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FIFA: Nations must restore ties with Qatar to host World Cup games

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LONDON (AP) Persian Gulf countries would have to lift boycotts of Qatar before being eligible to join hosting of the World Cup, FIFA determined in a feasibility study recommending its ruling council endorse expansion of the 2022 tournament to 48 teams despite the logistical and political complexities.

The 81-page study seen by The Associated Press says Qatar would not be forced to share games with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates unless those countries restore diplomatic and travel ties with Doha. Because of their neutrality in the situation, Kuwait and Oman are the most viable options identified by FIFA to host games in ’22. Venues in at least one more country would be required to cope with the additional 16 teams and 16 games under the expansion proposal.

The feasibility report was prepared for FIFA’s ruling council to consider ahead of a meeting in Miami on Friday, when the leadership will seek approval to press ahead with finalizing plans for adding another 16 teams.

Making the 2022 tournament the first 48-country World Cup, at this late stage, would require Qatar to accept giving up exclusivity on hosting the event more than eight years after its winning bid.

But to protect itself legally, FIFA says that any alteration to the tournament plans “shall be agreed together with Qatar as the appointed host nation, and any new proposals must be prepared jointly between FIFA and Qatar.”

With logistics already challenged by the existing plan to play 64 games in eight stadiums within a 30-mile radius in Qatar, FIFA said two to four additional venues are required in the region in “one or more” nation. The FIFA study identified stadiums in five countries, of which Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are currently unviable because they severed travel ties with Qatar in 2017 over accusations Doha supports extremism. Qatar denies the claims.

“Due to the geopolitical situation in the region and the recent blockade that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE have imposed on Qatar, the involvement of such countries in organizing a co-hosted tournament with Qatar would require the lifting of such blockade, in particular the lifting of all restrictions relating to the movement of people and goods between these countries,” the FIFA feasibility study said. “Ideally, this should be evidenced as a precondition to the appointment of such co-hosts and should cover all aspects related to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

Two other potential co-hosts – Kuwait and Oman – are more feasible because they are not part of the boycott. Qatar’s national football team used the countries as stopovers to get its team to the Asian Cup in the UAE in January because direct travel is prohibited.

“Candidate co-hosts would need to be regarded as sufficiently cooperative,” the FIFA study adds. “Such co-hosts would not sanction or boycott economically or otherwise any other potential co-host country.”

A document sent to the FIFA Council says its members will be asked if they agree with the report’s conclusion that World Cup expansion is “feasible provided that neighboring countries host some matches.” FIFA emphasizes that would still keep Qatar as the main host.

The council will also be asked to allow FIFA and Qatar to jointly submit a proposal on using “one or more additional co-host countries” and that the congress of member associations has the final say on expansion in June.

That would come almost nine years after the vote that Qatar’s unexpected vote success. That bidding process has been subject to corruption investigations which questioned Qatar’s conduct in lobbying voters but concluded there was no misconduct. Qatar has also been forced to raise standards of working conditions and improve labor rights protections after significant outside scrutiny. Any additional host nation in 2022 would have to provide guarantees on human rights requirements, the FIFA study says.

The World Cup already has been shifted from its usual June-July slot because of Qatar’s searing summer heat, despite resistance from European leagues whose season will be disrupted.

Spreading hosting beyond Qatar would also change the nature of what has been promoted as a compact World Cup that doesn’t require fans to take flights between matches.

The FIFA study found that the enlarged tournament could still be played in a 28-day window from Nov. 21-Dec. 18. FIFA said there would be “no major concessions to the sporting quality of the tournament” with expansion. While there were a maximum of four matches per day in the closing stages of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA said the 2022 tournament could feature six separate kickoff slots in the earlier stage to cope with the additional teams.

The FIFA Congress has already agreed to expand to a 48-team tournament from the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The same format is proposed, starting with a group stage consisting of 16 groups of three teams, followed by a round of 32. That would ensure a team could only play a maximum of seven matches at the tournament – like in the 32-team format.

The study also breaks down how FIFA can earn an additional $400 million by adding more games. FIFA said while it cannot rule out legal action from losing bidders by changing the format, the study said it “concluded that the risk was low.”

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

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

The world’s most political game? Venezuela v. Catalonia

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MADRID (AP) There will be lots of politics to talk about when Venezuela takes on a Catalonia squad in a friendly soccer game in Spain on Monday.

Venezuela has a coach who offered his resignation over the alleged political use of his national team, while Catalonia — the region in the middle of an independence dispute with — will be missing players because some non-Catalan teams didn’t release them.

Venezuela is coming off a convincing 3-1 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Friday, but what attracted most of the attention after the friendly was an announcement by Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel. He offered his resignation because he was not happy with the politicization of a pre-game visit by a representative of Juan Guaido, the man challenging Nicolas Maduro’s claim to the presidency in Venezuela.

Dudamel and the rest of the squad had welcomed the visit but the coach apparently did not like that images were later released to the public.

“Regrettably, they politicized the visit,” Dudamel said. “The agreement was that if there was any image or video, it would have been used internally only. But they politicized the visit, and we can’t allow that to happen. It was regrettable how they used it.”

Venezuela is in the middle of a power struggle since Maduro’s re-election last year was deemed illegitimate by several governments.

Dudamel said he will remain in charge of the squad on Monday, but his future will depend on talks with Venezuelan soccer federation officials in the coming days.

Catalonia has also undergone political turmoil, peaking recently in 2017 with an independence referendum not recognized by Madrid. The issue divided Spain at the time and remains a hot topic politically.

Although the region is not independent, Catalonia has often put together squads to play in friendly matches against other nations.

Among the Catalan players expected to play on Monday are veterans Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez. Both have retired from the Spanish national team and are off-duty with their clubs because of the international break.

Hernandez, a 39-year-old midfielder, currently plays in Qatar. The 32-year-old Pique, still a starter with Barcelona, decided to stop playing with Spain’s national team after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

But other players initially selected for the squad were not released by their clubs, who said their decisions were not related to politics.

Valladolid, which is fighting relegation from the top tier of the Spanish league, was the first team to keep its players from taking part in Monday’s match, and Rayo Vallecano and Huesca — also threatened by relegation — later followed suit.

“We understand the reasons why these clubs are not going to let their players play,” Catalonia coach Gerard Lopez said.

The match will be played in Girona, a Catalan city about 60 miles from Barcelona.

Redknapp claims innocence for Birmingham’s overspending, deduction

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Harry Redknapp claims that he is not at all responsible for the nine-point recently handed to Birmingham City as punishment for “breaching profitability and sustainability rules” in the EFL Championship.

[ MORE: Mourinho “preparing” for next job; expects to start “in June” ]

Despite managing the club for five months, from April to September 2017 — a period in which the Blues signed nine new players (six for transfer fees, three on free transfers) and saw the overall wage bill continue to rise — Redknapp has washed his hands of the entire situation and believes “I don’t think any of the signings were mine” — quotes from the Guardian:

“There were three lads from Brentford that came in [Jota, Harlee Dean and Maxime Colin]. They were all good players but they weren’t on my shopping list. I’d never even see any of them play, they were brought in by other people above my head.

“We brought in Isaac Vassell for $1.3 million [from Luton] and he will be worth massive money in my opinion. He was an absolute bargain, but I can’t even take credit for that because he was nothing to do with me, to be truthful. I don’t think any of the signings were mine. I was taking [John] Ruddy on a free transfer from Norwich and instead they brought in David Stockdale from Brighton. The director of football [Jeff Vetere] wasn’t brought in by me either.”

Only, with regard to the signing of Spanish midfielder Jota, Redknapp had the following to say hours before his signing was made official, per Guardian columnist Daniel Taylor:

“I’m hoping it will be done. It’s not done yet. I just identify them, then it’s up to other people to get them in.”

[thinking-face emoji slash upside down smiling emoji]

While Redknapp is hugely disingenuous in accepting zero responsibility, those in charge of the various clubs at which he has run up massive debts managed could try something entirely new: tell the man, “No.”

Juventus sets record for attendance at women’s club game

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TURIN, Italy (AP) A week after the world record for the highest attendance at a women’s soccer club match was set, a league record in Italy was also broken.

[ MORE: Mourinho “preparing” for next job; expects to start “in June” ]

Juventus’ women’s team played for the first time at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday and a total of 39,027 people turned out to see the league leaders beat second-place Fiorentina 1-0.

That annihilated the previous record attendance for a women’s club match in Italy of 14,000 spectators.

All tickets were free.

Defending champion Juventus, which normally plays its matches at the club’s training center in Vinovo, extended its advantage at the top of the Serie A table to four points ahead of Fiorentina and seven ahead of third-place AC Milan.

[ MORE: Messi injured in Argentina return; likely to recover for Man Utd clash ]

A total of 60,739 people were present at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium last Sunday as the hosts lost 2-0 to Barcelona.

In January, Athletic Bilbao said it set a European record when 48,121 spectators attended a Spanish Cup match against Atletico Madrid at San Mames Stadium in Bilbao.

The record for any women’s match was set in 1999 when 90,185 people watched the World Cup final between the United States and China at the Rose Bowl, which the U.S. won. At the 2012 Olympic final in London, 80,203 saw the U.S. beat Japan.

LAFC beat RSL on more late-game heroics; first in MLS to 10 points

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Their 2019 campaign is only four weeks old, but Los Angele FC are making a name for themselves as MLS’s new cardiac kids — masters of late-game drama — with another stoppage-time winner.

[ MORE: Young FCD side tops Rapids | Kljestan, Orlando down Red Bulls ]

After knocking off Sporting Kansas City courtesy of Adama Diomande‘s 94th-minute goal in Week 1, Bob Bradley‘s boys were at it again against Real Salt Lake on Saturday.

Just as they did against Sporting KC, LAFC fell behind in the first half only to pull level close to halftime and break visiting hearts with 90-plus on the clock. Damir Kreilach converted from the penalty spot in the 35th minute, but the advantage lasted barely five minutes before Diego Rossi equalized in the 40th.

[ MORE: Schalke issue injury update on USMNT’s Weston McKennie ]

Then, in the 91st minute, came the stunning winner from Rossi Carlos Vela  Diomande Christian Ramirez Lee Nguyen Walker Zimmerman(?!).

Whether or not the strike took a deflection or knuckled and swerved in a way that would make the world’s greatest strikers of the ball proud — even Bradley was noncommittal either way — is largely irrelevant.

With a 3W-1D-0L record through the season’s first month, Bradley and Co., have shown their debut MLS season was no fluke. In fact, they’ve made it abundantly clear that it was actually something of a disappointment and they are intent on reaching far greater heights in 2019.