Russia cries foul: Fifa arrests 'a conspiracy' says Moscow

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Vladimir Putin said Sepp Blatter was being pressurised to drop Russia as World Cup hosts

As the rest of the world debates the exposure of corruption at the heart of Fifa, all the talk swirling in Russia is of a conspiracy.

President Vladimir Putin argues that the criminal inquiry is aimed at ousting long-time Fifa president Sepp Blatter from his post.

He sees it as punishment for continuing to support Russia as host for the 2018 World Cup.

There have been increasing calls to strip Moscow of that privilege, in protest at military action in Ukraine.

"We know the pressure that was exerted on him [Blatter] with the aim of banning the 2018 World Cup in Russia," Mr Putin said on Thursday, offering Fifa's embattled leader his firm backing.

He then accused the United States of mounting a campaign to "persecute" Sepp Blatter for resisting.

"I have no doubt about it at all. It is a clear attempt to prevent the re-election of Mr Blatter," Mr Putin said, speaking about the criminal investigation.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow is being rebuilt in time to host the 2018 World Cup final
Image source, Russia 2018
Image caption,
Russia has proposed hosting matches in 13 cities, including Yekaterinburg

The comments fit a general trend here for vilifying the US, and demonstrate a conviction that consideration of Russia dominates global decision-making.

But Vladimir Putin's tirade also hints at genuine concern over the tournament's future.

This week, two prominent US senators urged Fifa against re-electing Mr Blatter as its head, because he continued to back Russia's right to stage the World Cup.

Acting as host was a privilege and a boost for Vladimir Putin "at a time when his actions should be condemned," John McCain and Robert Menendez argued.

Those actions include last year's annexation of Crimea and ongoing Russian support for rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow denies sending troops and weapons across the border, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

A previous appeal asked Fifa to ban Russia from hosting the international event, but Mr Blatter has vowed repeatedly that politics would not "get in the way" of football.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Russia won the rights to host the 2018 tournament at a ceremony in December 2010

'Let them prove it'

No Russians have been arrested in the US-led corruption inquiry, but Swiss prosecutors have also revealed that they are conducting a parallel probe into allegations of fraud during the World Cup bidding process for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022.

The results of a previous internal inquiry were never made public.

"Our bidding campaign was held honestly. Russia is not mixed up in corruption, everything is fair for our part," Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko assured reporters in Zurich, even as prosecutors sifted through documents seized from Fifa.

He insisted that the World Cup here is not in doubt and that the Russian organising committee had pledged to co-operate fully with the inquiry.

The decision to award the tournament to Russia is a matter of pride for many and preparations are well under way. But Muscovites are nervous.

"Of course I think it's politically motivated. I hope they can settle this," one woman told the BBC.

"A lot of money has already been spent."

That is a key concern: Russia has already cut its budget and scaled back plans, as its economy suffers the twin blows of a depressed oil price and sanctions over Ukraine.

"My understanding is that this is just another form of pressure on Russia," another man commented on the Swiss investigation.

"But the decision has been made, so it has to happen now. If there was money involved, let them prove it."

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