ZURICH (AP) — With a seat on FIFA's rule-making panel up for grabs, America's quest to maintain a place at the table could be hurt in the fallout from a regional financial scandal.
A final review of CONCACAF's finances under former leaders Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer will be revealed on April 19 in Panama City.
The meeting will bring together officials from the 40 members of the body which represents football federations from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
A specially appointed integrity panel is also weighing sanctions against Warner, the disgraced former FIFA vice president, and Blazer, the most senior American official at FIFA for 16 years.
"Members are obviously very disappointed, some of them deeply disappointed, and they have a right to be," CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb told The Associated Press at FIFA headquarters.
Lingering anger is expected toward Blazer, whose whistleblower role alleging a FIFA election bribery plot in 2011 cost Warner the CONCACAF presidency and led FIFA to investigate more than 20 Caribbean football leaders.
With Blazer not seeking re-election to his FIFA executive committee seat, CONCACAF members will choose between Justino Compean of Mexico and Sunil Gulati of the United States to serve them in Zurich for the next four years.
Webb said that it was a "possibility" that feelings toward Blazer could affect the chances of Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
"At the end of the day, it is human nature. I think that would be unfair to Sunil," Webb said. "It's possible but I would hope, and I would think, that our membership is much more mature and beyond that."
Voting is scheduled on the day CONCACAF officials receive a full audit from consultants BDO, who previously described "material weaknesses and significant deficiencies."
Webb said he hopes the Panama gathering will end two years of turmoil within CONCACAF.
"It's a necessary process for us," Webb said. "Obviously we cannot continue to live in the past and continue to revisit. It's a healing process."
At a heated meeting in Budapest last May, members learned that Warner — not CONCACAF — legally owned and had an unauthorized mortgage on a FIFA-funded $22.5 million training center in his native Trinidad. Blazer's million-dollar payments from his 10 percent commissions, approved by Warner, on commercial deals he helped negotiate also provoked outrage.
Also, Warner and Qatari candidate Mohamed bin Hammam were implicated in offering $40,000 cash payments to Caribbean voters in Trinidad during bin Hammam's failed run for the FIFA presidency. Blazer helped to gather evidence for FIFA and bin Hammam was suspended before Sepp Blatter was re-elected unopposed.
Blazer stepped down as CONCACAF general secretary in late 2011, before the forensic audit was ordered.
On the sidelines of last year's FIFA Congress, CONCACAF countries elected Webb to succeed Warner and listened to BDO's interim findings.
CONCACAF, which had been run by Blazer in New York, reported itself to U.S. tax authorities for failure to report tax returns since at least 2007. It had "potential tax liabilities" in excess of its $2 million reserves.
Webb said the audit and a report by the integrity panel, chaired by former Barbados chief justice David Simmons, will be presented to CONCACAF's executive committee on April 18, then to members the next day.
"They wanted transparency, they wanted clarity, they wanted to know what has existed in the past," Webb said.
He said he hoped Blazer and Warner would speak with the integrity panel and give "the level of respect, and the membership the respect, that we deserve."
Still, he acknowledged the "huge transformation" in CONCACAF 's status and revenues during their two decades running the organization.
"I would hope that, within time, we would appreciate the good as well and not only focus on and analyze and dissect the bad," Webb said.
Also in Panama, five of the 40 countries should be upgraded to full CONCACAF member status and move closer to FIFA recognition: The Netherlands territory of St. Maarten, French Guyana and French overseas departments Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Martin.
Webb said they could join FIFA by 2015 and "definitely" be eligible to enter qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
-- Graham Dunbar
Dempsey to be U.S. captain for World Cup qualifiers
DENVER (AP) — Clint Dempsey will be the U.S. captain for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann says Wednesday he chose Dempsey because the striker "has been huge for us in World Cup qualifying so far." Dempsey leads the Americans with six goals in seven games in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He is second on the all-time U.S. list with 11 in 27 World Cup qualifiers.
The Americans needed a new captain after Klinsmann left longtime leader Carlos Bocanegra off the roster for Friday's game against Costa Rica and next Wednesday's match in Mexico. Bocanegra hasn't played in a game since Feb. 2, having lost his starting job with Racing Santander, a second-division Spanish team.
Dempsey has made 92 appearances for the U.S.
European powers resume qualifying with easy games
LONDON (AP) — The European powers resume qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on Friday with some of the easiest matches they'll play on the road to Brazil.
World champion Spain hosts Finland, Group I's bottom team, hoping to avoid picking up any suspensions or injuries before taking on France next week. France is behind Spain only on goal difference and welcomes Georgia to Paris.
"It's a turning point, undoubtedly," France striker Olivier Giroud said. "If we're still ahead of Spain after these two matches, we will have cause for hope."
The road to Brazil is smoother for the Netherlands which will be looking to maintain its perfect record when the Group D leader hosts lowly Estonia.
Germany has experienced one setback in Group C — a draw — but has a three-point lead as it hosts a Kazakhstan side with just one point.
England is in the weakest position of the leading teams, sitting two points behind Montenegro in Group H, but playing point-less San Marino on Friday while the leader is at Moldova.
In Madrid, Vicente del Bosque will break Ladislao Kubala's record of 68 games as Spain coach on Friday at Sporting Gijon's El Molinon Stadium.
Del Bosque has a record of 57 wins, five draws and six losses with Spain, including the title success at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship.
"I am not worried about the record," Del Bosque said. "I am worried about Finland and that my team arrives in the best possible condition to get the three points."
Finland is last in the group with one point from two games, while Georgia is three points from the bottom and the top.
Facing Georgia should be an opportunity for France's misfiring strikers to find the net, if they can breach their expected ultra-defensive opponents.
Karim Benzema has not scored in his past 10 matches for France while Olivier Giroud has scored only twice in 15 appearances.
"For me it's a bit difficult and Karim prefers playing center forward," Giroud said. "But in a match where we have to score goals then why not pair us together?"
In Group C, Germany isn't even likely to deploy a striker against Kazakhstan, with Mario Gomez the only recognizable striker in the squad and Mario Goetze being considered for a Spain-style "false nine" role.
Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger welcomes comparisons with Spain.
"They play almost perfect. Eventually, we might even be able to replicate it," Schweinsteiger said. "The coach sees exactly which tactics are appropriate and we are generally at a very high level."
Germany has a three-point lead over the Swedes, who can be overtaken by Ireland if they lose to Giovanni Trapattoni's side on Friday.
In Group H, England's match against San Marino, which has only ever won one match and is joint-bottom of the FIFA rankings, is a chance for the injury-ravaged defense to play together before the tougher test at Montenegro on Tuesday.
"We have been in these situations before in different positions but we have got depth in terms of the younger players coming into the squad," midfielder Frank Lampard said. "We have to believe in them."
Even tighter than Group H is Group A, where Belgium is ahead of Croatia only on goal difference. They both play the teams who are six points below them on Friday, with Belgium at Macedonia and Croatia hosting Serbia.
It's similar in Group G where Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece are locked at the top on 10 points and separated only by goal difference before they meet on Friday.
In Group B, leader Italy is playing a friendly against Brazil on Thursday but can't be caught the following night when second-place Bulgaria, four points adrift, hosts point-less Malta.
In Group D, while the Netherlands hosts lowly Estonia, there is a meeting between Hungary and Romania, who are both three points behind the leaders.
Switzerland could be toppled from the Group E summit on Friday, with the team not in action and second-place Norway able to go top with a high-scoring victory over Albania.
Russia is already five points ahead in Group F going into the qualifier at Northern Ireland, which is yet to win. Israel and Portugal, who are level on points behind Russia, meet in Tel Aviv.
-- Rob Harris
France needs strikers to find form against Georgia
CLAIREFONTAINE, France (AP) — Scoring chances could be scarce against a Georgia team expected to defend in numbers, so France will need one of its misfiring forwards to hit form in their World Cup qualifier on Friday.
Karim Benzema has not scored in his past 10 matches for France while Olivier Giroud has scored only twice in 15 appearances for the national team.
France coach Didier Deschamps may drop his preferred 4-2-3-1 system and pair them together for only the second time during his tenure in a more aggressive 4-4-2 against a Georgia team which held out until the 86th minute before losing 1-0 at home to Spain last September.
Attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena hopes that playing Giroud and Benzema together will offer more options against a team looking to stifle France's creativity from the outset.
"You have to give them time together and they are capable of doing well. Their role will be crucial against a Georgia team which is likely to sit deep," Valbuena said Wednesday. "They're a difficult team to maneuver and they will come here to defend in numbers. We saw that Spain had problems against them so we'll have to be patient."
Playing both Benzema and Giroud together means only one of them will play through the middle, forcing the other to push wide. Benzema has played in the wider role before, although he still remains France's best finisher despite his current slump.
"Olivier can hold the ball up back to goal and Karim is there to finish moves off, so they can do some great things together. I hope they show all of their qualities on Friday," Valbuena said. "Karim is a goal scorer. He's scoring a bit less at the moment but he remains a great player."
Giroud or Benzema have not been guaranteed starters for their respective clubs this season.
Benzema has faced stern competition at Real Madrid from Gonzalo Higuain, while Giroud has sometimes sat on the Arsenal bench when manager Arsene Wenger has preferred Theo Walcott at center forward.
Giroud, who has scored nine league goals so far with the Gunners, considers himself behind Benzema.
"Karim remains the No. 1. What's important is for the team to remain competitive," Giroud said. "People are trying to play us off against each other at the moment, but that's part of the game, it doesn't affect us."
However, Giroud has made it clear that he does not fancy the wider role if they both get selected against Georgia.
"For me it's a bit difficult and Karim prefers playing center forward," he said. "But in a match where we have to score goals then why not pair us together?"
Benzema remains the highest scorer in France's squad with 15 goals in 55 international appearances — which is pretty meager for a striker of his stature, considering also that he scored 21 league goals for Madrid last season.
The next highest scorer is winger Franck Ribery — 11 in 71 — and behind them no players have more than four international goals. A far cry from the days when Thierry Henry, France's all-time leading scorer with 51, led the attack.
"I think I need to score more goals," said Valbuena, who has scored four times for France. "I'm setting up quite a few but I have to improve on my scoring."
France has even more reason to rediscover its scoring touch because it will face reigning European and world champion Spain four days later. They are level with seven points, but Spain tops Group I on goal difference.
However, France took a lot of credit from a gutsy 1-1 draw at Spain in October, with Giroud heading a last-gasp equalizer.
"We caused them problems over there and that made us very proud, because the Spanish team has been the best for a number of years," Valbuena said. "But it won't be the same for the return match, they will be concentrating much more."
-- Jerome Pugmire
Ivory Coast coach drops Drogba for World Cup qualifier
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Didier Drogba was dropped for Ivory Coast's World Cup qualifier against Gambia because he "needs to work hard to get back to his best," coach Sabri Lamouchi said Wednesday.
Drogba, who turned 35 this month, will not play in the Ivorians' first game since a disappointing quarterfinal exit for the favorites at the recent African Cup of Nations, which was seen as the striker's last chance at a major trophy with his country.
Lamouchi told The Associated Press that he didn't pick Drogba for Saturday's game because of concerns over the Galatasaray striker's fitness and form after his moves from Chelsea to China and then to Turkey. The Ivorian team also needed a change of mindset after a string of failures in Africa despite being the continent's top-ranked team, the French coach said.
Drogba would have a place when he returned to form, Lamouchi said, but the striker is undoubtedly reaching the end of his time with his national team.
"Didier Drogba needs to work hard to get back to his best," Lamouchi said. "He needs to work to become the Drogba you knew before. That's why he's not among those I called for the match against Gambia."
Ivory Coast leads its World Cup qualifying group but also has to start planning for Drogba's retirement. Lamouchi picked four home-based players in his squad for the Gambia qualifier while leaving Drogba out.
The Ivorians — blessed with talent like Drogba, Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo and forward Gervinho — lost to eventual champion Nigeria at the African Cup in South Africa to continue a depressing run at the tournament.
They have lost in two finals, a semifinal and two quarterfinals in the last five tournaments and have failed to add to a lone title in 1992.
"With this team I want more than respect, I want titles," said Lamouchi, whose own place as coach came in doubt after the loss to Nigeria in South Africa.
Lamouchi said the four home players were a "strong signal" that the team was now open to local talent — although three of the four are backup goalkeepers and may not see playing time.
"They only have to work hard to have the opportunity to play on the national team," the coach said.
Ivory Coast is currently unbeaten in African World Cup qualifying Group C and is the heavy favorite against Gambia, which is bottom of the group.
Five African teams will qualify for next year's World Cup in Brazil, which may be an international farewell for Drogba, who will be nearly 37 when the next African Cup comes round.
-- Robbie Corey-Boulet
Platini answers Blatter barb over Euro 2020 plan
NYON, Switzerland (AP) — Michel Platini has answered FIFA President Sepp Blatter's barbs over UEFA's plan to host the 2020 European Championship in 13 countries.
Blatter used an interview with German sports magazine Kicker last week to suggest the multinational project "lacks soul and heart" — seeming to be sparring ahead of the 2015 FIFA presidential election.
Platini responds in Kicker's edition being published on Thursday that the "innovative and visionary" hosting idea was agreed to by every UEFA member except Turkey.
"An attack on Euro 2020 may well be aimed at the UEFA president, but in fact, it is really an attack on 52 out of 53 European football associations," Platini said.
Platini insists he has good relations with Blatter, who has been a long-time ally since they worked together helping to organize the 1998 World Cup in France.
"I respect everyone's opinion, including, of course, that of Mr. Blatter, with whom — contrary to what I have read in some places — I get on perfectly well," Platini is quoted saying in Kicker.
Still, Blatter has voiced opposite opinions to Platini recently on several subjects, including goal-line technology, a Russian-Ukrainian league proposal, and whether Qatar could share the 2022 World Cup with Gulf neighbors.
Platini has long been seen as favorite to succeed Blatter, who promised at his 2011 re-election that he would step aside when his fourth four-year mandate ends.
The FIFA president has increasingly dropped hints that he wants to stay on in 2015, when he would be 79.
The two will sit round the executive committee table on Thursday to discuss suggested reforms of FIFA.
UEFA wants an age limit of 72 for candidates seeking election or appointment to FIFA positions, though it has faced criticism from an expert advisory panel that it imposed a unanimous declaration on all 53 members and is blocking key reforms on issues such as term limits and checking candidates for integrity.
"It is ridiculous to accuse the European associations of being conservative, because they themselves started this reform process and have also made numerous additional reform proposals," Platini told Kicker.
"For example, they want people who have been convicted of corruption to be ineligible to stand at FIFA elections, and want better control and transparency of the in-flow and out-flow of financial payments."
Beckham arrives in China as soccer ambassador
BEIJING (AP) — David Beckham arrived in China on Tuesday to help develop young soccer players.
The former England captain said he isn't concerned about the match-fixing scandals in China, where several players and officials were sentenced to prison.
"I'm not here to clean up anything. I'm here to educate the children and give them a chance to become professional footballers," said Beckham during his first appearance as ambassador at a Beijing primary school.
Beckham, who left the Los Angeles Galaxy in December, said he hasn't ruled out playing professionally in China one day.
"Who knows? People keep saying that it will be my last club, it will be my last season," said the 37-year-old midfielder, now with Paris Saint-Germain. "I continue to play and I love playing, so we'll see."
Beckham is scheduled to play an exhibition game in China in November, five months after his contract with PSG expires. If he opts to retire, the match could mark the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star's swansong before he switches focus to his career off the field.
Developing a youth program is considered a priority for the CSL, with a mere 8,000 players of all ages registered at local associations in a nation of 1.3 billion people.
Beckham indicated he would take a strong interest in inspiring and training talented young players who might one day represent their nation internationally.
"I think it's important that we get a process in hand," he said.
A weak youth system, along with rampant corruption, has been blamed in part for the Chinese national team's poor international results. The country has only played once at the World Cup in 2002.
Boateng testifies in Pro Patria fans' racism trial
BUSTO ARSIZIO, Italy (AP) — Kevin-Prince Boateng and AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri are testifying in the racism trial against six fans of lower division club Pro Patria.
After repeated racist chants were directed his way during an exhibition game in January, Boateng kicked the ball in anger at a section of the crowd, took off his shirt and walked off the field with his Milan teammates.
The fans face charges of inciting racial hatred.
Milan players Urby Emanuelson, Sulley Muntari and M'Baye Niang were also targeted by the chants.
Milan defender Daniele Bonera was also testifying Wednesday.
Celta striker Aspas suspended for four games
MADRID, Spain (AP) — Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas has been suspended for four games for head-butting defender Carlos Marchena during a 3-1 loss at Deportivo La Coruna last Friday.
Aspas was sent off with a direct red card for striking the prone Marchena in the first half after they collided in the area.
Aspas is Celta's leading scorer with 10 goals this season.
Celta was promoted to Spain's first division at the end of last season.
It is in second-to-last place and three points from safety with 10 rounds to go.
Italy forward Rossi begins training at Fiorentina
FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Italy forward Giuseppe Rossi has started training with his new club Fiorentina after a long injury layoff.
The U.S.-born forward arrived in Florence on Tuesday and did two gym sessions on Wednesday.
Rossi had been recuperating at home in New Jersey after 16 months out and three operations since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Real Madrid in October 2011.
Rossi will remain with Fiorentina for the next two weeks then fly to Colorado for a checkup with physician Richard Steadman, from whom he hopes to gain clearance to start playing again.
Rossi signed a 4 1/2-year deal with Fiorentina in January after transferring from Villarreal. He was a regular starter for Italy before his injury.
Madrid goalkeeper Casillas returns to practice
MADRID (AP) — Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas has returned to practice for the first time since breaking his left hand nearly two months ago.
Casillas, who was injured on Jan. 24, will be back in time for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Galatasaray in two weeks.
Casillas will likely have to compete with newcomer Diego Lopez, who was brought in from Sevilla after Casillas broke his hand in a Copa del Rey game against Valencia.
Madrid is 13 points behind Barcelona in the Spanish league, but it is also set to play in the Copa del Rey final against Atletico Madrid on May 17.
Wolfsburg former captain Josue returns to Brazil
WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Wolfsburg midfielder Josue is returning to his Brazil homeland.
The Bundesliga club says it released the 33-year-old Josue from his contract so he could join Atletico Mineiro with immediate effect.
Josue was the captain of the Wolfsburg team that surprisingly won the Bundesliga title in 2009. He played 164 Bundesliga matches and scored two goals.
The Brazilian says he is "sorry to leave Wolfsburg now, but this transfer is a great challenge for me that I want to take."
Italy plane struck by lightning; no damage
GENEVA (AP) — As if facing Brazil wasn't enough stimulation, Italy has been thrown into shock with the team plane struck by lightning.
No damage was caused but players and staff were jolted by the scare on Wednesday following the charter flight from Florence, Italy, to Geneva, the site of Thursday's friendly.
Flight personnel moved quickly to spread calm, saying that it was lightning but there was never any danger.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli says "it certainly wasn't pleasant, and I challenge anyone to say 'I wasn't afraid.' It's happened to me before but never this strongly."