Sepp Blatter, secular saint.
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By Geoffrey Smith
May 28, 2015

It was a day when the vast majority of the soccer-playing world exulted at the thought of the sport’s governing body being called to account.

But there was always likely to be one party that didn’t see it that way.

Vladimir Putin weighed into the scandal Thursday, blaming a U.S. conspiracy to impose its dominion on the world and springing to the defense of the embattled FIFA President, Sepp Blatter.

In a statement on the Kremlin web site, Putin compared Blatter to other victims of U.S. “persecution”, the whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, calling the investigation “just one more brazen attempt to spread its jurisdiction to other states.”

The other eight defendants, he argued, “aren’t U.S. citizens, and if anything happened, it didn’t happen on the territory of the U.S..”

The U.S. Attorney’s 168-page indictment argues that the bribes were executed through banks in the U.S., with at least some of the payments originating or ending the U.S..

Putin said it was all part of “the pressure on (Blatter) not to hold the 2018 World Cup in Russia”–an event for which he himself has been overseeing the preparations.

The Swiss investigation announced Wednesday parallel to the Justice Department’s case is explicitly looking into allegations of corruption in the award of that tournament (something overshadowed by the more spectacular scandal around giving the 2022 tournament to Qatar).

 

The man who headed the Russian 2018 bid, Vitaly Mutko, is now Russia’s Minister for Sport. If he’s implicated in the scandal personally, the embarrassment will quickly spread back to the Kremlin, which invested huge amounts of political (and an as yet unclear amount of financial) capital into the project.

Mutko said Wednesday he expected to be questioned as part of the investigation, but told the Associated Press he had “nothing to hide”.

“We’re prepared to show everything” to investigators, Mutko said.

Everything that’s left, anyway. When FIFA launched its own investigation into allegations of corruption around the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, Russia said it had leased out the computers it had used and had lost all the records of its correspondence–what The Times of London called “the use of ‘the-dog-ate-my-homework’ on an industrial scale.”

Putin had intended the 2018 World Cup to showcase Russia on the global stage, as the Sochi Winter Olympics had done last year. But the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of civil war in Ukraine had already drawn threats of sporting boycotts from western politicians last year.

“There are clearly forces in America that are trying to turn anything positive that we have into a new channel of confrontation,” Kirill Kabanov, who monitors corruption in Russia as a member of the Kremlin’s council on civil society, told TIME on Wednesday. “And even if there was bribery going on [at FIFA], why would the Americans only bring it up now, just after FIFA refused the demands of [U.S.] Senators to revoke Russia’s right to host the champions?”

His question referred to an appeal that 13 U.S. Senators sent last month to the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, asking him to move the 2018 World Cup to another country.

“Allowing Russia to host the FIFA World Cup inappropriately bolsters the prestige of the Putin regime at a time when it should be condemned,” the Senators wrote in the letter, dated April 1.

Less than three weeks later, Blatter met with Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi and issued an apparent rebuttal to the appeals from Capitol Hill. “If politicians are not too happy that we are taking the World Cup to Russia, I always say to them, ‘Well, you can stay home, and in Russia we will hold the biggest world cup ever,’” the FIFA chief told Putin on April 20, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website.

No Russians were named in the indictment Wednesday. The acting U.S. Attorney in the case, however, made clear that the probe was far from over: “This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation,” Kelly Currie told reporters in New York.

 

Simon Shuster of Time Magazine contributed to this report.

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