Russia should not be allowed to host World Cup qualifying play-off matches due to the nation's invasion of Ukraine, the respective football associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have said.

The four countries are in the same UEFA qualifying pathway for Qatar 2022, with Russia set to host Poland next month. Should they win that fixture they are scheduled to be at home to the winner of Sweden versus the Czech Republic.

A joint statement from the trio said they would not consider playing matches in Russia following president Vladimir Putin's decision to launch military action into neighbouring Ukraine, with all three insisting a neutral venue should be found.

"Based on the current alarming development in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, including the security situation, the Football Associations of Poland (PZPN), Sweden (SvFF) and Czech Republic (FACR) express their firm position that the play-off matches to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, scheduled for 24 and 29 March, should not be played in the territory of the Russian Federation," the joint statement read.

"The signatories to this appeal do not consider travelling to Russia and playing football matches there. The military escalation that we are observing entails serious consequences and considerably lower safety for our national football teams and official delegations.

"Therefore, we expect FIFA and UEFA to react immediately and to present alternative solutions regarding places where these approaching playoff matches could be played."

Russia, Poland and Sweden all confirmed their place in the second-stage playoffs after finishing as runners-up in their respective qualifying groups.

They were joined by the Czech Republic as one of the two best-ranked Nations League finishers not already qualified or involved in the play-off pathway.

Russia already face serious sanctions, including sports-related punishments, following their invasion.

They are expected to be stripped of hosting rights for the Champions League Final, while there is serious doubt over the Formula One Russian Grand Prix.

FIFPRO has released a study confirming 75 per cent of professional male footballers are opposed to proposals by FIFA to hold a World Cup every two years.

FIFA are firmly pushing the idea of a biennial World Cup, despite opposition from UEFA, CONMEBOL and several of Europe's leading domestic competitions.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently declared their opposition, too.

But Arsene Wenger and FIFA president Gianni Infantino are convinced that holding a World Cup every two years, rather than every four, would be of benefit to the game on a global scale.

However, a study organised by FIFPRO (the Federation Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels) and national player unions has concluded that three out of four professionals in the men's game do not want a biennial tournament.

The survey gauged the opinions of over 1,000 players.

According to FIFPRO, "most players rank the World Cup and their domestic league as their favourite competitions." However, "only 21 percent of players believe the voice of players is respected and that their well-being is considered in the context of international football governance."

The study took place over six continents and 70 different nations were represented. It was supported by the player unions of England, Spain, Italy and France.

While 77 per cent of players from Europe and Asia prefer the World Cup to be played every four years, that dropped to 63 per cent of players from the Americas and then 49 per cent of players from Africa, with the remaining 51 per cent divided between a two or three-year cycle.

From this, FIFPRO concluded that: "While a clear majority of players support the current World Cup cycle, a demand exists, particularly in smaller and medium-sized markets, to further develop and strengthen national team competitions."

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, FIFPRO general secretary, said: "The player survey shows most footballers around the world have a clear preference to play the World Cup every four years.

"At the same time, the results demonstrate the importance of domestic league competitions to players. These leagues are the bedrock of our game and we have to do more to strengthen them both for the sake of players and the overall stability of professional football."

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is in favour of introducing a new 'final four' format in the Champions League from the 2024-25 season.

Under the current format, teams play home and away in the semi-finals for the right to meet in the final.

However, a 'final eight' event was trialled in 2020 out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with each quarter-final and semi-final played over one leg in host city Lisbon, which also staged the final.

Bayern Munich went on to win the tournament and the experiment was considered a hit, with big audience figures recorded for the seven matches.

Ceferin previously indicated he would be open to reverting to that format permanently, and the Slovenian has now confirmed he has already consulted various club presidents.

"We haven't yet discussed this properly because of the pandemic, which has taken up our day-to-day focus," he told French outlet Le Journal Du Dimanche.

"But my opinion is that it would be great. It should be more competitive and more interesting for the fans.

"I have discussed it with some club presidents, such as [Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser] Al-Khelaifi, and they are in agreement.

"It's a simple equation to solve – we would just need to compensate clubs for the revenue they would lose from hosting the semi-final matches. That is possible.

"It would come in for the 2024-25 season at the earliest. But I doubt it could be done that quickly."

However, while Ceferin is open to change in UEFA's flagship club competition, he reiterated FIFA's proposed plans to make the World Cup a biennial competition make no sense.

"I'm sure that won't happen because it's a complete nonsense," he said.

"It's a populist project that would destroy football. It goes against all the principles of our sport, and those of the Olympic Games.

"It's incredible that a football organisation can propose that their players – on top of an already heavy schedule – should play a month-long tournament every summer.

"And just imagine how it would eat into women's football. Alongside South America, we have said that it won't work. Without us, it would no longer be a World Cup."

Gianni Infantino's plan for a biennial World Cup came under fire from Olympic figures on Thursday, with a claim FIFA could "create immeasurable damage" across sport.

At the International Olympic Committee (IOC) congress in Beijing, held on the eve of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, the view was voiced that football could have a profoundly negative impact if the World Cup switches from being held once every four years.

The powerful European and South American confederations, UEFA and CONMEBOL, have refused to support world governing body FIFA's plans, but there is support from within Asia, Africa and the CONCACAF region that covers North and Central America, plus the Caribbean.

FIFA issued studies in December that showed solidarity funding for each of its 211 national associations would rise from $6million to "potentially" $25million for the first four-year cycle of an era of biennial World Cups.

Yet there is concern among senior figures in other sports that football's power could be detrimental in the wider picture of sport, pushing other events into the background.

Algerian Mustapha Berraf, who serves as president of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), told the IOC congress he was firmly opposed to FIFA plans.

"The plan would create immeasurable damage and would put sport in danger and in particular football," Berraf said. "It would simply push away other sports and relegate them to the back benches – which is unacceptable – and create a rift between women's and men's sport, and be a setback to our aim of creating equity and parity for all sports."

According to the Guardian, Berraf added: "I make the request to put an end to this endeavour which is incompatible with our Olympic values."

There was also opposition expressed by Nenad Lalovic, president of United World Wrestling, and Ryu Seung-min, vice-president of the IOC Athletes' Commission.

IOC president Thomas Bach said Infantino, who is also an IOC member, had written to him this week to advise he would not be able to attend congress, denying members a chance to discuss the World Cup plans face to face.

"We would like to discuss this with the FIFA president, but this is not possible because he cancelled his visit to Beijing the day before yesterday," said Bach.

"We should not discuss this now on a wider scale on this issue in his absence in respect for our colleague."

Bach said the remarks would be sent on to Infantino.

Asked later in the day how he had learned that Infantino would not be coming to Beijing, Bach told a news conference the FIFA chief had blamed the pandemic.

He said: "Mr Infantino has written me a letter the day before yesterday, [in which he said] that because of the pandemic situation he would not travel to Beijing, and he would follow the session from Cameroon, where he would be for the semi-finals and the final of the Africa Cup (of Nations)."

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said  his comments suggesting biennial World Cups could convince African people not to risk "death" by crossing the Mediterranean Sea were "taken out of context".

Infantino was addressing the European Council on Wednesday, speaking about a range of topics including football agents, Qatar 2022 and FIFA's proposals for World Cup finals every two years.

He concluded his speech by talking about the latter, outlining how FIFA's reasoning behind the controversial idea – which is being pushed by Arsene Wenger – comes down to a desire to let more people around the world enjoy the best players for "the future of football".

Infantino said: "We see that football is going to a direction where the few have everything and the vast majority have nothing. I understand.

"In Europe, the World Cup happens twice per week because the best players are playing in Europe. In Europe there's no need for additional events, but if we think about the rest of the world, and even in Europe, the vast majority of Europe that doesn't see the best players, that doesn't participate in the top competitions."

But, as he went on to explain ethical dilemmas currently troubling the sport, Infantino's address took a curious turn, suggesting the proposed World Cup changes – and greater inclusion in global football – could make refugees think twice about fleeing Africa for Europe.

He added: "We have to think about what football brings, which goes beyond the sport, because football is about what I was saying at the beginning – it's about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, the country, heart, the joy and emotion. You cannot say to the rest of the world, 'give us your money and if you happen to have a good player, give us the player as well, but you just watch on TV'. We need to include them. We need to find ways to include the entire world, to give hope to Africans so they don't have to cross the Mediterranean in order to, maybe, find a better life but more probably death in the sea.

"We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity, not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate. Maybe a World Cup every two years isn't the answer, [but] we discuss it, debate it."

Several hours later, the Swiss – via a statement released on FIFA's Twitter account – took the opportunity to clarify his comments.

The statement read: "Given that certain remarks made by me before the Council of Europe earlier today appear to have been misinterpreted and taken out of context, I wish to clarify that, in my speech, my more general message was that everyone in a decision-making position has a responsibility to help improve the situation of people around the world.

"If there are more opportunities available, including in Africa, but certainly not limited to that continent, this should allow people to take these opportunities in their own countries.

"This was a general comment, which was not directly related to the possibility of playing a FIFA World Cup every two years."

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has curiously suggested biennial World Cups could convince African people to not cross the Mediterranean Sea "in order to maybe find a better life but, more probably, death".

World football's governing body, led by chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, has been promoting proposals for the World Cup to change its current quadrennial format.

FIFA reported to its member associations at their global summit in December that the changes would make the sport $4.4billion richer over the first four-year cycle.

According to Infantino, that figure would then climb to $6.6billion if each confederation also switched its flagship regional competition to become biennial, while FIFA claimed its members were largely in support of the plans.

UEFA has continuously opposed the proposals, while some domestic competitions – such as the Premier League – have also urged FIFA to keep things as they are.

But FIFA has been pressing ahead with feasibility studies and opinion polls, with its plan seeming to revolve around greater global participation.

However, in an address to the European Council on Wednesday, Infantino's attempts to further sell the idea took a puzzling turn, as he appeared to claim biennial World Cups could prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe from Africa.

He said: "The final topic I'd like to mention briefly is the future of football… Let me say on this topic, we'd have preferred to be engaged in a debate with the European Council, and I take this first step in discussing the future as well of course with the Council, because this topic is not [just] about whether we want a World Cup every two years.

"It's about what do we want to do for the future of football. The [European] Super League was mentioned earlier... We see that football is going to a direction where the few have everything and the vast majority have nothing.

"I understand. In Europe, the World Cup happens twice per week because the best players are playing in Europe. In Europe there's no need for additional events, but if we think about the rest of the world, and even in Europe, the vast majority of Europe that doesn't see the best players, that doesn't participate in the top competitions.

"Then we have to think about what football brings, which goes beyond the sport, because football is about what I was saying at the beginning – it's about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, the country, heart, the joy and emotion.

"You cannot say to the rest of the world, 'give us your money and if you happen to have a good player, give us the player as well, but you just watch on TV'.

"We need to include them. We need to find ways to include the entire world, to give hope to Africans so they don't have to cross the Mediterranean in order to, maybe, find a better life but more probably death in the sea.

"We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity, not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate. Maybe a World Cup every two years isn't the answer, [but] we discuss it, debate it.

"We started the process with a vote of 88 per cent of the FIFA congress, including 30 European members out of 55, to debate and see what the best way is to be more inclusive, not just to speak about saying no to discrimination, but to actually act in that direction by bringing everyone on board, trying to give opportunities and dignity to the entire world."

Former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter says incumbent Gianni Infantino "is not a good president" and has criticised his successor for his decision to live in Qatar ahead of the 2202 World Cup.

Football's world governing body confirmed on Thursday that Infantino has moved from Zurich to Doha on a temporary basis to oversee the build-up to the World Cup in December.

Blatter called that decision "incomprehensible" and "outrageous" on French radio on Thursday.

"He is not a good president, and I must say it. He is not doing his job properly," Zurich told Europe 1 Sport.

"I would never have thought of going to live in the capital where we play the World Cup.

"The place of the president of FIFA is the place where FIFA has its headquarters, in Zurich."

FIFA has announced new regulations that will limit the number of players that can be loaned in and out in order to prevent clubs from "hoarding players".

The new rules were outlined by the governing body on Thursday and will come into effect from the start of the next transfer window should they be ratified by the FIFA Council

Teams will initially be limited to having a maximum of eight players loaned out and eight loaned in at any given time during a season. 

That number will drop to seven ahead of the 2023-24 season, and six from the start of the following campaign and beyond.

While that does not cover domestic loans, national associations have been asked by FIFA to bring their own regulations in line by July 2025 at the latest.

However, players aged 21 and younger and club-trained players will be exempt from these limitations.

In a further development, the number of players loaned in from the same club will be capped at three per season. 

And the minimum length for a loan deal will be between two transfer windows, while the maximum loan period will be one year.

FIFA hopes the new regulatory framework, delayed by two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, will help with player development and promote more competitiveness.

The regulations could have a major impact on the likes of Premier League pair Chelsea and Manchester City, who currently have 21 and 14 players out on loan respectively.

Robert Lewandowski declared he would not let it trouble him after Lionel Messi left the Bayern Munich striker off his picks for the FIFA Best Men's Player award.

Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi lavished Lewandowski with praise after pipping him to the Ballon d'Or award in November, saying the Poland captain would have deserved the previous year's award, which was scrapped because of the pandemic.

Yet when it came to selecting his picks for the FIFA prize, which is a right afforded to all national team captains and head coaches, Argentina skipper Messi chose PSG team-mates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe as his first and second picks respectively, putting Real Madrid's Karim Benzema in third place.

Lewandowski picked Champions League and Euro 2020 winner Jorginho as his first choice, ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the end, Messi's voting choices did not prevent Lewandowski picking up the FIFA honour, which went his way on Monday. Messi finished second, with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah third.

"When you see what he said at the Ballon d'Or, those were nice words and it was very nice of him," Lewandowski said of Messi in a news conference on Tuesday.

"Regarding his choices, this question must go to him. I don't think he can be mad at me privately, if it's about sport. It was his decision and I have to respect that. I don't have to be mad. I definitely voted him second."

Messi and Ronaldo had held a near-duopoly over European and world football's top awards in recent times, but Lewandowski has now won the FIFA award in consecutive years.

The 33-year-old set a Bundesliga single-season scoring record last term when he hit 41 goals for champions Bayern Munich, passing Gerd Muller's 40-goal benchmark.

Once again, this season he is setting the standard across Europe's top five leagues for putting the ball in the back of the net.

Among players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, LaLiga and Serie A, nobody comes close to matching Lewandowski's haul of 34 goals in 27 games so far across all competitions.

Benzema is second on the list with 24 goals, Mbappe has 19, while Messi has scored only six times for PSG since his dramatic move from Barcelona.

After Salah (23 goals) in third place, next among scorers is Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland (21 goals).

There has been speculation Haaland's next club could be Bayern, and Lewandowski was asked whether the strikers could play together.

"If I train with him, then after a week or two you could say something," Lewandowski said. "Erling is a different type of player than me. But he's a top player, and I'm happy that he shows how good he is in every game. For me, that means I can keep doing my job.”

The FIFA Best Awards were conducted on Monday, with Chelsea taking three prizes.

While Robert Lewandowski and Alexia Putellas, who won the women's Ballon d'Or last year, took home the prizes for Best Men's and Women's player respectively, the Blues had winners in the form of Thomas Tuchel, Emma Hayes and Edouard Mendy.

Tuchel, who guided Chelsea to Champions League success last season, scooped the Best Men's Coach award, while Hayes was named Best Women's Coach.

Hayes' team won the Women's FA Cup and Premier League in 2020-21, while also finishing as runners-up in the Women's Champions League to Barcelona, who Putellas plays for.

Mendy, meanwhile, won the Best Men's Goalkeeper award. However, he did not make the Men's XI, with Italy and Paris Saint-Germain shot-stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma preferred.

Tuchel's triumph also means that a German coach has won the Men's award for the last three years, after Jurgen Klopp in 2020 and 2019.

The Denmark national team won the Fair Play Award for their actions in helping to save Christian Eriksen's life after the midfielder collapsed on the pitch in Copenhagen at Euro 2020.

Erik Lamela won the Puskas Award for his incredible rabona finish in the north London derby.

Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, was given a Special Award for his career achievements.

FIFA Best Awards 2021 winners:

Robert Lewandowski (Best Men's Player)
Thomas Tuchel (Best Men's Coach)
Edouard Mendy (Best Men's Goalkeeper)
Alexia Putellas (Best Women's Player)
Emma Hayes (Best Women's Coach)
Christiane Endler (Best Women's Goalkeeper)
Denmark men's national team (FIFA Fair Play Award)
Erik Lamela (Puskas Award)
Denmark and Finland fans (FIFA Fan Award)
Cristiano Ronaldo (FIFA Special Award)
Christine Sinclair (FIFA Special Award)

Robert Lewandowski won the men's FIFA Best award for the second year running at a ceremony at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Monday.

The Bayern Munich striker beat fellow nominees Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah to the award, having also won it the last time it was up for grabs in December 2020.

Lewandowski scored 58 goals in 47 games in all competitions in 2021, which included breaking two long-standing records previously held by the legendary German striker Gerd Muller. He bagged 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season for Bayern, and 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year.

The Pole has scored 34 goals in 27 games so far this season, including nine in the Champions League group stage.

 

The 33-year-old was presented the award in Munich surrounded by Bayern's chief executive officer Oliver Kahn, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and head coach Julian Nagelsmann.

"Thank you very much. I am very honoured to win this trophy," he said upon receiving the award. "I feel very proud, very happy. This trophy also belongs to my team-mates and my coaches."

Lewandowski was also asked about breaking the records of Muller, who passed away in August last year at the age of 75.

"I never dreamed I could break [Muller's] records, to score 41 goals in 29 games, if you asked me a few years ago if this was possible I would tell you 'no'.

"But now he's not with us anymore, and these old records that I broke, I also say to him 'thank you' because he had so many records and for us, the next generation players, that was like the next step. To try to break these records and I did, so I am very honoured and very proud of this as well."

Robert Lewandowski won the men's FIFA Best award for the second year running at a ceremony at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Monday.

The Bayern Munich striker beat fellow nominees Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah to the award, having also won it the last time it was up for grabs in December 2020.

Lewandowski scored 58 goals in 47 games in all competitions in 2021, which included breaking two long-standing records previously held by the legendary German striker Gerd Muller. He bagged 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season for Bayern, and 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year.

The Pole has scored 34 goals in 27 games so far this season, including nine in the Champions League group stage.

Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah have been announced as the three finalists for The Best FIFA Men's Player Award.

The attacking trio were named on a shortlist for the prize in November that also included Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Karim Benzema, Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.

Lewandowski, Messi and Salah are the final nominees chosen following a public vote that closed on December 10. Jennifer Hermoso, Sam Kerr and Alexia Putellas are the finalists for the women's award for 2021.

The final three up for The Best FIFA Men's Coach award, confirmed on Thursday, are Pep Guardiola, Roberto Mancini and Thomas Tuchel. Lluis Cortes, Emma Hayes and Sarina Wiegman are the finalists for the women's coaching prize.

The player awards will now be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website. The winners will be announced on January 17.

Lewandowski, who won the 2020 prize after firing Bayern Munich to the treble, scored 41 times in the Bundesliga last season to break Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals in a single season. He ended 2021 with 48 goals in all competitions.

Messi, who won the 2021 Ballon d'Or to extend his record to seven trophies, helped Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey in what proved to be his final season at the club. He then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with four goals and five assists helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Liverpool star Salah scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player. He is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota on 10.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has suggested the European Championship would follow suit and become a biennial event should the proposed World Cup plans succeed.

Led by chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, FIFA has been promoting the idea for the World Cup to shift format and take place every two years - an idea strongly opposed by both UEFA and CONMEBOL.

FIFA claimed to its member associations at their global summit in December that the alterations would make football $4.4billion richer over the initial four-year cycle.

Infantino, faced with strong opposition in Europe and South America, has now added further fuel to the fire by suggesting the Euros would happen more often if the biennial World Cup plans come to fruition.

Asked by Italian outlet Radio Anch'io what would happen to European football's premier international tournament in the wake of the World Cup proposals, Infantino responded: "The Euros would also take place every two years.

"In Europe, there is resistance because there is a World Cup every week with the leagues and the best players in the world, but that isn't the case for the rest of the world: It's a month a year, and we need to find a way to truly include the whole world in football."

Last month, UEFA published a contrasting independent survey that called the suggested changes "alarming" just hours before FIFA released a study that reported there is a "majority" in favour of a World Cup every two years.

Infantino again claimed that FIFA's prior findings suggested the change would be both feasible and accepted.

He added: "The presumptions are clear: 88 per cent of countries, including the majority of those in Europe, have asked for the study and the study tells us that from a sporting point of view, a World Cup every two years would work. 

"There would be fewer international matches but with a greater impact."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also part of a growing list of opposition, which includes Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski, fearing the impact of the changes on the world's sporting calendar.

FIFA has announced that AS Pirae from Tahiti will replace Auckland City at the Club World Cup due to COVID-19 rules in New Zealand.

Auckland were set to participate at the 18th edition of FIFA's global tournament, which is due to take place in February in the United Arab Emirates.

Champions League winners Chelsea and Copa Libertadores holders Palmeiras are the headline teams as UEFA and CONMEBOL's respective entries, though FIFA has been forced into a late change with Pirae nominated as the OFC's representative following Auckland's withdrawal.

FIFA announced the decision on Friday in a statement that said the "delayed reopening of the borders in New Zealand due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic" as well as the reintroduction of quarantine protocols in the country had forced Auckland to "reluctantly withdraw".

Monterrey, Al Hilal, Al Ahly, as well as UAE champions, Al Jazira, make up the rest of the entrants for the tournament, which Bayern Munich won last season.

The annual tournament featuring the champions of six global confederations was originally scheduled for Japan in 2021, but COVID-19 concerns within the country forced the competition to be moved to the UAE last October.

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