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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.

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“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.”

World Cup Most Disappointing XI players

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With the final around the corner, we here at ProSoccerTalk already put together a list of our World Cup Team of the Tournament. With stars like Luka Modric, Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, and K’Golo Kante headlining the list of players performing at the highest level on the biggest stage, the summer has no doubt proven as exciting as ever.

[ MORE: PST Writers pick their World Cup Best XI ]

However, there’s always another side of the coin. Many top teams disappointed heavily this summer, and with that comes poor individual performances from those expected to have a major impact. This summer has seen players who may have slipped from stardom to obscurity due to age or poor form. So who was the most disappointing? Some of us here put together a starting lineup of players who have underwhelmed compared to expectations.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Teams such as Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina are heavily represented, as are other European nations like Denmark, Switzerland, and Poland who would have expected to perform better given their lofty FIFA rankings. Finally, the African nations will be disappointed to not reach the knockout phase, and make an appearance as a result.


Without further ado, here are some of our Disappointing Teams of the Tournament:

Kyle Bonn (4-3-3 formation)

GK: David De Gea (Spain)
DF: Alba (Spain), Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina), Gerard Pique (Spain), Lukasz Piszczek (Poland)
MF: Sami Khedira (Germany), Christian Eriksen (Denmark), Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
FW: Gabriel Jesus (Brazil), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Thomas Muller (Germany)

Matt Reed (3-4-3 formation)

GK: David de Gea
DF: Joshua Kimmich (Germany), Nicolas Otamendi, Gerard Pique
MF: Bernardo Silva (Portugal), Javier Mascherano, Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Mesut Ozil (Germany)
FW: Gabriel Jesus, Timo Werner (Germany), Robert Lewandowski

Daniel Karell (3-4-3 formation)

GK: David de Gea
DF: Gerard Pique, Nicolas Otamendi, Mats Hummels (Germany)
MF: Marco Reus (Germany), Javier Mascherano, Antoine Griezmann (France), Alex Iwobi (Nigeria)
FW: Neymar (Brazil), Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Nicholas Mendola (4-3-3 formation)

GK: David De Gea (Spain)
DF: Jerome Boateng (Germany), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal), Sergio Ramos (Spain)
MF: Javier Mascherano (Argentina), Sergej Malinkovic-Savic (Serbia), Mohamed Elneny (Egypt), Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
FW: Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Timo Werner (Germany), Raheem Sterling (England)


The goalkeeper is a consensus pick in Manchester United’s David de Gea, who has won countless awards in the Premier League over the last few seasons with the Red Devils and has been linked for years with a move to Manchester United. His exploits in Russia this summer, however, were far from the standards he has set for himself in England.

In defense, there are also a pair of consensus picks in Argentina’s Nicolas Otamendi and Spain’s Gerard Pique. Otamendi was fabulous for Manchester City in their runaway title chase this past season, while Pique has been one of the best defenders in the world for years with Barcelona. Neither was up to their usual standards as both teams proved leaky at the back. Also appearing is Germany’s Mats Hummels and Joshua Kimmich, who both failed to meet expectations in a wildly disappointing group stage exit.

In the middle of the pitch, Javier Mascherano is a consensus pick, with the 31-year-old starting each and every game of the Argentina’s World Cup yet failing to cover the back line effectively at an advanced age. Jorge Sampaoli’s faith in him proved to be a big reason for Argentina’s early exit. Germany’s Sami Khedira suffered a similar fate, although at least Jogi Low had the sense to bench him quickly. Others appearing here include disappointing attackers Christian Eriksen, Mesut Ozil, and Alex Iwobi. Eriksen was consistently double-teamed with Denmark offering little else up front, and they were left unable to threaten opposing defenses with any regularity. Ozil has been criticized often over the years at Arsenal, and he failed to provide much for Germany in creativity. Iwobi is a youngster who had been pegged as a potential breakout star at the World Cup, but he failed to deliver and the African teams left much on the table. Even Antoine Griezmann, who some have labeled a potential Golden Ball candidate, makes an appearance as the Frenchman has often struggled with the final ball up front and he occasionally appears unable to operate on the same page as his teammates.

Finally, up front brings us consensus pick Robert Lewandowski, who yet again failed to come up clutch on the big stage. He has gone missing recently in big European games for Bayern Munich, and he was unable to engineer anything special at the head of the attack for 8th ranked team in the world. Brazil youngster Gabriel Jesus makes a pair of appearances, having disappointed mightily up front for Brazil playing the central striker role. There were louder and louder calls to start Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino in his place as the tournament went on, but those fell on deaf ears with manager Tite. Germany’s pair of Thomas Muller and Timo Werner represent other disappointments, with the hero of the 2014 World Cup final and the country’s young new talisman both putting forth forgettable performances. And finally, yes, Argentina superstar Lionel Messi makes the cut. While many claim his team weighed him down, there is no debating Messi’s tournament was one to forget. Altogether, the six strikers that appear here combined for just one goal in the entire tournament, from Messi.

Liverpool completes signing of Xherdan Shaqiri

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Jurgen Klopp has his third signing of the 2018 summer transfer window as Liverpool completed the financially sound transfer of Stoke City winger Xherdan Shaqiri, following Switzerland’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup, the Reds announced Friday.

Switzerland didn’t impress in the World Cup, finding a quick exit in the Round of 16 to Sweden, but Shaqiri was one of the bright spots for his national side, scoring a late winner in a critical group stage victory over Serbia and proving dangerous on the flanks cutting inside.

According to reports, Liverpool paid $17 million for Shaqiri, who follows Naby Kieta and Fabinho in the Anfield doors this summer. The 26-year-old spent three seasons at Stoke City, making 92 appearances across all competitions and scoring 15 goals while assisting 15 others. However, with Stoke City relegated, that activated a $17 million release clause which Liverpool was happy to activate.

Shaqiri said he’s wanted this move for some time. “I’m really glad and happy to be here,” he told the official Liverpool website. “As a player you always want to be on the biggest stage in football. A few years ago I wanted to come too but it didn’t happen. I’m really happy that now I’m finally here. I want to improve myself too, I want to be with the best and I want to win titles. That’s what I’m here for.”

Shaqiri has plenty of competition for a starting spot at Liverpool. For starters, he plays on the same side as star Mohamed Salah who lit the Premier League on fire last season with his electric pace and vision both on and off the ball. With Sadio Mane equally entrenched on the other side, Shaqiri will have his work cut out for him. However, he adds important depth to a squad that seemed too heavily reliant on Salah and Mane last season, and with both players participating in the 2018 World Cup this summer, depth will be key to avoid overly tired legs or serious injury.

Shaqiri had “offers all across Europe” according to the Liverpool Echo, but the former Bayern Munich attacker chose to stay in the Premier League and move forward with the Reds.

What will Guendouzi bring to Arsenal?

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Arsenal continue to add new talent over the offseason as Unai Emery’s fifth signing as the new Gunners boss was confirmed on Wednesday.

Matteo Guendouzi is on board.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The 19-year-old French midfielder is highly-regarded in his homeland after breaking through at FC Lorient in Ligue 2 following his time spent at Paris Saint-Germain’s academy.

Guendouzi joins Arsenal a day after promising Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira completed his $35 million move from Sampdoria, and he joins fellow new recruits Stephan Lichsteiner, Bernd Leno and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Speaking about his $10 million arrival at Arsenal, the French U-20 international has high hopes for his future after revealing Arsenal is “the side I’ve wanted to join since I was a child” and is the team that is “closest to his heart.”

“My hope is to become a top player here at Arsenal. A lot of great players have played here. I want to become part of the club’s history and to achieve great things here. I want to win titles, titles, titles,” Guendouzi said. “I want to establish myself here, which would be amazing. Winning silverware, as I said, is very important to me and winning things here at Arsenal would be incredible.”

What can we expect from Guendouzi? Well, first up, his hair game is incredibly strong. I mean, that is a seriously impressively hairdo. Carlos Valderrama, eat your heart out.

But on the pitch he will bring tough-tackling and an impressive range of passing from a holding midfield role. Think, a slightly less flamboyant David Luiz and that is what to expect from Guendouzi.

Emery believes he will challenge for minutes in the first team straight away and given the departure of Jack Wilshere plus the likes of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka having to prove themselves all over again, having a young, tenacious holding midfielder is something Arsenal have been crying out for.

“We are delighted Matteo is joining us. He is a talented young player and a lot of clubs were interested in him,” Emery said. “He has big potential and gained good first-team experience last season with Lorient. He wants to learn and improve and will be an important part of our first-team squad.”

Mohamed Salah signs new long-term contract

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The main man is sticking around at Anfield.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Mohamed Salah, 26, has signed a new long-term contract at Liverpool which is believed to be a five-year deal and run until the summer of 2023.

The Egyptian winger had an incredible first season at Liverpool in 2017/18 after arriving from AS Roma for $45 million, scoring 44 goals in 52 games in all competitions and 32 in 38 Premier League games to set a new record goal tally for a 38-game season and win the Golden Boot.

He was also named as the Premier League Player of the Year, the PFA Players’ Players of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp had the following to say about Salah’s new contract.

“It demonstrates two things very clearly also – his belief in Liverpool and our belief in him,” Klopp said. “We want world-class talent to see they have a home at Anfield where they can fulfil all their professional dreams and ambitions – we are working hard together to achieve this.

“When someone like Mo Salah commits and says this place is my home now, it speaks very loudly I think. Equally, our commitment to him says we see his value and want him to grow even more and get even better within our environment.”

With speculation linking Salah to Real Madrid after his stunning debut season at Liverpool, this is great news for Klopp and his ongoing project at Anfield.

Salah will no doubt be hard-pressed to replicate his incredible campaign of calm finishing, stunning curling goals from distance and ripping PL defenses apart with his mesmeric dribbling, but he will be around at Liverpool for the foreseeable future to try and win them some silverware.

Reaching the UEFA Champions League final and finishing in the top four in 2017/18 was a successful season for the Reds but Salah, and Klopp, will be hoping to seriously challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title in the upcoming campaign.

The Egyptian star will have plenty of time off over the summer after being injured in their 3-1 UCL final defeat to Real Madrid, then rushing back to be fit enough to play in Egypt’s final two World Cup group stage games, scoring both of their goals in defeats to Russia and Saudi Arabia.

With his future now sorted, Salah can focus on leading Liverpool towards glory once again.