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England out to stop World Cup’s “irresistible force” Mbappé

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — England’s players have been asked one question on repeat as they prepare to face France in the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday. How do you stop Kylian Mbappé?

Hardly surprising, given Mbappé is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals and is widely considered the man to succeed Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as soccer’s biggest star.

“I’m sure England will have prepared to face Kylian,” France coach Didier Deschamps said at a news conference Friday. “But Kylian is in the position to make a difference.

“Kylian is Kylian and he always will be.”

There is no sense of France trying manage expectations of its star player, even as the hype surrounding him grows with each stellar performance in Qatar.

He has already scored one more goal than the four he managed as his country won the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

In the round of 16, he struck twice as the defending champions beat Poland 3-1. His second goal was a thunderous shot into the top corner after wrong-footing goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

“He cannot be compared to other players,” said teammate Dayot Upamecano.

“We all believe in Kylian,” added Youssouf Fofana.

Mbappé is being depicted as an unstoppable force in Qatar – something England defender Kyle Walker pushed back against this week.

“I don’t know how to say it even more: I feel he is a top player. I’m not underestimating that one bit, but we are not playing tennis, it’s not a solo sport,” he said after being faced with a series of questions about the Paris Saint-Germain striker.

But France’s players seem happy to feed the narrative that Mbappé is simply unstoppable.

“If he (Walker) can stop Kylian Mbappé, good for him,” added Fofana. “But 19 other teams in Ligue 1 have been waiting for the solution. The truth will come from the pitch.”

Walker will have the job of trying to limit the damage Mbappé can inflict on England’s defense at Al Bayt Stadium. But rather than merely trying to contain France’s biggest threat, discussion this week has been about how bold Three Lions coach Gareth Southgate is prepared to be in response.

England reached the semifinals in 2018 and the final of last year’s European Championships.

On both occasions Southgate was criticized for a cautious approach, even though England only lost on a penalty shootout to Italy at the Euros.

“I very much like Gareth. If I understand correctly, not everyone appreciates him so much in his own country,” noted Deschamps.

England lost 2-1 to Croatia four years ago and the shootout loss to Italy came after a 1-1 draw at Wembley.

England had taken the lead in both matches, and Southgate was accused of adopting defensive tactics to try to protect the lead.

His team has played with more freedom at this World Cup, with a more attacking style leading to 12 goals in four games to tie Portugal as leading scorers.

Southgate has opted to play with a back four in the tournament so far, but could switch to a five-man defense to try to cope with Mbappé.

“Nobody was complaining about us playing a five before we reached the Euros final,” said Walker. “I think it’s a bit harsh to judge him on what we’ve done previously. I think at this tournament we have been playing good attacking football and scoring a lot of goals.”

After coming close in its last two major tournaments, Walker believes England is ready to win this time around. Beating France, he says, would be evidence of that.

“It’s a great opportunity to put a stamp down and to say that we are a good team and we can achieve great things, and give us the belief that we can win this,” he said. “I’m not saying we don’t believe, but to beat a big team like that in a quarter-final, they’re the reigning world champions, that will give us great confidence – not arrogance but confidence.”

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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


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Portugal coach: Ronaldo did not threaten to leave World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Cristiano Ronaldo did not threaten to leave the World Cup after being dropped from the team to play Switzerland in the round of 16, Portugal coach Fernando Santos said Friday.

Santos did acknowledge his star player was “not happy” to be told he was not in the starting lineup in a private meeting on Tuesday after lunch, hours before the game.

Ronaldo’s replacement Gonçalo Ramos scored three goals in 6-1 win. The all-time leading scorer for Portugal came off the bench in the 74th minute.

“Cristiano obviously was not very happy about it. He told me ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?’” Santos said one day before facing Morocco in the quarterfinals.

“He has never told me that he wanted to leave the national team,” Santos said in translated comments, dismissing reports in Portuguese media. “It is time we stopped with this conversation and the controversies. He celebrated all the goals that we scored.”

“It is time for you to leave Ronaldo alone in acknowledgement of what he did for Portuguese football,” the coach said.

Santos declined to say if he would change the team and restore Ronaldo to face Morocco.

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


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Morocco’s diaspora in Europe rallies behind World Cup squad

BRUSSELS (AP) — As early customers warm themselves up with hot drinks at the Café Tetouan in downtown Brussels, owner Hicham Achrayah buys Morocco’s flags from a street vendor who stopped by on a cold winter morning.

The bar is the local hotspot for Morocco soccer fans in Belgium’s capital and he needs to get it ready for Saturday’s match against Portugal at the World Cup in Qatar, where Morocco will try to become the first African team to reach the tournament’s semifinals.

As has been the case since the World Cup started, Achrayah expects a full house.

“They are writing a page of history,” Achrayah said of the team that has inspired a sense of pride in Moroccan immigrant communities across Europe.

An estimated 5 million Moroccans live abroad, with the majority in European countries such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. The national team depends heavily on that diaspora, with 14 of the squad’s 26 players born abroad, the highest proportion for any team at the World Cup.

“They were born abroad, but inside, the blood is Moroccan,” Achrayah’s said, pointing to midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who was born in the Netherlands. “What did he say when he chose Morocco? He said it was a call from his heart.”

Ziyech, who plays for Chelsea in the Premier League, has been in scintillating form at the tournament, forming a tremendous duo on the right flank with Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Spain. Four players in the Morocco squad were born in Belgium.

Morocco’s French-born coach Walid Regragui has compared building his roster with making “milkshake,” mixing players with Moroccan heritage from across Europe who also bring to the team some of the cultures and soccer styles of the countries where they grew up.

“People are identifying with us and we are managing to unite Moroccans behind this football team,” Regragui said in Doha on Friday. “It is worth more than anything. It is worth more than money, more than titles.”

Still, he said he was not going to let exuberance surrounding the team affect its concentration.

“We can bring hope and positive energy to people, this is fantastic. But we are focused on what we are doing on the pitch,” he said.

Hassan Bousetta, a researcher studying Moroccan migration, says the backgrounds of the foreign-born players in the squad reflect the widespread distribution of Moroccan immigrant communities across Europe.

“Unlike the Turks and Algerians, for instance, the Moroccans are much more spread out over various European countries,” Bousetta said.

He stressed the role played by Moroccan authorities to maintain close ties with those who move abroad.

“They have built a global relationship with their diaspora. And today, we see its impact in soccer,” he said. “All these players were trained by big clubs. The idea is to benefit from the training, on a global scale. Giving great responsibilities to children of the diaspora is something that is not seen in other Arab countries.”

In Qatar, Morocco’s European-born players have delivered in a big way for the Atlas Lions to the delight of their huge overseas fan base.

After Morocco defeated Spain in a penalty shootout in the round of 16, legions of fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate. In Madrid, some Morocco supporters had mixed feelings.

“If Spain had won, we would be just as happy because we live here. It is our country, too,” said Shalma Boudoir, a 19-year-old student. “We have Spanish nationality, but Morocco has not won a World Cup, so we are very happy, we can’t be happier.”

Highlighting that sense of dual belonging, Belgian flags also decorate the walls of Café Tetouan, where Moroccan immigrants and their descendants have united behind the Atlas Lions’ historic run.

Four years ago, after Morocco exited the World Cup in the group stage, Moroccan fans in Brussels rallied behind Belgium. The Red Devils made it to the semifinals, with the help of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, two players with Moroccan roots.

“We have been fervent supporters of Belgium, which we also consider as our country,” said Adil El Malki, a 49-year-old legal expert with dual citizenship. “But to tell you the truth, it is rather the belonging and the sense of identity that prevail. That’s why we support Morocco, but Belgium is in our hearts, too.”

Despite the dual allegiances, riots broke out in several Belgian and Dutch cities as Morocco fans celebrated their 2-0 upset win over Belgium in the group stage. But overall, Morocco’s victory was peacefully and enthusiastically celebrated by fans with Moroccan immigrant roots.

“Let’s hope that on Saturday everything will be calm and that there will be no disturbances,” Achrayah said. “And long live Morocco!”

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Associated Press writer Graham Dunbar in Doha and video journalist Alicia León in Madrid contributed to this report.

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


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For World Cup visitors, a peek into Islamic art, heritage

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — An emerald inscribed for a Mughal emperor. A Safavid-period knotted wool carpet. An Ottoman-era curtain, intricately embroidered with metal threads, which was part of the covering of the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca that Muslims consider the metaphorical “house of God.”

Like tiles in a mosaic, the collection in Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, or MIA, provides visitors with a peek into diverse aspects of Muslim heritage, art and craftmanship with items spanning three continents and many centuries.

In a capital where so much is new, the museum showcases a variety of the old and historic. And with soccer fans from around the world descending on Qatar, the story that the museum tells now has more listeners.

On a recent day, visitors — some wearing soccer jerseys or scarves — stopped to snap photos, inspect an object, read a label or browse shelves lined with books and souvenirs.

“The architecture itself is very good. Also, I like the inside displays; the pieces are very impressive,” said Bert Liu, who lives in the United States. “Before I knew very little about Islamic history but after I saw a lot of objects, I feel I learned more.”

Qatari officials say they hope the tournament will help provide visitors with a better understanding of their culture and that of the larger region. The World Cup host has faced intense criticism over rights issues, including the treatment of migrant workers, and accusations of “sportswashing” or attempting to use the event’s prestige to remake its image.

Qatari officials have argued that the country’s progress and achievements are being overlooked. The ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, said some of the attacks on the first Arab and Muslim country to host the World Cup included “fabrications and double standards.”

Sports is not the only area where Qatar, a small country with big ambitions and the vast wealth to match, has sought to leave its mark as part of a quest for global influence. It has also been aiming to carve out a name in the culture and arts arenas, including with museums like MIA.

“Qatar has invested much in terms of establishing itself as a Middle Eastern hub for culture and art with soft-power aspirations being a key factor driving these efforts,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, D.C. “Museums in Doha have done much to help the Qataris promote their culture, tell their stories, and share their unique perspectives with global audiences.”

And now, he noted, many soccer fans may be visiting the region for the first time.

Qatar is far from alone in such grand, well-financed cultural endeavors, with other Gulf countries also vying for tourists as they strive to diversify their economies.

“We have the ambition to show Islamic culture in all its diversity and sort of also show the regional differences,” said Julia Gonnella, MIA’s director. “The idea is really for education, for diversity, also to build up a society beyond oil and gas.”

The museum attracts both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors, she said, adding that MIA’s “first audience” is the people who live in Qatar.

Designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, the MIA complex has a presence that is somehow both imposing and simple, with its waterfront location, light-colored exteriors and sharp and clean architectural lines. Geometric shapes and Islamic motifs appear inside. Windows drench the surrounding area in sunlight and provide a view of modern-looking buildings jutting into the sky across the water.

The museum’s collection includes metalwork, ceramics, woodwork and textiles. Items on display include jewelry, manuscripts of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, armor and arms.

Gabriel Petersen, who visited from Australia, said he was impressed by how old some of the objects were and enjoyed seeing exhibits from different parts of the world.

“It’s just a different culture,” he said. “You don’t get much of that in Australia.”

The museum also offers glimpses into religious beliefs and rituals. Visitors can read about the five pillars of Islam — the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting and hajj or pilgrimage — or learn about hajj rituals and different funerary practices in the Islamic world.

Initially opened in 2008, the museum closed in April 2021 and reopened a month before the World Cup with expanded interpretive materials to help provide more context for items on display.

A temporary exhibition titled “Baghdad: Eye’s Delight” celebrates the capital of Iraq as one of the “most important and influential cities in the Islamic world” and highlights its role as a city “of power, scholarship, and riches,” according to the museum. The exhibition features objects on loan from world-renowned institutions, MIA says.

Rob Humphreys, who was visiting from Wales, said he particularly enjoyed viewing Baghdad from a different angle.

“At least in Europe, we tend to associate Baghdad with … war and so on and the invasion,” he said. “Learning about how important Baghdad was as a cultural and scientific and trading city … was really interesting.”

Catrin Evans, his wife, admired the quality of craftmanship dating back centuries in MIA’s collection and thought the calligraphy, jewelry and copies of the Quran were “awe inspiring.”

“We tend to think of everything in a European, Western perspective,” she said. “This definitely opened my eyes to the background to Islam and also the culture here.”

At one point, the couple thought of not coming to Qatar for the World Cup because of misgivings over rights’ issues, including those of LGBTQ people.

“We’ve come to learn, but it doesn’t mean we put our values to one side while we’re here,” Humphreys said, adding cultural exchanges are also important to them.

“Museums are always good places for generating new ideas, often controversial,” he said. “But it’s a space to express those and explore them and talk and have a dialogue.”

___ Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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Analysis: Dominant Eagles’ o-line worthy of MVP talk

If a unit could win the Most Valuable Player award, the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line would be the frontrunner.

Jalen Hurts is among the top candidates for AP NFL MVP mainly due to a dominant line that protects him and paves the way for one of the league’s best rushing attacks. The Eagles are 11-1 for the fourth time in franchise history thanks to a dynamic offense and stingy defense.

The success on offense starts up front.

Four-time All-Pro center Jason Kelce anchors the offensive line. Kelce is the heart and soul of the team and the city. He’s joined by three-time Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson, left tackle Jordan Mailata, right guard Isaac Seumalo and left guard Landon Dickerson.

“This is an unbelievable offensive line,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said.

That’s an understatement.

The Eagles ran for 363 yards in a 40-33 victory over Green Bay in Week 12. Hurts led the way with 157 yards and Miles Sanders ran for 143. They followed that performance up with 386 yards in the air in a 35-10 rout over Tennessee last week. The 1987 Los Angeles Raiders were the last team to have more than 350 yards passing in a game a week after rushing for more than 350.

“The guys up front are something special,” Sanders said.

They’re not looking for accolades, either.

“The five guys, we’re all comfortable,” Mailata said. “If we can look at each other and know that we had each other’s backs and we gave it everything while everyone else gets the credit, we’re cool with that, we’re happy with that.”

Mailata was a rugby star in Australia who had never played organized football until the Eagles drafted him in the seventh round in 2018. He’s developed into one of the best in the business. The credit goes to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.

“He taught me everything from how to sit in a classroom to stand on the sideline,” Mailata said.

Mailata introduced himself on Sunday Night Football game by saying he was from “Jeff Stoutland University.” Kelce and others have worn Stoutland University T-shirts.

“We’re all members of Stoutland University,” Kelce said after the victory over the Packers. “I’ve been fortunate to be with this guy for over a decade. … I know Philadelphia doesn’t take him for granted. He’s been a mainstay with the Eagles organization for a long time. There’s a reason for that. He’s unbelievable at his job.”

Stoutland joined the Eagles in 2013 after two seasons at Alabama. The 60-year-old from Staten Island prefers others get the attention but players and coaches are often quick to give him praise.

“He’s demanding,” Sirianni said. “He tries to put the players in the best possible position. … He just leaves no stone unturned. He’s very detailed. He gets the best out of those guys, again, because he’s demanding on them. I just love the way he coaches, and the guys clearly respond to that and play well for him. He just does so many things the right way.”

Patrick Mahomes, Hurts and Joe Burrow are currently the top three contenders for NFL MVP. There are several non-quarterbacks worthy of consideration, including linebacker Micah Parsons and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson.

The AP’s updated voting system for all the NFL Awards will allow more players to get recognition. Voters will rank their top five picks for MVP and top three picks for other awards instead of selecting one player for each. Each spot will be weighted to determine winners, second-place finishers and so on.

An offensive lineman isn’t going to win MVP but now there’s a better possibility to earn a vote.

“I would go so far as to say that a guy like Jason Kelce should be considered for MVP himself,” former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, the NFL’s 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “That offensive line, the best in football, 100%. They can do it both ways whether it’s in the ground game, getting to the next level like Kelce does better than anybody else or in the passing game giving Jalen Hurts time to go and make plays. They have been phenomenal and they’ve done it being a little bit banged-up. So once they get back to full health, look out. The Eagles are going to be coming for everybody.”

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL


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Plane believed to be carrying Griner lands in US

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.

Griner’s status as an openly gay Black woman, her prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.

The deal announced Thursday that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the U.S. failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.

Biden spoke by phone with Griner. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

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Tucker reported from Washington.


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Ronaldo, Portugal looks to end Morocco’s World Cup run

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — These really are pinch-yourself times for Morocco: A first-ever spot in the quarterfinals of a World Cup — the first to take place in the Arab world, no less — and now a meeting with Portugal and its superstar striker, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Well, maybe.

Because Ronaldo has again managed to steal the spotlight in his inimitable way, even bumping Morocco’s historic run to the last eight off the top of the agenda before Saturday’s narrative-laden match.

Will he start, or won’t he? That’s the big question being asked about Ronaldo after he was dropped by Portugal coach Fernando Santos for the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday.

Not only was the five-time world player of the year relegated to the bench, his replacement — 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos — scored a hat trick to leave Santos with quite the selection dilemma against Morocco.

“I hope he won’t (play),” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said Friday of Ronaldo. “As a coach I know he’s one of the best players in history and so I’d be delighted if he didn’t play.”

The announcement of Portugal’s team about 90 minutes before the game at Al Thumama Stadium is keenly awaited as Ronaldo prepares to play in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for just the second time in his glittering career.

Santos declined to share selection thoughts Friday for what he said would be a different kind of game to the one against Switzerland, while noting that “90% of the questions” are about Ronaldo at Portugal’s pregame news conferences.

One inevitable question Santos faced was about reports in national media that Ronaldo threatened to leave the World Cup after being told he was benched. Not true, the coach said.

“He has never told me that he wanted to leave the national team,” Santos said through an interpreter. “Cristiano obviously wasn’t very happy about it. He told me ‘Do you really think it’s a good idea?’”

Portugal is at this stage for only the third time after 1966 and 2006, perhaps surprising given the talent to have come from the country down the years.

Four years ago, Portugal lost in the round of 16 to Uruguay, though a group-stage game against Morocco was “possibly the most difficult match” the team faced, Santos said Friday.

“We won 1-0 but we had to suffer a lot to win that match,” he said. “My players know that.”

As for Morocco, the nation is in uncharted territory after becoming only the fourth African country to reach the quarterfinals at soccer’s biggest tournament, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010). None of them reached the semifinals.

Morocco is also the only team from outside Europe or South America to make it to the last eight in Qatar.

The team’s penalty-shootout victory over Spain in the last 16 sparked wild celebrations not just among its many fans in Qatar and at home.

The excitement extended to the Moroccan diaspora of around 5 million people spread mostly around Europe, which has united behind the World Cup run of the team nicknamed the “Atlas Lions.”

Morocco fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate the team’s passage to the quarterfinals, which came after Morocco advanced from a group containing second-ranked Belgium and 2018 runner-up Croatia.

“We haven’t got carried away by the euphoria,” Regragui said. “We’ve just surprised a few people and surprised a few algorithms who expected Belgium to get through … and expected Spain to get through. We are not satisfied with where we have come so far.”

Regragui, who was born in France, and 14 of the 26 players in the squad were born abroad — the highest proportion for any team at a World Cup being held in the Middle East for the first time in the tournament’s 92-year history.

The Arab world’s standard bearer, Morocco is in the quarterfinals on merit, too. The team has only conceded one goal — and that was an own-goal against Canada — and is proving so well-organized, with a sturdy back four headlined by Achraf Hakimi, a dedicated midfield anchored by Sofyan Amrabat, two mercurial wingers in Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, and a striker in Youssef En-Nesyri, who occupies defenses with his relentless work rate.

Three key players might be struggling to be healthy enough to play against Portugal, though. Amrabat said he played with a back injury requiring painkilling injections in the match against Spain, during which captain Romain Saiss finished the game with his leg bandaged up after treatment, and fellow center back Nayef Aguerd hobbled off in tears with an apparent thigh injury.

“Yes, they are tired, yes, we have injuries. We are not going to hide it and we are not going to complain,” Regragui said. “We are here on a mission.”

Portugal doesn’t appear to have such problems, with Santos’ squad depth so impressive that he could afford to leave players like Ronaldo, João Cancelo and Rúben Neves on the bench against Switzerland after they started every group game.

Even if he is among the substitutes again, Ronaldo — playing in what is likely his last World Cup — is expected to see some time on the field. Given the drama constantly surrounding him, he’s sure to be a talking point whatever happens.

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AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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


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From serving pizzas, Fofana now delivering World Cup crosses

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Youssouf Fofana has gone from serving pizzas to delivering crosses in the World Cup.

Dropped in 2015 at age 14 from Clairefontaine, France’s national training center, his future in soccer seemed at an end. So he went to work for a pizzeria.

“That was the best way to earn money and also to follow my dreams,” the 23-year-old midfielder said Thursday, two days before France meets England in a World Cup quarterfinal.

Fofana made his French national team debut in September and was picked by coach Didier Deschamps for the 26-man team that is defending Les Bleus’ World Cup title.

He entered as a second-half sub in the group stage wins over Australia and Denmark, started in the 1-0 loss to Tunisia, and played the last 25 minutes of the round of 16 victory over Poland.

Quite the turnaround for a player who needed two years to find a professional club. He played for Drancy, an amateur side in Paris’ northeast suburbs before signing with Strasbourg’s youth academy in 2017.

“I had my doubts, and you have to know how to move forward,” he said through an interpreter.

He made his Ligue 1 debut against Lyon on Aug. 24, 2018, moved to Monaco in January 2020 and reached the Europa League with his new club in 2021-22 and the current season.

France, seeking its third World Cup title, would advance to a semifinal against Portugal or Morocco. The other side of the bracket will have the Argentina-Netherlands winner play Brazil or Croatia.

Les Blues are led by Kylian Mbappé, who leads the World Cup with five goals. England right back Kyle Walker has faced Mbappé and Paris Saint-Germain while playing for Manchester City in the Champions League and said Wednesday “we take respect that he is a good player in good form at the minute, but I am not going to roll out a red carpet for him and tell him to go and score.”

Fofana seemed amused by that.

“Hats off to him.” Fofana said. “If he can stop Kylian, good for him. But there’s 19 other teams in the French league that are waiting for the answer of how to stop Kylian, and the truth is on the pitch.”

Fofana was in a jovial mood when discussing preparations. Asked about the frame of mind in the dressing room before World Cup kickoffs, he responded: “The atmosphere is tense, tense, tense.”

“No, I’m joking,” he went on. “We can wear headphones, so if we don’t like the chosen music for the group, then we can listen to our own music.”

CLASS OF ’98

Defender Dayot Upamecano said he has spoken with Marcel Desailly, a defender on France’s 1998 world champion team.

“He’s given me some advice and I should continue doing what I’m doing,” Upamecano said through an interpreter. “It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk to someone like that. He was a winner. He was a warrior, a real example for the French.”

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


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AP Week in Pictures: Europe and Africa

Dec. 2 – Dec. 8

A week in which fans celebrated and commiserated as their teams competed in soccer’s World Cup in Qatar, Russian shelling continued in the Donetsk region of Ukraine and the sculpted Apollo’s Chariot Fountain was lifted out of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles for restoration. This photo gallery highlights some of the most compelling images made or published in the week by The Associated Press from Europe and Africa. The selection was curated by Madrid Photographer Bernat Armangue.

Follow AP visual journalism:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/apnews

AP Images on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Images

AP Images blog: http://apimagesblog.com


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Raiders blow 4th double-digit halftime lead in latest loss

INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — A season of painful defeats for the Las Vegas Raiders just got worse.

Last month, they lost to a team whose coach was an ESPN analyst six days earlier. And on Thursday night, they allowed the opposing quarterback to direct two touchdown drives in the final four minutes after being picked up on waivers two days before the game.

Las Vegas’ 17-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams made the Raiders the first team to blow four double-digit halftime leads in a season, according to SportRadar, whose records go back to 1930. Seven teams had squandered three halftime leads of 10 points or more, most recently the 2020 Los Angeles Chargers.

While Indianapolis’ 25-20 victory on Nov. 13 in Jeff Saturday’s coaching debut was shocking, Baker Mayfield leading an eight play, 98-yard drive, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson with 10 seconds remaining, was just as stupefying.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the longest go-ahead TD drive that began in the final two minutes over the last 45 seasons.

“It’s tough. There’s really cool stories and cool moments for some guys. I’m sure Baker will have that moment for the rest of his life,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s not something that we are talking about like, ‘Hey, this is a big opportunity,’ because of this.”

The Raiders scored on their first three drives and gained 177 yards to take a 13-3 lead before things went south. On its final six possessions, Las Vegas mustered only a field goal, turned the ball over twice and went three-and-out three times.

Las Vegas was driving for a score late in the first half before Carr was picked off by Ernest Jones in the end zone.

“I don’t know if I got tripped, but something happened,” Carr said. “Mack (Hollins) was open in the back of the end zone and I was trying to get him the ball. That’s a tough feeling because we were close to having a touchdown, and everyone’s feeling better about today.”

Carr was 11 of 20 for 137 yards and two interceptions. His 36.9 passer rating was the lowest of his nine-year career.

Davante Adams — who had eight receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-20 win over the Chargers four days earlier — had only three catches for 71 yards against the Rams, with none coming in the second half.

The offense wasn’t the only thing that self-destructed. Clelin Ferrell lined up offside on a Rams punt to give LA a first down and new life. The Rams took advantage as Cam Akers scored a 1-yard touchdown 14 plays later to get them within 16-10.

On the Rams’ game-winning drive, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after Mayfield was sacked at the Los Angeles 13 on first-and-10. On the next play, Mayfield hit Ben Skowronek for a 32-yard gain to reach Raiders territory with under a minute remaining.

“We didn’t finish the game. The bottom line is, until we figure out how to stop losing games with mistakes that we do to ourselves, then it makes it very difficult to win,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “You can’t really win until you stop from losing. Penalties and turnovers contribute to that.”

The Raiders entered with a three-game winning streak, but at 5-8 their chances of making the playoffs aren’t very good even if they win out. After a brief reprieve, the second-guessing of McDaniels is sure to ramp up after another morale-sapping loss.

“This isn’t an offense, defense or special teams thing. It’s a team thing,” McDaniels said. “We can not let our foot off the gas. I’m trying to play the same way we were playing when the game starts. Obviously, I haven’t done a good enough job of being able to get us to do that.”

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