KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW: Sepp Blatter in back in Moscow, three years after his last visit when he was still president of world football federation FIFA.
Blatter undertook his last visit for the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw in July 2015 at a time when he felt it unsafe to visit any other country for fear of being detained on a warrant from the United States Justice Department in its football corruption investigation.
Shortly afterwards he was suspended by FIFA’s own ethics committee, made subject to a criminal investigation in Switzerland and suspended from football for six years.
He has always denied any wrongdoing and had insisted he hoped to attend the World Cup “in a private capacity.” An invitation was duly extended by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year at the time of the Confederations Cup warm-up tournament.
Blatter, cleared to travel with partner Linda Barras by his doctors after health problems, flew from Zurich to Moscow on an Aeroflot flight, checked in to a city-centre hotel, gave a brief television interview and posed for selfies.
The 82-year-old said he just wanted to enjoy the World Cup because “I am not here to analyse the games.”
He said he was not aware whether he would meet Putin, saying: “I am the guest of the organising committee, but they will make an arrangement to see the president if it were possible.
“I am a guest. I take the programme they are offering to me and I am happy to be here.”
First game for Blatter is Portugal against Morocco at the Luzhniki stadium followed by Brazil v Costa Rica on Friday in St Petersburg. Blatter remarked on the early upsets in the tournament but predicted that the traditional powers would come through in the end.
He said: “In football, there are always surprises. This makes the competition so attractive: you never know what will happen. The match between Mexico and Germany was a real thriller. People like that but I think that even if the big teams lose their first match, they will come back.”
Blatter also hoped that the hosts’ opening victories over Saudi Arabia and Egypt would help encourage a what he called “a start-up” for Russian football.
He also offered encouragement to a bid from England and Ireland for host the 2030 finals.
Blatter said: “I think that England or the islands, they deserve to organise the World Cup really. They had it in 1966 so it’s a long time ago.
“Wales and Scotland? Why not Ireland? With 48 teams you need more than one country, definitely.”