From Russian doping to FIFA bribery, 2017 proves dark time

The President of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov (C) prepares to start a meeting in Moscow on December 12, 2017 on deciding how to respond to IOC ban on Russia participating in Winter Games. (AFP)
Updated 24 December 2017

From Russian doping to FIFA bribery, 2017 proves dark time

PARIS: Russia being banned from the Winter Olympics stole the headlines but may also have overshadowed an otherwise sorry year for sport in terms of scandals.
It was a particularly damaging year for sporting officials, not least from the world of football and FIFA in particular.
Former Guam football federation president Richard Lai pleaded guilty in April to taking bribes worth almost $1 million while Costa Rican Eduardo Li, Guatemala’s Brayan Jimenez, Venezuela’s Rafael Esquivel and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua all received lifetime bans, with Nigeria’s Amos Adamu handed a two-year ban.
Hector Trujillo of Guatemala, the former general secretary of his country’s football federation, was the first person brought down in the widespread FIFA corruption scandal to be sentenced to jail, given eight months by a judge in New York in October.
Two more, Jose Maria Marin, former head of Brazil’s Football Confederation and Juan Angel Napout, former head of Paraguayan football, were convicted of corruption earlier this month for accepting more than $17 million in bribes between them.
The likes of Michel Platini, the former UEFA president, and Jerome Valcke, the former FIFA general secretary, both failed in their appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to have their FIFA bans overturned while other prominent figures were embroiled in the ever-widening scandal.
Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi was placed under investigation by Swiss prosecutors for allegedly bribing Valcke — a charge he denies.
FIFA decided to bar Russian vice president Vitaly Mutko from its ruling council in March over his involvement in the Russian state-sponsored doping scandal exposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency-sponsored McLaren report.
In June, Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren told German television channel ARD that doping by Russian footballers had been covered up by swapping urine samples.
It was a bad year for Mutko who was also banned from the Games for life by the International Olympic Committee at the same time that Russia were excluded from the Pyeongchang Winter Games next year.
Mutko, though, remains head of the Russia 2018 World Cup organizing committee and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian athletes can compete as neutrals in South Korea, provided they adhere to strict conditions and have never been convicted of doping.
But the number of Russian athletes banned for doping at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics rose to 43 recently, and the country has already lost 13 of the 33 medals they originally won.
Cycling was unable to avoid the negative headlines as Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana winner Chris Froome returned an adverse analytical finding for asthma medication salbutamol.
Froome wasn’t suspended but may yet be if he cannot prove his innocence — his urine sample contained twice the permitted amount of salbutamol.
Coming on the back of the now filed UK Anti-Doping Agency investigation into former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins’s reception of a mystery package at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine race, this has been a damaging year for the credibility of Team Sky — an outfit that has long boasted of its “zero tolerance” policy to doping.
It was the year of the comeback for Maria Sharapova following her doping suspension for using meldonium, but that brought controversy as many of her rivals expressed displeasure.
Canadian Eugenie Bouchard branded her “a cheater” in May and said she should have been banned for life while former world number one Caroline Wozniacki criticized US Open organizers for putting the Russian on a show court.
Back to corruption and Carlos Nuzman resigned as Brazilian Olympic Committee president in October after he was charged over a $2 million vote buying scandal.
Former world athletics chief Lamine Diack and his son Papa Massata were also investigated as authorities in France and Brazil followed the money trail to try to prove Rio had bought votes to win the right to host the 2016 Olympics.
Former world sprint champion and four-time Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks was caught up in the affair and had to resign from posts at both the IOC and IAAF after he received almost $300,000 from Papa Massata Diack.
The two Diacks had already been banned for life by the IAAF in 2016 after accepting bribes to cover up doping by Russian athletes.


Pakistan can be kings again despite India’s IPL riches, says Nazar 

Updated 21 October 2021

Pakistan can be kings again despite India’s IPL riches, says Nazar 

  • Starting in 2008, a year after the inaugural T20 World Cup, the IPL ushered in a new era of white-ball cricket 
  • Pakistan once had a far better head-to-head record against India who played catch up with their arch-rivals from 2000 onwards 

DUBAI: Former Pakistan all-rounder Mudassar Nazar insists his country will once again be the kings of Asian cricket despite India’s rise as world beaters on the back of the riches of the IPL. 
Pakistan were kings of the sub-continent from the mid-1980s to 1990s with their on-field brilliance under Imran Khan, who led them to the 1992 World Cup, before India turned the tables. 
“I don’t think Pakistan has changed. It is India who have changed,” Nazar told AFP ahead of the eagerly-awaited India-Pakistan clash at the Twenty20 World Cup in Dubai on Sunday. 
“With the advent of the IPL they have used the money really, really well. If you look at the domestic competition in India, look at all the associations, how well they are organizing their cricket. 
He added: “Everybody has got their own stadium, their own academies, school cricket, state cricket. Cricket is thriving in India. 
“But the people who have been consistently doing well have been England and Australia...India is in the forefront and among the three best sides in the world.” 
Starting in 2008, a year after the inaugural T20 World Cup, the IPL ushered in a new era of white-ball cricket that witnessed the game break new ground in viewership and fan base.

The IPL emerged as the world’s richest T20 league with its brand value estimated at $6.7 billion in 2019 by the Duff and Phelps financial consultancy.

At the same time, Pakistan was becoming a no-go zone for international cricket following the 2009 terror attack on the visiting Sri Lanka team.
“The BCCI have been very clever in how they used the IPL money. Indian cricket was powerful before that but since then it has seen a lot of consistency,” said Nazar. 
“They have got all the areas covered. You talk about fast bowling, you talk about spinners, fielding, the physical side, it’s a powerhouse. They seem to be getting top class batsmen every season. At the moment they are looking very formidable.”

But Nazar remains hopeful that the Pakistan Super League (PSL) — the nation’s premier T20 tournament — and new management will revive the game.

“It is also a matter of cycles. One decade we could be better than the rest of the world and then somebody else catches up,” said Nazar, who played 76 Tests between 1976 and 1989 with a batting average of over 38. 
He also sees a bright future under new PCB chairman Ramiz Raja.
“Things have started to improve with the PSL, but it will take time. It took time for India to revive.” 
“There is no club cricket and there is hardly any state cricket, so that’s a stumbling block. 
“But now with the new management coming in, Ramiz is a former cricketer and I think he will shape things better, put us on the right path and in the next couple of years probably we will be as strong as we used to be.” 
Pakistan once had a far better head-to-head record against India who played catch up with their arch-rivals from 2000 onwards. 
Nazar, who had been part of that strong Pakistan set-up, said the national team will someday turn a corner and notch up their first win against India in a World Cup. 
“When we were playing we always had the edge and toward the end of my career we won most games against India than we lost,” said the 65-year-old Nazar. 
“It needs somebody to come up with some brilliance. Somebody has a damn good game. Somebody has a decent century and bowls a decent spell and all of a sudden the tables will turn.” 


Barca edge past Dynamo to revive Champions League hopes at half-empty Camp Nou

Updated 20 October 2021

Barca edge past Dynamo to revive Champions League hopes at half-empty Camp Nou

  • The attendance was recorded at 45,968, with several blocks of seating filled by only a handful of supporters
  • Barcelona needed victory to resuscitate their chances of progress and avoid the embarrassment of going out in the group stage

BARCELONA: Gerard Pique sparked Barcelona’s flailing Champions League campaign into life on Wednesday by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev, a victory that was witnessed by a half-empty Camp Nou.
The attendance was recorded at 45,968, with several blocks of seating filled by only a handful of supporters for a game coach Ronald Koeman said the team had to win to have any chance of reaching the last 16.
After losing both of their opening games in Group E 3-0 to Bayern Munich and Benfica, Barcelona needed victory to resuscitate their chances of progress and avoid the embarrassment of going out in the group stage for the first time since 2000.
Pique at least ensured the job was done in that regard, his close-range finish toward the end of a dreary first half enough to get Barca up and running, with a crucial game away in Kiev now to come in two weeks’ time.
Before then, they face Real Madrid in the first Classico of the season on Sunday, when another win would make it a hugely positive week for Koeman, whose future looked bleak when the team lost to Atletico Madrid before the international break.
That game will also be at Camp Nou and it remains to be seen if the number of Barcelona fans in attendance improves.
An early kick-off may well not have helped and there is undoubtedly still some nervousness lingering from the Covid-19 pandemic, both locally and among traveling supporters.
But it is hard not to conclude fans are also less enthused by a team that lost Lionel Messi in the close season and had lost their last three Champions League matches in a row at home, as many as they managed in the previous 74.
Pique’s goal made him Barcelona’s oldest ever Champions League goalscorer at 34 years and 260 days old but the most excitement these days surrounds the 18-year-old Ansu Fati, who is expected to ease fears around his future by signing a new contract on Thursday.
Fati, whose deal currently expires at the end of the season, is still being eased back into action after 11 months out with injury.
He came on as a substitute after starting against Valencia on Sunday and, presumably, with greater involvement planned against Real Madrid this weekend.
Barcelona could have been ahead inside two minutes but Sergino Dest, playing on the right of the front three instead of right-back, nodded over from a yard at the back post.
Luuk de Jong also headed over the kind of chance he is in the team to score but Barca hardly deserved the lead, their play stunted and hesitant, lacking any of the fizz expected of a side trying to stay in the competition.
The crowd were as flat as the team, neither one really encouraging the other, until the sight of Fati emerging down the touchline to warm up suddenly raised the fans from their stupor.
The players felt it too, the buzz reaching them on the pitch, and within moments Pique was left free at the back post to meet Jordi Alba’s cross on the half-volley, the ball flying in.
Fati came on with Philippe Coutinho at half-time and should have scored. He earned the chance by rushing Dynamo goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan but had his back to goal when Memphis Depay hooked it back to him. Fati could have laid back to Coutinho but instead scooped the ball up and flicked wide.
The game drifted and without a second goal, Barcelona briefly grew anxious. A better opponent might have turned the screw in the latter stages but Dynamo never created the decisive chance and Barca sealed a much-needed win.


Boycott calls add to India-Pakistan cricket tensions ahead of World Cup clash in Dubai

Updated 20 October 2021

Boycott calls add to India-Pakistan cricket tensions ahead of World Cup clash in Dubai

  • India has largely refused to play bilateral games against Pakistan since 2008, after deadly attacks in Mumbai which it blamed on Pakistan
  • Indian atheletes say ‘sports and politics should not be mixed’ and the World Cup match between the two countries should go on

Dubai: Cricket tensions between India and Pakistan have been heightened by boycott calls in India ahead of their T20 World Cup clash on Sunday.
A series of killings in the disputed Kashmir region has set off the anger, even though the Indian board has insisted the national team cannot withdraw from the game.
Decades of bitter rivalry between the neighbors often clouds their cricket encounters. India has largely refused to play bilateral games against Pakistan since 2008, after deadly attacks in Mumbai which India blamed on Pakistan.
Now they only play each other in international events. The last meeting was at the 50-over World Cup two years ago but even that was at the center of boycott calls.
The killings of 11 migrant workers and minority Hindus and Sikhs in Indian-administered Kashmir have led to the latest demands made in India, which frequently accuses Pakistan of backing Kashmir militant groups. The hashtag #BlacklistPakistan was trending on Twitter Wednesday.
Rajeev Shukla, the Board of Control for Cricket in India vice president, said earlier that the country had a contractual obligation to take part.
“We strongly condemns the killings. However, under the International Cricket Council’s commitments, you can’t refuse to play any one (game),” Shukla told Indian media.
A cabinet minister, Giriraj Singh, had also urged the government to consider intervening to stop the match.
“I think if relations are not good, then this should be reconsidered,” Singh said when questioned about the match. Other politicians have also joined the calls.
However, India’s badminton great Prakash Padukone said, “sports and politics should not be mixed and according to me it (the India-Pakistan match) should go on.”
India was also urged to boycott the 2019 World Cup game against Pakistan because of a Kashmir suicide bomber attack in February of that year in which more than 40 troops were killed.
Pakistan denied any role in the assault but the two countries came to the brink of war. India won the game which went ahead in June 2019.
India and Pakistan last played a bilateral series in 2013 during a brief thaw in their rivalry.
The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir — divided between the two nations — since their independence in 1947.


Madrid forward Benzema absent for blackmail trial in France

Updated 20 October 2021

Madrid forward Benzema absent for blackmail trial in France

  • Benzema is accused of being involved in an attempt in 2015 to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape
  • His legal team told the court that his obligations as a player made it “impossible” for him to attend the first day of the trial

VERSAILLES, France: The trial of French soccer player Karim Benzema and four others began Wednesday outside Paris, without the Real Madrid forward in attendance.
Benzema, who played in Kyiv on Tuesday against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, is accused of being involved in an attempt in 2015 to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
Benzema’s legal team told the court in Versailles that his obligations as a player made it “impossible” for him to attend the first day of the trial, which is scheduled to last through Friday.
Valbuena was in court on Wednesday. He testified that Benzema spoke to him about the sex tape, telling him “there’s a video, it’s hot,” when they were together at France’s Clairefontaine training camp in October 2015. Benzema also said that he had a good friend who could help and “can solve your problem,” Valbuena testified.
Although Benzema “never spoke to me about money,” Valbuena said he understood that he would have to pay for the friend’s assistance.
“It wasn’t for football tickets. That’s never done for free,” Valbuena testified. He said the conversation left him “really frightened.”
In a subsequent phone call wiretapped by police, Benzema then talked about the conversation with his friend Karim Zenati. The two men had known each other since childhood. When Zenati was released from prison in 2013, following robbery and drug convictions, Benzema hired him as an assistant.
In the wiretapped call, which was played in court, the pair chuckled about Benzema’s talk with Valbuena. Benzema said that he had told Valbuena that “if you want the video to be destroyed,” he should contact Zenati, without involving police, lawyers or others.
“I gave my word that there are no copies,” Benzema said in the call.
Benzema is accused of complicity in attempted blackmail, a charge punishable by up to five years in prison. He has denied wrongdoing.
Zenati and three other defendants are charged with attempted blackmail, also punishable with five years imprisonment. Unlike Benzema, they were all in court.
They included Axel Angot, who first got hold of the sex tape in 2014.
In court, Angot described himself as an odd-job man for soccer players, assisting with their computers, communications and other needs. He said players paid him for help, and that he once got 3,500 euros ($4,000) from a player just for delivering a USB cable to him in Croatia.
“They are soccer players. I have seen them spend 50,000 euros in a front of me in seconds,” Angot said.
Angot said the idea of exploiting the sex tape came in 2015, to pay off a debt of 25,000 euros ($29,000) that he owed to another player for some luxury watches. He said his thinking had been that a thankful Valbuena would pay him “a recompense” if he helped make the video go away.
“I am not Bill Gates but I know my way around computers,” Angot said. “The main goal of this affair was to erase this debt.”
During his testimony, Angot at first denied that his intention had been to blackmail Valbuena but later acknowledged that the scheme was “indirectly the same thing.”
He apologized to Valbuena.
“I’m sorry. But that’s of no value,” he said.
Other defendants denied intent to blackmail. On his way into the hearing, Mustapha Zouaoui told reporters that Angot had given him the video and “we laughed about it” and that he then shared it with others.
“A lot of players from France’s team saw it,” Zouaoui said. “But there hasn’t been any blackmail. We didn’t ask for money. There was no request for money.”
In court, Zouaoui said “the intention wasn’t to make him bleed” but rather to spare Valbuena the indignity of the tape being made public and then be rewarded for that help.
Another of the alleged blackmailers, Younes Houass, testified that he spoke to Valbuena about the video in June 2015, when the player was at Clairefontaine.
After that call, Valbuena filed a police complaint and detectives got to work, identifying defendants and wiretapping calls.
Benzema and Zenati were both handed preliminary charges in November 2015, joining Angot, Zouaoui and Houass under formal investigation.
Benzema was then dropped from France’s national team by coach Didier Deschamps, missing the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, which was won by France.
Deschamps recalled Benzema in May ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and has fielded him 11 times in 2021.
Valbuena, now 37, hasn’t played for France since Oct. 11, 2015, when he came on as a substitute in a friendly match against Denmark.
He said the alleged blackmail attempt hurt him and his career.
“Since this affair, I never set foot again in the France team.”


Infantino says biennial WCups can bring youth back to soccer

Updated 20 October 2021

Infantino says biennial WCups can bring youth back to soccer

  • Infantino said biennial World Cups were needed to keep youngsters interested in the sport at a time when they are increasingly “running after” other activities
  • UEFA member associations also voiced a stream of opposition to his plans to double the frequency of World Cups

DUBAI: FIFA President Gianni Infantino told European football leaders that his governing body was not the “enemy of football.”
He also said biennial World Cups were needed to keep youngsters interested in the sport at a time when they are increasingly “running after” other activities.
The Associated Press obtained a recording of Infantino speaking Tuesday during a meeting that was closed to the media, where UEFA member associations also voiced a stream of opposition to his plans to double the frequency of World Cups.
Infantino was challenged by presidents of national federations on the damage that would be caused to not only club competitions but also national teams if FIFA radically overhauls the international game despite European opposition.
But Infantino pitched the reshaping of world football as being necessary to safeguard the future of the sport.
“I believe as well that the enemy of football is not the World Cup or is not FIFA but it is other activities that young boys and young girls are running after today,” Infantino said in closing remarks to the meeting that lasted more than an hour. “And we need to see how jointly and together we can bring them back to be interested in football. And we want to, as far as I’m concerned, do this all together as we have always been doing in the last few years.”
Infantino did not specify what those “other activities” were. He did not respond to a phone call from the AP seeking comment and FIFA had no immediate comment expanding on the remarks ahead of a council meeting on Wednesday.
Keeping younger viewers interested in watching 90-minute matches has increasingly become a challenge, especially given the rise of gaming. Infantino’s comments come amid a dispute with EA Sports, the maker of the FIFA video game, over the future of the product but FIFA itself still embraces e-sports.
The International Olympic Committee also at the weekend denounced FIFA’s attempt to remodel the calendar which could result in having a men’s or women’s World Cup every year. The IOC has started to embrace sports seen as more appealing to youngsters, with skateboarding debuting at the recent Tokyo Olympics and the 2024 Paris Games introducing the break dance sport.
FIFA’s plans could have a significant impact on the Olympics where the women’s football competition features no age restrictions unlike the men’s event.
“I believe we can still find ways to develop football further,” Infantino told the meeting with UEFA. “The World Cup is huge. It’s a big, big competition that everyone benefits from the World Cup and that we need to be very careful on what we do with the World Cup.”
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that more than a dozen European nations told UEFA they would consider quitting FIFA over biennial World Cups.
“I’m seriously asking you and FIFA not to push for a vote because that could have terrible consequences for football,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin told Infantino on the call.
“I don’t think it would be wise to go for a vote on a matter like that. Not just because there will be severe consequences that we will have to take but also because the stakeholders like clubs and leagues don’t have a voting right and this idea is detrimental to their existence.”
Leaders from the Finnish, Italian, Germany, Portuguese, Romanian, Scottish, Spanish and Swiss federations told Infantino they want to continue having the World Cup every four years.
They cited the impact on player welfare of having more frequent tournaments, the pitfalls of having only one block of qualifiers across October and November, and the potential damage caused to the growing profile of the women’s game by having more men’s competitions.
“We will not go ahead as far as I’m concerned with any proposal if anyone was to be harmed,” Infantino told the virtual meeting with UEFA.
But Infantino also said it wasn’t only the views of UEFA, which features 55 member associations, that counted. Infantino has been pushing to secure approval in December for holding World Cups every two years.
“We cannot just shape new proposals based on feedback from Europe,” he said. “We have to respect the opinions of everyone.”
Tiago Craveiro, the general secretary of the Portuguese federation, proposed that FIFA explores the possibility of not allowing teams to compete in consecutive editions if it pushed ahead with biennial World Cups.
“I welcome as well the idea of Thiago to say, well, we need more participation and maybe there is a way of doing that by having two World Cups, but not with the same teams participating,” Infantino said. “I don’t know. This is something that the technical people will study, but this is certainly something that we have to look into.”
At one point Ceferin pushed Infantino to answer specific questions directed at him.
No country spoke in favor of the plans during the call with Infantino, who was general secretary of UEFA before being elected FIFA president in 2016 in the fallout from the scandals that led to Sepp Blatter and his expected successor Michel Platini being banned from the sport.
“We trusted you to create an organization that transcends the divisions and brings unity,” Răzvan Burleanu, a Romanian member of the FIFA Council, said to Infantino.