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MOSCOW: Gianni Infantino had a message for all present at the CSKA Moscow football stadium for the FIFA Delegation tournament. Shift the focus back to the game.

The build-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been dominated by the hosting battle for the 2026 edition with both the united bid of US, Canada and Mexico and the Morocco bid campaigning intensively for the vote on Wednesday along with the issues in Russia as it prepares to host football showpiece tournament.

But two days before the tournament kicks off, FIFA president Infantino — himself facing mounting pressure and criticism over the last few months for his proposed plans of expanding the Club World Cup and holding a Global Nations League backed by a consortium — sought to go back to the field.

“Have fun, start celebrating and enjoying football from now till July 15 [day of the World Cup final],” Infantino said on the loudspeaker before kicking it around with football legends including Cafu, Luis Figo and Clarence Seedorf.

This was a friendly tournament with eight teams — one from Russia and FIFA and one each from the six continental confederations.

The African Confederation (CAF) won the tournament and playing for them was Senegalese legend El Hadji Diouf, who is the ambassador for the Morocco bid.

Afterwards, he was hoping for Africa to winon Wednesday too.

“I feel good,” he told Dawn when asked how Morocco will sway votes from FIFA’s 211 member associations in the vote at the FIFA Congress. “I have a good sensation. Tomorrow could be a good day for all Africans.”

‘MANE THE MAIN MAN’

Speaking about his country’s chances at the World Cup, Diouf said their hopes rest with Liverpool star Sadio Mane doing well at the World Cup.

“He is the key for us,” the former Liverpool striker said. “He’s a good player but now he has to show he’s a world class player. Big players perform in the biggest games and he needs to do that.”

On the overall team he added: “We have good players but they have to show that they belong here at the World Cup. They need to show concentration and not do anything crazy.”

With former Egyptian star striker Ahmed Mido also present at the mini-tournament, talk shifted to Liverpool’s biggest star at the moment — Mohammed Salah.

“It’s a great moment for Egyptian football that a player from the country is being talked amongst the best players in the world,” Mido, who played for Tottenham Hotspur during his career, told reporters.

Salah suffered a shoulder injury playing for Liverpool in the Champions league final against Real Madrid and it seemed to have hit Egypt’s chances at their first World Cup in 28 years.

He arrived in Russia optimistic he would take part in Egypt’s opening game against Uruguay and Mido was hopeful too.

“He might not start the game but could come on as a second-half substitute.”

While Salah and Mane enter the World Cup after a stellar season with Live­­rpool, it wasn’t the case for their Manchester United counterpart Paul Pogba.

Although United finished second in the Premier League, two places higher than Liverpool, it was a season where they and Pogba performed below expectations.

‘STAGE SET FOR POGBA’

Former France international Mikael Silvestre believes Pogba will rise to the challenge at the World Cup.

“One thing for sure is that if he has a point to prove to the world, this is the best stage to do it,” former United centreback Silvestre told Dawn when asked how Pogba would rebound after a season in which he struggled to show his true class.

“I hope he delivers what he does because he’s capable of making a difference during any moment of the game.”

France coach Didier Deshamps has asked his team to be explosive and while he will need Pogba to fire for that, he also has to sort out which players to play in his front three.

“For the balance of the team it would be too much to put Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele alongside Antoine Griezmann,” Silvestre said.

“France might end up playing some games with those three on the pitch at some time. But I think Olivier Giroud will be a starter. A lot will also depend on the situation.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Deschamps to rotate players and change his plans during the games because we have so many good options and great talents. Thomas Lemar as well can play in the front three.”

‘SERBIA IN WITH A CHANCE’

While France are amongst one of the leading favourites at the World Cup, Serbia are one of the darkhorses for the title.

Former Serbian international Dejan Stankovic believes there is an opportunity for his country in Russia.

“If we pass the group, we have an opportunity with the young and talented players in the team,” the former Inter Milan midfielder told Dawn.

But Serbia have been paired in a difficult group alongside Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica.

“It’s very important we play well in the opener against Costa Rica and take all three points. Switzerland is a tough game. It’s a 50-50 but we need to do well and try to win it so that when we face Brazil [in the final group game], our chances of progressing don’t hinge on it.”

Stankovic, though, was confident Serbia have the players that can help them.

“Nemanja Matic is one of the senators, the leader of he team alongside Aleksandr Kolarov,” he said. “But Sergei Milenkovic-Savic and Aleksandr Mitrovic are exciting talents and I’m hopeful they will do well.”

Most reporters, including Dawn, had come to the legends game hoping Infantino would speak afterwards. Instead the FIFA president slinked away, leaving former footballers to do the talking and ensuring, for a little while at least, that the focus is back on the game.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2018