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World Cup afterglow gives France a sorely needed boost

July 16, 2018

PARIS (AP) — The members of France’s victorious World Cup team returned home from Russia to triumphant arcs of water heralding their airplane’s arrival and a red carpet welcome Monday, and that was before the formal homage that awaited them in Paris.

Goalie Hugo Lloris, brandishing the golden trophy from soccer’s eminent tournament, and coach Didier Deschamps led the team from the Air France plane to the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Airport personnel and French Sports Minister Laura Flessel, a former champion fencer, were the first to tell them “merci” on behalf of a grateful nation that was sorely in need of a boost.

“Eternal Happiness” read Monday’s headline in French sports daily L’Equipe, summing up the mood of many who hope the euphoria will last for months — even years. The team expected to take a victory lap down the grand Champs-Elysees, the grand Paris avenue where hundreds of thousands thronged after France’s 4-2 victory Sunday over Croatia to capture the trophy.

For a third day in a row, the avenue was transformed into a boulevard of pride and happiness following a Bastille Day parade of French military might Saturday that, in hindsight, was a preview for the elation of France’s World Cup win.

The team’s appearance on the Champs-Elysees will be followed by a reception at the presidential palace. Hundreds of guests, including people from soccer clubs connected to the French players, were invited. A club in the poor suburb where 19-year-old star Kylian Mbappe grew up is among them.

France has been short of reasons to feel proud, and now is the moment. Several Paris Metro stations were temporarily adjusting their names to honor the team and its members, the transport authority tweeted. The Champs-Elysees Clemenceau has become the Deschamps-Elysees Clemenceau to honor national team coach Didier Deschamps.

The Etoile station is, for now, “On a 2 Etoiles” (We have 2 stars), to denote France’s second victory in soccer’s World Cup. The Victor Hugo station is now Victor Hugo Lloris, after France’s standout goalie and team captain.

Celebrations were spread across the nation, and among the still-dazed French players themselves. “We are linked for life now with this Cup,” defender Raphael Varane told BFM-TV on Monday before departing from Moscow.

French President Emmanuel Macron exulted on the field in Moscow and in the locker room, hugging players as they received their medals even as the skies poured rain. Macron clearly hoped the World Cup glow would rub off on him, raising him up in the eyes of a nation where his economic reforms have drawn fierce protests.

It was the players, though, who captured the French imagination. The mostly youthful, diverse team represents a generation with which traditionalists have yet to come to terms. Flessel, the sports minister, told Europe-1 radio that the World Cup victory allows France’s youth — like those in the poor suburbs where many of the players grew up — “to dare to believe in their dreams.”

Joy over the win brightened the Monday morning commute in Paris, where young people in cars sang and shouted. In the eastern Paris neighborhood of Belleville, Vincent Simon said, “Both teams deserved to win. France won, and that’s good for the country. That will do us good for some months.”

The victory came at a time when many French were in need of good news. “It represents enormous things,” said Goffrey Hamsik, dressed in a hat resembling a rooster — the French national symbol — and a shirt with Mbappe’s No. 10 number.

“We’ve had lots of problems in France these past years,” he said at Sunday’s festivities, recalling deadly terror attacks. “This is good for the morale … Here, we are all united. We mix. There is no religion, there is nothing, and that’s what feels good.”

Still, celebrations in France typically end up with a spate of violence by troublemakers, and Sunday was no exception. Broken shop windows, pillage and other destruction lined a section of the Champs-Elysees, the postgame site for revelers. Riot police used water cannon and tear gas to end the violence.

French media reported that authorities detained 90 people for questioning in the Paris region and some 290 around France.

Chris den Hond in Paris contributed.


World Cup protesters get 15 days in jail, sports event bans

July 16, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The four protesters who barged onto the field at the World Cup final in Moscow have been sentenced to 15 days in jail. The protesters, members of the Pussy Riot punk collective, ran onto the pitch at Luzhniki Stadium dressed as police officers during the second half of Sunday’s match between France and Croatia. They called for the release of political prisoners and for more open political competition.

A court on Monday sentenced them after finding them guilty of violating the law on behavior of sports events spectators. They were also banned from attending sports events for three years.

No refuge from politics but France victory a fitting climax

July 16, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Kylian Mbappe high-fived a political protester who invaded the field during the World Cup final. French President Emmanuel Macron leapt out of his seat in a VVIP area that included a leader charged with genocide. And Vladimir Putin was drenched in a sudden downpour as the trophy was handed over to the victorious French team.

This year’s World Cup was never going to be a refuge from politics when it was being staged in Putin’s Russia, but the players did their best to keep the tournament for themselves. A final with six goals — France beat Croatia 4-2 on Sunday — was a fitting climax to a month that produced some of the most enthralling matches in World Cup history.

The lasting images will be of pure elation as the France players leapt into the crowd to collect flags, then crashed Didier Deschamps’ post-match news conference, dancing on the table and spraying champagne and water on the coach.

“Sorry,” Deschamps said. “They’re young and they’re happy.” No need to apologize. This young squad earned its right to go wild. Particularly Mbappe, a 19-year-old forward whose career trajectory should move into a stratosphere occupied for so long by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The old guard went home early; another failed challenge for World Cup titles by Portugal and Argentina. Mbappe flies home with a winners’ medal.

It’s not just about his composure on the ball, and eye for goal. Just look at the coolness early in the second half dealing with a member of the Pussy Riot activist group which protests against what they consider to be Putin’s repressive regime: A double-high five. Nothing fazes the guy who became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958.

“I’ve always been ready, mentally, to do beautiful things,” Mbappe said. “I’m free and, most of all, I enjoy it.” Not only Mbappe. Benjamin Pavard, a 22-year-old defender, will be hot property in the upcoming transfer window. Raphael Varane has also been at the heart of the defense that didn’t concede a goal in four of seven games in Russia. The starring role by Paul Pogba, who scored the decisive third goal on Sunday, was a riposte to critics of his contribution at Manchester United.

“These kids, they play like it’s a pick-up game,” said 32-year-old France defender Adil Rami, who was on the bench for the entire tournament. In so many ways, France lifting the trophy was one shred of order in this month of so much disruption. And it wasn’t just about the often-confusing use of video review on its World Cup debut. Set-pieces are back in vogue, accounting for 73 of the 169 goals, including Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal from Antoine Griezmann’s free kick that gave France an early lead in the final.

Germany’s title defense disintegrated in the group stage. Spain, in turmoil from the start, was sent home in the round of 16, signaling the end of the tiki-taka tactics behind the country’s title run in 2010. No longer is it all about keeping hold of the ball.

“The teams with the highest level of possession were all punished by fast forwards,” Deschamps said. “When you defend, you are guaranteed to have two or three opportunities on the counterattack.” Croatia bulldozed its way into the final in a sure sign of the establishment being disrupted. The gritty resolve was always evident in the final. Even at 4-1, the Croats didn’t give up on their first shot at a major soccer title, but they finally ran out of steam after three straight extra-time matches.

“I have never lived through such a World Cup,” Deschamps said. “There was a leveling at the top. And the small teams on paper arrived really well prepared athletically. My memory was that great football nations would have some difficulty and then they would grow stronger.”

Only France did, reasserting the World Cup’s status at the pinnacle of soccer over the increasingly-predictable club competitions across Europe. Even Russia, the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, managed to reach the quarterfinals.

“You have to believe it’s possible and many things have to fall into place,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said after his country’s first final. “You have to follow those dreams and ambitions and then maybe one day it will come true.”

Maybe one day politicians will not try to hog the limelight at a sporting event as they did at the Luzhniki Stadium and across Russia. FIFA allowed one of the coveted seats to be given to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Another went to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe’s last dictator.

But there was some payback from Mother Nature. By delaying the trophy presentation, leaving Croatia’s despondent players waiting even longer to depart the field, the storm clouds gathered. The downpour soaked the dignitaries.

That shouldn’t be a problem when the World Cup heads to the desert nation of Qatar four years from now, when France will hope to defend its title and the smaller nations will have been given hope by Croatia.

“Talent is not sufficient,” Deschamps said before departing to rejoin the victory celebrations. “What makes the difference is psychological.”

Pussy Riot upstages Putin with protest that halts World Cup

July 15, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Protest group Pussy Riot, long a thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side, claimed responsibility Sunday for four people who brought the World Cup final to a brief halt by running onto the field dressed in police uniforms as the Russian president and a global audience watched.

Stewards tackled the three women and one man who charged onto the field simultaneously in the 52nd minute of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. Croatia defender Dejan Lovren pushed the man, helping a steward to detain him, and suggested the incident put Croatia off its game. The team was 2-1 down when the protest happened, and eventually lost 4-2.

“I really was mad because we’d been playing at that moment in good shape,” he said. “We’d been playing good football and then some interruption came. I just lost my head and I grabbed the guy and I wished I could throw him away from the stadium.”

Before being hauled away, one of the women reached the center of the field and shared a double high-five with France forward Kylian Mbappe. “Hello everyone from the Luzhniki field, it’s great here,” the heavily political punk performance group said on Twitter , and released a statement calling for the freeing of political prisoners, an end to “illegal arrests” of protesters and to “allow political competition” in Russia.

The four were charged with violation of spectators’ rights and illegal wearing of law enforcement symbols and could face penalties of up to 11,500 rubles ($185) or 160 hours of community service, the Interfax news agency reported.

Pussy Riot’s statement also referenced the case of Oleg Sentsov, a vocal opponent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, who was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years for conspiracy to commit terror acts. He denies the charges and has been on a hunger strike since mid-May.

The group said the police uniforms symbolized how Russian police’s actions fall short of their “heavenly” depiction in literature and called for reforms. It wasn’t clear if they used the uniforms as a ruse to enter Luzhniki Stadium amid tight security, and the group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“The citizens in question were taken to the local police station,” the Moscow branch of the Russian Interior Ministry said, without providing further details. A video circulated on Russian social media after the match appeared to show two of the protesters, still in police uniforms, being harshly interrogated at a police station. The Internet TV channel Dozhd identified one of them as Pyotr Verzilov, one of the group’s most prominent members.

Under barking queries from a man off camera, Verzilov says, “I am for Russia, just like you — if you are for Russia.” “I sometimes wish it was 1937,” the man off screen says, referring to the year in which Stalinist purges were at their height.

Pussy Riot rose to global prominence after several balaclava-covered female members sang a raucous song denouncing Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral. Two of them, including Verzilov’s wife, served nearly two years in prison for the protest.

Putin was watching the game alongside his French and Croatian counterparts and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, among other dignitaries. Pussy Riot was previously known for wearing brightly colored balaclavas, though those who protested Sunday did so with their faces uncovered. The group posted a second statement later with three women, one wearing a pink balaclava, reading a statement acknowledging police had relaxed somewhat during the tournament but calling for greater restrictions on their powers .

“The World Cup has shown very well how well Russian policemen can behave,” one of the unmasked women said in the video. “But what will happen when it ends?” FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The protest was briefly shown on international TV broadcasts, even though FIFA policy is usually to cut away when fans and others run onto the field.

Russia on a high as World Cup wraps; Putin’s problems remain

July 15, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Despite a national wave of elation from the World Cup that bathed Russia in a rosy light, President Vladimir Putin will face some challenges in extending the post-soccer glow at home and abroad.

Well-organized, festive and friendly, the World Cup has shown off a welcoming and modern Russia in sharp contrast to common biases abroad that cast the country as dour, devious and a bit backward. Putin is likely to try to leverage that Monday when he holds a summit in Finland with U.S. President Donald Trump, and there have been strong signs the American side will be receptive. When national security adviser John Bolton was in Moscow last month to arrange the summit, he told Putin he looked forward to “learning how you’ve handled the World Cup so successfully.”

That admiration may not extend far enough to affect the larger questions at issue in the summit, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in a separatist conflict in Ukraine, allegations that Russia flagrantly meddled in the 2016 US presidential election and Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, among other troubles.

The summit’s prospects were further clouded Friday by the U.S. indictment of 12 alleged Russian military intelligence agents for sophisticated hacking in the 2016 election. “There is some marginal benefit for Putin to having played host to a successful sporting competition that had a largely positive and apolitical tone … (but) this does not give Putin any special advantage going into Monday’s summit meeting,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Putin kept a relatively low profile for the tournament, attending only Russia’s opener against Saudi Arabia and Sunday’s final at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, even skipping the home team’s upset win over Spain in the knockout stage at the same venue.

Putin has seen his ratings fall significantly since the June 15 start of the World Cup. The state-run polling agency Foundation for Public Opinion found that the percentage of Russians who express moderate or strong distrust of Putin rose from 20 percent in the week before the tournament started to 32 percent last week.

The startling rise appears comes as the government pushes a proposal to raise the eligibility age for state pensions from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. The proposal was sent to the parliament the day before the World Cup opened in what many believed was a gambit to minimize public dismay.

But “the World Cup wasn’t able to deflect the population from the pension reform,” the business newspaper Vedomosti wrote pointedly. The Kremlin is worried that the issue could seriously reduce support for pro-government candidates in regional elections this fall, the newspaper reported.

Politics aside, the tournament has been a huge boost for Russians’ self-esteem. State TV broadcasts have devoted substantial time to reporting how foreign fans were impressed with the locals’ friendliness and helpfulness. One broadcast even trilled about visitors’ pleasure in travelling “platskartny” — the notoriously claustrophobic, 54-bed dormitory cars on Russian passenger rail routes: “Hundreds of thousands of foreign fans have discovered the romance of Russian trains.”

Along with the unambiguous good cheer, the World Cup also benefited from what didn’t happen. There weren’t any major facilities foul-ups, security was diligent but less intimidating than at the Sochi Olympics, and no protesters were whipped by soldiers as happened in an infamous incident on the fringes of the Winter Games.

Police were even unusually low-key about World Cup partying that turned a central Moscow street into a nightly fest. Although foreign news accounts ahead of the event warned about the dangers of Russian soccer hooligans, little trouble was reported, in part because Russia had cracked down on hooligans ahead of the tournament.

“Many stereotypes about Russia simply collapsed. People saw that Russia is a hospitable country, kindly disposed toward those who come to us,” Putin said last week. “The Western press said that half-animals live here,” state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselev noted acidly in his weekly news magazine show, echoing officials’ chronic complaint that the country is afflicted by atavistic “Russophobia.”

“The important result of the championship is that we are looking at ourselves in the reflection of the delighted eyes” of foreign visitors, he wrote, adding his voice to what seems to be a consensus. “Russians, the football fans of the world have learned, do not just drink vodka, wear fur caps with red stars and play the balalaika or lead a bear on a rope,” wrote Andrei Kolsenikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But while the last four weeks of soccer and celebration have boosted Russians’ view of themselves, Kolsenikov dismissed the idea that there would be any practical effect. “As a result of the World Cup,” he wrote, “Russians will not become more free, the police will not stay friendly, and the regime will be no less authoritarian.”

FIFA World Cup last 16 fever to start this weekend


The 2018 FIFA World Cup Round 16 will kick-off on Saturday with two matches.

France will meet Argentina in Kazan, the showdown will start at 1400 GMT.

Known as “Les Bleus” (The Blues), France emerged as winners in Group C; they remained unbeaten in the group where they faced Denmark, Peru and Australia.

Their opponents in the last 16, Argentina, have advanced to Round 16 after beating Nigeria 2-1 in a thrilling match at the Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday evening.

Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo emerged in the 86th minute as the unlikely hero for Argentina to strike a volley to the cross from the right.

Known as “La Albiceleste” (The White and Sky-Blues) Argentina finished Group D at second place.

In the other match of the day, Uruguay and Portugal will fight for quarter final ticket in Sochi.

Uruguay defeated Russia, 3-0, in the World Cup Monday to claim the to position in Group A with nine points.

The South American team paired with Group B runners-up Portugal in the last 16 phase.

Portugal barely advanced to Round 16. In the last Group B match, Portugal drew 1-1 against Iran at Mordovia Arena.

Led by world famous star Cristiano Ronaldo, Portuguese managed to come second in Group B as they struggled to have a 1-1 draw against Iran. The result gave the last 16 ticket to the Portuguese.

Portugal is right after leaders Spain in the group. After final matches both teams have five points. In the group standings Portugal were only one goal behind Spain. Iran, which ended Group B in third place, bagged four points, narrowly missing the last 16 spot.

In the last 16 phase, there are 10 European teams: Portugal, France, Belgium, Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and England.

Five teams are from Latin America such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Colombia, and there’s only one team from Asia, Japan.

– Round 16 fixtures:

– June 30

France – Argentina at 1400GMT

Uruguay – Portugal at 1800GMT

– July 1

Spain – Russia at 1400GMT

Croatia – Denmark at 1800GMT

– July 2

Brazil – Mexico at 1400GMT

Belgium – Japan at 1800GMT

– July 3

Sweden – Switzerland at 1400GMT

Colombia – England at 1800GMT

*Last 16 winners will qualify for the quarter finals in World Cup

Source: Anadolu Agency.


Beyond World Cup: Advocates call attention to Russian abuses

June 23, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Wrapped in national flags, jubilant fans dance at midnight in the streets of Moscow, smiling, laughing and cheering. While foreign spectators from all over the world are having a blast at the World Cup being hosted by Russia, human rights activists are urging them not to overlook the other side of Vladimir Putin’s nation: political prisoners and the harassment of critical voices.

Friday marked the 40th day that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has been refusing food in a Russian prison. Sentsov, an outspoken opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years for conspiracy to commit terror acts. He calls the case against him politically motivated and went on a hunger strike in mid-May to demand his release, as well as that of other Ukrainians held by Russia. Western nations have been calling for Sentsov’s release.

Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, visited him in a prison clinic Friday and said his client has lost about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and was very frail. “His condition is bad. He is very weak, very pale,” Dinze told The Associated Press by telephone. Dinze said Sentsov is able to walk, but talking is difficult and he has kidney and heart problems. Sentsov is receiving vitamins and other nutrients through an intravenous line and is refusing to be force-fed.

“He has stated his position firmly. Nobody will be able to talk him out of it, he will continue until his demands are met,” Dinze said. Russian officials have been saying Sentsov is in satisfactory condition and his health has not suffered.

“This is a double picture of a very bright, very sparkling celebration, but on the other hand, there is an entire abyss of despair,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “It is very important that today those who watch Russia, film Russia, write about Russia see not only this celebration, beautiful by itself, which will come and go, understand even a little bit what today’s Russia is in terms of human rights and basic freedoms.”

Ukrainian rights activist Maria Tomak was among about a dozen people who staged a rally Friday outside the Russian consulate in Kiev, urging Putin to exchange Sentsov and other Ukrainians jailed in Russia for Russians detained in Ukraine.

“The situation around Oleg Sentsov is a threat to everyone,” Tomak said. “If there is some kind of fatal incident with Oleg in Russia during the World Cup, this will look awful, this will lead to (Russia’s) isolation.”

On the opening day of the World Cup, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny walked out of a Moscow jail after 30 days behind bars on charges of organizing an authorized rally and resisting police. Two days later, Navalny’s press secretary was released after a 25-day stint in prison.

In the Chechen capital of Grozny, where Egypt’s national team set up its base, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was posing for photos with the Egypt star soccer forward Mohamed Salah. All the while, across town, the region’s top human rights activist Oyub Titiev was in a prison on drug charges that he calls fabricated.

International human rights organizations have dismissed the charges against Titiev as fake and have called on FIFA to intervene and seek his release. Beyond soccer, movie theaters across Russia are playing “Summer,” a romantic period drama about the budding rock scene in the waning years of the Soviet Union that received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film festival in May. But its director, Kirill Serebrennikov, is under house arrest on embezzlement charges, which he denies. The case is viewed by many in Russia as punishment for Serebrennikov’s iconoclastic views and has raised fears of a return to Soviet-style censorship.

Before hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Russia freed its most prominent prisoners, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two women from the Pussy Riot punk band. Lokshina called for the same for Sentsov, Titiev and others.

“If this doesn’t happen, the legacy of the World Cup will be clouded by these awful, horrible cases,” Lokshina said. Independent political analyst Masha Lipman welcomed the festive and positive atmosphere of the World Cup, given that relations between Russia and the West had sunk to their lowest point in recent history. Lipman said that Western leaders have already made their position clear by not attending World Cup games but she says regular fans who have spent a lot of money and effort to come to come to Russia should focus on soccer and enjoy their stay.

“Do you think it would be better if everybody was walking around somber and angry, for tourists and fans to come here and to be looking for what else would upset them? Of course it is better when there is a friendly attitude toward the country,” Lipman said. “At least for a change.”

Inna Varenytsia contributed to this report from Kiev.

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