ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) - Sepp the Great came to an old Romanov chateau for what he promises will be his final World Cup draw as FIFA president.
The Konstantin Palace, a summer home built at the direction of Peter the Great, was the site of Saturday night’s 2018 qualifying procedure, where Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted the guests and former players plucked red balls from glass bowls to determine matchups.
“No one’s worried about anything else. It’s just all about the football,” Wales coach Chris Coleman said.
But the symbolism was delicious.
Used by a branch of Russia’s ruling family until Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne following 1917’s February Revolution, the dacha and gardens initially were planned by Jean Baptiste Le Blond, who had worked on Versailles. Renovated at the direction of Putin, the site is now one of his official residences.
The imperial surroundings fit the imperious style of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who announced his abdication plan last month after a 47-count U.S. federal indictment laying out racketeering, bribery and money laundering charges against top soccer officials - but not him.
Blatter’s reign began in 1998 after he served 17 years as the No. 2 to Joao Havelange. He conducts himself with the airs of a head of state, running an organization presided over by a scandal-tainted and partially indicted executive committee.
Workers nailed down red carpet over wooden risers and repeatedly vacuumed the rug before the draw. That ensured soccer officials wouldn’t have to step on raw earth while entering the hall, erected on the side of the lemon chiffon-colored home of Peter the Great, about 15 miles south of the old capital.
FIFA’s World Cup Organizing Committee gathered Friday to finalize the tournament schedule in a chandeliered room of Robin’s egg blue walls with gold and white accents. Just outside the entrance was a temporary structure promoting Kia and McDonald’s, among other corporate clientele.
From the terrace where cocktails were served, soccer’s high command overlooked sprawling gardens with trimmed trees, scarlet begonias and statues.
“Spectacular. It’s Versailles No. 2, isn’t it?” England coach Roy Hodgson marveled.
Sixty-seven steps lead to the lower park and the Petrovsky Canal, which stretches toward The Pavillion and the Gulf of Finland, the water ornamented by 45 fountains on each side.
Framing the scene on the palace’s lower level are 11 arches alternating with 12 statues. Among them are Sinceritas and Clementia - straightforwardness and mercy - not exactly the values attributed to soccer executives by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“Absolutely extraordinary,” Ireland coach Martin O’Neill said, holding out his mobile phone. “I’ve been told to take as much film as I possibly can, and even though I’m not very good at it, it’s excellent.”
With the investigation as the backdrop, FIFA officials gathered in the city that served as the locale for Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Many stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel, a full-block edifice guarded by a pair of stone lions described in Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 poem “The Bronze Horseman.”
Sounding like a man trying to distance himself from Blatter and accusations of financial finagling, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke admitted during his palace news conference that the constant kerfuffle over transgressions proven and alleged has FIFA essentially stuck in the goo, unable to close new deals with sponsors.
“Clearly it’s not about World Cup. It’s about FIFA,” he said. “The value of the World Cup is the same.”
He referred to his boss as “Blatter” - no Mr. and no first name.
“So what you are asking me, if I am responsible for what has happened this last time, I don’t think that I am really involved, and I don’t think that I have anything to do in this case,” Valcke maintained, while adding he expected to depart when Blatter is replaced.
FIFA trumpeted that Gerard Depardieu, the French actor who portrayed former FIFA President Jules Rimet in the FIFA-financed movie “United Passions,” attended the draw. The widely panned flick cost about $30 million to make and recouped $900 or so at the box office in its U.S. release last month - less than the going price for a room at the Four Seasons over the weekend.
Over the top defines FIFA and the draw. The 2018 World Cup schedule was completed Friday, and the final will be played in Moscow on July 15, 2018, a much-anticipated day in Russia. Two days later marks another memorable day in the nation’s history - the 100th anniversary of the executions of Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra.
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