ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — 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,” 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 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,” said Putin, who promised “a special atmosphere of unity and overwhelming joy.”
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.”
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 Argentina, joint No. 207-ranked Djibouti and Cook Islands, plus South Sudan on its World Cup debut.
The planned two-hour draw, co-hosted by supermodel Natalia Vodionova and television presenter Dmitry Shepelev in Russian and English, overran by 10 minutes.
The extra time let FIFA officials relax a little longer after weeks of being rocked by fallout from the May 27 arrest of senior colleagues in Zurich, and unleashing of investigations into alleged racketeering, bribery, and corruption implicating football and marketing officials.
Blatter was re-elected FIFA president two days later with support from Putin, who hinted the United States was meddling in football’s affairs to help strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup.
Within a week Blatter had stunningly announced he would leave the office he has held since 1998 after a new election to replace him. It is on Feb. 26.
Blatter could be interviewed for the Swiss case — which centers on 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 requested by FIFA’s ethics committee in a previous probe. That case concluded that wrongdoing by several 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.
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.
A tough European group put the Netherlands with France and Sweden, whose star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has perhaps his last chance to play again on football’s biggest stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal got a favorable draw with Switzerland its highest-ranked rival.
Opening the draw, FIFA paired four continents whose teams take part in two-leg playoffs in November 2017 that will complete the World Cup lineup. A CONCACAF team will face an Asian team, and Oceania’s best 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.
Putin should still be in power then, alongside a new FIFA president.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.