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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.”

Just how wrong? Revisiting Premier League predictions

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Own it.

That’s how I look at Premier League predictions. When you’re right, be happy about your good fortune. When you’re wrong, raise your hand.

But there’s another level to it: Why was I right or wrong? Did a team let me down, or did I vastly overrate/underrate their potential?

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Twenty months ago I pegged Burnley to get relegated with an almost record-low amount of points. The Clarets qualified for the Europa League, and I ate my words (even if Sean Dyche‘s men seemingly out-performed every metric on Earth in spite of stats, like some old man claiming Man City wins because of “better chemistry, not talent”).

Cardiff City
Predicted finish: 20
Actual finish: 18

How wrong was I? Not. As much credit as the Bluebirds got for grinding every week, and as much of a difference as the late Emiliano Sala could’ve been to their fortunes, they completed passes at an almost absurdly-bad 63.9 percent rate while having just 39.1 percent of the ball. It was bad.

Huddersfield Town
Predicted finish: 19
Actual finish: 20

How wrong was I? Not. Huddersfield Town managed a league-worst .4 attempts per game from inside the six-yard box, and were one of only five teams to attempt less than six shots per game from inside the 18.

Watford
Predicted finish: 18
Actual finish: 11

How wrong was I? Pretty wrong. Javi Gracia‘s men were strong against bad teams — for the most part — but never sprung another real upset after beating Spurs to go 4-0 early in the season. Record against the Top Six? 1W-0D-11L.

Bournemouth
Predicted finish: 17
Actual finish: 14

How wrong was I? Eh. The Cherries were never really in trouble thanks to a 6-2-2 start, but man did they ride their luck.

Burnley
Predicted finish: 16
Actual finish: 15

How wrong was I? I’ve learned my lesson. Regardless of how much talent appears to be on a Sean Dyche roster, he’s a rich man’s Tony Pulis and should not be doubted.

The face Sean Dyche makes before he fist fights an entire village. Terrifying. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Southampton
Predicted finish: 15
Actual finish: 16

How wrong was I? With respect to Mark Hughes, I thought Saints’ season would come down to when he was sacked and who they identified to replace him. Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s in a good place.

Brighton and Hove Albion
Predicted finish: 14
Actual finish: 17

How wrong was I? A bit wrong, and I pretty much blame Pascal Gross, who back slid from 7 goals and 8 assists in his Premier League debut to just three and three in Year No. 2. The Seagulls didn’t score a single goal from outside the 18.

Wolves
Predicted finish: 13
Actual finish: 7

How wrong was I? It’s not simply about buying players — see: Fulham — but about acquiring hungry players. Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota, and several others had points to prove, and Jimenez especially made it well.

Newcastle United
Predicted finish: 12
Actual finish: 13

How wrong was I? To be honest, this went about as I expected given the brutal fixture list to start the season. Had I known Miguel Almiron would’ve transitioned so nicely from MLS to the PL, I might’ve had them 10th.

 (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Fulham
Predicted finish: 11
Actual finish: 19

How wrong was I? Very, but to my defense so were most people. On paper, the Cottagers improved more than even Wolves.

Crystal Palace
Predicted finish: 10
Actual finish: 12

How wrong was I? The stats kinda back me up, and it may be worth noting for next season that the Palace’s results didn’t match its performances. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luka Milivojevic, and Wilfried Zaha gave them difference makers in all thirds of the field, and it’s surprising they didn’t push a bit higher on the table.

Leicester City
Predicted finish: 9
Actual finish: 9

How wrong was I? Not. The Foxes were pretty infuriating all year. Maybe Brendan Rodgers‘ ego and power will match the player power that’s run the club since they won the title. That said, the inconsistency and tumult shouldn’t be a surprise in a season the club had to deal with its owner dying on a match day.

West Ham United
Predicted finish: 8
Actual finish: 10

How wrong was I? Not really. I thought it would take Manuel Pellegrini some time to put his men together, but I didn’t predict the Irons would get a total of 37 appearances from Andriy Yarmolenko, Jack Wilshere, Manuel Lanzini, and Carlos Sanchez.

Everton
Predicted finish: 7
Actual finish: 8

How wrong was I? It took Marco Silva longer than expected to get his men humming, but think of this: If Jordan Pickford doesn’t give Divock Origi a derby winner, Everton is going to Europe. I know, I know… chaos theory. But still.

Richarlison (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur
Predicted finish: 6
Actual finish: 4

How wrong was I? Like many, I was stunned that Spurs didn’t spend this summer and thought injuries would hurt them. They did, but only to the extent that Tottenham wasn’t able to sustain a title challenge. Spurs rarely gave the ball away, and the only teams that averaged fewer “times dispossessed” than Tottenham’s 9.2 per 90 were teams that never had the ball: Brighton, Cardiff, and Burnley.

Arsenal
Predicted finish: 5
Actual finish: 5

How wrong was I? Spot-on. It was going to take time for the Gunners to come together following a first managerial change in ages, but Arsenal had the offense to challenge for the Top Four. Surprisingly for Arsenal, they averaged just eight dribbles per game, 12th in the PL. Unai Emery had them more cautious than usual.

Chelsea
Predicted finish: 4
Actual finish: 3

How wrong was I? Not. Maurizio Sarri is not for everyone, but he knows how to get results. Granted Gonzalo Higuain was his guy, but he did it without a top striker.

Liverpool
Predicted finish: 3
Actual finish: 2

How wrong was I? Well, considering the Reds had one of the best runners-up finishes of all-time, quite wrong. Mostly, I didn’t expect Mohamed Salah to deliver again and he mostly did (save for a late winter slump).

Manchester United
Predicted finish: 2
Actual finish: 6

How wrong was I? Real wrong. Almost as wrong as United looks for canning Jose Mourinho. The manager needed to leave town, but there was a reason he was playing so packed-in. Ask yourself this: If Ed Woodward gave Mourinho the use of Toby Alderweireld, would Spurs and United be flipped?

Manchester City
Predicted finish: 1
Actual finish: 1

How wrong was I? On point. How good was City? For a club that ranked No. 1 in possession, they were only dispossessed 10.3 times per match. That was the 8th fewest total in the league.

Towsend smash v. Man City win Goal of Season (video)

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Even Vincent Kompany‘s thunderbolt couldn’t stop Andros Townsend from winning the Premier League’s Goal of the Season.

The winner was chosen by a public vote combined with a “panel of experts,” according to Crystal Palace’s web site.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Townsend walked onto a popped-up headed clearance well outside the 18 and smashed a volley home against Manchester City three days before Christmas.

Palace posted this quote from Townsend, “Everything about the game, the opponent, the strike, it was perfection. I think it was a strike like that needed to beat the champions away from home. I’m thankful it kind of dropped nicely for my left foot, I hit it clean and the rest is history.”

The goals were similar, and Townsend does have a knack for scoring beauties. Perhaps it shows something that beating Man City stands out a bit more to voters and the panel than a defender scoring for the champions. We think Kompany’s was a tiny bit better, but we’ll forgive the voters.

Sky: Chelsea set to appoint Cech as sporting director

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Petr Cech is staying in London.

The longtime Chelsea goalkeeper is set to return to the club as sporting director following Arsenal’s Europa League Final against… well… Chelsea.

Cech, 37, is calling time on his legendary playing career and will not simply be drumming into the sunset.

[ MORE: Man Utd nears $20m signing ]

He’ll return to a club with which he earned 15 trophies including two Champions Leagues. The three-time Best European Goalkeeper also won three trophies with Arsenal.

It would be pretty surprising if Unai Emery selected him over Bernd Leno for the final in Azerbaijan, but Cech is certainly respected worldwide and will be the type of personality to bring some stability to Chelsea.

Will he have to hire a manager, though?

Pulisic “would love to become” like Hazard

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Christian Pulisic has barely spent a couple of days in Chelsea blue, but he’s already got his eyes on one of the club’s icons.

“It is incredible to see what Eden can do,” said Pulisic in an interview with BBC Sport. “He is a guy to look up to and what I would love to become. It is definitely a goal. Any player would be dumb not to want to be in the same team as him.”

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Pulisic may not get that chance, with Hazard expected by many to join Real Madrid this summer, but he will become the highest profile American in the Premier League when next season begins in August.

The BBC asked the 20-year-old USMNT star about being the flag bearer for American soccer, the golden boy for a nation of young players.

“I don’t want to be looked at as someone who is the youngest to do this or that. I just want to be an established player and someone people respect, who is successful in this league.”

“It is completely new to me and something not a lot of American players have experienced. It is a blessing to be in this position, so I can inspire American kids, to show them we can do it too.”

Pulisic says he’s confident Chelsea can quickly close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City.