ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — FIFA and Sepp Blatter put their corruption crisis aside and got back to World Cup business at the 2018 tournament qualifying draw hosted by Vladimir Putin at a Russian state residence Saturday.
The two presidents joined on stage for speeches to open a draw ceremony that almost two hours later paired Spain and Italy, respectively the 2010 and 2006 champions, in a group, and revived the game’s oldest international rivalry, England vs. Scotland.
With the focus once more on the game, the embattled FIFA leadership and much-criticized host nation Russia could display a confident and united front during a slickly staged show.
It was Blatter’s first major public event since American and Swiss criminal investigations of corruption in world football were unsealed two months ago.
“Thank you President Putin, you make us happy and comfortable,” said Blatter, making his first trip outside his native Switzerland since mid-May. He has avoided FIFA business in countries which have extradition treaties with the United States.
Putin and Blatter got a standing ovation from Russian and football officials and guests when they walked on together in a temporary venue built in the splendid grounds of Konstantin Palace.
“We are here to launch a football marathon,” Putin said through a translator, almost three years ahead of the finals tournament kicking off after around 850 qualifying matches.
The preliminary rounds will decide 31 qualifying slots for teams to join Russia at the month-long tournament in 11 cities, from western exclave Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg nearly 1,550 miles east.
“It is a good chance to visit a multifaceted and open Russia that can surprise and inspire,” said Putin, who promised “a special atmosphere of unity and overwhelming joy.”
Still, this week saw black players at Russian clubs again draw attention to racial abuse by fans in domestic matches.
Blatter has long defended Russia against criticism, and earlier Saturday confirmed his backing at a brief photo call with Putin inside the former Romanov palace.
“We say yes to Russia, we are providing our support,” Blatter said of the host nation, whose winning bid campaign is being examined by Swiss prosecutors in a wider case focusing on World Cup bidders and FIFA spending.
“We see what’s happening around football, but I know how you feel about it,” Putin noted. “We thank you for concentrating your time and attention on football above all, despite this.”
FIFA gathered football officials from around the world to the coastal parkland setting on the south-west fringe of Putin’s home city. The palace previously hosted world political leaders for meetings of the G8 and G20 nations.
A total of 141 of FIFA’s 209 member federations were involved in the draw, including top-ranked Argentina, joint No. 207-ranked Djibouti and Cook Islands, plus South Sudan on its World Cup debut.
The planned two-hour draw, co-hosted by supermodel Natalia Vodionova and television presenter Dmitry Shepelev in Russian and English, overran by 10 minutes.
The extra time let FIFA officials relax a little longer after weeks of being rocked by fallout from the May 27 arrest of senior colleagues in Zurich, and unleashing of investigations into alleged racketeering, bribery, and corruption implicating football and marketing officials.
Blatter was re-elected FIFA president two days later with support from Putin, who hinted the United States was meddling in football’s affairs to help strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup.
Within a week Blatter had stunningly announced he would leave the office he has held since 1998 after a new election to replace him. It is on Feb. 26.
Blatter could be interviewed for the Swiss case — which centers on suspected money laundering linked to the 2018 and 2022 bid contests — and is a stated target of American investigators. He denies all wrongdoing.
U.S. group includes Trinidad and Tobago
The United States’ road to the 2018 World Cup opens in November with a four-nation group that includes Trinidad and Tobago.
Given a bye in the first three rounds along with the other powers of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, the United States was drawn into Group C for the fourth round, which will include Guatemala or Antigua and Barbuda, and Aruba or St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Seeking its eighth straight World Cup appearance, the Americans will start with a pair of games on Nov. 13 and 17. Play resumes March 25 and 29, and then takes a six-month break before concluding Sept. 2 and 6, 2016. The top two nations advance to the final round Hexagonal, which will produce three qualifiers and determine the fourth-place team that meets Asia’s No. 5 team in a playoff for a berth. The Hexagonal starts Nov. 7, 2016, and ends Oct. 10, 2017.
Mexico is in Group A with Honduras, Canada or Belize, and El Salvador or Curacao. Group B includes Costa Rica, Jamaica or Nicaragua, and Haiti or Grenada.