Putin marks 1,000 days to World Cup without Valcke

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia marked 1,000 days to go until the 2018 World Cup on Friday, but FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was absent after being suspended from his duties.

Against the backdrop of turmoil at FIFA, Russian President Vladimir Putin said World Cup preparations were going to plan as he launched a youth football tournament on Red Square.

Speaking by video link, Putin said “Russia always approaches events like (the World Cup) in a responsible way in terms of hosting and organization.”

“The preparations for the World Cup in 11 cities of our country who have the honor to host the championships are in full swing.”

There was no reference to Valcke, FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man, who had been due to appear at the event before he was suspended Thursday. That followed allegations Valcke was involved in black market sales of tickets to 2014 World Cup matches.

At the ceremony in Moscow on Friday, Valcke’s place was taken by the less well known Colin Smith, FIFA’s director of competitions.

Speaking on Red Square, German World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus, one of a group of football stars invited by FIFA, suggested misconduct at FIFA had partly overshadowed the event in Moscow.

“FIFA’s obviously been a hot topic for several months, it’s discussed a lot. It’s obvious that some people haven’t done what was expected of them, but what I don’t consider right is that everyone piles all the guilt on Sepp Blatter,” he said. “Yesterday there was a negative light cast on the story but it doesn’t have much to do with this event here.”

A clock counting down to the first match of the 2018 World Cup was installed on Manezh Sqaure, near the Kremlin, with a host of top Russian officials in attendance. The square was also the site of a similar clock ahead of last year’s Winter Olympics, held in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

Earlier Friday, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a member of the FIFA executive committee, defended Russia’s right to host the World Cup amid U.S. and Swiss investigations into the bidding process.

Allegations of money laundering by the Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 campaigns were “a funny question,” Mutko told Russia’s R-Sport agency, adding that it was far from clear who had committed any alleged offenses or where any money had gone.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who is overseeing World Cup preparations, said preparations would not be damaged by the country’s economic problems. The Russian economy contracted 4.6 percent in the second quarter of the year, compared to the same period of 2014.

“The Russian government will provide in full the money that is necessary to build this infrastructure, despite the difficult economic situation, despite the fact that we have to fulfill all our social obligations,” he said.

“The president’s order and the tough position of the government are that all of the obligations to FIFA that we have undertaken for the World Cup preparations, will be fulfilled.”