July 23, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Sepp Blatter left the security of Switzerland for the first time in two months on Thursday, arriving for the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw, with Russia saying that communication with FIFA has been disrupted by the corruption crisis.

Blatter will no longer be FIFA president by the time of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the 79-year-old Swiss due to leave office in seven months after almost 18 years in power.

The uncertainty about the leadership of world soccer is creating some issues for Russia, whose sports minister, Vitality Mutko, joined Blatter on arrival at his St. Petersburg hotel on Thursday.

The draw for World Cup qualifying is on Saturday as Russia prepares for its first major football event in three years.

''From the point of view of communication with FIFA ... it is not as easy as it was before,'' Mutko said through a translator. ''If you expect that there will be a change in administration in February then communication is somewhat thwarted. But on the whole it's not that critical, we do manage to cope.''

Since May 27 - when police in Zurich arrested some of Blatter's close associates on behalf of the U.S. and seized data from FIFA headquarters - Blatter has been absent from two major FIFA events in countries with extradition treaties with the United States.

Blatter skipped handing over the trophy in New Zealand for the Under-20 World Cup, and presenting the Women's World Cup trophy in Canada.

''I am happy to be here. Definitely, yes,'' Blatter said in his first comments outside Switzerland since a pre-FIFA Congress visit to Israel in May.

Blatter was then re-elected for a fifth four-year term but announced four days later he was quitting under the weight of the Swiss and American criminal investigations.

The Swiss are investigating the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process, but Mutko said: ''We are in no doubt that Russia will host the World Cup.''

Discussing Blatter's successor, Mutko said: ''We need a president that will be able to unite the organization, to improve its image, and we will be doing everything to this effect.''


Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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