KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Vitaly Mutko’s Christmas gift to Russia’s World Cup hosting has been to step down as president of the national football association.

However conflicting statements have emerged about whether he will continue as head of the 2018 World Cup local organising committee.

Mutko’s decision to step aside “for six months” from the RFU has been viewed as an attempt to draw the fire of western critics of Russia’s World Cup hosting in the wake of the ongoing doping saga. Whether this alone will suffice is unlikely.

Vitaly Mutko . . . steadily shrinking empire

Kremlin sources have indicated that the 59-year-old will continue as a Deputy Prime Minister at least until elections on Sunday, March 18 when Vladimir Putin is expected to be re-elected as state president.

The two men rose together from St Petersburg and Mutko has long performed the crucial role, in sports terms, as a lightning conductor for Putin.

Mutko announced his decision to step aside temporarily from his RFU role at a press conference ahead of a meeting of the executive committee.

CAS appeal

He said he had taken his decision so as not to “disrupt” the functioning of the RFU ahead of the World Cup in which the national team’s prospects of even progressing beyond the first round are in doubt.

Mutko is expected to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a lifetime Olympic ban over the doping scandal and said his exit from the RFU leadership was aimed at helping him prepare his case.

He intended to “continue to work as Deputy Prime Minister, as long as the president [Putin] trusts me.” He also announced his intention to oversee the preparations for the 2018 World Cup, scheduled in Russia from June 14 to July 15.

However, Mutko may not find world football federation FIFA so happy with his continuance in World Cup office judging by an apparently contradictory and pre-emptive statement issued by the world federation.

It said: “FIFA understands Mr Mutko’s decision, which was also adopted in the interests of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. FIFA thanks him for taking such a responsible step and the work done so far to prepare for the World Cup.

“This decision will not affect the successful organization of the World Cup, while FIFA, the Russian government, the RFU and the organising committee continue fruitful cooperation in preparing for the tournament according to plan.”

FIFA said it would discuss “with all involved parties and agree on the next steps related to the organising committee.”

Alayev steps up

Russian news agency TASS said that Alexander Alayev, a former beach soccer player, would take over as the RFU’s interim president.

Alayev joined the RFU in 2007 as head of the beach soccer department and also its national team coach. In 2010 he was promoted to deputy sports director, becoming executive director in 2012. Since March 2016 he has been both general director and secretary-general.

Mutko, a former president of Zenit St Petersburg, was head of the RFU between 2005 and 2009 and then returned in 2015 amid financial chaos in place of Nikolai Tolstykh. He was re-elected in September 2016 for a new four-year term.

Last spring an overt conflict of interest between his political and sports roles led to his being barred from standing for re-election to the governing council of FIFA. This role was taken up subsequently by Alexey Sorokin, who is chief executive of the World Cup’s local organising operation.

** Russia, ahead of the World Cup, will stage a national team training camp near Innsbruck where they will play a friendly against Austria. They will then return to Moscow for a friendly against Turkey in the new Dynamo Stadium in early June. A match against France on March 27 will not be held in the Luzhniki stadium, as planned, but in St Petersburg.