Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted Thursday with trademark indifference to the bribery scandal plaguing the world soccer federation FIFA, denying any wrongdoing by Russia and accusing the United States of trying to wreck his country's hosting of the 2018 World Cup.
In televised comments from the Kremlin, Putin called it "odd" that U.S. prosecutors had brought charges of corruption and bribery against 14 soccer officials for alleged crimes, including accepting $150 million in bribes, that occurred outside the United States and involved mostly foreign citizens.
A separate investigation launched by Swiss authorities is aimed at determining whether inappropriate influence was exercised in FIFA's decisions to award the next World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.
Russia "has nothing to do with it," Putin said of the scandal and allegations that Moscow secured the coveted hosting rights through some form of subterfuge.
The bombshell U.S. accusations against senior soccer figures contained in a 47-count indictment released Wednesday has shaken the administration of the world's most popular sport and spurred mounting calls for FIFA President Sepp Blatter to resign.
Blatter, who is not among the accused, was expected to secure a fifth term as FIFA chief at the organization's annual meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, when the presidency is up for a vote on Friday. But the corruption allegations have prompted key sponsors of the World Cup, including Visa, Coca-Cola and Adidas, to demand reform within the soccer federation to ensure "ethical practices."
Putin cast the movement to derail Blatter's candidacy to stay at FIFA's helm as a move engineered by the United States to get Russia's 2018 hosting revoked.
"As we all know, on Friday FIFA was to elect its president, and Mr. Blatter has every chance to be reelected," Putin said. "We are aware of the pressure that was put on him to prevent the 2018 World Cup in Russia."
Putin likened the alleged attempt to punish Blatter to the charges brought against NSA leaker Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for their exposure of massive U.S. government surveillance of millions of citizens' private phone calls, emails and texts.
"Our American counterparts, unfortunately, are using the same methods to reach their goals and illegally persecute people. I don't rule out that this is the case in relation to FIFA," Putin said. "I have no doubt that this is yet another obvious attempt to derail Mr. Blatter's reelection as FIFA president."
U.S.-Russian relations have fallen to a post-Cold War low following Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its backing for separatist rebels occupying two large regions of eastern Ukraine.
Putin has cast the conflict in Ukraine as the result of U.S. and NATO encroachment into Russia's traditional sphere of influence, a campaign he contends is aimed at deposing him and installing more Western-leaning and pliable figures in the Kremlin and other former Soviet states.