Mutko at the SportAccord Convention in Sochi on Tuesday (WFI)

(WFI) Despite Russia’s financial crisis, sports minister Vitaly Mutko insists the 660 billion rubles ($12.4bn) budget for venues and infrastructure has not changed.

Speaking to reporters at the SportAccord World Sport & Business Convention in Sochi, the FIFA Exco member and head of the Russia 2018 organising committee said that about 330 billion rubles was allocated from the federal government, with 100 billion from regional budgets and the remainder coming from the private sector.

“Around 50 percent of resources within it is allocated to transport infrastructure – that is restructuring airports in the 11 cities,” he said, adding that there would “absolutely” be a new airport in Rostov.

Commenting on the Fisht Olympic Stadium in the Black Sea resort that hosted last year’s Winter Games, Mutko confirmed it would be upgraded from 40,000 to 45,000 seats for the World Cup.

The removal of the roof and stage and other elements of the revamp to meet FIFA regulations are set to cost around 3 billion rubles ($56m), he said.

“This stadium was built for the opening ceremony. On the one hand we don’t have closures to the north and south. Instead of a football pitch there was a stage,” he explained to reporters of the venue on the Sochi Olympic Park where the SportAccord Convention is taking place this week.

“Our task is to make the necessary changes for football, so far we have disassembled the roof as well as the stage.”

The first football match is planned in June 2016, but with no major football club as an anchor tenant the long-term legacy of the stadium is uncertain.

Mutko went on to talk about expectations for the Russian team at the 2018 FIFA showpiece. Noting that Russian president Vladimir Putin had met with FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in Sochi on Tuesday, he told reporters: “Putin said I don’t know how the national team will perform, and he looked at me and said ‘experts are responsible for that.'”

“As for the World Cup we will prepare it at the highest level,” Mutko said. “First of all it is the national federation which is responsible for that, but we will join in this work.”

“Mercenaries” in Russian Football

Mutko suggested that the Russian Football Union may act to reduce the number of foreign players participating in the top-tier league to improve the country’s chances at the 2018 tournament.

“We have a number of issues that are typical for all countries in the world. We have a lot of mercenaries [foreign players] and our choice for a national coach is also limited,” he said of the challenges ahead.

“A lot of mercenaries play in the most important positions,” he said. “There are 16 teams and 64 players that the coach has to select from, so it is difficult. We don’t have a lot of time, but we will take certain measures.”

“Probably, we will surprise you like in Sochi.”

After Blatter’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of SportAccord, he expressed satisfaction with progress on the Russia 2018 project.

“Your organising committee and you personally deserve five stars,” the 79-year-old Swiss told Putin, according to a Reuters report.

Blatter also had a message for the international politicians who are considering boycotting the tournament because of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

“If a few politicians are not particularly happy that we are hosting the World Cup in Russia, then I always tell them: ‘Well then, stay at home’.”

He told the TASS news agency: “Everything is going to plan and nothing will get in the way of Russia hosting the best ever World Cup. The economic situation is not the best, but I know it will get better.”

FIFA did not issue any statement about Blatter’s meeting with Putin, referring INSIDER to a single tweet published on the federation leader’s Twitter page which read: “Just met President Putin. I believe the 2018 WorldCup will help to build bridges.”

By Brian Pinelli in Sochi and Mark Bisson

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