimension is the most important one.”

The monthlong World Cup is also about Putin proving to his compatriots that he’s both their best global envoy and a man of the people, who brought the world’s most-watched sporting event to ordinary soccer fans in 11 cities across Russia’s expanse.

That’s especially important for a country that prides itself on athletic prowess but whose last massive sporting event – the 2014 Sochi Olympics – was indelibly stained by revelations of doping so widespread that Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Games.

“It’s important for Russia to have this (tournament), we can show that we are a global football power,” said Moscow fan Dmitry Finapetov, his face streaked with white-blue-red paint, as he nearly spilled his beer in excitement at his team’s strong showing at Luzhniki Stadium.

“When I used to travel abroad I would think, `why can’t it be like this at home?”‘ he said. “But now I travel and I think things are better at home. … Now foreigners can see that too.”

Geopolitics were front and center for Thursday’s opener, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Putin’s star guest. The two leaders have forged an alliance that has pushed up the global oil price and reshaped the balance of power in the Middle East.

Putin welcomed a “friendly global family” of soccer fans to celebrate the World Cup, but the Kremlin’s guest list showed where Russia’s allegiances lie: the head of the North Korean upper house of parliament, Lebanon’s prime minister and the presidents of Rwanda, Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama and leaders of eight friendly former Soviet republics. Britain’s royal family and top politicians are among those who pointedly stayed away.

Electrical engineer Sergei Tabachnikov, who came to Moscow all the way from the Pacific island of Sakhalin for the opening match, welcomed the international scrutiny that comes with hosting an event of this scale and hoped Russia learns something from it.

“Criticism is necessary. It helps us improve,” he said.

Russian authorities walked a careful line Thursday between hard-line security measures and a veneer of tolerance.

A British gay rights activist was arrested for a protest action near Red Square, but quickly released. Later a Russian fan displayed a rainbow flag during Putin’s speech, despite a broadly enforced law that bans “propaganda” of homosexuality to children. Security forces shrugged it off.

Minutes before the opening match, riot police hauled an unauthorized flag vendor into a police van just outside Luzhniki Stadium as he shouted “Help me! Help me!” and fans filmed on their phones. An officer then turned to the crowd, speaking in English and saying in a calming voice, “Nothing to worry about, go enjoy the game.”

British pop singer Robbie Williams also played it safe in the opening concert. He revved up the crowd but diplomatically avoided singing his hit song “Party Like A Russian” – which is rife with stereotypes about Russian extravagance and includes a dig at an unnamed Russian leader who “alleviates” the population of its wealth.

“Football and love” was the theme of Thursday’s opening show, as a debate raged among Russian lawmakers about whether Russian women should hook up with visiting fans.

Mostly the mood was exuberant, with Saudi fans taking selfies with Russians in the stadium’s corridors despite their rivalry.

Alexander Klimov, who came from the southern Russian city of Stavropol, summed it up by blowing kisses and saying, “Thank you everybody for coming in our country. Welcome to Russia, we love you guys!”

Associated Press writer James Ellingworth contributed to this report.

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

Ronaldo: “Usually players of my age go to Qatar or China”

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TURIN, Italy (AP) — At the age of 33, many football players are past their peak. Cristiano Ronaldo vows to show he is not one of them.

[ VIDEO: Juventus unveil Cristiano Ronaldo ]

Juventus signed Ronaldo from Real Madrid last week for $131.5 million — an Italian league record sum — and the world player of the year penned a four-year contract.

Some see it as an extravagant sum for a player who, although a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, is entering the latter stages of a glittering career.

At his first news conference as a Juventus player on Monday, Ronaldo insisted he was motivated by a new challenge and keen to step out of his comfort zone after nine years at Madrid.

“With all due respect, usually players of my age go to Qatar or China, so coming to such an outstanding club at this stage in my career makes me very happy,” he said.

“I’m different from all the other players who think their career is over at my age. I want to show that I’m not like the others, I’m different. It’s an emotional moment for me because I’m not 23, I’m 33.

[ MORE: Hazard hints at Chelsea exit, has “preferred destination” in mind ]

“I’m not here on holiday,” he added. “I want to mark the history of Juventus. I hope I can surprise everyone one last time and I’m very, very confident.”

Ronaldo has always been credited with a phenomenal workrate, and he has promised to continue that at Juventus in order to prolong his longevity.

The Portugal forward moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009, and became the Spanish club’s all-time leading scorer with 451 in 438 matches. He helped Madrid win four Champions Leagues — beating Juventus in the final in 2017 — and also won La Liga and the Copa del Rey twice each.

Ronaldo, who also led Portugal to the European Championship in 2016, also won the Champions League at Manchester United as well as three Premier Leagues and the FA Cup.

He expects his winning ways to continue at the Serie A champion.

“It will be tough, I know that,” Ronaldo said. “The league is very tough but Juve is ready and I will be ready. The age is not important. I feel good, I feel motivated. I will try to do my best like always. I’m looking forward to starting the league well and to try to win every title.”

[ MORE: Courtois to join Hazard in Chelsea exit? ]

On his arrival at Allianz Stadium for his medical on Monday, Ronaldo was greeted by hundreds of fans, who chanted his name and “Portaci la Champions” (“Bring us the Champions League trophy”).

Juventus hasn’t won the Champions League since 1996. It has been on the losing side in the final five times since then, including twice in the past four editions.

Juventus has won the Serie A for the last seven seasons — and done the league and Italian Cup double for the past four — but has struggled to transfer its domestic supremacy to the European stage.

Ronaldo has won the Champions League four times in the past five seasons. He has a record 120 Champions League goals, 105 of them at Madrid, 12 more than Juventus as a team managed in that same period.

“Juventus has been one step away from it and couldn’t win,” Ronaldo said. “I hope I can be the lucky charm.”

VIDEO: Top 10 goals in 2018 World Cup

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Missing the 2018 World Cup already? Yeah, me too.

But it’s okay, only 1,588 days until the 2022 World Cup tournament in Qatar kicks off…

[ MORE: Review of 2018 World Cup ]

With that in mind, now seems like the best time to go back through the 169 goals scored at the World Cup this summer and pick out the top 10.

It was ridiculously hard to do that given the extreme quality of strikes, but here it goes as you can watch the top goals in the videos below.

Enjoy.


Nacho: Portugal v Spain, June 15, 2018


Cristiano Ronaldo: Portugal v Spain, June 15, 2018


Toni Kroos: Germany v Sweden, June 23, 2018


Jesse Lingard: England v Panama, June 24, 2018


Ricardo Quaresma: Iran v Portugal, June 25, 2018


Lionel Messi: Nigeria v Argentina, June 26, 2018


Angel di Maria: France v Argentina, June 30, 2018


Benjamin Pavard: France v Argentina, June 30, 2018


Kevin De Bruyne: Brazil v Belgium, July 6, 2018

Denis Cheyshev: Russia v Croatia, July 7, 2018

The 2 Robbies Podcast: 2018 World Cup final review

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In the final instalment of The 2 Robbies podcast during the 2018 World Cup, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe break down an intriguing World Cup final.

With France victorious over Croatia, it was anything but a straightforward win for Les Bleus despite the 4-2 scoreline suggesting so.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ] 

Listen to the pod in full below as the lads analyze the key themes from a drama packed final in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

https://art19.com/shows/the-2-robbies/episodes/10ae6a3c-01c4-4929-af62-63b730c84b49

Alexis Sanchez to miss start of Man United’s US tour

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Alexis Sanchez did not fly out to the United States of America with Manchester United on Sunday.

[ MORE: Review of 2018 World Cup

The Chilean star, 29, may end up linking up with the Red Devils further down the line but he will miss the first chunk of their 15-day tour Stateside as Jose Mourinho’s men return to the U.S. after a hugely successful batch of summer games and training camps in LA last year.

Manchester United released a statement via a spokesman which read: “Alexis Sanchez did not travel due to a personal administrative issue.”

Speculation suggests that Sanchez was unable to obtain a visa to enter the U.S. after he accepted a 16-month suspended jail sentence in Spain after being found guilty of tax evasion with regards to a $1.17 million image rights issue.

It is believed that Sanchez and his agents are working on trying to secure a visa waiver but the process is taking longer than expected.

The former Barcelona and Arsenal star last played in the USA in the summer of 2016 as he starred for Chile who won the Copa America Centenario by beating Argentina in the final at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

United have a busy preseason schedule coming up as they play against Club America in Phoenix on Thursday, then against the San Jose Earthquakes in Santa Clara on Sunday.

Mourinho’s men end their tour with three huge International Champions Cup matches against AC Milan in LA (July 25), Liverpool at Michigan Stadium (July 28) and then Real Madrid in Miami (July 31) before heading back to Europe for the final days of preseason.

With so many of their star players not due back until the first week of the 2018/19 campaign due to the World Cup, Mourinho will have been hoping to use Sanchez often during preseason as the Chilean forward took advantage of a rare summer off as his country failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.

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