Russia's sports minister moves to end cold war over World Cup

Vitaly Mutko apologises to England 2018 bid team for slurs by his compatriots
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The Independent Football

The England 2018 World Cup bid team claimed victory last night in their bitter feud with their Russian rivals after Vitaly Mutko, the most senior figure in Russian football, offered a public and unreserved apology for the disparaging remarks against the English team made by two of his country's leading officials.

After a week of tensions between the English and the Russians in Zurich which reached their climax with the president of the Russian football union Viacheslav Koloskovdescribing the English as "absolutely primitive", Mutko took the sting out of the dispute with a personal apology and a request that the feud ended.

Mutko, a member of the Fifa executive committee (ExCo), yesterday approached 2018 chief executive Andy Anson in the breakfast room of the Baur au Lac hotel where all the ExCo members and bid teams have been staying in Zurich over the last week. According to one source "he apologised in full view of lots of people" to ensure that there was no doubt the gesture had been made.

Mutko apologised for the comments made by Koloskovon Wednesday night and those earlier in the week by the general director of the Russian bid, Alexei Sorokin, who, among other things, described London as the most crime-plagued city in Europe.

Later Mutko said: "If there had been any misunderstanding I was ready to apologise for it. I can't control all the reports that are written. As our classics say, 'You shouldn't read Bolshevik papers before lunch'.

"We have no desire to say we are better than any other bid. I have great respect for the England bid and for Geoff Thompson [England's Fifa ExCo member]. We like England and we hope England like Russia. England could host the World Cup tomorrow, but we have a vision and Fifa have a philosophy that is about trying to grow the game in new parts of the world.

"Football is already very popular in England. We hope that football can be popular in Russia as it is in England. If we don't host the World Cup this time, it could take another 100 years. If we didn't have the Winter Olympics, Sochi would not be transformed for another 200 years."

The move from Mutko brought an end – at least temporarily – to weeks of hostility between the two bids that came to a climax during the two-day conference in Zurich where bid teams have access to all but two of the 24 Fifa ExCo members who, on 2 December, will vote for the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

The final straw was the attack from Koloskov in which the former ExCo member launched into the English bid, calling it "primitive" and blamed the English for "raising tensions" with their original complaint about Sorokin. Because Koloskov, a former head of the Russian football union, was not part of his country's bid team it was not possible for the English to make a formal complaint about him.

However, the move from Mutko, currently the minister for sport and also a former head of the Russian football union, demonstrates how serious the deterioration in relations had become. Mutko is also the direct representative of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, in sport and his intervention suggests that those at the highest levels believed that the feud had gone too far.

Putin and British prime minister David Cameron are expected to attend the final gala in Zurich, where both sides will be frantically trying to persuade wavering ExCo members to vote for their bid. Before yesterday the stand-off was becoming a potential embarrassment for both sides.

The dispute between Russia and England has been played out against the backdrop of alleged corruption in Fifa, centred around the suspension of Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Tahiti's Reynald Temarii who, following a Sunday Times investigation, are alleged to have offered their votes in return for cash for football projects. The English bid team had been wary of referring their spat with Russia to the Fifa ethics committee when it has such big issues to deal with.

However, in the light of Mutko's apology the English have now dropped the official complaint that they lodged to Fifa's secretariat. The English bid had been criticised in some quarters for going as far as Fifa, but the apology suggests that Anson and David Dein, the international president of the bid, called it just right in applying pressure to the Russians.

Despite the feuds and competition between the Russian and English bids, the American ExCo member Chuck Blazer said yesterday that the level of competition around the bids was preferable to the procession that accompanied Brazil's anointing as 2014 tournament hosts. Blazer said: "World Cups have got better over the years because countries have competed for the right to host. I wasn't very happy with the situation with the last one. We have some great bidding countries who are serious about making the World Cup better."