KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Vitaly Mutko has quit as president of the 2018 World Cup local organising committee after already having stepped down earlier this week as head of the Russian Football Union.

Mutko’s initial decision to step aside “for six months” from the RFU had been viewed as an attempt to draw the fire of western critics of Russia’s World Cup hosting in the wake of the Olympic doping saga in which he is enmeshed.

However it appears international federation FIFA and its president Gianni Infantino considered this insufficient to save the World Cup from drowning in a sea of western criticism and suspicion and sponsorship reluctance.

Alexey Sorokin . . . high-visibility roles

Hence the 59-year-old, debarred last spring from standing for re-election to the governing FIFA Council because of a conflict of interest with his role as a Deputy Prime Minister, has formally abandoned all his football roles.

Mutko will be succeeded as chairman of the local organising committee by its general director Alexey Sorokin, a former RFU ceo who has already succeeded to Mutko’s seat on the FIFA Council.

In practical terms this is only a cosmetic change since Sorokin has held hands-on responsibility for preparations ever since leading the Russian hosting bid to success in December 2010.

Government link

Russian news agency TASS quoted Mutko as saying: “Sorokin will become chairman of the organising committee [and] will interact with FIFA. I will co-ordinate work with the government.”

Kremlin sources have indicated that Mukto 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.

But even in this role Mutko appears to have run out of track though he will remain influential behind the scenes.

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.

He said on Monday that he was withdrawing for six months from leadership of the RFU while be prepared an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a lifetime Olympic ban over the doping scandal imposed by the IOC.

A FIFA statement earlier this week, which appeared to pre-empt his LOC exit, 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.

‘Fruitful co-operation’

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

Alexander Alayev, a former beach soccer player, has taken over as interim president of the RFU.

Alayev joined 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.

** Russia will play their World Cup warm-up friendly against France on March 27 in St Petersburg and not at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium as had been planned. In May the squad will go to Innsbruck for a training camp and friendly against Austria. They then return to Moscow for a friendly against Turkey in the new Dynamo Stadium in early June.