Agence France-Presse

Mandzukic breaks England hearts

MOSCOW, Russia-- Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal deep in extra time as Croatia beat England, 2-1, in an utterly gripping World Cup semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday to set up a final date with France. The Juventus forward netted in the 109th minute to complete a remarkable comeback from a shattered Croatian team and take the small nation of more than four million people into the World Cup final for the first time in their short history. Kieran Trippier’s magnificent early free-kick had seemingly set England on course to reach their first final since they lifted the trophy on home soil back in 1966. But it wasn’t to be, as Croatia came roaring back in the second half and equalized through Ivan Perisic before somehow finding the energy to win despite being taken to extra time for the third time in 11 days. The biggest winners of the night could well be France, who have had an extra day’s rest for Sunday’s final after edging out Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday. That will not matter too much right now for Croatia, who are the smallest nation to make it to the final since Uruguay back in 1950. “It was a very difficult game, we all know what was at stake, how important a semi-final is for a small country such as Croatia,” said man-of-the-match Perisic. “We started slowly but we showed our character, just as in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We were not that resilient in the past.” England had been the ones hoping to make history, in what was their first appearance in the semi-finals in 28 years. Then they were beaten on penalties by West Germany. Having ended their famous penalty curse by beating Colombia in a shootout in the last 16, they might have fancied repeating that here. But Croatia, having won on penalties against Denmark and Russia in the last two rounds, saw the game out, dousing the World Cup dream of Gareth Southgate’s side that had gone from the improbable to the possible over the past month in Russia.

Croatia on fire after Cup ‘miracle’

ZAGREB, Croatia-- Tears and cries of joy, hugs and chants, firecrackers and flares -- Croatia was on fire late Wednesday after their victory against England set up a first ever appearance in a World Cup final. “Croatia in World Cup finals! It is so beautiful! Miracle of all miracles in Russia!” the state-run HRT television commentator Drago Cosic shouted ecstatically. Croatia beat England 2-1 in extra-time thanks to a Mario Mandzukic goal in the second period of extra-time to book a date with France in Moscow on Sunday. Thousands of fans gathered at the country’s largest fan zone in Zagreb’s main square, braving intermittent rain to cheer on the “Fiery Ones” (Vatreni) on a giant screen. “We don’t intend to stop now,” coach Zlatko Dalic assured HRT. Popular song “Play my Croatia” was played on radio stations and waiters, shop workers, TV presenters and nurses donned red-and-white jerseys. Some stores closed early to enable employees to watch the match, with various concerts, plays and cinema screenings cancelled. The side led by Luka Modric have been feted as national heroes for their run to the last four in Russia. They matched the feat of their predecessors in 1998 who reached the semi-finals in the country’s first World Cup as an independent nation. But on Wednesday night Dalic’s players did even better, securing a historic first World Cup final for the country of about four million people.

Fear of failure drives bid

SERENA EYES 8TH WIMBY CROWN LONDON, United Kingdom-- As Serena Williams prepares for her 35th Grand Slam semi-final, the American star says a fear of failure is driving her bid for an eighth Wimbledon title. Williams avoided a major upset on Tuesday as the former world number one battled back to beat unseeded Camila Giorgi 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a Centre Court thriller. The 36-year-old’s quarter-final escape act set up a last four showdown with German 13th seed Julia Goerges on Thursday. Serena hasn’t won a Grand Slam since the birth of daughter Olympia in September and her last trophy came at the 2017 Australian Open. “You’re only as good as your last win. It’s been a while since I’ve won a championship,” Williams said. But the 23-time major winner is heavily favored to end her wait this week, fueled by the thought of suffering the painful sting left by her rare defeats. “I hate losing. I mean, that’s no secret. But I feel like every time I lose, I get better,” she said. “It’s important for me to have the losses. Just the fewer the better for me!” Williams is playing only her fourth tournament since becoming a mother for the first time. Having shaken off the rust following her lengthy lay-off after the complications with Olympia’s birth, Serena is on the verge of a 10th Wimbledon final appearance and 30th in all four Grand Slams. “Everything right now is a little bit of a surprise, to be here, to be in the semi-finals,” she said. “I always say I plan on it. But when it actually happens, it still is, like, Wow, this is really happening.” With Olympia’s arrival and her marriage to husband Alexis both taking place since Serena was last at Wimbledon, this year’s campaign has a unique feel. “It’s different now obviously because I have the baby. Being a mom is totally different,” she said. “I just want to be more of that role model for my daughter, for lots of people out there that just want to be inspired. “Here is some good news. Right now there’s so much bad news in the world. We just need a good story.” Having won the title in the previous two years she played Wimbledon in 2015 and 2016, Williams, who missed last year’s tournament due to her pregnancy, has extended her winning streak at the All England Club to 19 matches. In contrast, Goerges is in the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time. The 29-year-old had suffered five successive opening round defeats at the All England Club before this year. It also took her until her 42nd Grand Slam appearance to finally get through to the last four at a major. Yet Goerges insists she can cause a massive upset against Williams. “It is a great opportunity to play Serena here where she has won so many times and is a great champion. I think everyone here has a great chance so you have to take it,” Goerges said. Angelique Kerber, the German 11th seed, faces former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the other semi-final. Ostapenko struggled with the pressure of defending her maiden Grand Slam title, losing in the first round of the recent French Open. But that lifted a weight off her shoulders at the All England Club, where she has become the first Latvian to make a Wimbledon semi-final. The 21-year-old is the only female player yet to drop a set in this year’s tournament. “At the French Open a couple weeks ago I had so much pressure. It’s now all gone,” Ostapenko said. “I’m just enjoying the moment. It’s so much fun.” However, Kerber, beaten by Serena in the 2016 Wimbledon final, doesn’t believe Ostapenko will be able to play completely free of anxiety with the title match within touching distance. Kerber, the 2016 Australian and US Open champion, said: “I mean, the pressure is not always on my side. She (Ostapenko) won a Grand Slam, as well.”

Salah ahead with 63

ANTIPOLO – American Josh Salah dished out fine form coming off a long break, rattling off eight birdies under overcast skies for a solid 63 and a two-stroke lead over Itthipat Buranatanyarat of Thailand and Albin Engino in the first round of the ICTSI Forest Hills Championship at the Nicklaus course Wednesday. Salah, who took a rest back home in Massachusetts after finishing tied for 31st in the Philippine Golf Tour Asia’s kickoff leg at Luisita last April, took advantage of benign conditions and gunned down three birdies at the back where he teed off. He then strung up four straight birdies at the front, including a chip-in on the par-3 No. 4 then capped his flawless 30-33 card with another birdie on No. 6. “I took advantage of the course’s good set-up and the weather – no rain and wind and a bit cloudy. The course is really good but you need to play wise – go for fairways and greens and take advantage of easy holes and go for pars on the difficult ones,” said Salah, who spiked his solid round with a near-impeccable touch on the greens that saw him putt just 23 times, including two that preserved his unblemished slate. Twenty-three others joined the assault on the rolling par-71 layout with under-par rounds but only a few came close to matching Salah’s fiery opener, including Buranatanyarat, who came away with three birdies on each nine and came through with six scrambling pars for a bogey-free 65 which Engino matched with his own version of a 33-32. The leading Filipino bet actually missed moving just a stroke off Salah as he stumbled with a missed green bogey on No. 7 in his closing nine in the early going of the $100,000 event serving as the fourth leg of the second season of PGT Asia put up by ICTSI. Young Kim Joo Hyung, also fresh from his maiden win at PGT Pueblo De Oro last weekend, charged into early contention in one of the late flights, joining Buranatanyarat and Engino at second with his own version of 33-32, including four birdies in a bogey-free backside start. Jobim Carlos, the hottest local player on the tour with two victories, a runner-up and two top 10 finishes in the last six weeks, also put in a bogey-free card of 66 he highlighted with an eagle on the par-5 16th for solo sixth. Tony Lascuña failed to flash the form expected of him as the winner of the PGT event here the last two years, stumbled at the back with three bogeys in the last eight holes and dropped from the middle of the pack to near the cutoff line at joint 45th with 73.

Thais rejoice cave rescue

CHIANG RAI, Thailand —Thailand celebrated the successful mission to free 12 boys and their football coach from a cave Wednesday, with the nation heaping praise on the rescue team as the triumphant tagline “Hooyah” pinballed across social media. The nerve-shredding three-day mission ended on Tuesday with the final group of four boys and the coach emerging from the cave which had held them captive for 18 days. The rescue received blanket coverage in Thai media with newspapers The Nation running the headline “Hooyah! Mission accomplished” and the Bangkok Post emblazoned with “All Wild Boars saved”. Despite spending days in the dark, dank cave health officials said the boys -- who are aged 11 to 16 -- are in good physical and mental health and eating normal food. “It might be because they were all together as a team, helping each other out,” public health ministry inspector general Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong told reporters, singling out their 25-year-old coach for keeping their spirits high. The group remains in quarantine in Chiang Rai hospital, where one of the last batch of people to leave the cave has “minor pneumonia”, he said. Some of the first boys to be freed have been able to see their parents, he added. The saga of the “Wild Boars” gripped the world, with the lives of the group hanging in the balance as the threat of heavy rain injected urgency to an already perilous extraction bid. On Wednesday a few hundred Thai school children gathered opposite the hospital, chanting thanks to those who helped and looking up at the building that will be home to the rescued football team for the coming days. Elsewhere Duangduen Sittiwongsa, a classmate of 16-year-old Pheeraphat “Night” Sompiengjai, whose birthday fell on the same day the team entered the cave, said they would give him cake and gifts when he came back to school. “We will sing a song for him,” she said. Risky rescue Rescuers had weighed up several options to save the boys, including keeping them in the cave through the months-long monsoon season. But they were prodded into the dangerous task of “diving out” the team through submerged chambers and claustrophobic passages as oxygen levels in the cave plummeted and rains menaced. The group was led out in three batches by a team of 13 international divers flanked by the Thai Navy SEALs, who greeted each successful rescue with a “Hooyah” on their Facebook page. That sign off quickly turned into a hashtag shared across social media, where luminaries of business, politics and sport extended their best wishes to the team and the rescuers. Authorities have shrouded the details of the rescue bid in secrecy, with fragments of information emerging about the heroic efforts of the dive team. The dangers of the rescue were brought into sharp relief last Friday by the death of a retired Thai Navy SEAL as he ran out off air in the flooded cave complex as the extraction plans were being laid. “I’m very happy and relieved. I haven’t been able to sleep for days. I’m happy that the boys are out too,” said Khamluh Guntawong, the grandfather of team coach Ekkapol Chantawong. “He really cares for the boys,” he added, of a figure who is emerging as something of a hero for shepherding the children through their ordeal. The group became trapped in rising floodwaters and were found nine days later emaciated and dishevelled on a muddy ledge, with water lapping below.

Paris erupts with WC Final march

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia-- France reached their third World Cup final after overcoming Belgium on Tuesday, sparking scenes of unconfined joy in Paris as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets. In scenes reminiscent of France’s 1998 World Cup win, delirious crowds surged up the Champs-Elysees avenue and surrounded the Arc de Triomphe, waving flags and letting off flares. A header from Samuel Umtiti in Saint Petersburg was enough to give Didier Deschamps’ team a 1-0 win against Belgium. The 49-year-old coach is now just one win away from winning the World Cup -- 20 years after he captained the team to victory on home soil. The tournament favorites must wait 24 hours to discover whether they will play England or Croatia in Sunday’s final in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium but they will approach the game brim full of confidence. Belgium started the stronger of the two teams but Umtiti’s header from a corner in the 51st minute was the pivotal moment as the defender stole the limelight from jet-heeled Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann. France’s other hero was goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who made a spectacular fingertip save in the first half to deny Toby Alderweireld and then kept out Alex Witsel’s drive as Belgium cranked up the pressure towards the end of the match. Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which Portugal won in Paris. “I am very happy for my players,” he said. “It was hard against a very good Belgium team. I take my hat off to my players and my staff.” “Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” he added. France started the tournament in Russia slowly, struggling for goals in the group stages but hit their stride in an impressive 4-3 victory against Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the first knockout round. Boasting an impressive combination of experience and youthful zest, they controlled their quarter-final against Uruguay, running out comfortable 2-0 winners. The defeat is painful for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation”. Captain Eden Hazard dazzled in patches but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Romelu Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium enjoyed most of the possession. Martinez bemoaned the goal his team conceded from a corner.

Trump: Germany a ‘captive’ of Russia

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- US President Donald Trump launched a blistering attack on Germany at the start of a tense NATO summit Wednesday, accusing Berlin of being “captive” to Russia and demanding it and other allies immediately step up defense spending. The two-day meet in Brussels was already shaping up to be the alliance’s most difficult in years, with Europe and the US engaged in a bitter trade spat and Trump demanding that NATO allies “reimburse” Washington for the cost of defending the continent. European allliance members were braced for criticism from Trump on defense spending, but his furious tirade at what should have been an amicable breakfast meeting appeared to take even NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg by surprise. “Germany is a captive of Russia because it is getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump said, taking particular aim at the proposed Nord Stream II pipeline. “Everybody’s talking about it all over the world, they’re saying we’re paying you billions of dollars to protect you but you’re paying billions of dollars to Russia.” Trump has long complained that European NATO members do not pay enough for their own defense, accusing them of freeloading on America and singling out Germany for particular criticism. NATO officials and diplomats will try to promote an image of unity at the summit in the face of growing unease about the threat from Russia, but after Trump’s attack it may prove difficult to paper over the cracks. ‘Appreciate your allies’ The meeting of 29 Western leaders has the potential to descend into another public bust-up following a divisive and bad-tempered summit of G7 nations in Canada last month. Trump ramped up his rhetoric ahead of the talks, explicitly linking NATO with the transatlantic trade row. “The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn’t work!” he tweeted as he arrived in Brussels late on Tuesday. EU President Donald Tusk launched his own salvo against Trump on Tuesday. “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many,” Tusk said, before reminding Trump that European troops had come to America’s aid following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Air strikes, clashes hit IS pocket in Syria

IS detonated a car bomb in Heet. BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russian air strikes and fierce clashes on Wednesday rocked a sliver of territory in southwestern Syria held by the Islamic State group, a war monitor said. Much of the southern province of Daraa had been quiet since Friday, when a ceasefire between rebels and Syria’s regime ended a nearly three-week government assault. But a local branch of IS, known as Jaish Khaled bin Walid and based in a small area in Daraa’s western countryside, was not included in the deal. Early Wednesday, Russian warplanes began pounding the IS-controlled town of Saham al-Golan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Russian air strikes hit Saham al-Golan this morning, as dozens of shells and artillery fire hit the town,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. In retaliation, IS launched an attack southwards on Heet, a rebel-held town that recently agreed to return to regime control. The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources across Syria, gave no immediate death toll for Wednesday’s fighting. “Daesh (IS) stormed Heet, detonated a car bomb and advanced there and are also intensely bombing the nearby village of Zaizun,” said Abdel Rahman. IS claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide car bombing in Zaizun that left 14 fighters dead. The claim, distributed through an online messaging service, included the first apparent reference to the south as an official IS “province,” reflecting its plan to re-establish an Islamic “caliphate” despite its crushing military defeats in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Wednesday’s clashes were raging less than ten kilometers (six miles) from the armistice line with the Israeli-occupied Golan, and just four kilometers from Jordan. Anticipating an attack, thousands have fled the IS-held zone in recent days towards the Israeli-occupied Golan. Around 200,000 displaced people have already sought refuge near the sealed armistice line, according to the United Nations. The strategic location makes the south a prize for President Bashar al-Assad. Backed by Russia, his troops began an offensive on Daraa province on June 19 that killed dozens of civilians and displaced more than 320,000 people. That ended Friday, when Moscow brokered a deal for rebels to surrender weapons and hand over towns to regime troops. The agreement also provides for safe passage for thousands of opposition fighters and civilians to rebel territory further north.

Florida company fined for bribery

NEW YORK-- A Florida media company pleaded guilty Tuesday to bribing soccer officials and agreed -- with its Spanish parent company -- to pay more than $24 million in fines, the latest scalps in a sweeping US prosecution of FIFA corruption. Imagina US pleaded guilty over bribes to senior officials of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) and four Central American soccer federations to secure media and marketing rights to World Cup qualifier matches. Imagina US agreed to forfeit $5.28 million in criminal proceeds before a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, US prosecutors announced. Tuesday’s plea was heard by Judge Pamela Chen, who presided over the trial that convicted two ex-heads of Latin American football federations, after the United States unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world soccer. Imagina US was sentenced to pay $3 million in restitution to the CFU, $1.7 million to the Honduran soccer federation, $790,000 to Guatemala’s, $600,000 to Costa Rica’s and $565,000 to El Salvador’s.
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