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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.”

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.

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.

Egypt’s Salah greets fans who turned up at his doorstep

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CAIRO (AP) Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s beloved striker, greeted an adoring crowd who turned up at his doorstep after his Cairo address was leaked on Facebook.

[ MORE: FIFA to review fair-play tiebreaker, unlikely to change ]

According to media reports, the Muslim world’s most popular soccer player showed no sign of anger as he received fans Thursday night, posing for photos and signing autographs. Dozens of fans showed up shortly after his arrival with Egypt’s national team following a disappointing World Cup showing.

Egypt lost all three of its matches in the World Cup against Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Salah missed the opening match with Uruguay because of a shoulder injury. He scored two goals in the matches against Russia and Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, fans gathered again at the Cairo airport to greet the 26-year-old Salah before he set off for Lebanon with his wife.

Top 20 players of the World Cup group stage

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Well this isn’t easy, Mr. Editor…

The World Cup group stage is complete, and we saw some outstanding performances from players in Russia.

[ MORE: Knockout round schedule, bracket ]

Harry Kane scored five, one more than Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo. Philippe Coutinho looked like the player Barcelona spent a whole lot of dough for, and Keylor Navas shone in defeat.

But what about the lesser known names? Aleksandr Golovin went from being linked with mid-table Premier League teams to the wish lists of the globe’s top sides. And Hirving “Chucky” Lozano delivered on his next big El Tri thing promise.

It’s safe to say many of these names will make our 20, but we still had a starting point of 33 names even with judicious trimming.

Don’t hate, commentate (in the comment section below).

Tunisia’s Wahbi Khazri celebrates one of his two goals and two assists at the World Cup (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

20. Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia

19. Luka Modric, Croatia

18. Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland

17. Yerry Mina, Colombia

16. Kasper Schmeichel, Denmark

15. Viktor Claesson, Sweden

14. Lionel Messi, Argentina

13. Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium

12. Carlos Salcedo, Mexico

(Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

11. Neymar, Brazil — 5.3 shots per game and a thrilling performance should have him in the Top Three, but his shameful dive zips him back to here at a minimum. Maybe next round, Ney.

10. Ivan Rakitic, Croatia

9. Philippe Coutinho, Brazil

8. Aleksandr Golovin, Russia

7. Jose Gimenez, Uruguay

6. N'Golo Kante, France

5. Eden Hazard, Belgium

4. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

3. Isco, Spain

2. Harry Kane, England

1. Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

Honorable mention: Wilfred Ndidi, Nigeria; Gen Shoji, Japan; Kieran Trippier, England; Casemiro, Brazil; Thiago Silva, Brazil; Toni Kroos, Germany; Artem Dzyuba, Russia; Hirving Lozano, Mexico; Diego Costa, Spain; Luis Suarez, Uruguay; Diego Godin, Uruguay; Andreas Grandqvist, Sweden; Sardar Azmoun, Iran; Aleksandar Mitrovic, Serbia; David Ospina, Colombia; Cho Hyun-Woo, South Korea; Mohamed Salah, Egypt; Edgar Barcenas, Panama; Grzegorz Krychowiak, Poland; Aaron Mooy, Australia; Kendall Waston, Costa Rica; Salem Al Dawsari, Saudi Arabia; Amine Harit, Morocco; Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland; Luis Advincula, Peru; M’Baye Niang, Senegal.