January 16, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Friday he has received personal assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that the country's economic problems will not affect its ability to host the 2018 World Cup.

Blatter said he was ''vigilant'' about Russia's economic situation after the ruble lost almost half of its value last year under pressure from the sinking world oil price and international sanctions.

Blatter said he had spoken with Putin during a visit to Russia on Friday and was assured ''there is no intention to ask FIFA to change anything in the pattern and the program of the World Cup and we trust Russia will find a solution.''

The Russian government also faces a fall in revenue due to the low oil price, while the World Bank on Wednesday predicted that Russia's economy would contract by 2.9 percent this year.

Blatter has previously proposed removing one of the 11 host cities for 2018 in order to make preparations simpler, against the wishes of the Russian government, but said Friday he no longer backed that idea.

''There is no need to cut the number of stadia and the number of cities,'' he said. ''It has been decided.''

Russia's preparations are ideal, he added, especially following Brazil's troubled and delay-ridden run-up to the 2014 World Cup.

''When I compare the same time with Brazil, at the time, I wouldn't say it's like heaven and hell, because I don't believe that hell exists, but I think that's a different heaven that we are facing here,'' he said.

Blatter's visit to Russia carried extra significance with regard to FIFA's presidential election in June. He opened the Commonwealth Cup, a youth tournament in St. Petersburg which typically serves as a way for Blatter to meet with the heads of football federations from ex-Soviet countries, who have historically been among his strongest backers.

Blatter did not talk about his chances against Jordanian challenger Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, but indicated he was confident of a fifth term in office.

''In the last congress in Sao Paulo, I was really asked by the FIFA congress to stand again and I do hope I will be here in 2016,'' he said.

He sidestepped questions about the disputed football status of Crimea, now being administered by UEFA as a ''special zone'' following a dispute between the football associations of Ukraine and Russia, and Russia's non-payment of head coach Fabio Capello, saying that they were local problems that did not require FIFA to intervene.

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