By Andrew Warshaw
December 1 – It was trumpeted by FIFA as a must-watch media briefing about World Cup preparations and the glittering draw at the Kremlin Palace later in the day. Instead, it barely touched on the draw ceremony and turned into a quite extraordinary full-scale personal assault on Russia’s critics by chief World Cup organiser Vitaly Mutko (pictured far left).
Rarely if ever before has Mutko, no longer a member of FIFA’s inner cabinet but very much the man of the moment with the eyes of the world watching, come out with quite so many guns blazing as he launched a full-scale defence of Russia’s record on doping, insisting there “has never been and never will be any manipulation of our national team.”
With FIFA president Gianni Infantino sitting alongside him, happy perhaps to take a backseat but no doubt irritated at seeing the narrative dominated by doping instead of the tournament, Mutko poured out heart and soul as he used up at least one third of the 80-minute briefing with an at times rambling rant about how the west was trying to discredit his country.
Clearly designed to set out Russia’s case ahead of next week’s eagerly anticipated International Olympic Committee decision whether to ban the country from the Pyeongchang winter Olympics because of doping violations, Mutko didn’t mince his words as he refuted all allegations of state-sponsored doping which, according to Canadian law professor Dr Richard McLaren’s explosive report that sparked the current crisis, included 33 footballers.
Insisting there was “no proof” of a state-backed doping system in the country, Mutko was asked if he was embarrassed that a media event to showcase Russia hosting the World Cup kept returning to doping.
At first promising not to give “a lengthy answer” he then launched into a series of outspoken responses as he pointed to doping problems in other countries such as Britain and Norway.
Even when the Russian moderator urged attending reporters to stick to the draw ceremony with their questions, it was Mutko who went off script with a diatribe about Russia being unfairly treated, naming specific publications in the process.
Lashing out at those he claimed were trying to “trample Russia underfoot”, Mutko declared: “If you don’t fight back you will just be smashed. When people allege we are doing something wrongfully, I don’t like this.”
“We hope commonsense will prevail,” Mutko continued. “People blame us for state-sponsored doping. But I’ve said it before…we are an open country. I’m happy to go to any court or any disciplinary committee. There has never been and will never be any state programmes related to doping in this country.
“Since 2009 we have opened our country…any doping officer can take samples of any of our athletes. There is no manipulation. Those who are coming up with these allegations are trying to discredit our country. Where is the proof? There should be a balanced approach. Every country should have a level playing field. This may all be hot air for you but for me it’s not.”
For his part, Infantino attempted to sidestep the issue. “FIFA doesn’t participate in any speculations about any situation,” he said, adding that all tests from the 2017 Confederations Cup, the 2016 European championship and the 2014 World Cup had proven negative.
“These tests are not carried out in Russia and they are carried out by non-Russians,” Infantino told reporters. “Obviously, as it was the case in the past and as will be the case in the future as well, if it turns out that anyone has committed a doping violation, has taken some doping, then there will be sanctions.”
But Infantino could not avoid being challenged over whether today’s draw was being equally overshadowed by the FifaGate trial in New York.
Again trying to distance himself from the scandal, Infantino suggested the trial had nothing to do with FIFA as an organisation and that there was need to “draw a line” between past FIFA authorities and the present regime.
Infantino complained that FIFA was being portrayed in media articles as the guilty party when the trial focusses on the Americas. Conveniently forgetting that many of those indicted once represented his organisation, he said: “I thank the American authorities and those in Switzerland for helping us to fight corruption and bribery. The sad thing is some media articles (about the trial) always mention FIFA even though …. FIFA has been recognised as a victim of some individuals who mis-used their position in FIFA for their own personal benefits.”
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