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Brazil laments World Cup loss; back to reality of turmoil

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Brazilian fans hugged, teared up and hung their heads Friday after their national team was knocked out of the World Cup by Belgium.

The stinging 2-1 defeat came just as the Selecao, as the team is known, had begun to gather steam, and Brazilians dared to hope that a victory could wash away years of recession, political uncertainty – and a humiliating defeat to Germany four years ago.

“The World Cup allowed us a moment to forget our problems,” said Cristiano Conceicao, who works in a furniture store and watched the game with thousands of others in a traditional gathering place for soccer fans, a several-block stretch of Rio de Janeiro known as the Alzirao. “Break’s over now.”

Soccer is more than just a game in Brazil, where it central to national identity. But the World Cup in Russia has been an especially welcome distraction. Brazil is just emerging from a deep, prolonged recession. It has lost confidence in its leaders as a corruption investigation revealed endemic graft among its political and corporate elite that shocked even the most cynical. Crime is rising in many cities, many Brazilians feel the last president was improperly removed from office, and the population is heading into national elections more divided than it has been in recent memory.

The Brazilian team got off to a slow start this year, and its star Neymar particularly came in for criticism for not meeting expectations. But as strong teams were unexpectedly eliminated – among them Germany, Spain and Argentina – confidence began to rise in Brazil that the Selecao might actually be able to win the title and purge the memories of its 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany at the last World Cup. There was a feeling that finally the tide was turning – not just on the field, but also in the country’s overall fortunes.

In the hours before Friday’s game, local media reported that Sao Paulo’s roads experienced record-breaking congestion as Brazilians left work early and rushed to get into position to watch. Bars and squares steadily filled up and people from airports to offices looked for the nearest TV to huddle around.

In Rio’s Maua Square, groups started arriving three hours before kickoff. They wore super hero outfits and draped themselves in Brazil’s flag. The atmosphere was festive and light, with the weekend and a hoped-for win on the horizon. When Belgium scored twice in the first half, the atmosphere grew tense. By halftime, with Brazil down 2-0, the crowd was on edge, though some still cried out, “I believe!”

The mood lifted when Brazil scored deep in the second half. The crowd erupted in jumping and cheers; they sprayed beer and honked air horns.

When the final whistle blew, many hugged and cried.

A reporter on the Globo network teared up as she described watching the game with family members of the players. She talked about how they never lost hope and even prayed at halftime. When she threw it back to the anchor, he then faltered.

But, in Maua Square, many were determined to keep the party going, dancing and joking as a way to relieve the pain of defeat.

On social media and messaging services, that trademark gallows humor was evident. One image lamented Brazil’s inability to get over the loss to Germany four years ago. Over a picture of the German flag was written: “The enemy didn’t go away.” Below was a picture of the Belgian flag – which, like the German one, has a black, yellow and red stripe – and the words: “It disguised itself.”

“We always knew that the World Cup would not solve our problems,” said Isabela Santos, a law student who watched the game in the Alzirao. “But how sweet it would have been to win it!”

Associated Press writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.

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

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

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