With Russian sports under a cloud, Putin vows warm welcome

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the World Cup draw ceremony on Friday and promised “a great festival” at next year’s tournament.

On stage with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Putin painted a picture of Russia as a welcoming nation with a rich sports history.

“Our country can’t wait to host the World Cup and intends to host it at the very highest level,” Putin said. “Anyone who has come to Russia even once knows how we welcome our friends.”

Putin extolled the values of fair play and “friendly and honest competition,” values which Russian officials have been accused of betraying when it hosted the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Olympic doping scandals, political tension and controversy around the World Cup bidding process have often overshadowed Russia’s preparations for next year’s soccer tournament.

The legacy of the Sochi Olympics has been a series of damaging investigations into doping and cover-ups at the games. The number of Russian athletes disqualified by the International Olympic Committee hit 25 on Friday, with the IOC due to vote Tuesday on banning Russia from the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.

While Putin didn’t touch on Russia’s sporting woes during the draw, he has always denied any government involvement.

Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko delivered a fierce defense of the country’s reputation earlier Friday, painting Russia and its athletes as victims of an international conspiracy to portray the country as “an axis of evil.” Mutko also vowed to defend them “to the last bullet.”

Russia was also forced onto the defensive at last year’s European Championship when hundreds of fans from organized hooligan groups fought with English supporters on the streets of Marseille and inside the stadium as Mutko looked on. The Russian government says it has tightened security measures and there won’t be a repeat during the World Cup.

Russia’s other concerns ahead of the tournament include construction delays at the stadium in Samara – though the situation is markedly better than ahead of the last World Cup in Brazil – and cost overruns. The official budget currently stands at 678 billion rubles ($11.6 billion), though some related infrastructure projects are not included in that sum.

At Friday’s draw, Putin promised World Cup fans “unforgettable memories,” but Russia faces a struggle to ensure the tournament is not remembered for all the wrong reasons.