FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Russian leader Vladimir Putin took center stage as the preliminary draw for the 2018 World Cup was made Saturday in St. Petersburg.
Blatter shrugged off the corruption scandal engulfing football’s world governing body to pledge his “total support” for the hosts, while Putin lauded Russia’s “long history of football” in his opening remarks to the gathering at the Konstantin Palace.
The two had also met earlier Saturday for a photo call, with Blatter taking to social media to emphasize his backing for Russia 2018.
It is Blatter’s first official engagement outside of his native Switzerland since seven FIFA officials were detained at the organization’s annual congress in Zurich as a result of an investigation into kickbacks by U.S. authorities.
In a related development, Swiss investigators said they were probing the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
Blatter, who found public support from Putin after the arrests were made, was re-elected for a fifth term at the Congress, but the following week announced he would be standing down.
A new election for his replacement is being held on February 26 next year.
Blatter has denied any wrongdoing. So too Russia and Qatar, but if the probes do find bribes were paid, both countries face being stripped of their tournaments.
A possibility that neither Putin or Blatter appeared to acknowledge in their meeting, though they did discuss the controversies they both face.
“We see what is happening around football, and I know what you think about it,” Putin told Blatter through a translator. “We are grateful to you for focusing your time and attention primarily on the sport.”
Conversely, Blatter expressed his support for Russia, which is currently facing western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“We are saying ‘yes’ to Russia and assuring you of our support,” the FIFA president said.
“This is especially important in the current geopolitical situation. We must speak not only of our desire to make the world a better place; we also want to do something tangible to support peace, to support the development of football.”
Later, Blatter told the 2,000 specially invited guests at the draw that he expected Russia to put on a top class tournament.
“Today is an important day in the long and winding road to the FIFA World Cup 2018,” he said.
“We are looking forward to an exciting evening and we are looking forward to an exciting World Cup for the game, for the world, for Russia.”
The 32-team tournament will start in just over three years’ time after over 800 qualifying matches. “We are here to launch a football marathon,” said Putin, again speaking through a translator.
The draw, made by current and former football stars, involved all FIFA’s member nations, from Lionel Messi’s top-rated Argentina to minnows such as Djibouti, the Cook Islands and Anguilla.
It was staged under the roof of the 18th century splendor of the former Romanov palace and shared the spotlight with a showcase of Russian song, dance and even football juggling.
The countries are divided into FIFA’s five confederations, with 31 spots in the 2018 tournament allocated between them.
Russia as hosts automatically qualifies.
Reigning champion Germany was drawn in a group containing the Czech Republic, Norway and Northern Ireland.
Old rivals England and Scotland were also paired in the same group, while the toughest section looks to be European Group A with the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg locking horns.
2012 European championship finalists Spain and Italy are also set for a heavyweight clash in Group G.
Copa America champions Chile will be at home to Brazil in the opening round of fixtures in the competitive South American qualifying group.
The United States will initially have to finish in the top two of a group which also includes Trinidad and Tobago to make it to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
African qualifying will see 20 winners from its round two moving to the group stage where the five winners will qualify for the World Cup finals.
While the event has cemented the path that national football teams must now take to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, the road could yet be rocky for FIFA and the host country.