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Ronaldo begins World Cup preparations amid Madrid doubts

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Surrounded by doubts about his future at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is bringing some unwanted distraction to Portugal’s national team ahead of the World Cup.

Ronaldo was expected to join Portugal’s squad on Monday, with just about everyone wondering what he will say about his situation with Real Madrid.

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For the second straight year, Ronaldo’s arrival with the national team is being marred by talks about his club. The same thing happened before last year’s Confederations Cup, when a Portuguese daily published a report saying Ronaldo wanted to leave Real Madrid after being accused of tax fraud in Spain.

This time, it was Ronaldo himself who raised doubts about his future, saying moments after the Champions League final that it “was very beautiful” to have played with the Spanish club.

Ronaldo said he would reveal his future plans when he joined the national team, and that time has arrived, putting the spotlight on the star forward and not so much on Portugal’s World Cup preparations.

Ronaldo was expected to practice Monday, but it wasn’t yet clear if he was going to speak to the media.

He was to join Portugal’s squad later than the other players because of the Champions League final.

The defending European champions have already played two World Cup warm-up matches – drawing 2-2 against Tunisia and 0-0 against Belgium. The team’s final game before the World Cup will be against Algeria on Thursday, when Ronaldo will likely be available to boost the attack.

A five-time player of the year, Ronaldo has a contract with Madrid until 2021. But he and his agents could be seeking a salary increase in a market that has boomed since Neymar’s record transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain.

Madrid president Florentino Perez has always made Ronaldo a priority, and this time his importance for the club could be even greater after coach Zinedine Zidane decided to quit and with Gareth Bale also possibly on his way out.

Since Ronaldo’s comments after the Champions League final, there have been widespread rumors about him joining PSG or returning to Manchester United.

Last year’s report in Portuguese media said Ronaldo’s decision to leave Madrid was “irreversible,” but he continued with the Spanish club and helped it win a fourth Champions League title in five seasons.

Ronaldo has not hidden his discontentment with the tax fraud accusations in Spain. Last week, not long after he hinted his time with Madrid was over, reports emerged in Spanish media that his offer to make a deal with the country’s tax authorities had been rejected, handing him another disappointing setback.

Ronaldo was accused of defrauding tax authorities of 14.7 million euros ($17.1 million) from 2011-14. Prosecutors accused him of using a shell company in the Virgin Islands to hide the true amount of income made from image rights, among other irregularities, to reduce the amount of tax he paid.

Ronaldo and his agents have denied any wrongdoing.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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PAOK owner banned, team docked points for violence

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) The owner of Greek soccer club PAOK Thessaloniki was banned for three years on Thursday for his part in violence during a match against AEK Athens, including running onto the field with a holstered pistol on his hip.

PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis, a powerful Russian-Greek businessman, was also fined 100,000 euros ($123,000) by the Greek sports court.

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The club itself was docked three points for violence that interrupted recent matches against Olympiakos and AEK – incidents that triggered a two-week suspension of the league.

The ruling gives AEK a seven-point advantage over Olympiakos and sees PAOK drop to third place with five matches remaining – unless the decision is overturned on appeal.

Olympiakos has dominated the league for two decades, but AEK is now favored to win for the first time in 24 years.

In fallout from the incident, FIFA said on Thursday a panel it appointed last year to oversee the troubled national soccer federation recommended the federation be suspended immediately.

This season has been roiled by ongoing allegations of corruption and political interference. The government this week ended a 15-day suspension of the league saying it received a commitment from clubs to back reforms aimed at curbing violence.

However, in its letter revealed on Thursday, the FIFA committee said: “Regretfully … the monitoring committee is of the opinion that the current situation of Greek football with its repeated episodes of violence does not allow the (federation) to guarantee a smooth running of national competitions.

“The monitoring committee unanimously recommends an immediate suspension of the (federation) from FIFA membership.”

The federation said FIFA representatives attended a meeting of its executive board in Athens to brief them on their findings.

Federation chief Evangelos Grammenos said he was determined to hold clubs to their pledge to reform.

“The changes will take time,” Grammenos said.

Dunbar contributed from Geneva.

Ronaldo versus Messi: Scoring race heats up in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Regardless of who wins the Spanish league title, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be battling it out to the end.

Real Madrid doesn’t have much chance of keeping Barcelona from winning the league, but Ronaldo is making a strong run to snag the scoring title from Messi with nine matches remaining.

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Ronaldo added another four goals in Madrid’s 6-3 win over Girona on Sunday, giving him 22 for the season. That is only three below Messi, who scored his 25th in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

“Hopefully he can catch him,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo. “It’s important for him and for us, too. When he’s playing well, the team plays well. He transmits an important and positive energy to the group. He’s always in very good form come the end of the season. He’s got an eye for goal and he’ll never lose that.”

Ronaldo has scored at least one goal in his last eight matches in all competitions. He has 21 goals in his last 11 games.

“He’s unbelievably ambitious and that comes across in every training session and in everything he does on the field,” Zidane said. “If he has a penalty in training, he will take it with the maximum concentration. It’s what makes him different from the rest.”

Ronaldo is trying to keep Messi from winning the top-scorer’s “Pichichi” trophy for the second consecutive year. The Argentina forward scored 37 league goals last season, 12 more than Ronaldo.

Ronaldo hasn’t won the award since 2014-15, when he had 48 goals. That was still shy of Messi’s record of 50 goals in 2011-12.

Despite’s Ronaldo’s impressive run, Madrid’s chances of repeating as league champion remain slim. Madrid trails Barcelona by 15 points after 29 matches. The teams will play again in May in a league match at Camp Nou. They could also meet in the Champions League semifinals or the final.

Messi scored twice against Madrid this season – in a 3-1 loss in the Spanish Super Cup final at the beginning of the season and in a 3-0 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in a league match late last year. Ronaldo scored against the Catalan club in that Spanish Super Cup game.

Messi has scored at least a goal in his last six matches in all competitions. He has scored at least 25 league goals in nine consecutive seasons with Barcelona.

“Messi is the best player in the world and he shows it game after game,” Athletic defender Unai Nunez said after his team’s loss to Barcelona on Sunday.

Ronaldo has scored at least 25 league goals in the last eight seasons. He scored four or more goals in a match with Madrid eight times.

“He’s on unbelievable form at the moment,” Madrid forward Lucas Vazquez said of Ronaldo. “He helps the team with his work, goals and assists. Everyone benefits from it.”

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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PAOK punishment threatens Greek title hopes

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) A sports court in Greece has punished league title contender PAOK for match violence, deducting three points from its tally and ordering the northern club to play its next two home matches without fans.

A Feb. 25 match between PAOK and Olympiakos was canceled after Olympiakos coach Oscar Garcia was hit in the face by a roll of paper thrown from the stands.

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The court on Monday awarded the match to Olympiakos. The ruling was not immediately implemented because PAOK has the right to appeal.

PAOK and AEK Athens are fighting to break the dominance of Olympiakos which has lost only two championships in the last 21 years.

AEK leads the standings with 54 points, followed by PAOK on 52 and Olympiakos on 47.

Police say officer collapsed by himself during fan violence

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MADRID (AP) The riot police officer who died of cardiac arrest during crowd trouble before a Europa League match in Spain collapsed on his own and not in a direct confrontation with fans, authorities said Friday.

Officials in the Basque region of Spain said doctors dismissed the possibility the cardiac arrest was caused by any type of trauma sustained by the officer in fighting that took place before the match between Athletic Bilbao and Russian club Spartak Moscow on Thursday.

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There had been conflicting reports about what caused the officer’s death, with some saying he might have been involved in a struggle with fans or was hit by one of the many objects being thrown during the altercation.

Five people remained detained – three Russian nationals and two Spaniards – following the violent clashes that took place less than four months before the World Cup is held in Russia.

Authorities identified the victim as 51-year-old Inocencio Alonso Garcia and said he “suddenly felt ill in the course of the serious incidents” that took place outside San Mames Stadium in the northern city of Bilbao.

They said the officer was quickly transported from the scene but went into cardiac arrest before arriving at the nearby Basurto hospital. Doctors said they tried to revive him for more than an hour.

Video footage published by local media appeared to show the moment the officer collapsed while standing near the fighting along with other policemen.

Other images of the clashes showed fans hitting each other, and a group of policemen striking a man on the ground after he fell trying to run away.

The officer who died was among the large police force summoned to try to keep order as several hundred Russian fans – many of them considered by local authorities as radical ultras – arrived in the city for the round-of-32 match in Europe’s second-tier club competition.

The trouble erupted as police were escorting Spartak fans into the stadium and a stray group allegedly started igniting fireworks and throwing flares and objects toward Athletic supporters and police officers.

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Police said “violent fans from both clubs” participated in the fighting which spread onto the streets near the stadium located in a central area of Bilbao. Many fans were seen trying to run away from the trouble as fireworks went off all around.

Authorities said they had identified several people before the fighting carrying items that included knives, iron bars, brass knuckles and even bags of stones.

There had been reports of other minor clashes involving Russian fans in Bilbao ahead of Thursday’s match, which Spartak won 2-1. Athletic advanced despite the loss, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.

UEFA condemned the violent clashes and said it was in contact with local authorities to obtain more information on the incidents, while Spanish league president Javier Tebas called for action by FIFA and UEFA to halt fan violence.

Bilbao will host matches in the 2020 European Championship. Six years ago, a fan died in the city in clashes after a match between Athletic and German club Schalke.

Earlier Thursday, German police arrested a Russian suspected of seriously injuring a British soccer fan during the European Championship in France two years ago.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni