Vladimir Putin welcomes soccer luminaries to the Kremlin on Friday for a World Cup draw that provides a global audience for the Russian president to attempt to burnish the image of a country scandalized by sports corruption.
By staging the ceremony for the 32 World Cup finalists at the seat of Russian power and draping the Kremlin in FIFA branding, soccer’s governing body is undercutting its pretense that sports and politics should not mix — and in a country where the association has proved so damaging.
FIFA is on the final countdown to the first World Cup in Russia as it continues to assess the extent the 2014 World Cup squad was embroiled in the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme. FIFA President Gianni Infantino still plans to share a stage Friday with Vitaly Mutko, the Russian deputy prime minister accused of overseeing the elaborate scheme that saw positive samples across Russian sports destroyed or hidden.
Infantino, though, is still trying to rebuild FIFA’s image after far-reaching bribery scandals threatened the future of the organization. The draw comes one day short of the seventh anniversary of the World Cup vote from which so many of FIFA’s legal travails stemmed.
Russian authorities deny government involvement in doping and the country has weathered FIFA corruption investigations, concerns about hooliganism, racism around games, deaths on World Cup construction sites and a sponsor shortfall to stay on track to host soccer’s biggest tournament for the first time.
The draw is the moment fans can start to plan their journeys across Russia, with 11 host cities spread from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea in the west to Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains which separate Europe and Asia.
Germany will discover the path to defending the title won in Brazil, while Iceland and Panama will be in the draw for the finals for the first time. Two teams are returning after long absences: Peru hasn’t contested the World Cup since 1982 and Egypt is returning for the first time since 1990. But there is no space for four-time champion Italy, two-time reigning Copa America champion Chile, while the United States is missing for the first time since 1986.