Vitaly Mutko, a Russian government official who has been dogged by allegations of involvement in doping, said Monday he would temporarily step down as president of the Russian Football Union.
It’s a move apparently intended to deflect international criticism as Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup.
Mutko said at a briefing that he would suspend his activities as president for half-a-year, and Alexander Alayev would serve as the acting head of the Russian Football Union.
Mutko would retain the job of deputy prime minister overseeing sports.
Investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee alleged that Mutko was involved in a sophisticated state-sponsored doping program during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Mutko, who served as Russia’s sports minister during the Games, has strongly denied all doping allegations.
The IOC didn’t accuse Mutko of being personally involved in doping, but banned him from the Olympics for life, saying he and his ministry bore overall responsibility for “failure to respect” anti-doping rules.
Mutko said he wanted to have his duties as president of the Russian Football Union suspended as he was planning to contest his ban from the Olympics at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
He added that he would also likely step down as the head of the World Cup’s organizing committee.
Dmitry Svishchev, a member of the committee for sports and tourism at the lower house of Russian parliament, told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Mutko was stepping down in order to defuse criticism of Russia before the run-up to the World Cup.
At a joint news conference with FIFA president Gianni Infantino ahead of the World Cup draw in Moscow on Dec. 1, Mutko reaffirmed his denial of the doping accusations.
“There is no proof” Russian ran a state-backed doping scheme, he said. “Nowadays everyone is trying to make some kind of axis of evil out of us, just because we’re a great sporting power.”
Mutko sat on FIFA’s ruling council until March, when he was barred from running for re-election because his government position was judged a conflict of interest. Mutko was replaced by his longtime associate and fellow World Cup organizer Alexei Sorokin.
FIFA thanked Mutko for what it called a “responsible step … taken in the best interest of the FIFA World Cup next summer.”
“Mr. Mutko’s decision will have no impact on the successful staging of the FIFA World Cup next summer, as FIFA, the Russian Government, RFU and the LOC [Local Organizing Committee] continue their fruitful cooperation on the preparations for the FIFA World Cup according to plan,” it said in a statement. “In the coming days, FIFA will discuss with all relevant parties and agree on the next steps related to the LOC.”
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