Mutko says Putin will do everything he can to persuade the FIFA executive to award the 2018 tournament to Russia (Getty Images)

(WFI) Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister and FIFA Executive Committee member, tells World Football Insider that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is set to play a much more visible role in the country’s World Cup bid campaign during 2010.

In a wide-ranging interview in Cape Town last week, Mutko, who also chairs the bid, hailed the “important role” Putin had already played since it was launched in October. He said the former president would become more prominent as the campaign heats up over the next 11 months.

“Yes he will [play a more prominent role],” said Mutko. “He is now playing an important role. As you know he had a meeting with [FIFA] president [Sepp] Blatter last October. Basically he agreed that the Russian government would sign all the guarantees that run.

“[Last week] he had a four-hour direct line with the nation, he does it every year – an extended Q&A session with the country. During the last session he was asked if he supported the bid and once again he reiterated that he supports the bid and he would do ‘anything which is necessary’ to support it.”

Asked if he would attend an event in 2010 similar to the FIFA-organized World Cup bidding expo in Cape Town, where David Beckham stole the show and proved the importance of star quality, Mutko replied: “Sure – he will do everything that he can.”

“We respect our colleagues that are bidding against us. We are not spinning against anyone. We just want to do the bid properly.”

Putin’s intervention in Sochi’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics was considered crucial to the Black Sea city’s ultimate success, and officials on rival bids privately fear his input.

One rival bid official described the Russian premier as the country’s “secret weapon” and another described how Sochi had “absolutely nothing going for it” until Putin weighed in behind the bid campaign.

Russia’s subtle approach
Mutko’s ascent in world sport’s corridors of power was confirmed in June, when the 51-year-old became a FIFA Executive Committee Member. The 24-man committee will decide next December which of the ten bid countries are successful in their efforts to host the 2018 and 2022 finals.

The former Zenit St Petersburg president is candid about using his insider’s perspective to find out what his fellow members are looking for and best applying them to Russia’s bid.

“The FIFA leadership has a philosophy on the staging of the World Cup bid,” he said. “It’s all about development and legacy.
Mutko said that he was emphasizing these aspects when promoting Russia’s World Cup bid.

“We think that our bid is all about development and legacy. It will provide a tremendous boost to football, sports infrastructure, host city infrastructure and the development of Russia.

“I’m convinced that the World Cup will come to a country that has not had it before.”

Mutko said that the formal lobbying of FIFA executive members is still to fully kick into gear, but that when they had been presented with the possibilities offered by the world’s largest country they had been “left a very good impression”.

“We’ve started [the lobbying process] subtly and diplomatically,” he said. “I’m not pressing too much, probing.”

Facing down Russia’s difficulties
Some of the problems Russia will face in convincing Mutko’s fellow executive committee members that it is a fit host for a World Cup have been brought into stark focus over the past month.

Last month 26 people were killed when the Moscow-St Petersburg train line was bombed, the latest in a series of terrorist outrages linked to Russia’s controversial role in the Caucasus region.

Mutko denied that the attack imperiled Russia’s World Cup bid and insisted that the country is safe.

“I don’t think that the terrorist attack

Russia and Arsenal star Andrei Arshavin appears in a bid poster campaign (J. Corbett)

undermines our bid,” he said.

“Unfortunately terror attacks happen anywhere in the world, we know that. We have our own war on terror as you know. In terms of security, Russia is one of the most secure countries and we know how to organize secure and safe events.”

On the football front, the progress made by the national team was undermined by the shock exit at the hands of Slovenia in a World Cup play-off.

“Of course, emotionally, it’s a very big setback for us,” said Mutko. “But there is no direct connection to the bid, these are two different things.”

“There are 32 countries participating in the World Cup. If qualification for playing was a qualification for staging, then all of those countries would be available.”

As Zenit St Petersburg president until 2005 and still a fan, Mutko has witnessed at first hand some of the weaknesses of the domestic league and is honest enough to acknowledge them. He says that the English Premier League – the jewel in the crown of Russia’s main World Cup bid rivals – is “the top football competition in the world”.

Although the wages are among the best in the world, the Russian Premier League struggles to hold onto its best players, and its reputation remains muddied by poor attendances, crowd violence and allegations of match

Mutko played a key role in hiring Guus Hiddink as Russia boss and in so doing changed the fortunes of the national team (Getty Images)

corruption.

In January, Zenit reluctantly sold Russian football’s golden boy, Andrei Arshavin, to Arsenal.

“Of course Arshavin was a key player at Zenit that did much for the late, recent successes of the club,” said Mutko.

“Although every player, especially a gifted player has ambitions that he wants to achieve more in life. He wanted to play in the Premier League, which is the top football competition in the world and I hope that it is to his benefit.”

The trend for the Russian Premier League hemorrhaging its best players to the EPL – Roman Pavlyuchenko, Nemanja Vidic and Martin Skrtl are all recent defectors – continued in the summer with the transfers of Yuri Zhirkov to Chelsea and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov to Everton.

Will hosting the World Cup boost Russian domestic football and prevent these defections in the future?

“I don’t think that there is a direct immediate connection,” said Mutko. “The World Cup will improve infrastructure, it will boost Russia’s participation.”

“But the [Russian] Premier League is a different thing. You need different things to improve it – the skills, the quality of players – it takes some time to bring a new generation.

“We are working on improving the quality. Five years ago our internal competition was 25th in terms of European competition, now we are sixth. Six of our clubs are playing in European competition, three in the Champions League and three in the Europa League. There is progress. Our players are attracting some of the best clubs in the world: Arsenal, Chelsea…”

Outdoing England Again
With a powerful domestic mandate, as sports, youth and tourism minister in the world’s largest country, Mutko controls a budget worth billions of rubles and is forceful in his belief that he can help use sport to turn around Russia’s appalling public health problems. He is also a supervisory board member of the Sochi Olympics.

Crucially for Russia’s World Cup bid he has both the ear of the Kremlin and those of Russia’s oligarchs.

Russia has a bid budget of $40 million, 60 per cent more than England, its closest rivals for 2018. This is split between government and Russian Football Union funding and that of private backers, and it is Mutko who can be credited with treading through both worlds with such great subtlety.

Indeed it was Mutko who is credited with securing the private funds that saw the hiring of Guus Hiddink as national manager in 2006. This changed the fortunes of Russia and fundamentally altered the world’s view of Russian football, once considered so dour and mechanical.

In signing up Hiddink, he also beat the English FA to his signature, then beat them again in qualifying for Euro 2008. It is a trick he is trying to repeat for a third time, but this time the coup would be the greatest of all.

Written by James Corbett ([email protected])
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