MOSCOW: Banned former FIFA president Sepp Blatter attended a World Cup match in Moscow on Wednesday and said the soccer tournament was a bit like “my World Cup” because of the warm welcome he had received in Russia.
Blatter, who led FIFA for 17 years, is serving a six-year ban from “all football activities” for unethical conduct after soccer’s world governing body was rocked by a global corruption scandal in 2015.
His appearance at the World Cup in Russia is potentially embarrassing for FIFA and its new head, Gianni Infantino, who has promised to draw a line under FIFA’s corruption problems and clean up the organisation.
TASS news agency quoted Alexei Sorokin, head of the Russia-2018 organising committee, as saying he had seen Infantino and Blatter at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium watching Portugal’s 1-0 win over Morocco.
“Today I saw Infantino and Blatter at the stadium, it’s true,” TASS quoted Sorokin as saying, adding that the former FIFA head had praised Russia’s organisation of the World Cup.
Speaking in an interview with Russian news channel RT, Blatter said he had advocated for Russia to be chosen as the World Cup host in 2010.
“When I arrived yesterday, I saw it a little bit, it’s my World Cup. How I was received here, television, cameras, people photographs and so on,” he said in the interview filmed in front of the Kremlin.
Blatter told Reuters in March he had been invited to attend the World Cup by President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has a long-standing close relationship. A spokesman for Blatter said he was scheduled to meet with the Russian leader while in Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday Blatter was visiting Russia in a non-official capacity.
“Any meetings that could be held are being realised in the framework of his private visit and are not official,” he said when asked if Blatter has met or would meet Putin.
Blatter’s ban was imposed shortly after the Swiss attorney general’s office began criminal proceedings against him on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation.
No charges have yet been brought and Blatter has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The 82-year-old struck a defiant tone in Moscow, describing the criminal probe as “an attack on FIFA” and saying he was still president of the organisation.
“I was suspended, I’m still a suspended president. I’m still president, but suspended,” he said. “It was not an easy time for me, it’s still not the easiest time.”
When asked how he had been occupying his time since the ban, Blatter said he was grappling with how to solve the problem of political intervention in world football.
“Football should not be dominated by politics. Football should help, perhaps, to solve political problems. But in the past we have seen that there is political intervention for football,” he said.
In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Blatter said England, which mounted a failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, deserved to host it in 2030 and should mount a joint bid with the other UK football nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – as well as Ireland.
“I think that England, or the islands, they deserve to organise the World Cup,” Blatter told Sky Sports.
“They had it in 1966 so it’s a long time ago. (I was told that) it could be with Wales and Scotland together but I said why not Ireland altogether?” he said.
“With 48 teams you need more than one country to host it,” he added, referring to a FIFA plan to expand the competition to 48 teams from 32 now.