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FIFA supports case of detained Bahraini soccer player

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA says it wants a soccer player who has refugee status in Australia to return to the country “at the earliest possible moment” rather than be extradited from Thailand to Bahrain.

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Former Bahrain international Hakeem Al-Araibi was detained at Bangkok airport last week. An Interpol warrant for his arrest was issued in apparent violation of rules protecting refugees.

World soccer’s ruling body FIFA says it now expects his case “to be solved in accordance with well-established international standards,” and has asked Australian soccer officials to urgently “take the matter up with their government.”

Australian authorities said last week that embassy officials in Bangkok were working on the case.

Rights activists say Al-Araibi was tortured after being arrested in 2012. He fled to Australia which gave him political asylum.

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How to qualify for soccer’s EURO 2020

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GENEVA (AP) With the inaugural Nations League program ending Tuesday, the 2020 European Championship is up next for the continent’s national teams.

All 24 places at Euro 2020 are up for grabs when qualifying starts in March, although the Nations League helped shape the draw that will be held on Dec. 2 in Dublin.

Germany, for instance, won’t be among the top-seeded teams because of its poor results since September.

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For 16 teams, there already is a backup plan to reach Euro 2020. Those Nations League group winners are sure of a place in a playoff round held in March 2020 regardless of their finish in the traditional qualifying groups.

Another quirk of Euro 2020 is there are 12 host countries – from Ireland in the west to Azerbaijan in the east – and none gets an automatic entry.

Here is the Euro 2020 outlook:

EURO 2020 QUALIFYING DRAW

All 55 teams in the Dec. 2 draw are seeded according to Nations League results.

They will be drawn into five groups of five teams and five six-team groups, with games played from March to November next year.

The Nations League top-tier group winners – Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England – must be in the smaller, five-team groups. They will play the Final Four tournament hosted by Portugal in June when others are playing Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The top two finishers in each group qualify automatically for Euro 2020.

Pot 1: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Poland.

Pot 2: Germany, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Austria, Wales, Czech Republic.

Pot 3: Slovakia, Turkey, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland, Bulgaria, Israel.

Pot 4: Hungary, Romania, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Georgia.

Pot 5: Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus, Luxembourg, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Gibraltar, Faeroe Islands.

Pot 6: Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Malta, San Marino.

EURO 2020 PLAYOFFS

The last four places at the tournament will be decided through a 16-team playoff, the format of which is completely new.

Four teams from each of four Nations League tiers will play in a mini-tournament featuring semifinals and a final next March 26-31. The four winners advance to complete the 24-team Euro 2020 lineup.

If one of the Nations League group winners have already secured a spot, the next-best team in that tier will make the playoffs.

It is a golden opportunity for fourth-tier League D teams which are unlikely to qualify automatically.

So, one of Georgia, Macedonia, Kosovo or Belarus will make its tournament debut at Euro 2020. For Kosovo, it’s a first entry in qualifying after gaining membership of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016.

Other potential playoff lineups:

League C: Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland.

League B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden.

League A: Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, England.

12 HOST COUNTRIES

Euro 2020 will be hosted in 12 cities in 12 different countries, kicking off in Rome on June 12.

It was supposed to be 13 cities – each hosting three group-stage games plus a knockout game from the round of 16 or a quarterfinal – but Brussels dropped out when a new stadium project failed.

The semifinals and final were awarded to Wembley Stadium in London, which also stepped in to get the four Brussels games.

Host nation teams who qualify will have at least two home games in the group stage.

The host city pairings are:

Group A: Rome, Italy; Baku, Azerbaijan.

Group B: St. Petersburg, Russia; Copenhagen, Denmark.

Group C: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Bucharest, Romania.

Group D: London, England; Glasgow, Scotland.

Group E: Bilbao, Spain; Dublin, Ireland.

Group F: Munich, Germany; Budapest, Hungary.

Round of 16 games (June 27-30) will be in: London, Amsterdam, Bilbao, Budapest, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, Dublin.

Quarterfinals (July 3-4) will be in St. Petersburg, Munich, Baku, Rome.

The semifinals will be July 7-8 in London, and the final on July 12.

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MLS to add jersey sleeve advertisements in 2020

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NEW YORK (AP) In a sign of the times, Major League Soccer is adding more advertising on its uniforms.

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The league said Wednesday it has approved the sale of 2+-by-2+-inch sponsored sleeve patches on jerseys starting with the 2020 season. They will replace the league logo on the right sleeve.

Only teams that have primary sponsors on the front of jerseys may sell the sleeve logos. Approval was given to a four-year pilot program.

The Premier League began sleeve ads during the 2017-18 season.

Renewed effort begins for St. Louis MLS franchise, stadium

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ST. LOUIS (AP) St. Louis is back in the hunt for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise after the family behind rental car company Enterprise Holdings announced a bid that calls for a new stadium built mostly with private funding.

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Members of the Taylor family said Tuesday that the franchise would be majority-owned by women, a first in MLS and a rarity in professional sports. The group also includes Jim Kavanaugh of St. Louis-based World Wide Technology.

St. Louis hopes to become a three-sport town for the first time since the NFL’s Rams left for Los Angeles in 2016.

The Taylors are seeking tax breaks but no other public funding for a downtown stadium.

Enterprise, founded by Jack Taylor with a fleet of seven cars in 1957, is now listed by Forbes as one of America’s largest private companies.

World Cup bid at heart of Britain’s Brexit sports event plan

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LONDON (AP) Britain is looking to host up to 60 major sporting events over the next 15 years, including soccer’s World Cup, to assert global influence and attract trade deals in the uncertainty after Brexit.

The strategy by the UK Sport government agency was announced Wednesday with the country in the midst of a protracted divorce from the European Union to implement the result of the 2016 referendum and strike new international alliances.

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Building on the success of the 2012 Olympics in London and the English Premier League, hosting major sporting events is now seen as a key instrument of soft power by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.

“This is us thinking about … where the country finds itself right now and the big challenges it has over the next decade, how we can use sport to help the country,” UK Sport chief operating officer Simon Morton said. “It feels to me like for the first time in decades our country is going to be in a little bit of nation building.”

English soccer officials have launched a feasibility study into bidding for the FIFA World Cup in 2030 not only in partnership with the rest of the U.K. – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but also Ireland.

“The last five years really for us as a country we’ve been talking about our own identity, whether it’s the strength of our unions the United Kingdom or it’s how overseas people see us either in Europe or the rest of the world,” Morton said. “So Brexit is a massive factor behind this. We want to think about how we can use sport and sporting events to really showcase the best of the UK to the world.”

Drawing on the victory by the United States, Canada and Mexico in landing the 2026 World Cup, a British Isles entry is seen as essential to attracting votes in the new system that gives every soccer nation a say in the decision.

England last hosted the World Cup in 1966 when it won on home soil. Two bids have failed since then, and there was anger in the English Football Association and British government about the decision to hand the 2018 tournament to Russia. The feasibility study will include an assessment over whether FIFA’s votes can be more trusted since Gianni Infantino replaced Sepp Blatter in 2016 and the electorate was expanded with a public vote.

“We have to recognize that process that FIFA has just used (for the 2026 World Cup) was significantly better than before, significantly more transparent than before,” Morton said. “But everybody remembers the process of the last decade. So the FA is doing a feasibility study to look at whether we should bid.”

There is less to consider about bids for other world championships.

Plans are in place to bring the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup back to the country as well as the world championships for athletics, badminton, boxing, canoe slalom, curling and gymnastics.

With British cyclists holding the three titles from the major races for the first time, an attempt will be made to host the starts of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Spanish Vuelta. The Ryder Cup has been held twice in Britain in the last eight years – in Wales and Scotland – and an attempt will be made to stage it again.

Hosting the events is about more than prestige for Britain.

“They are really important in terms of projecting an image to the world as an open nation,” Morton said. “In terms of trade it’s also important.”

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