MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Saturday launched the World Cup trophy on a tour across Russia ahead of the 2018 championship, with the head of world football’s governing body lauding Russia’s readiness for the event.
“To the people of Russia, I tell them: enjoy and celebrate the trophy tour and then the World Cup. And to the people of the world, I tell them: come to Russia, enjoy Russia and celebrate the World Cup,” Infantino said, standing next to Putin on a stage in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which has been fully renovated and will also host the final and five other matches.
Surrounded by hundreds of young footballers, Infantino and Putin took turns to hold the FIFA World Cup in their hands before it started its 123-day, 26,000 km (16,250 mile) journey.
“We are starting now the tour…to prepare the whole world for next year’s event when in this stadium three billion people around the world will watch this trophy being handed over to the next world champion,” Infantino said.
Moscow has eased visa regulations for foreign football fans and pumped billions of dollars into stadiums, hotels and other infrastructure as the Kremlin is keen to improve Russia’s image in its worst crisis with the West since the Cold War.
Russia has come under several rounds of Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s role in Ukraine’s conflict with pro-Russian separatists.
“The World Cup is the most famous sports symbol, it’s unique,” Infantino said. “We will tell Russia and the entire world what a competition will take place here in 2018. I’m confident that it will be a remarkable tournament.”
The event was also attended by football stars of the past — Bebeto of Brazil and former French striker David Trezeguet.
Putin has promised that his country will complete the preparations for hosting the tournament on time.
“Everything is going according to schedule, everything is supported by the financial backing,” Putin told Infantino at a separate meeting later in remarks shown by state television.
The Luzhniki Stadium has undergone a five-year reconstruction and Infantino said he was impressed with the modernisation of the venue.
“The stadium is absolutely amazing. It’s very beautiful and it has absolutely everything that a stadium of the highest class should have,” Infantino said.
The World Cup trophy will be showcased in 24 Russian cities and more than 50 countries around the globe giving fans an opportunity to see the most coveted prize in world football.
The World Cup will be played between June 14 and July 15 at 12 venues in 11 cities — Moscow, St Petersburg, Sochi, Kazan, Saransk, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Samara.