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 is FIFA’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.”
FIFA gathered football officials from around the world to the former Romanov palace. Set in coastal parkland on the south-west fringe of Putin’s home city, the venue 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 2018 World Cup kicks off on June 14 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The same venue hosts the final on July 15.