ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — FIFA President Sepp Blatter is due in Russia on Thursday for his first overseas trip since the arrests of fellow soccer executives in May left him unwilling to leave the safety of Switzerland.
Saturday’s qualifying draw in St. Petersburg for the 2018 World Cup will be the 79-year-old Blatter’s last official event connected to football’s showcase tournament before he prematurely leaves office in February.
Although Blatter has not been accused of wrongdoing by American or Swiss authorities, the repercussions of the corruption investigations convinced the president to hastily announce resignation plans last month just four days after his re-election, and to stay in Switzerland.
Since May 27 — when police in Zurich arrested some of Blatter’s close associates on behalf of the U.S. and seized data from FIFA headquarters — Blatter has been absent from two FIFA events. The Swiss native missed handing over the trophy in New Zealand for the under-20s World Cup and presenting the Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Blatter confirmed recently: “Until everything is clarified, I won’t take any travel risks.”
He is returning to the global stage alongside a similarly polarizing leader with American adversaries: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In jetting to Russia, Blatter is being reunited at the draw ceremony with a close ally in Putin, and a country where he will not fear being detained, given its lack of extradition treaty with the United States.
“We always counted on President Blatter’s participation in the show,” World Cup organizing committee chief executive Alexei Sorokin told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We will welcome him here as president of FIFA, as a guest of our country, as a friend of our country.
“It’s the first event for us in terms of the World Cup and we are trying to organize it in the most … welcoming fashion for everyone.”
Blatter and Putin are expected to address the visiting national team coaches and officials at the Konstantinovsky Palace before the draw determines the qualifying path to the finals in Russia in June-July 2018.
Blatter last left Switzerland in mid-May when he flew, as always by private jet, to Israel for talks in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Blatter said Monday that his work since then had been unaffected by remaining around Zurich, grappling with the extent of the gravest scandal in FIFA’s 111 years.
“FIFA was not stuck because the president was not moving,” said Blatter, whose successor is due to be elected in February.
Just hours before being voted in for a fifth term on May 29, two days after the dual criminal investigations erupted in public view, Blatter told the FIFA Congress that the crisis stemmed from the 2010 vote that saw Russia voted 2018 host and Qatar awarded the 2022 World Cup.
“If two other countries had emerged from the envelope, I think we would not have these problems today,” Blatter told delegates in Zurich.
Although Qatar’s conduct has attracted greater suspicion, Russia’s bid is also being investigated by the Swiss federal prosecutors. In a case separate from the U.S. probe of racketeering and bribery, the Swiss attorney general is looking at evidence of 81 acts of possible money laundering linked to the bids.
FIFA’s judge said last year that there was not enough evidence to find the 2018 and 2022 hosts guilty of misconduct, while pointing to Russia saying that it was unable to access the Google email accounts it used for the bid or now-destroyed leased computers.
“We are not hiding,” Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said Wednesday, state news agency Tass reported. “But no one (from the Swiss authorities) has asked Russia any questions so far.”
While Blatter remains in power, Russia has a staunch defender of its right to stage the World Cup for the first time. And Blatter still has a powerful backer himself inside the Kremlin. After the indictment of 14 men — nine soccer officials and five marketing executives — by the U.S., Putin was quick to praise FIFA’s leader of 17 years and decry the investigation as “another evident attempt to derail Mr. Blatter’s re-election “
“We are aware of the pressure that he was subjected to in relation to Russia holding the 2018 World Cup,” said Putin, who sat with Blatter at last year’s final in Brazil.
Not only corruption investigations have cast a shadow on tournament preparations. Russia’s suitability to host a sporting spectacle has also been questioned over the failure to eradicate racism at football matches and Moscow’s military intervention in neighboring Ukraine.
With Blatter saying Monday that he is seeking a career in radio specializing in geo-politics after leaving FIFA, the St. Petersburg trip offers a valuable opportunity to gain insight from Putin while returning to the limelight.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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