ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — 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 at a Russian state residence on Saturday.
The two presidents joined on stage for speeches to open a draw ceremony that almost two hours later paired Spain and Italy, respectively the 2010 and 2006 champions, in a group, and revived the game’s oldest international rivalry, England vs. Scotland.
With the focus once more on football, the embattled FIFA leadership and much-criticized host nation Russia could display a confident and united front during a slickly staged show.
It was Blatter’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,” Blatter, making his first trip outside his native Switzerland since mid-May, said. 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 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, almost three years ahead of the finals tournament kicking off after around 850 qualifying matches.
The preliminary rounds will decide 31 qualifying slots for teams to join Russia at the month-long tournament in 11 cities, from western exclave Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg nearly 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) east.
“It is a good chance to visit a multi-faceted and open Russia that can surprise and inspire,” Putin, who promised “a special atmosphere of unity and overwhelming joy,” said.
Still, this week saw black players at Russian clubs again draw attention to racial abuse by fans in domestic matches.
Blatter has long defended Russia against criticism, and earlier Saturday confirmed his backing at a brief photo call with Putin 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 focusing on World Cup bidders and FIFA spending.
“We see what’s happening around football, but I know how you feel about it,” Putin noted. “We thank you for concentrating your time and attention on football above all, despite this.”
A total of 141 of FIFA’s 209 member federations were involved in the draw, including top-ranked Argentina, joint No. 207-ranked Djibouti and Cook Islands, plus South Sudan on its World Cup debut.
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.
Sport mixed with politics in one part of the draw as the U.S. will travel during regional group play to Trinidad and Tobago, where indicted former FIFA vice president Jack Warner is fighting extradition.
On the field, Germany will start defending its World Cup title in a six-team pool where the Czech Republic seems the biggest barrier to advancing as group winner.
Thumbnail photo via Twitter/@HuffPostSports
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