- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) - The U.S. team will face Spain in the Under-20 World Cup on Friday, with FIFA promising increased security following anti-government protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities in recent weeks.

Jim Boyce, chairman of the tournament organizing committee, acknowledged that security has been beefed up for the June 21-July 13 tournament. He said FIFA security experts were comfortable with arrangements for the 24 teams and spectators in the seven host cities and predicted there wouldn’t be problems with security.

“The FIFA security people are very happy with the security situation that exists at present in Turkey,” Boyce said. “FIFA is determined that this tournament will go ahead and certainly I sincerely hope the security situation will not be a problem, and I can honestly say I don’t think it will be.”

The U.S. team will play Spain in Group A in Istanbul, about 10 miles from the protests. The team arrived Sunday and hasn’t seen signs of trouble.

“In terms of security, we feel secure and we feel we are in a good place and Turkey is a great place to be right now,” Coach Tab Ramos told The Associated Press. “There is no reason for us to think any differently. We actually drove 45 minutes across town to get to practice and drove through the whole city. There were no signs other than normal life around here.”

In the past few days, the protests have given way to peaceful resistance, although police dispersed pockets of protesters in Ankara and Istanbul on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Anti-government demonstrations erupted across Turkey after riot police cracked down on environmental activists who opposed plans to remove trees and develop Gezi Park, which lies next to Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square, on May 31.

The protesters have expressed discontent with what they say is the gradual erosion of freedoms and secular values during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 10 years in office.

Hundreds of protesters stood still for hours on squares on main streets in several cities, mimicking a lone protester who started the trend on Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Monday and has been dubbed the “Standing Man.”

“We feel really safe. There is nothing really scary going on,” U.S. captain Caleb Stanko said. “At least we don’t see any of it. I think my parents are worried. They are not here and they don’t actually see what is going on.”

Under-20 organizers have turned their attention to ensuring the stadiums are filled once the tournament starts on Friday, when France faces Ghana in Group A. Also, Cuba will play South Korea and Nigeria takes on Portugal in Group B.

Officials said 300,000 of the 1.3 million available tickets have been sold for the tournament.

“It’s very important the Turkish football public come out and give great support to this tournament,” said Boyce, noting this is the next biggest FIFA competition after the World Cup.

Local organizers said they were confident more tickets would be sold, predicting the total sold would double to 600,000.

“I know Turkey, for example, is very keen on hopefully hosting the likes of the European finals,” Boyce said. “Obviously, an event like this will put Turkish football on the map and hopefully will help them in their bid in the future to host bigger tournaments such as a World Cup.”

Predicting a winner is difficult because Brazil and Argentina, which have won eight of the past 10 competitions, failed to qualify.

The emerging favorite appears to be Spain, which is looking to add a second Under-20 World Cup to its increasingly crowded trophy cabinet. It already won the Under-19 European championship.

“Spain is probably the favorite to win the whole thing and the fact we can start with Spain is a great opportunity for us and for our players to perform and see where we stand,” Ramos said.

There are six groups of four teams each, with the top two teams advancing along with the four best third-place teams. The elimination stage of the event begins July 2.

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