Russia, its people and President Vladimir Putin have been assured they need worry no longer about speculation concerning their hosting of the 2018 World Cup finals.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter used his opening address at the World Cup draw here in St Petersburg to dispel any suggestion that Russia’s date with its football destiny was at risk from corruption suspicions or political storms.
Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in scandal-enshrouded circumstances in December 2010 which are being investigated by the office of the Swiss Attorney-General.
Most of the controversy has encircled Qatar but the Russians’ campaign has not escaped the fall-out of scepticism because FIFA’s own inquiry found that all the bid data had been wiped from their computers.
Russia’s hosting has also come under attack from human rights campaigners and from politicians opposed to its military adventure in Crimea and Ukraine.
Blatter sought to end any doubt in the conclusion to his remarks at a draw show screened live around the world for anyone – including critics in particular – who wished to hear.
He said: “I can tell you, Mr President [Putin], that yesterday FIFA’s executive committee expressed again its trust and confidence in Russia for the organisation of this competition, its trust in the Russian authorities, the organising committee and the Russian people.
“So, therefore, we are looking forward to an exciting World Cup for the game, for the world, for Russia.”
Blatter made no other reference or allusion to the turmoil surrounding FIFA whose presidency he is being forced to relinquish next February. Instead he talked up the power and outreach of football in general and the World Cup in particular.
He said: “Every four years half of the world’s population unites to celebrate football because football is more than a game: Football is building bridges, it’s bringing people together, it is entertainment, it is emotion. Football inspires.
“It will be a wonderful moment for the people of Russia, for the rest of the world and also for football.”
Moments earlier Putin repeated the promise of a visa-free World Cup for everyone holding a match ticket even while deteriorating relations between Russia and West has been reflected in more pedantic demands on visa applicants.
Putin said: “Our guests from all over the world will become familiar with the unique history of our motherland. We will make the teams very comfortable so they can concentrate on the games. We will take every effort to ensure security and comfort for the fans. There will be visa-free entry for all those who have tickets.”
Russian organisers have been forced by the economic downturn enforced by western sanctions to cut back on some of the original infrastructure proposals but Putin insisted: “All the plans relating to hosting the World Cup will be implemented. Hosting the World Cup is one of the key national objectives through which we will show an open and multi-faceted Russia.”
The draw itself – amid the usual mixture of culture and kitsch – was overseen by FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke, for the last time. Valcke indicated on Friday that he expected to be leaving FIFA after the arrival of a new president at the end of February.
In central and north America the United States was grouped with Trinidad and Tobago while Mexico will be matched in their opening mini-league with Honduras. CONCACAF Gold Cup finalists Jamaica must first negotiate a third-round tie with Nicaragua.
As usual Europe was left until last with Spain and Italy – winners in 2010 and 2006 respectively – drawn together in Group G. Other groupings included France with Holland as well as a reiteration of the oldest international rivalry of all in England v Scotland.
Defending champions Germany have a comfortable task after being matched with the likes of Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Norway.