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Infantino enjoying status perks of World Cup, fawning over Putin

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MOSCOW (AP) — When Gianni Infantino is in the orbit of Vladimir Putin, the head of world soccer cannot stop beaming. Particularly when he’s juggling a ball in the Kremlin or sharing screen time with Putin as they watched the World Cup.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Pogba to Barca? Madrid wants Neymar ]

Two years after his election, FIFA’s president gives the impression of a man who can’t believe the elevated circles of power he is allowed to mix in.

“We are a team,” Infantino told Putin ahead of the World Cup. “Together we will show to the world what we can do.”

The eagerness of the soccer bureaucrat to portray himself as an equal to the head the world’s third-biggest military superpower is not concealed. Surely Putin, as the former KGB spy, spots the obsequiousness a mile off?

“We all fell in love with Russia,” Infantino declared at a round-table gathering with Putin last week. “This is a new image of Russia that we now have.”

It is what Human Rights Watch calls “sportswashing.” Using a major sports event to cleanse the image of a nation and gloss over wrongdoing.

[ MORE: Belgium tops England to finish third at World Cup ]

Has the whole world really fallen in love with Russia?

How about:

— Ukrainians whose territory was annexed by Russia in 2014;

— Families of the 298 people blown out of the sky when a surface-to-air missile, which international investigators traced to Russia , hit a Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014;

— Those poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok this year on the streets of England in an attack blamed on Russia. (More than 25 countries expelled Russian diplomats as punishment);

— Countries who say Russia meddled in their elections (Twelve Russian military intelligence officers were indicted on Friday over hacking in the 2016 U.S. election);

— Migrant workers who suffered human rights abuses at World Cup stadium sites and the families of the 21 people who died;

— Athletes cheated out of medals at Olympic Games by Russians who took part in a state-sponsored doping scheme.

It’s a long charge sheet, which Russia naturally denies and dismisses as Western propaganda. Given the weight of allegations, The Associated Press asked Infantino at an event intended to celebrate the World Cup how comfortable he is seeking such a close alliance with Putin.

[ MORE: Chelsea reveal new manager Sarri, midfielder Jorginho ]

“There are many injustices in the world,” Infantino responded at the briefing.

Cooperation with a government is necessary for the smooth-running of a sports event. But just where should a sport governing body draw moral red lines over the extent it burnishes a head of state with praise?

“There are many things in the world not working as citizens in the world would like to work,” Infantino said. “There are many things we would like to change in the world, There are many things we are not happy that happen in the world. Not in one country. Not in one region. Not in one area but in the entire world. We have all to try to work, to do, to speak, try to make things change for the good wherever we can.”

The message from Infantino was conflicted. While claiming that at the World Cup “we are focused on football,” Infantino also wants to be seen to be harnessing the power of the game to bring people together when usual diplomatic channels break down.

“That is the basis to solve some of these issues,” Infantino said, still responding the litany of allegations against the Russian state. “If football and the World Cup can contribute to open channels, to open some discussions to help those who have to take important decisions for our world, to at least start to speak to each other and to realize there are people human beings living everywhere in the world, then I think we have done already something. We have given already a contribution. That is what football is about.”

Infantino is casting FIFA as an organization with a pseudo-political role. The next World Cup is in Qatar, which remains subject to a diplomatic boycott by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — a potential major stumbling block to movement in the region in 2022.

[ MORE: FIFA may still expand 2022 World Cup in Qatar ]

“Maybe we could bring those who are having difficulties communicating with each other to start dialogue,” Infantino said. “Maybe football can open up a door to communication between neighbors here.”

Infantino’s path to the FIFA presidency to succeed Sepp Blatter was only opened up after his former boss at European soccer’s governing body UEFA, Michel Platini, was taken out by a financial misconduct scandal. Now Infantino is now portraying himself a political mediator. Yet the Swiss-Italian lawyer and his FIFA cohorts insist Putin’s actions away from soccer don’t concern them.

The same man Infantino was joking with in the Kremlin, in a well-edited video of keepy-ups with the ball, still resists demands from the families of victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to accept responsibility. The FIFA delegation that went to the Kremlin last week should have conducted more due diligence, according to the lawyer representing victims’ families.

“Review the archives for the many, many photos, videos and intercepted telecommunications which have been recovered documenting the Russian Army’s provocative action with Russian Buk (missile),” Jerry Skinner said. “Do your primary document research and catch up to those demanding Russian accountability.”

FIFA did at least publicly acknowledge concerns about Ramzan Kadyrov , the strongman Chechen leader accused of human rights abuses including torture, anti-LGBT attacks and the killings of political opponents. Egypt was allowed by FIFA to be based in Grozny and star striker Mohamed Salah was soon dragged into photo-ops with Kadyrov. That facilitated Kadyrov to “launder his reputation on the world stage,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

Since Infantino believes football should have a diplomatic role — as a conduit to opening up dialogue — activists want him to use that influence.

“If FIFA operations have been responsible for worker deaths, for wage cheating and exploitation, for giving as a platform to a serious human rights abuser then you can use that leverage to seek redress,” Worden said in a telephone interview.

Infantino told Putin he feels “like a child in a toy shop” and has called it the “best World Cup ever.” The FIFA leader has to be careful not to appear willing to give Putin a free-pass and gloss over misdeeds the Russian state has been found to be complicit for.

“The World Cup has certainly been the best World Cup for Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin,” Worden said. “But certainly not on the basis of human rights.”

Watch Live: Chelsea v. Leicester City

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Chelsea host Leicester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in their home opener, as U.S. men’s national team star Christian Pulisic is handed the first start of his Premier League career.

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Frank Lampard will get a great ovation on his homecoming to Stamford Bridge, while Brendan Rodgers‘ Foxes will fancy their chance of causing an upset.

In team news Christian Pulisic starts on his home debut for Chelsea as he replaces Ross Barkley on the left, as Olivier Giroud and N’Golo Kante replace Tammy Abraham and Matteo Kovacic from the team which started at Man United last Sunday.

Leicester bring in Christian Fuchs at left back with Ben Chilwell out with a minor injury and the Austrian international coming in.


LINEUPS

Leicester XI: Schmeichel, Pereira, Evans, Soyuncu, Fuchs, Ndidi, Perez, Tielemans, Choudhury, Maddison, Vardy. Subs: Justin, Morgan, Albrighton, Ward, Iheanacho, Barnes, Praet.

Sheffield United battle past Crystal Palace

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Sheffield United beat Crystal Palace 1-0 on Sunday, as the Blades’ first home game back in the Premier League ended in victory.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

John Lundstram was the hero at Bramall Lane as his goal just after half time sealed all three points for the Yorkshire club, which was their first PL win since 2007.

Chris Wilder‘s side have now picked up four points from their first two games back in the big time, while Palace have yet to score across their opening two matches.


3 things we learned

1. Bramall Lane can become a fortress: The home fans created a wonderful atmosphere in their first PL home game since 2007, and they dragged their team over the line late on. As hefty challenges flew in and Chris Wilder wound up his players from the sidelines, this will be an intimidating place for teams to play. If the Blades are going to stay up, their home form needs to be very good and it seems like that is going to be the case.

2. Overlapping CBs a joy to watch: Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell marauding down the flanks was a joy to watch, and something we will see a lot from Sheffield United this season. Basham and O’Connell are encouraged to fly down the flanks and join attacks, with the holding midfielders sitting in for them and it certainly gives opponents a very different tactical headache to solve. O’Connell pushed forward down the left wing for United’s opening goal and the overload it created in a dangerous area worked superbly. Pretty soon a lot of other teams will be copying the Blades.

3. Wilfried Zaha not up to speed: In his first start of the season, Zaha spent most of the first half having a row with the home bench and fans. Roy Hodgson was hoping he would be focused after a summer-long saga which saw him state his desire to leave Palace, but moves to Arsenal and Everton both fell through. Zaha’s display on the pitch looked like a player who doesn’t really want to be at Palace. That is very worrying for the Eagles.

Man of the Match: Chris Basham – A dominant force in the air and on the ground, the center back held United’s defensive unit together and he epitomized their gritty display. The Blades’ longest-serving current player stood tall.


After a steady start to the game for both teams, Sheffield United started to cause plenty of problems as David McGoldrick had a shot blocked and Palace managed to scramble clear from a corner as the hosts built up a head of steam in the first half.

Callum Robinson struck an effort over the bar as the Blades dug deep and substitute Luke Freeman (who replaced the injured John Fleck) brought plenty of energy to the midfield battle.

The Blades should have taken the lead just before half time as Lundstram’s perfect cross the back post found McGoldrick but Vicente Guaita saved well.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Sheffield United got off to a perfect start in the second half as Jack O’Connell raced down the left flank and Freeman cut inside and sent a ball across goal which Guaita saved but the ball fell to Lundstram who slammed home to send Bramall Lane wild.

That opening goal sprung the game into life as Andros Townsend‘s deflected shot from distance was pushed out by Dean Henderson and even though Palace tried their best to get into the game, Sheffield United’s defense held firm.

Some meaty challenges flew in late on as substitute Ollie McBurnie made a nuisance of himself, as the home fans roared their team to victory.

Report: Alexis Sanchez pushing for Inter Milan loan

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A report from Italy states that Manchester United are in talks with Inter Milan over loaning Alexis Sanchez for the 2019-20 campaign.

Sanchez, 30, has reportedly asked United to send him to Inter for the upcoming season as the Chilean star has failed to settled at Old Trafford over the last 18 months and scored once in 20 Premier League appearances last season.

He has yet to play this season or over the summer after being injured playing for Chile in the Copa America this summer, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been positive about Sanchez whenever he’s spoken about him this summer and said wants to keep him at Man United.

However, per the report from Fabrizio Romano in Italy the former Arsenal star wants to head back to Serie A — where he started his career in Europe with Udinese — and Inter only want to pay $16.6 million to sign him permanently next summer when he will still have two years left on his contract at United.

With the summer transfer window still open in Germany, Spain and Italy until Sept. 2, this move is something to keep an eye on.

This is a big call for United.

Do they really want an unhappy and lackluster Sanchez around, blocking the pathway for the likes of Mason Greenwood to break into the first team?

Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard will provide goals and will be helped out by Juan Mata and Greenwood, but if one of Rashford or Martial gets injured, Solskjaer’s attacking options diminish quite rapidly.

Selling Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan already has them down a senior striker and if they have to subsidize Sanchez’s huge wages just to send him out on loan, is it really worth it?

After VAR drama, does new handball law need to change?

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The fallout from Manchester City and Tottenham’s wild 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium continues, as late VAR drama stole the show with Gabriel Jesus‘ strike ruled out deep into second half stoppage time.

[ MORE: VAR drama dominates

Jesus’ goal in stoppage time was ruled out for a handball on Aymeric Laporte after being checked by VAR, as the new laws brought in by IFAB this summer were interpreted correctly. The exact same thing happened as Wolves had a goal chalked out against Leicester during the opening weekend of the season.

But do those new laws need to be tweaked?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The new rules state that if there’s a handball in the box from an attacking player which either a) leads to the ball going into the net or b) leads directly to a goal being scored, then it will be called a handball.

However, the same law states that if a defending player handles in the box then it is down to the referees discretion to decide whether or not it was a deliberate handball.

As you’d expected, Man City midfielder Ilkay Gunodgan has strong feelings on this law change, and our broadcast crew discuss whether or not this law needs to be changed in the video above.

The overall feeling is that the law needs to tweaking to state that handballs in the box by either attacking or defending players are treated the same and called a handball.