MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of meddling in the affairs of soccer's governing body and hinted that its corruption investigation is part of an attempt to take the 2018 World Cup away from his country.
Putin said in televised comments Thursday that he found it "odd" that the FIFA probe was launched at the request of U.S. officials for crimes which do not involve its citizens and did not happen in the United States.
Corruption charges in the U.S. were announced Wednesday against 14 people, at least two of whom have American citizenship. Seven of the 14 were arrested Wednesday morning in Zurich ahead of a FIFA meeting and Friday's presidential election in which Sepp Blatter is expected to win a fifth term. Much of the money that allegedly changed hands went through U.S. banks, which is why U.S. officials were able to bring charges.
In a separate probe, Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
Putin said even if "someone has done something wrong," Russia "has nothing to do with it." He then tried to portray the probe as a U.S. attempt to go after dissenters, likening the case to the persecution of whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
"Our American counterparts, unfortunately, are using the same methods to reach their goals and illegally persecute people. I don't rule out that this is the case in relation to FIFA," Putin said. "I have no doubt that this is yet another evident attempt to derail Mr. Blatter's re-election as FIFA president. We are aware of the pressure that he was subjected to in relation to Russia holding the 2018 World Cup."
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member and is in Zurich for the governing body's congress and presidential election, said Wednesday that his country welcomes the investigation.