Putin condemns FIFA probe

Vladimir Putin (AFP)
Vladimir Putin (AFP)

Moscow - Russia has switched the focus of its tensions with America from Ukraine to the football pitch Thursday with President Vladimir Putin lashing out over the US probe into FIFA.

The Kremlin strongman condemned the arrest of seven top FIFA officials, accusing Washington of trying to oust football boss Sepp Blatter after he resisted pressure to stop Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup.

"We know about the pressure that has been put on (Blatter) with the aim of banning the holding of the 2018 World Cup in Russia," Putin said in comments released Thursday.

"His general position is that sport and politics should be kept apart."

The arrests Wednesday in Zurich two days ahead of a FIFA presidential vote was "clearly an attempt to block the reelection of Blatter," Putin said, alleging the US was trying to "spread its jurisdiction to other countries".

Putin has made opposing what he portrays as US meddling in the world a key plank of his foreign policy and uses claims he is checking American expansionism to bolster his popularity at home and deflect all criticism.

Relations between Moscow and the West have slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War and some hawkish US senators have called for the 2018 World Cup to be withdrawn from Russia over allegations Moscow is fuelling the separatist conflict in Ukraine.

FIFA is facing the biggest crisis in its century of existence after Swiss police detained the football officials on allegations they took more than $150 million in bribes. The United States wants the seven extradited to face trial there.

A separate Swiss investigation is also looking into alleged wrongdoing in the allocation of the 2018 event to Russia and the 2022 championship to Qatar.

The Kremlin has lavished vast sums on hosting international sporting events -- most notably the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi -- that are used to burnish Putin's image.

While FIFA and Russian officials have dismissed the possibility that the World Cup in Russia is in doubt, analysts said Putin was at the least concerned the event might be overshadowed by controversy.

"The president is clearly worried about the World Cup in 2018," Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group, told AFP.

"He not only has doubts about whether it will take place or not but he is also nervous that the atmosphere around it will be ruined."

Russia's state media has quickly turned the investigations into FIFA into part of a broader conspiracy against Russia.

Government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said the arrest of the top officials made it "clear that the United States want to get full control over FIFA, which as an international and purely sporting organisation has been acting independently as it should."

Many Russians appear to buy the Kremlin line that Washington is out to get Russia, with an online poll from leading sports daily Sovietsky Sport showing 36 percent of respondents thought the FIFA arrests were aimed against the 2018 World Cup.

Kalachev said Putin's claims that the FIFA investigation is part of a US plot demonstrate his wider belief that he is defending Russia against foreign foes, from Ukraine to the backrooms of FIFA headquarters.

"He genuinely feels that he is in a besieged fortress," Kalachev said.

"This is not just a tool to bind together the majority, but also his real belief that Russia is encircled by enemies."

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