Florentino Perez, Real Madrid boss and building magnate

Florentino Perez is a household name in Spain, best known as the boss of the Real Madrid football club that is on its way to the Champions League final for the second year running.But lesser known — at least abroad — is his other hat as president of …

Florentino Perez is a household name in Spain, best known as the boss of the Real Madrid football club that is on its way to the Champions League final for the second year running.

But lesser known -- at least abroad -- is his other hat as president of ACS, one of the world's biggest private construction groups, and a past in politics that make him one of the most influential men in Spain.

Serious and impeccably mannered, the 70-year-old who has just relinquished his position as CEO -- but remains president -- built ACS up from a struggling company to a multinational with 176,000 employees and turnover of 32 billion euros ($35 billion) last year.

The group has over the years won contracts for underground networks in New York, London and Ottawa and a new highway in Australia -- among others.

Simultaneously, Perez has presided over Real Madrid twice -- first between 2000 and 2006 -- and then since 2009.

Both spells have been marked by blockbuster signings and more recently by picking French football star Zinedine Zidane as coach -- a move he told AFP in an interview last year "changed our lives" after a difficult patch.

Under Zidane, Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2016 and is well on its way to the final this year.

At the VIP boxes of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, political and business elites often gather, reportedly sealing deals -- "a cliche," Perez once retorted in a television interview.

- Short-lived political career -

According to a 2016 Forbes ranking, Perez is one of the richest people in Spain, worth $1.8 billion (1.6 billion euros).

But the man whose father owned two perfume shops claims not to be attached to money, espousing "normality" and "work" as his values.

The engineering graduate from Madrid's Polytechnic University nevertheless quickly acquired a taste for power.

After a short spell in the private sector, he entered politics in 1976, working variously in Madrid's city hall and as head of infrastructure in the transport ministry.

He was also appointed secretary-general of the short-lived centrist Democratic Reformist Party, but he quit politics in 1986 when the grouping failed to get any lawmakers in general elections.

By then, he had already bought along with friends a struggling construction firm at a low price.

A series of mergers and acquisitions later, ACS was born -- a group that now deals in construction and services like the maintenance of high-power lines.

- Government support -

"He's not really a great entrepreneur nor a great financial expert, but a great public relations agent," said Carlos Sanchez, an economics journalist at the El Confidencial online daily.

This flair for public relations helped him reap benefits from public-private collaborations, with ACS often awarded contracts when authorities decided to privatise services like rubbish collection or radio-television transmitters.

"You needed really good contacts with political leaders and he had them," Sanchez says.

One of his most famous "coups" was in 2001.

Then president of Real Madrid, he sold the club's training grounds to the city for 480 million euros, and ACS was then awarded a contract to build three high-rises there.

Sanchez says ACS also long profited from EU funding to Spain's construction sector.

During an ongoing trial for corruption involving former members of the ruling Popular Party, one of the main defendants said ACS was among the companies that paid bribes in exchange for public contracts.

But Perez has repeatedly said that his "highly competitive" company does not need to pay anything to get contracts.

A Spanish stock market analyst who prefers to remain anonymous said Perez always seems to have government support.

"His investments are generally guaranteed in one way or another," he said.

So for instance in 2014, the government paid a consortium that included ACS more than a billion euros in compensation for having to abandon the operation of an underwater gas storage facility it built that risked triggering earthquakes.

The analyst said that his colleagues don't dare criticise a company presided over by "a very powerful person in the country."

But he acknowledged that ACS has performed well, moving "really well and quickly when the construction sector stagnated in Spain to develop outside the country."

Ovechkin and Co. beat Penguins to stay alive in NHL playoffs

Alex Ovechkin answered his critics as the Washington Capitals scored two third period goals just 27 seconds apart to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in game five of their NHL playoff series on Saturday.Ovechkin and fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov scor…

Alex Ovechkin answered his critics as the Washington Capitals scored two third period goals just 27 seconds apart to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in game five of their NHL playoff series on Saturday.

Ovechkin and fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov scored back to back to cap a three goal third period rally and cut the Penguins lead in the Eastern Conference second round series to 3-2.

"I knew we were going to come through sooner or later," said Capitals' goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 20 saves. "We are sick of talk and we want to prove we can get it done. We have got to take that mindset into game six."

The Penguins will try again to close out the series when it shifts back to Pittsburgh for game six on Monday night.

Andre Burakovsky and Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom also scored for the Capitals, who had been outscored in the series despite peppering Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with more shots.

Fleury stopped 28 shots on Saturday for Pittsburgh who got goals from Carl Hagelin, of Sweden, and American Phil Kessel.

The game marked the return of Penguin superstar Sidney Crosby who suffered the fourth concussion of his career when he was crosschecked in the head by Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen.

Crosby took a regular shift, played on special teams and finished with one assist.

Questions also surrounded Ovechkin heading into game five as the Russian dynamo struggled in game four and was looking at reduced ice time if he was unable to turn his fortunes around.

Ovechkin responded with a superb individual effort to score the Capitals' fourth goal at 7:47 of the third to round out the scoring. He goal came just 27 seconds after Kuznetsov scored to make it 3-2 and give the Capitals their first lead of the contest.

Ovechkin cut across the top of the left faceoff circle and his initial shot was blocked by Ron Hainsey. Ovechkin collected the loose puck and then beat Canada's Fleury high to the glove side.

Ovechkin now has two goals and five points in the series.

The Penguins pulled their goalie for the extra attacker with over two minutes remaining in the third but were unable to get even one past Holtby.

Elsewhere, Kyle Turris scored at 6:28 of overtime to give the Ottawa Senators a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over New York Rangers and a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference second round series.

Near all-male panel in South Korea’s presidential race

When Park Geun-Hye was elected South Korea’s first female president five years ago she secured the largest-ever vote share of the country’s democratic era. But after her term ended in impeachment and disgrace only one of the 13 candidates to succeed he…

When Park Geun-Hye was elected South Korea's first female president five years ago she secured the largest-ever vote share of the country's democratic era. But after her term ended in impeachment and disgrace only one of the 13 candidates to succeed her is a woman.

Analysts say the near all-male panel -- epitomised by rows of campaign posters dominated by middle-aged men in dark suits -- demonstrates the enduringly patriarchal nature of Korean society.

The only exception is Sim Sang-Jeung, a former labour activist who is the leftwing Justice Party's candidate.

Park -- the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-Hee -- was ousted from power in March over a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal centred on a secret female confidante that prompted millions to take to the streets calling for her ouster.

She is now detained and awaiting trial for charges including abuse of power and bribery, and the public outrage unleashed a storm of sexist remarks online such as: "Don't even dream about having a female president for the next 100 years."

Sim condemns what she calls a sexual double standard, saying no one took issue with the gender of two previous presidents -- both men -- who were imprisoned in the 1990s for their part in crushing the Gwangju Uprising against the military-backed dictatorship.

"We had two other ex-presidents jailed for slaughtering countless citizens who were protesting against army rule. But not a single person said, 'No more male presidents'," she said in a campaign speech.

Park is a conservative who did little for women's rights while in office, and female politicians struggling with the glass ceiling say her humiliating downfall has done nothing to help.

"I've seen recently many male voters, or even male politicians, saying, 'This is why women should never be in politics'," said Han Jeoung-Ae, a two-term lawmaker with the centre-left Democratic Party.

"We have no shortage of male politicians brought down by corruption and other crimes, but no one ever frames it as the failure of entire male politicians like they do over women," she told AFP.

- Glass ceiling -

Female politicians are still a relative rarity in the South, accounting for only 17 percent of parliamentary representatives, ranking it 30th among the 35 advanced nations of the OECD.

That is an advance on the six percent of 2000, but it is still "extremely hard" for female politicians to secure electoral nominations, said Nam In-Soon, a Democratic lawmaker, who is pushing for parties to be legally obliged to select women as at least 30 percent of their candidates.

"We have made some progress over the years, but most internal networking within a political party's leadership is still based on the good old boys' club," she told AFP. "We still have this hard, thick glass ceiling all over our head."

Park herself rose to power largely due to the popularity of her father, who remains widely revered by older voters who benefited from rapid growth under his 1961-79 iron-fisted rule.

South Korea remains a deeply conservative society in many respects and, along with Japan, is seen as one of the worst places for working women among economically advanced nations.

The two Asian neighbours were this year ranked at the bottom of the Economist's "Glass Ceiling index", which measures gender equality at work among 29 advanced nations.

- 'Superwoman Prevention' -

Sim has no chance of victory at the ballot box, with South Korea's leading pollsters both putting her in fourth place in the final surveys of the campaign, on 7.3 percent according to Realmeter and eight percent for Gallup Korea, far behind Democratic Party front-runner Moon Jae-In.

But the 58-year-old scored well in debates and was the most vocal critic of Hong Joon-Pyo, the candidate of Park's conservative Liberty Korea Party, who is known as "Korea's Trump" for his outspoken rhetoric and sexist remarks and has been polling third.

Hong, 62, drew fire for saying "washing dishes is women's work" in an interview, and for bragging in his memoir about helping a college friend with an attempted date rape by drugging a woman.

Sim targeted him repeatedly during a television debate until he forced out an apology.

Sim is pushing for measures to help working mothers faced with the double burdens of employment and household duties, dubbed "Superwoman Prevention Laws", and rules to make half the cabinet women.

"The current reality faced by female politicians still looks bleak," said Lee Jin-Ock, head of Korea Women's Politics Solidarity think tank.

But Sim offers a ray of hope as a "new female leader who climbs the political ladder on her own terms", she told AFP, "unlike Park who symbolises the patriarchal, patronage politics of the past".

Merkel challengers fight to hang on in north Germany

Voters in northern Germany go to the polls Sunday, in a regional election being scrutinised over the centre-left’s chances of unseating conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.The vote in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, com…

Voters in northern Germany go to the polls Sunday, in a regional election being scrutinised over the centre-left's chances of unseating conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.

The vote in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's northernmost state, comes as a recent surge in nationwide polls for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) since new leader Martin Schulz was crowned in February has faded.

Supporters are increasingly fearful that the momentum imparted by their new leader will not carry them into the chancellery, which Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have held against all comers since 2005.

As at the national level, neither the SPD nor the CDU are expected to achieve an absolute majority in the regional parliament in the state capital, the Baltic Sea port city of Kiel.

But if the CDU emerges leading a governing coalition, it will be a further blow to left-wingers' confidence -- one week ahead of yet another knife-edge regional vote in SPD stronghold North Rhine-Westphalia.

"For Angela Merkel, an election victory for her party would be a turning point," commented conservative daily Die Welt.

"For the first time since the beginning of her chancellorship in 2005, the CDU could reconquer one of the states they've lost."

A recent survey of around 1,800 people for public broadcaster ZDF showed the CDU with 32 percent support in Schleswig-Holstein and the SPD with 29.

The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), in the midst of a comeback attempt after humiliation at national elections in 2013, appears on the way up, while the ecologist Greens have fallen back.

One key unknown is whether the Germany-wide collapse in support for anti-euro, anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (AfD) after a vicious internal falling-out between moderates and hardliners will be reflected in upcoming state election results.

Polls show the AfD uncertain of passing the five-percent threshold to enter parliaments in both Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia -- whereas at the end of last year it was the third-most-popular party nationwide.

But if the AfD or the far-left party Die Linke enter the legislatures, this could make for an upset in larger players' coalition calculus.

- Wind and fury -

Beyond its significance as the last-but-one regional election before September, there are plenty of local peculiarities in Sunday's vote.

Popular SPD state premier Torsten Albig, 53, has led a coalition of SPD, Greens, and local Danish minority party SSW since 2012.

He squares off against CDU challenger Daniel Guenther, who is 10 years younger and an energetic opposition leader at the regional parliament.

The centre-right group there has sparked debate across Germany in recent years with populist proposals like requiring pork to be served in school canteens -- a nod to voters fearful of Islam's influence on public life.

This year's campaign has seen battles over education, policing and roads, a top concern in a state with a population of 2.8 million thinly spread across almost 16,000 square kilometres.

Another battleground is wind farm construction near residential areas -- no small matter in a windy coastal region whose turbines are a key element in Germany's "energy transition" away from nuclear and fossil fuels.

- Uphill battle -

Both major parties have been sending their heaviest hitters to Schleswig-Holstein in recent days, with Schulz making appearances in Kiel and Luebeck Thursday.

But his interventions have done little to counteract criticism that the former president of the European Parliament has been surfing a wave of euphoria -- and profiting from his own relative newness in German national politics -- rather than offering concrete attacks against Merkel and the right.

In private, high-ranking SPD leaders downplay the importance of the regional elections as indicators for September's federal ballot, arguing that the party still has plenty of internal rebuilding to do as it readies itself for the decisive campaign.

They have an uphill battle ahead to defeat Merkel, a leader so popular that one CDU election poster in 2013 simply showed the chancellor's fingers clasped in their habitual diamond shape alongside the slogan "Germany's Future In Good Hands".

Polling stations will open from 0800 to 1800 local time (0600 to 1600 GMT) Sunday, with results expected shortly after voting ends.

Sonny Bill joins All Blacks injury concerns

Sonny Bill Williams has become the latest addition to the All Blacks injury concerns, suffering possible concussion in the Auckland Blues’ Super Rugby win over the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.Captain Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles head…

Sonny Bill Williams has become the latest addition to the All Blacks injury concerns, suffering possible concussion in the Auckland Blues' Super Rugby win over the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.

Captain Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles head a list of senior players already in a race against time to be match fit before the British and Irish Lions arrive next month.

Double World Cup winning centre Williams left the field for a head injury assessment just before half-time and never returned.

Coach Tana Umaga told the New Zealand Herald he could not confirm the result of the assessment but Williams displayed concussion "symptoms".

Williams was injured when team mate and prop Pauliasi Manu landed on him and Umaga said the team doctor advised he was not fit to return to the game.

"It will be a wait and see how he responds," Umaga said.

"It's just how he pulls up today, how he pulls up tomorrow. He was still having symptoms after the game.

"What's happened with concussion in the past ... sometimes people respond well and can play next week and sometimes they don't."

Williams's injury comes as Charlie Ngatai returned to the Waikato Chiefs after a year sidelined by concussion.

He scored a crucial try in the Chiefs win over the Queensland Reds to join a logjam of fit centres with Test experience.

Also vying for a midfield slot against the Lions are Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Anton Leinert-Brown, George Moala and Seta Tamanivalu.

Zcash, the virtual money making its mark

Zcash, the latest virtual currency, has been a smash success since its launch seven months ago, drawing in new users with promises of unrivaled privacy protection.But the new virtual money could face a tough battle integrating into the wider financial …

Zcash, the latest virtual currency, has been a smash success since its launch seven months ago, drawing in new users with promises of unrivaled privacy protection.

But the new virtual money could face a tough battle integrating into the wider financial system.

After debuting on currency trading platforms in October, Zcash took off, hitting an exchange rate of $1,000 per unit, putting it in league with the much better established Bitcoin, the virtual currency pioneer created in 2009.

While its value has since come down to earth, Zcash is attracting the interest of Russian, Chinese, Venezuelan and, as of May 4, South African consumers.

Brazilians now use Zcash to pay taxes and electricity bills and make purchases.

To make its mark in the world of virtual currencies, Zcash boasts that it protects user privacy.

But because of that guarantee it does not offer the transparency demanded by authorities who want to prevent these new tender from being used in money laundering, financing terrorism, evading taxes or fraud.

- Untraceable transactions -

Zcash was developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel. Only five of the six people who developed the cryptography have been publicly identified.

It is based on a technology dubbed zk-Snark, which allows untraceable transactions. The resulting data are encrypted but users are free to identify themselves.

Other cryptocurrencies such as Dash and Monero offer a level of privacy, but Zcash goes further, even obscuring the origin of a payment.

This is the opposite of Bitcoin, which uses blockchain technology that publicly records transaction details including the unique alphanumeric strings that identify buyers and sellers.

"You don't expose all of your communications or all of your transactions to random people on the internet you barely know," said Zooko Wilcox, CEO of Zerocoin Electric Coin Company, which manages Zcash.

Virtual currencies are produced, or "mined," by banks of computers solving complex algorythms, an operation that can be expensive.

Wilcox told AFP he hoped the expanded privacy protection could overcome businesses' reluctance to adopt Zcash as a trustworthy alternative to traditional state-controlled currencies.

But Jonathan Levin, co-founder of Chainalysis, a start-up that helps banks and authorities trace the origins and destinations of virtual currency payments, doubts Zcash will find its place in the wider financial system.

"It is hard for existing financial institutions to integrate these types of crypto currencies as information on the origin of funds is very hard to ascertain," he said.

Financial institutions began to take an interest in Bitcoin, and in particular in its blockchain technology, once the darknet marketplace known as Silk Road was closed in 2013.

Silk Road facilitated Bitcoin transactions but was also platform for the sale of illegal drugs.

"Nobody has ever used Zcash for any kind of crime as far as anyone knows," Wilcox said, while conceding that "all technologies can be misused."

- Hacking threat -

Wilcox said he gave a presentation on Zcash to Canadian and US authorities in November and their attitude was "very pragmatic."

Virtual currencies are not regulated by any central bank. In the United States, trading is authorized by individual states which issues license to exchanges, and so far there is no regulation at the federal level.

Unlike central bank-issued demoninations, virtual currencies can be "mined" by anyone with sophisticated software skills to gather up the code.

Nevertheless, despite Zcash's efforts to protect users, the currency itself may be vulnerable to hacking or counterfeiting. In a June attack, hackers reportedly made off with 3.6 million units of the cryptocurrency with a value of $50 million.

Cryptography consultant Peter Todd said in a November blog that Zcash's encryption could be weak, allowing hackers to crack the code.

"The threat here is that an attacker may be able to create fake zk-Snark proofs by breaking the crypto directly, even without having access to the trusted setup backdoor," he wrote.

Wilcox said Zerocoin Electric was alert to such risks and pays hackers to test the currency's security.

In total, Zerocoin Electric expects a maximum of 21 million Zcash units will be mined, or produced, of which 10 percent will go to Zcash Electric shareholders, including founders, employees and investors.

Macron, Le Pen: clashing visions for France’s future

The two candidates vying to win France’s presidency in the decisive run-off vote on Sunday could scarcely have more different visions of the nation and its place in the world.Centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old former investment banke…

The two candidates vying to win France's presidency in the decisive run-off vote on Sunday could scarcely have more different visions of the nation and its place in the world.

Centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old former investment banker who embraces globalisation and the European Union.

His far-right rival Marine Le Pen, the scion of the family who founded the anti-immigration National Front (FN) party, champions France-first nationalism and proposes withdrawing from the eurozone.

"I am the candidate of the people of France such as we love it, of the nation that protects jobs, security, our borders," 48-year-old Le Pen said in a brutal face-to-face TV debate that encapsulated the candidates' differences.

Macron had a starkly different message: "France is not a closed country. I am for a strong France, in an EU that offers it protection," he said.

His rise has been meteoric. He had never before stood for election but is now on the cusp of becoming France's youngest-ever president.

Despite his lack of political experience, polls currently suggest he should beat Le Pen by around 20 percentage points.

- Sensed a gap -

President Francois Hollande launched Macron's political career, picking the Rothschild banker as an economic advisor and then parachuting him into his Socialist government as economy minister.

Sensing a worldwide shift away from established parties, Macron quit the cabinet last August to concentrate on building his own centrist political movement "En Marche" (On the Move).

He has since attracted over 250,000 members and confounded early critics who said his appeal did not stretch beyond young, urban professionals.

Macron has also flouted convention in his personal life.

From a middle-class family in Amiens, northeast France, he fell for his drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, while he was at secondary school.

A 64-year-old mother-of-three, a quarter of a century older than Macron, she left her husband and married him in 2007.

The unshakeable confidence with which Macron pursued his future wife has been evident throughout his career.

But it nearly tripped him up after he finished first in the first round of the election, when he gave what many saw as an overly triumphant speech and then threw a party at a Paris bistro.

Opponents and allies alike were quick to remind him that victory over Le Pen was not assured, and he threw himself into campaigning.

A potentially crucial moment came on April 26, when he was at risk of being upstaged by Le Pen at an under-threat Whirlpool dryer factory in Amiens.

After she made a lightning visit, he was forced to go too, plunging into a scrum of workers who initially booed him before he engaged with them for more than an hour.

In an 11th-hour twist to a campaign marked by drama, Macron's team said it was hit by a "massive" hacking attack after a flood of thousands of internal documents were released online late Friday.

- In her blood -

Unlike Macron, Le Pen had a front-row seat on the world of hard-edged politics from an early age.

Her pugnacious father Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, but was soundly beaten by the centre-right Jacques Chirac.

Fifteen years later, his gravel-voiced daughter believes she can become France's first woman president, and the first from the party that her father founded.

She has campaigned on the same nationalist and protectionist themes that carried Donald Trump to the White House and drove Britain's vote to leave the EU.

But in a bruising TV debate between the two rounds, her strategy of all-out attack on Macron appeared to backfire, as polls suggested viewers found him more convincing.

She goes into the run-off with several investigations hanging over the FN and her entourage for alleged funding scandals.

Le Pen has performed better than during the last presidential election in 2012, when she finished third with just under 18 percent. This time she scored more than 21 percent in the first round.

She has worked assiduously to try to rid the FN of its more extreme edge and make it a "party of patriots" -- and she kicked her father out after he repeatedly described Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history".

Now a twice-divorced mother of three, she guards her private life carefully.

She appears rarely as a couple with her current partner, the FN's vice-president Louis Aliot.

Le Pen developed her flair for sharp putdowns as a state-appointed lawyer defending illegal immigrants facing deportation.

Despite that experience she blames migration -- and the European Union -- for France's economic woes.

Macron, Le Pen face off as France elects president

French voters will pick a new president on Sunday, choosing between young centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a watershed election for the country and Europe.Polling day follows an unprecedented campaign marked by scandal, re…

French voters will pick a new president on Sunday, choosing between young centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a watershed election for the country and Europe.

Polling day follows an unprecedented campaign marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron, a 39-year-old who has never held elected office.

The run-off vote pits the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron against anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen, two radically different visions that underline a split in western democracies.

Le Pen, 48, has portrayed the ballot as a contest between the "globalists" represented by her rival -- those in favour of open trade, immigration and shared sovereignty -- versus the "nationalists" who defend strong borders and national identities.

Voting will begin on the mainland at 0600 GMT in 66,546 polling stations. Most will close at 1700 GMT, except those in big cities which will stay open an hour longer.

A first estimate of the results will be published around 1800 GMT.

"The political choice the French people are going to make is clear," Le Pen said in her opening remarks during an often vicious debate between the pair on Wednesday night.

The last polling showed Macron -- winner of last month's election first round -- with a widening lead of around 62 percent to 38 percent before the hacking revelations on Friday evening. A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly after.

Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were dumped online and then spread by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at "democratic destabilisation."

France's election authority said publishing the documents could be a criminal offence, a warning heeded by traditional media organisations but flouted by Macron's opponents and far-right activists online.

"We knew that there were these risks during the presidential campaign because it happened elsewhere. Nothing will go without a response," French President Francois Hollande told AFP on Saturday.

- Winds of change -

US intelligence agencies believe state-backed Russian operatives were behind a massive hacking attack on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign ahead of America's presidential election last November.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the French hack, but the government and Macron's team previously accused the Kremlin of trying to meddle in the election -- accusations denied in Moscow.

Whoever wins Sunday's vote it is set to cause profound change for France, the world's sixth-biggest economy, a permanent member of the UN security council and a global military power.

It is the first time neither of the country's traditional parties has a candidate in the final round of the presidential election under the modern French republic, founded in 1958.

Macron would be France's youngest-ever leader and was a virtual unknown three years ago when he was named economy minister, the launching pad for his sensational presidential bid.

He left Hollande's Socialist government in August and formed En Marche, a political movement he says in neither of the left or the right and which has attracted 250,000 members.

The ex-investment banker's programme pledges to cut state spending, ease labour laws, boost education in deprived areas and extend new protections to the self-employed.

He is also fervently pro-European and wants to re-energise the 28-member European Union, following Britain's referendum vote last summer to leave.

"France is not a closed country. We are in Europe and in the world," Macron said during Wednesday's debate.

But Le Pen is hoping to spring a shock that would resonate as widely as Britain's decision to withdraw from the EU or the unexpected triumph of US President Donald Trump.

- First round winners -

National Front leader Le Pen sees herself as part of the same backlash against globalisation that has emerged as a powerful theme in the US and in recent ballots in Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.

She has pledged to organise a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU and wants to scrap the euro, which she has dubbed a "currency of bankers."

She has also vowed to reduce net immigration to 10,000 people a year, crack down on outsourcing by multinationals, lower the retirement age and introduce hardline measures to tackle Islamic extremists.

Many voters still see her party as anti-semitic and racist despite her six-year drive to improve its image.

Macron topped the first round of the presidential election on April 23 with 24.01 percent, followed by Le Pen on 21.30 percent, in a crowded field of 11 candidates.

The results revealed Macron was favoured among wealthier, better educated citizens in cities, while Le Pen drew support in the countryside as well as poverty-hit areas in the south and rustbelt northeast.

Voting for the run-off started for French voters in north America and some overseas territories on Saturday.

Konta shocked by Siegemund after midnight

British number one Johanna Konta was knocked out in the Madrid Open first round by Laura Siegemund in the early hours of Sunday morning in a match that finished after 2am (0000 GMT).With all six scheduled matches on the main Manolo Santana court going …

British number one Johanna Konta was knocked out in the Madrid Open first round by Laura Siegemund in the early hours of Sunday morning in a match that finished after 2am (0000 GMT).

With all six scheduled matches on the main Manolo Santana court going the full three sets, the on-form Siegemund, fresh from winning in Stuttgart last week, and sixth seed Konta didn't get on court until just before midnight.

Konta appeared to have handled the long wait better as she took the first set 6-3.

However, Siegemund battled back to take her winning streak to six matches, four of which have come against top 10 players, by taking the final two sets 7-5, 6-4.

Eugenie Bouchard set up a potential mouth-watering second-round clash with Maria Sharapova by registering her first win on the WTA Tour since January's Australian Open over France's Alize Cornet 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.

Bouchard called Sharapova "a cheater" last week and suggested the Russian should be banned for life after testing positive for meldonium.

Sharapova faces Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the first round on Sunday as the Russian continues her comeback from a 15-month ban.

"I hope I can play Maria," said Bouchard.

"Once I step on the court, everything will be to the side.

"But, you know, inside myself, I think I'll have a bit more motivation."

World number three Karolina Pliskova was the only seed in action on Saturday to survive and even the Czech was pushed hard by Lesia Tsurenko before winning 7-6 (7/5), 2-6, 6-2.

Ninth seed Madison Keys was beaten by Japan's Misaki Doi 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

And 12th seed Elena Vesnina's poor form since winning in Indian Wells in March continued with a straight sets 6-4, 6-4 defeat to Romanian Irina Begu.

FIFA gathers in Bahrain under a fresh cloud

Two years on from the corruption crisis which consumed FIFA, football’s governing body meets for its latest annual Congress in Bahrain this week still far from free of suspicion.It was May 2015 in Switzerland, as delegates prepared for that year’s Cong…

Two years on from the corruption crisis which consumed FIFA, football's governing body meets for its latest annual Congress in Bahrain this week still far from free of suspicion.

It was May 2015 in Switzerland, as delegates prepared for that year's Congress, when plain-clothes officers pounced and arrested scores of FIFA officials.

The ramifications of that are still being felt -- with ongoing investigations in the US and Switzerland -- and 24 months later fresh problems are emerging for the still relatively new leadership of president Gianni Infantino.

The run-up to this year's event in Manama, on May 11, has been overshadowed by the resignation from the FIFA council of powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, who is facing corruption allegations in the US.

Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad has been named as a co-conspirator of disgraced Guam football chief Richard Lai, who recently pleaded guilty to receiving nearly $1 million in bribes from football officials wanting his help to influence FIFA.

Sabah's prominence across sport cannot be underestimated, as he also heads the Association of National Olympic Committees, the Olympic Council of Asia and has other senior sport administration posts, including with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Issues on FIFA's agenda this week could also prove contentious.

Item 16 is a proposal to look at how FIFA allocates its most prestigious tournament, the World Cup.

Under current rules, the event cannot be staged in the same region more than once every 12 years.

However, any change to this policy could allow football's emerging power, China, to make a bid for the 2030 tournament, just eight years after its AFC colleague, Qatar, controversially hosts the 2022 World Cup.

Any such move is likely to be challenged by Argentina and Uruguay which wants to jointly host the tournament in 17 years' time to mark the centenary of the very first World Cup, played in Montevideo.

Another contentious issue is that of Israel and Palestine.

The Palestine Football Association argues that the presence of six Israeli clubs on its territory is in breach of FIFA statutes, which forbids another member association playing on another territory without permission.

Israel argues that FIFA rules are unenforceable as there is no permanent border.

- AFC finally votes -

But even before the FIFA Congress convenes, there could be controversy in Manama.BRN

On May 8, in the same venue, the AFC will hold its rescheduled congress to finally elect its FIFA Council members.

This vote has been delayed since last September when the AFC took just 27 minutes to abandon their extraordinary congress in Goa.

The meeting was abruptly cancelled after Saoud Al-Mohannadi, Qatar Football Association's vice-president, was stopped at the very last minute from standing for election for the FIFA council.

He was then banned from football for a year after being accused of not co-operating with a FIFA corruption enquiry.

However, last month, in a rare reversal, Mohannadi won his appeal against the ban handed down by a FIFA ethics committee.

This exoneration though was too late for him to apply to stand for the council again.

Mohannadi though has told AFP he will be in Bahrain and has been "examining" ways to run again for election.

Another item for the AFC to decide is whether or not to agree to Iraq's request to end the international ban on hosting football matches.

‘Mother’ is inappropriate word to describe bomb – Pope Francis

Preview Pope Francis has criticized the “the Mother of All Bombs” label attached to the biggest American non-nuclear explosive, saying that he was “ashamed” to find out that the word “mother” was used to describe a lethal weapon.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Pope Francis has criticized the “the Mother of All Bombs” label attached to the biggest American non-nuclear explosive, saying that he was “ashamed” to find out that the word “mother” was used to describe a lethal weapon.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Jaguares hit back to pip Sunwolves in Super Rugby try fest

Jaguares of Argentina snapped a four-match losing streak with a come-from-behind 46-39 victory over Sunwolves of Japan Saturday in a Super Rugby try fest. The hosts turned a 39-27 deficit 14 minutes from time into a seven-point victory thanks to tries …

Jaguares of Argentina snapped a four-match losing streak with a come-from-behind 46-39 victory over Sunwolves of Japan Saturday in a Super Rugby try fest.

The hosts turned a 39-27 deficit 14 minutes from time into a seven-point victory thanks to tries from Matias Alemanno, Agustin Creevy and Matias Moroni.

Jaguares scored seven tries and Sunwolves five at Estadio Jose Amalfitani in a lively conclusion to round 11 of the regular season.

Victory left the hosts with a slim chance of making the quarter-finals -- they trail Coastal Sharks of South Africa by eight points with five games to play.

Sunwolves are playing for pride having won just one of 10 matches, but running Jaguares close in their first visit to Buenos Aires confirmed recent improvement.

They arrived in Argentina after finishing a three-match tour of New Zealand with an encouragingly narrow 27-20 loss to twice champions Waikato Chiefs.

"It was not our best performance this season, but we are very happy to have finished so strongly," said Jaguares No.8 and try scorer Leonardo Senatore.

"A win is a win and securing four points is most welcome for us after losing four matches in a row, including one at home.

"We play in Buenos Aires again next weekend, against the Western Force, and Australian teams are very fast, so our preparations must take that into account."

Sunwolves' Samoa-born centre Timothy Lafaele said: "Crucial mistakes in the closing stages cost us the match.

"The Jaguares also managed to slow play down at times which did not suit our style of play.

"We have a bye next weekend before playing the Sharks and that gives us time to analyse this match and learn from our mistakes."

A Will Tupou try in the second minute gave Sunwolves the perfect start and they led 25-22 after a first half which ended with lock Sam Wykes being yellow-carded.

Jaguares failed to score against 14 men and appeared in trouble when a Wykes try converted by fly-half Yu Tamura gave the Tokyo-based side a 12-point advantage.

But the power and direct approach of the Argentine pack told in the closing stages with two of the three tries coming from forwards while replacement back Moroni claimed the decisive score.

Senatore, Emiliano Boffelli, skipper Creevy (2), Alemanno and Moroni scored tries for the Jaguares and they were awarded a penalty try, which is worth seven points in Super Rugby.

Veteran playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez, who had a rare off-day in general play, kicked two conversions and a penalty and Joaquin Diaz Bonelli one conversion.

Tupou, Shota Emi, Tamura (2) and Wykes were Sunwolves' try scorers while Tamura slotted four conversions and two penalties to finish with a 24-point haul.

Guardiola on the attack despite Manchester City rout

Pep Guardiola says Manchester City are the Premier League’s most creative team, but the Spaniard warned his players must show a more ruthless streak despite their 5-0 rout of Crystal Palace.Guardiola’s side were in prolific form as they thrashed Palace…

Pep Guardiola says Manchester City are the Premier League's most creative team, but the Spaniard warned his players must show a more ruthless streak despite their 5-0 rout of Crystal Palace.

Guardiola's side were in prolific form as they thrashed Palace at Eastlands on Saturday to climb to third place, at least until Liverpool play Southampton on Sunday.

However, it was only City's third win in nine league matches, and their inconsistency this season has left them 12 points adrift of leaders Chelsea with three games to play.

Guardiola believes City would have been worthy champions this season had they been more clinical in front of goal.

And he argued that the only time this season that they have created fewer chances than their opponents was at Tottenham in early October, when City lost 2-0.

"Maybe I remember one game this season where the opponent create more chances. One ? at White Hart Lane. The others, no chance," Guardiola said.

"We are better than all the other teams. Against Chelsea, we create more chances both here and at Stamford Bridge but in the boxes we are not good.

"We are the best team in the Premier League for creating clear chances. We are the best one. But we are not able to score goals.

"The most difficult thing in football, basketball, tennis ? in all the sports ? is that final moment."

Without the injured Sergio Aguero, City enjoyed their biggest league victory under Guardiola, with goals from David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi.

- Amazing teams -

Yet the manager can cite many examples of games where City did not take their chances and suffered as a result, most notably their 4-0 defeat in January at Everton, who scored their goals with their only four shots on target.

"In the game against Everton, they arrive four times and we lose 4-0. We arrive more times than any other team," he said.

"You see Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, they create enough chances, similar to us, but they score goals. We've miss that this season a lot."

City are effectively in a three-way fight with Liverpool and Manchester United for the final two Champions League places.

There is, though, the possibility that all three could still qualify, if United win the Europa League and finish fifth.

"Today was important because we are playing for the future of the club," he said.

"The Premier League is tough. There are four amazing teams fighting for the final two places.

"I hope United can focus on the Europa League and next season we can have five English teams in the Champions League. It will be amazing."

Palace manager Sam Allardyce was critical of his players, suggesting that they effectively gifted City the win.

Allardyce's side remain on 38 points after falling to a third successive defeat that kept them from securing their top-flight survival.

"Defensively we made too many mistakes and they punished us heavily," Allardyce said.

"Our recovery from the first goal was good but we fell into the same shape at the start of the second and it was a bit of a capitulation.

"All five goals could have been avoided if we had defended properly. That is the biggest disappointment.

"Manchester City, normally when they beat you here, produce outstanding skills but we gifted them easy chances to score and they thrashed us."

Over 80 Chibok schoolgirls released by Boko Haram in prisoner swap – Nigeria

Terrorist group Boko Haram has freed 82 girls it captured in a raid on a Chibok boarding school in April 2014. Some 300 girl students were kidnapped, sparking global outrage and a #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Nigeria has confirmed it swap…

Preview Terrorist group Boko Haram has freed 82 girls it captured in a raid on a Chibok boarding school in April 2014. Some 300 girl students were kidnapped, sparking global outrage and a #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Nigeria has confirmed it swapped the girls for prisoners.
Read Full Article at RT.com