FIFA, Blatter get back to World Cup business at Putin home

FIFA and Sepp Blatter put their corruption crisis aside and got back to World Cup business at the 2018 tournament qualifying draw

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FIFA and Sepp Blatter put their corruption crisis aside and got back to World Cup business at the 2018 tournament qualifying draw hosted by Vladimir Putin in a Russian state residence on Saturday.

The two presidents joined on stage for speeches to open a draw ceremony that is the FIFA leadership’s first major public event since American and Swiss criminal investigations of corruption in world football were unsealed two months ago.

“Thank you President Putin, you make us happy and comfortable,” said Blatter, making his first trip outside his native Switzerland since mid-May. He has avoided FIFA business in countries which have extradition treaties with the United States.

Putin and Blatter got a standing ovation from Russian and football officials and guests when they walked on stage together in a temporary venue built in the splendid grounds of Konstantin Palace.

“We are here to launch a football marathon,” Putin said through a translator, of a 32-team tournament that will kick off in almost three years’ time after around 850 qualifying matches.

The preliminary rounds will decide 31 qualifying slots for teams to join host Russia at the month-long tournament in 11 cities.

“It is a good chance to visit a multi-faceted and open Russia that can surprise and inspire,” Putin said, promising “a special atmosphere of unity and overwhelming joy.”

Earlier, Putin and Blatter met for a brief photo call inside the former Romanov palace.

“We say yes to Russia, we are providing our support,” Blatter said of the host nation, whose winning bid campaign is being examined by Swiss prosecutors in a wider case involving World Cup bids and FIFA spending.

FIFA gathered football officials from around the world to the coastal parkland setting on the south-west fringe of Putin’s home city. The palace previously hosted world political leaders for meetings of the G8 and G20 nations.

A total of 141 of FIFA’s 209 member federations were involved in the draw, including top-ranked team Argentina and joint No. 207-ranked Djibouti and Cook Islands.

The two-hour draw show let FIFA show renewed confidence after being rocked by the massive investigations into alleged racketeering, bribery, and corruption implicating football and marketing officials.

Blatter was re-elected FIFA president with support from Putin, who hinted the United States was meddling in football’s affairs to help strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup.

Still, Blatter stunningly announced within a week he would leave office after a new election to replace him. It is on Feb. 26.

Blatter could be interviewed for the Swiss case - investigating suspected money laundering linked to the 2018 and 2022 bid contests - and is a stated target of American investigators. He denies all wrongdoing.

Russia bid leaders have also denied wrongdoing though provided little evidence to FIFA’s ethics committee in a previous probe. That case concluded that wrongdoing by several of nine bid candidates did not influence the victories of Russia and 2022 host Qatar.

Saturday’s draw ceremony was conducted by Blatter’s right-hand man, secretary general Jerome Valcke, on his second trip to Russia since May. Valcke has also avoided countries where he risks extradition to the U.S.

Opening the draw, FIFA paired four continents whose teams take part in two-leg playoffs in November 2017. A CONCACAF team will face an Asian team, and Oceania’s champion will play a South American team.

The 2018 World Cup kicks off on June 14 and the final is on July 15. Those matches are at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the main venue of the 1980 Olympics which is being rebuilt for the world’s most-watched sports event.

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