Putin, Infantino say Russia is on track for 2018 World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) – Stadium construction for the 2018 World Cup is on schedule, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, contradicting recent reports of delays and cost increases.

Russia has been working to avoid a repeat of the problems that complicated preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Of the 12 stadiums for the tournament in Russia, nine have significant construction work remaining.

“Preparation for the World Cup is in full swing,” Putin said. “All of the developers promise – and are confident – that they will comply with the commitments to finish facilities on time.”

Earlier Wednesday, St. Petersburg lawmakers increased the budget for the World Cup stadium in that city by 4.3 billion rubles ($64 million), a 12 percent increase.

The stadium was originally supposed to open in 2008 but saw repeated delays, design changes and cost increases. World Cup organizing committee head Alexei Sorokin refused to comment on the latest cost hike. “For FIFA, the main thing is the readiness of the stadium,” he told reporters Wednesday. “It will be ready at the end of the year.”

Last month, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said work on the stadium in Samara had stopped because of a dispute with a construction firm. The Samara region’s sports minister denied any stoppage in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said Wednesday that Russia was on track for the tournament despite its economic difficulties. The Russian economy shrank 3.7 percent last year under pressure from sanctions and low oil prices and is projected by the IMF to contract 1.5 percent this year.

“We’ve received all the guarantees that the work will be delivered as promised,” Infantino said, adding that the World Cup will “boost the economy.”

Putin and Infantino were speaking at a ceremony at an open-air theater in Moscow to mark the start of recruitment of the 15,000 volunteers who will work at the World Cup and the 5,000 for next year’s Confederations Cup.

Also, Infantino denied that repeated doping scandals had tarnished the host nation’s reputation.

“It does not affect the country’s reputation and certainly not the quality of preparations for the World Cup,” Infantino said. “From what I can see, everything is done with respect by Russia to move ahead in the right way.

“As far as FIFA is concerned, we have our doping programs, they are very strict and very firm and they apply whatever.”

Also Wednesday, Infantino, Mutko and various officials and retired star players played a short exhibition game against a team of Russian celebrities, drawing 0-0. The new FIFA president was active in attack but spurned two good chances to score.

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