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Putin awards medal to FIFA president Infantino

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MOSCOW (AP) Vladimir Putin has given FIFA president Gianni Infantino a medal.

The Russian president awarded Infantino the Order of Friendship at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Infantino has often said last year’s World Cup in Russia, where the host nation surprisingly reached the quarterfinals, was the best of the 21 editions of the tournament.

Putin thanked the FIFA leader for “your glowing assessment of our efforts.”

Infantino says of Russia’s “bonds of friendship” with soccer “is not the end, it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

EURO qualifying: Hazard drives Belgium past Russia; Scotland rocked

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EURO 2020 qualifying allows for a few hiccups along the way. Both Scotland and Russia produced one each on opening day.

Granted the Russians lost a game many suspected they might, falling 3-1 at Belgium, but we want to highlight the unexpected first, don’t we?

Scotland’s trip to Kazakhstan was just that, Alex McLeish’s men falling for the seventh time in his 11-match second tenure with the club.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

And boy, did they fall. Scotland conceded twice in the first 10 minutes and again after halftime in a 3-0 loss to the 117th ranked team on the FIFA scale (106th in the slightly fairer Elo Ratings).

Plucky Azerbaijan served notice that it remains a solid dark horse, scaring World Cup finalists Croatia before ultimately losing 2-1.

Back to Russia, it fell by a pair of Eden Hazard goals after Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans and Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev traded first half markers.

Hazard now has 29 international goals ahead of his 100th cap, which will come the next time he hits the pitch.

He may have dove to earn his penalty, but there’s no debating he had the skill buttons activated on the day:

EURO qualifying

Croatia 2-1 Azerbaijan
Slovakia 2-0 Hungary
Netherlands 4-0 Belarus
Austria 0-1 Poland
Israel 1-1 Slovenia
Macedonia 3-1 Latvia
Cyprus 5-0 San Marino
Belgium 3-1 Russia
Kazakhstan 3-0 Scotland
Northern Ireland 2-0 Estonia

Putin asks FIFA for support on World Cup legacy

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin says he wants FIFA to help ensure last year’s World Cup has an effective legacy.

At a meeting with FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Putin says “ahead of us we now have a different task, to use everything that was done for the World Cup, to use it effectively, and on this issue we are also counting on your support.”

Many Russian clubs have already seen a boost in attendance in the season following the World Cup. With new arenas, teams in the host cities of Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod have more than doubled their average home attendance, though Sochi and Kaliningrad are lagging behind.

Putin awarded Infantino a medal earlier this month for his help with staging the World Cup.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Russia says it thwarted drone attacks at World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Russia says it thwarted attempted drone attacks at this year’s World Cup.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, says his officers “took measures to detect and foil attempts by terrorists to use drones during the preparation and hosting of various major political and sports events, most of all during the soccer World Cup.”

Bortnikov gave no further details in comments reported by the Tass state news agency.

Russia used thousands of police and cutting-edge surveillance technology to guard the World Cup. However, four Pussy Riot protesters managed to run onto the field during the final.

In April, Russia said “extremists” and nationalist soccer hooligans had planned to attack World Cup events in the city of Samara but were foiled.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

USMNT at 23 in latest FIFA Rankings; Belgium top, England into Top Five

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The United States men’s national team slipped a spot to 23 in the latest FIFA Rankings.

Sandwiched between Tunisia and Austria, the USMNT remains three points below their average spot of 20.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 10 ]

The spot is four higher than the less celebrated but more trusted ELO Ratings, which has the U.S. at 27 (five spots higher than it was a year ago after the World Cup qualifying failure in Couva).

Belgium moves out of its tie with France for the top spot in the FIFA Rankings, while Brazil is third and England moves into the Top Five.

The biggest riser in the Top 50 is Russia (up five spots to 41). Northern Ireland and Democratic Republic of Congo each dropped six spots to Nos. 34 and 46, respectively.

Mexico drops a spot to 16th, while Canada rises three to 76.