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US-Iran match mirrored a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

Source image: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-iran-sports-soccer-syria-1878e69da1c20dfad6f0a018240fb7e8

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.S. team’s victory over Iran at the World Cup on Tuesday was closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.

Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and unrest across the Arab world by supporting powerful armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Supporters view it as the leader of an “axis of resistance” against what they see as U.S. imperialism, corrupt Arab rulers and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

The divide is especially intense in Lebanon and Iraq, where heavily armed Iran-backed political factions vie for political influence with opponents more oriented toward the West. In those countries, many believe Iran or the U.S. are due for comeuppance — even if only on the pitch.

Others wished a plague on both their houses.

“Both are adversaries of Iraq and played a negative role in the country,” Haydar Shakar said in downtown Baghdad, where a cafe displayed the flags of both countries hanging outside. “It’s a sports tournament, and they’re both taking part in it. That’s all it is to us.”

A meme widely circulated ahead of Tuesday’s match between the U.S. and Iran jokingly referred to it as “the first time they will play outside of Lebanon.” Another Twitter user joked that whoever wins the group stage “takes Iraq.”

The Iran-backed Hezbollah was the only armed group to keep its weapons after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. It says its arms are needed to defend the country from Israel and blames Lebanon’s economic crisis in part on U.S. sanctions. Opponents decry Hezbollah as an “Iranian occupation,” while many Lebanese accuse both the U.S. and Iran of meddling in their internal affairs.

In Iraq, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion led to years of intense violence and sectarian strife, and Iran-backed political factions and militias largely filled the vacuum. While U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias found themselves on the same side against the Islamic State extremist group, they have traded fire on several occasions since its defeat.

Both Lebanon and Iraq have had to contend with years of political gridlock, with the main dividing line running between Iran’s allies and opponents.

In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi militia captured the capital and much of the country’s north in 2014. The Houthis have been at war since then with an array of factions supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two U.S. allies.

In Syria’s civil war, Iran supported President Bashar Assad’s government against rebels, some supported by the West. In the Palestinian territories, it backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant factions that do not recognize Israel and have carried out scores of attacks over the years.

Interviews with soccer fans in Beirut and Baghdad revealed mixed emotions about the match.

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a center of Hezbollah support, young men draped in Iranian flags gathered in a cafe hung with a “Death to America” flag to watch the match.

“We are against America in football, politics and everything else,” Ali Nehme said. “God is with Lebanon and Iran.”

Across the city on the seafront promenade, Beirut resident Aline Noueyhed said, “Of course I’m not with Iran after all the disasters they made. Definitely, I’m with America.” She added, however, that the U.S. also was “not 100% helping us.”

The post-game reaction in the streets of Beirut after the U.S. defeated Iran 1-0, eliminating it from the tournament and advancing to the knockout round, was far more subdued than after the previous day’s win by Brazil — a fan favorite in Lebanon — over Switzerland.

In Baghdad, Ali Fadel was cheering for Iran, because “it’s a neighboring country, an Asian country.”

“There are many linkages between us and them,” he added.

In Irbil, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, twenty-seven-year-old Zainab Fakhri was rooting for the U.S. to beat Iran “to punish the Iranian regime that has been oppressing the women’s revolution,” referring to recent protests there.

In the Gaza Strip, a war-battered Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas that has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, most appeared to be cheering for Iran and were crestfallen when it lost.

“We are with Iran, win or lose, because it’s the only Islamic state that supports the Gaza Strip and its resistance,” said Wasim al-Hendi.

Regional politics hovered over the last matchup, at the 1998 World Cup, when Iran famously defeated the U.S. 2-1, eliminating it from the tournament. That came less than two decades after Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and protesters overran the U.S. Embassy, leading to a prolonged hostage crisis.

French riot police were on site at the stadium in Lyon that year, but they weren’t needed. The teams posed together in a group photo, and Iran’s players even brought white roses for their opponents.

In this year’s matchup, allegiances have been scrambled by the nationwide protests gripping Iran, with some Iranians openly rooting against their own team. The players declined to sing along to their national anthem ahead of their opening match, in what was seen as an expression of sympathy for the protests, but reversed course and sang ahead of their next one.

In some neighborhoods of Tehran, people chanted “Death to the dictator!” after the match, even though it was past midnight local time.

Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar who has researched the politics of sports, said World Cup fandom is not necessarily an indicator of political affiliation, even in countries with deep divisions.

Local sports in Lebanon are “highly politicized,” with all the major basketball and soccer clubs having political and sectarian affiliations, he said. But when it comes to the World Cup — where Lebanon has never qualified to play — fans latch on to any number of teams.

That’s true across the region, where fans sporting Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys can be found from Gaza to Afghanistan.

“This is one of the few spheres where people have the liberty and freedom to choose a country that they simply like and not the country where they think there’s an obligation for them to be affiliated with it,” Reiche said.

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Sewell reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Fadi Tawil and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Irbil, Iraq, Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Joseph Krauss in Ottawa contributed to this report.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Source: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-iran-sports-soccer-syria-1878e69da1c20dfad6f0a018240fb7e8

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NBA suspends Brooks, fines Mitchell for Grizz-Cavs scuffle

Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks has been suspended one game without pay by the NBA, and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell fined $20,000 for their roles in an on-court incident on Thursday night.

The league announced the punishments on Friday.

Brooks swung and struck Mitchell in the groin area during the third quarter after the Grizzlies guard had fallen to the floor. Mitchell retaliated by throwing the ball at Brooks and then shoving him.

Both players were ejected in Cleveland’s 128-113 win.

Afterward, Mitchell accused Brooks of being a dirty player.

“That’s just who he is,″ Mitchell said. “We’ve seen it a bunch in this league with him. Him and I have had our personal battles for years. There’s no place for that in the game. This has been brewing for years with me and other guys in the league. This isn’t new.”

The league said Brooks will serve his suspension on Sunday, when the Grizzlies host the Toronto Raptors.

Initially, Mitchell was scheduled to speak with reporters in Cleveland’s locker room. But the All-Star guard opted for the team’s larger interview room so he could address the incident with Brooks.

“I’m losing money,” Mitchell said before answering questions.

Mitchell said he and Brooks have been feuding for years. He also noted that Brooks has had similar altercations with other players.

“I’m not typically someone who gets ejected for stuff like that,” Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day, I think my reaction was reacting to a cheap shot. If punishment doesn’t come from that, he’s just going to keep doing it.

“It’s just dumb to be honest with you and I’m going to appeal it because I don’t think I should’ve gotten ejected for defending myself.”

Before his ejection, Mitchell was having a rough night. He scored just six points on 2-of -1 shooting in 22 minutes while being guarded by Brooks. The two had matched up regularly when Mitchell played for Utah.

“That was cool when we were just talking, but that right there, a line has to be drawn,” Mitchell said. “The NBA has to do something about it. I’m not the only person this has happened to and there’s no place for that in this game.

“I took matters into my own hands. When you have a cheap shot like that, there was no need to do that.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Column: IOC talks tough on Russia — until Paris on horizon

The IOC likes to talk tough — as long as it’s not heading into an Olympic year.

Not surprisingly, as we draw ever closer to the cash cow that is Paris 2024, the hypocrites running the Olympic movement are eager to get Russia back in the games.

They’ll surely find a way, despite Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and growing threats of a boycott from those who don’t think the Russians should be allowed anywhere near the City of Light — even if, ludicrously, the IOC is trying to pass it off as a human rights issue.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it more accurately: “A white or any neutral flag is impossible for Russian athletes. All their flags are stained in blood.”

For once, just once, we’d love to see the International Olympic Committee do the right thing:

Make it clear that the Russians — and their accomplices from Belarus — will not be allowed to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage until they halt the war in Ukraine.

There’s certainly precedent for such a decision.

— After World War I, the losing countries — Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) — were barred from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. In fact, Germany’s ban lasted until 1928.

— The IOC acted in similar fashion against the two nations blamed for igniting World War II. Germany (which had split into two countries) and Japan were prohibited from competing at the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, as well as the Summer Games a few months later in London.

— South Africa was rightfully barred from the Olympics from 1964 through 1988 and kicked out of the IOC altogether for waging war on its own people through its abhorrent apartheid system. Only when white-minority rule collapsed was South Africa allowed to compete again at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

IOC officials maintain that Russia doesn’t deserve to be treated like South Africa because it’s not under United Nations sanctions.

Of course, that’s a disingenuous argument. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, which means it has the right to veto any measure. In other words, there is no chance of UN sanctions — which presumably means the Russians could never be barred from the Olympics.

Frankly, Russia should’ve been kicked out after its massive, state-sponsored doping ring from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games was exposed, not to mention its continued efforts to cover up a level of cheating that hadn’t been seen since the notorious East German days.

But the IOC could never muster the courage to pull the trigger on a proper punishment, instead allowing the Russians to compete at the last three Olympics as supposedly neutral athletes known by the ludicrous monikers of OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) and ROC (Russian Olympic Committee).

Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine a mere four days after the closing ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, a curious sense of timing that may not have been coincidental.

At that point, with the next Olympics nearly 2 1/2 years away, the IOC could lead worldwide sanctions that barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at most international competitions across a wide range of sports.

Those bans largely remain in place, but now the next Olympics are a year closer. The IOC has changed course, looking for a way out to give a pair of warmongering nations a way in.

With its usual double-speak, the IOC said its mission is “to unite the entire world in a peaceful competition.” Instead, its cow-towing to Russia could spark the biggest Olympic boycott since the Cold War era.

Ukraine has raised the possibility of sitting out the Paris Games if the Russians are there. Neighboring countries such as Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have signaled they may be willing to follow that lead.

The United States is highly unlikely to join such a protest, especially after the Jimmy Carter-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan is largely viewed as a major blunder that left behind lingering bitterness from athletes who missed out on their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The new leader of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent out a letter to athletes and other stakeholders last week, reiterating the organization’s support for finding a way for Russian athletes to compete in Paris as neutrals.

“We encouraged the IOC to continue exploring a process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete,” Gene Sykes wrote. “If these conditions of neutrality and safe, clean, and fair competition can be met, we believe the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games can prevail.”

If the IOC is determined to clear the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Paris, it goes without saying they should only allow those who haven’t actively supported the war, though that requirement may pose some challenges of its own.

Going further, it should only be athletes who compete in individual sports, perhaps making them part of the Refugee Team to further dilute any connection to the shameful deeds of their homelands.

Even then, contact sports such as judo and wrestling might also be ruled out to avoid putting athletes in the unenviable position of deciding whether to withdraw rather than grappling with a competitor from Russia or Belarus.

By all means, Russia and Belarus should be barred from any team sports in Paris, since it would be clear which countries those squads were representing no matter the acronym.

There’s one athlete who, if reports out of Ukraine are accurate, definitely won’t get a chance to compete in Paris next summer.

Volodymyr Androshchuk, a 22-year-old Ukrainian decathlete-turned-soldier, who was killed in recent days while fighting the Russian invaders, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs.

“RIP, Volodymyr,” Gerashchenko tweeted. “We keep losing our best people.”

Your move, IOC.

For once, do your best.

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Ukraine pushes to exclude Russia from 2024 Paris Olympics

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — With next year’s Paris Olympics on the horizon and Russia’s invasion looking more like a prolonged conflict, Ukraine’s sports minister on Friday renewed a threat to boycott the games if Russia and Belarus are allowed to compete and said Kyiv would lobby other nations to join.

Such a move could lead to the biggest rift in the Olympic movement since the Cold War era.

No nation has declared it will boycott the 2024 Summer Games. But Ukraine won support from Poland, the Baltic nations and Denmark, who pushed back against an International Olympic Committee plan to allow delegations from Russia and ally Belarus to compete in Paris as “neutral athletes,” without flags or anthems.

“We cannot compromise on the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes,” said Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Huttsait, who also heads its national Olympic committee, citing attacks on his country, the deaths of its athletes and the destruction of its sports facilities.

A meeting of his committee did not commit to a boycott but approved plans to try to persuade global sports officials in the next two months — including discussion of a possible boycott.

Huttsait added: “As a last option, but I note that this is my personal opinion, if we do not succeed, then we will have to boycott the Olympic Games.”

Paris will be the final Olympics under outgoing IOC head Thomas Bach, who is looking to his legacy after a tenure marked by disputes over Russia’s status — first over widespread doping scandals and now over the war in Ukraine.

Bach’s views were shaped when he was an Olympic gold medalist in fencing and his country, West Germany, took part in the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He has condemned that decision ever since.

Russia has cautiously welcomed the IOC’s decision to give it a path to the Olympics but demands it drop a condition that would leave out those athletes deemed to be “actively supporting the war in Ukraine.”

Russian Olympic Committee head Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who was a teammate of Ukraine’s Huttsait at the 1992 Olympics, called that aspect discriminatory. The IOC, which previously recommended excluding Russia and Belarus from world sports on safety grounds, now argues it cannot discriminate against them purely based on citizenship.

The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged the IOC to ban Russia and said a boycott was a possibility.

“I think that our efforts should be on convincing our other friends and allies that the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes is just wrong,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “So boycotting is the next step. I think people will understand why this is necessary.”

The IOC said in a statement that “this threat of a boycott only leads to further escalation of the situation, not only in sport, but also in the wider context. It is regretful that politicians are misusing athletes and sport as tools to achieve their political objectives.”

It added bluntly: “Why punish athletes from your country for the Russian government starting the war?”

Poland’s sports minister Kamil Bortniczuk said as many as 40 countries could jointly condemn Russian and Belarusian participation at Paris in a statement next week but that it could stop short of a boycott threat. He told state news agency PAP that the IOC was being “naive” and should reflect on its position.

Denmark wants a ban on Russian athletes “from all international sports as long as their attacks on Ukraine continue,” said Danish Culture Minister Jakob Engel-Schmidt.

“We must not waver in relation to Russia. The government’s line is clear. Russia must be banned,” he said. “This also applies to Russian athletes who participate under a neutral flag. It is completely incomprehensible that there are apparently doubts about the line in the IOC.”

Asked by The Associated Press about the boycott threats and the IOC plan, Paris 2024 organizing committee head Tony Estanguet would not comment “about political decisions.”

“My job is to make sure that all athletes who want to participate will be offered the best conditions in terms of security, to offer them the chance to live their dream,” he said in Marseille.

Ukraine boycotted some sporting events last year rather than compete against Russians.

Huttsait said a boycott would be very tough, saying it was “very important for us that our flag is at the Olympic Games; it is very important for us that our athletes are on the podium. So that we show that our Ukraine was, is, and will be.”

Marta Fedina, 21, an Olympic bronze medalist in artistic swimming, said in Kyiv she was “ready for a boycott.”

“How will I explain to our defenders if I am even present on the same sports ground with these people,” she said, referring to Russian athletes. She noted her swimming pool in Kharkiv, where she was living when Moscow invaded, was ruined by the war.

Speakers at the Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s assembly meeting raised concerns about Moscow using Paris for propaganda and noted the close ties between some athletes and the Russian military.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday if athletes from the two countries compete, “it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states.” Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympics.

If the IOC’s proposal takes effect, Paris would be the fourth straight Olympics where Russian athletes have competed without the national flag or anthem. The Russian teams at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and 2022 and the Summer Olympics in 2021 were all caught up in the fallout from a series of doping cases.

The last time multiple countries boycotted an Olympics was in 1988, when North Korea and others refused to attend the Summer Games in South Korea. The North Korean team was a no-show at the Tokyo Games in 2021, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The IOC barred it from the following Winter Games in Beijing as a result, saying teams had a duty to attend every Olympics.

Although the IOC set the tone of the debate by publishing advice on finding a way to help Russia and Belarus compete, decisions must be made for the governing bodies of individual sports that organize events on the 32-sport Paris program.

Those organizations, many based in the IOC’s home of Lausanne, Switzerland, run their own qualifying and Olympic competitions and decide on eligibility criteria for athletes and teams.

The International Cycling Union signed on to the IOC’s plan ahead of its Olympic qualifying events to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as “neutrals.”

Track and field’s World Athletics and soccer’s FIFA were among most sports that excluded Russian athletes and teams within days of the start of the war. Tennis and cycling let many Russians and Belarusians continue competing as neutrals. Other governing bodies are more closely aligned with the IOC or traditionally have strong commercial and political ties to Russia.

One key meeting could be March 3 in Lausanne of the umbrella group of Summer Games sports, known as ASOIF. It is chaired by Francesco Ricci Bitti, a former IOC member when he led the International Tennis Federation, and includes World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.

ASOIF declined comment Friday, though noted this week “the importance of respecting the specificity of each federation and their particular qualification process” for Paris.

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Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Bishr El-Touni in Marseille, France, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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