Russia ready for 2018 World Cup draw

Date published: Friday 24th July 2015 11:40

Russian president Vladimir Putin, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and international managers, including Roy Hodgson, Chris Coleman and Martin O’Neill, will arrive through the grand front gates at St Petersburg later on Saturday afternoon.

But every non-VIP entering the vast 200-hectare ground is subject to stringent security checks that include airport-style x-ray machines and metal detectors.

Only media with accreditation, approved by the Russian government, are allowed inside the grounds, and security will be even tighter when Putin holds talks with Blatter before the draw.

Don’t expect to see pranksters carrying money within a mile of the venue.

The FIFA president is staying at the city’s luxury Four Seasons hotel, set within a 19th century Russian royal palace, its entry guarded by two marble lions.

Two police cars flank Blatter’s car at all times, with its distinctive ‘01’ sticker on the windscreen, and the hotel perimeter is patrolled by security officers with earpieces. 

Blatter told Sky Sports News HQ he was “happy” to be in Russia for his first foreign FIFA event outside Switzerland since seven high-ranking officials were arrested on corruption charges by United States authorities in May.

Blatter, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, has previously avoided taking “travel risks”, and he failed to attend the Women’s World Cup in Canada last month and CONCACAF Gold Cup in America this month.

The FIFA president is a popular figure in Russia and the preliminary draw (qualifying draw, to you and me) will provide some much-needed light relief for Blatter as England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland prepare to find out their opponents on the long qualifying road to Russia 2018. 

The show must go on in FIFA’s world, but persistent allegations of racism in Russian football have produced more questions, denials, an extraordinary ban for Emmanuel Frimpong and lingering issues for the nation’s World Cup organisers.

There was irritation from senior figures in the game that Hulk was forced to pull out as a draw assistant, at short notice, due to his club commitments at Zenit St Petersburg.

Russia 2018 chiefs claim the decision was made by Zenit head coach Andre Villas-Boas for footballing reasons – they play away in Yekaterinburg tomorrow – and nothing to do with Hulk’s recent criticism of racism in the game, or perceived lack of action over the issue.

Russia’s motto for Saturday’s show-piece event is, ‘The Dream Starts Here’, but for FIFA, the nightmare continues.

Criminal investigations by Swiss and American authorities will remain ongoing whatever the outcome of today’s draw.

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