September 18, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) Russian officials insisted Friday that the suspension of FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke will not affect the 2018 World Cup, as President Vladimir Putin marked 1,000 days until the tournament.

Valcke, FIFA president Sepp Blatter's right-hand man who oversaw World Cup preparations, was suspended Thursday amid allegations he was involved in black market sales of tickets to the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

''It has no effect in any way on us, on our preparations for the World Cup,'' said Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a member of the FIFA executive committee.

Mutko paid tribute to Valcke as a ''very professional person'' and valued adviser, but said he had become less important to the hosting of the 2018 World Cup as preparations advanced.

With U.S. and Swiss investigations into FIFA ongoing, Russia is prepared for more upheaval within FIFA, Mutko said.

''We should be ready for various decisions like this one,'' he said.

Valcke had been due to attend Friday's ceremony on Red Square, but his place was taken by the less well known Colin Smith, FIFA's director of competitions.

Against the backdrop of the FIFA turmoil, Putin said World Cup preparations were going to plan as he launched a youth football tournament to mark 1,000 days until the World Cup kicks off.

Speaking by video link, Putin said ''Russia always approaches events like (the World Cup) in a responsible way in terms of hosting and organization.''

''The preparations for the World Cup in 11 cities of our country who have the honor to host the championships are in full swing.''

Putin made no reference to the FIFA investigations or Valcke's suspension.

Speaking on Red Square, German World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus, one of a group of football stars invited by FIFA, suggested misconduct at FIFA had partly overshadowed the event in Moscow.

''FIFA's obviously been a hot topic for several months, it's discussed a lot. It's obvious that some people haven't done what was expected of them, but what I don't consider right is that everyone piles all the guilt on Sepp Blatter,'' he said. ''Yesterday there was a negative light cast on the story but it doesn't have much to do with this event here.''

A clock counting down to the first match of the 2018 World Cup was installed on Manezh Sqaure, near the Kremlin, with a host of top Russian officials in attendance. The square was also the site of a similar clock ahead of last year's Winter Olympics, held in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

Earlier Friday, Mutko defended Russia's right to host the World Cup amid investigations into the bidding process.

Allegations of money laundering by the Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 campaigns were ''a funny question,'' Mutko told Russia's R-Sport agency, adding that it was far from clear who had committed any alleged offenses or where any money had gone.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who is overseeing World Cup preparations, said preparations would not be damaged by the country's economic problems. The Russian economy contracted 4.6 percent in the second quarter of the year, compared to the same period of 2014.

''The Russian government will provide in full the money that is necessary to build this infrastructure, despite the difficult economic situation, despite the fact that we have to fulfill all our social obligations,'' he said.

''The president's order and the tough position of the government are that all of the obligations to FIFA that we have undertaken for the World Cup preparations will be fulfilled.''

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