Sepp Blatter Finalizing Plans to Attend World Cup in Russia

Sepp Blatter Finalizing Plans to Attend World Cup in Russia

MOSCOW — FIFA President Gianni Infantino can breathe a sigh of relief. He will not have to vie for attention with his disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter, on Thursday at the opening game of the World Cup in Russia.

Mr. Blatter, 82, has an open invitation from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to attend the monthlong tournament, though he will skip the first game when the host country meets Saudi Arabia in front of a packed house at the Luzhniki Stadium, according to his spokesman.

But any relief felt within the FIFA administration is likely to be short-lived: Blatter remains determined to travel to the sport’s flagship event, increasing the chances of an awkward collision in a V.I.P. box with Mr. Infantino at some point in the next four weeks.

Mr. Blatter, who is serving a six-year ban from all soccer-related activities after an investigation into ethical breaches during his nearly 20-year presidency, most likely will arrive in Russia with his girlfriend on or around June 20, his spokesman, Thomas Renggli confirmed.

Reviled by many soccer fans, Mr. Blatter remains a popular figure in Russia after backing the country’s efforts to stage the World Cup during a controversial bidding process in 2010, which also ended with Qatar’s securing the rights to hold the tournament in 2022.

Mr. Putin and other Russian officials remained vocal defenders of Mr. Blatter even after his ouster, which was precipitated by a set of sprawling Department of Justice indictments in 2015 that accused several senior soccer officials of corrupt practices. Several of them were arrested in early morning police raids at their Zurich hotels.

Days after Swiss police officers arrested several top soccer officials at the request of American investigators in May 2015, Mr. Putin accused the Americans of trying to sabotage Blatter’s bid for re-election, which was to be held the same week.

The Kremlin reiterated its welcome last year to Mr. Blatter, with Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, saying “old friends” were welcome to attend the World Cup this summer. Mr. Blatter wanted to make the trip from his home in Zurich to reciprocate the warm wishes he has received from Putin. “That’s the main reason he’s going,” Mr. Renggli said.

The trip was confirmed earlier this year, and Mr. Blatter has arranged all the required paperwork to visit Russia, Mr. Renggli added.

UEFA faced a similar situation with a banned former leader in 2016, when the former French star Michel Platini — banned along with Mr. Blatter in the FIFA scandal — wanted to attend the European Championship in his home country.

Officials from UEFA, soccer’s governing body in Europe, sought clarification from FIFA’s ethics judge to make sure his attendance would not be a violation, and the sides came to an agreement that allowed Mr. Platini to sit in a luxury box among politicians. But he was to be kept away from soccer officials at the matches, and FIFA will face the same issues with Blatter.

For Mr. Infantino, Mr. Blatter’s presence would likely be an unwelcome distraction as he continues his push to improve FIFA’s image and to stamp his own authority on the scandal-plagued organization.

Asked last week whether he would mind sitting alongside Mr. Putin with Mr. Blatter, the 48-year-old Infantino asked reporters if “you have any other questions” before letting out a long, nervous laugh and then adding, “Everyone is welcome.”

Mr. Renggli said a diplomatic solution would be found to prevent any awkward situations. He described recent news reports that Mr. Blatter had sustained a major health scare as “too dramatic,” insisting that a trip to the hospital was nothing more than a routine checkup for a man in his 80s.

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