- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

LONDON (AP) - Russia’s hosting of the World Cup is becoming increasingly problematic for FIFA’s leaders after the International Olympic Committee withdrew support for sporting events being staged in the doping-tainted nation.

The IOC’s move followed this week’s second damning World Anti-Doping Agency report, which accused Russia of state-sponsored doping.

The scandal landed at FIFA’s door after Russian soccer was for the first time implicated in the alleged doping cover-up by a country that has been entrusted with soccer’s most prestigious event in 2018.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, whose department is accused of orchestrating the deception, is also head of the country’s soccer federation and is a member of FIFA’s ruling council.

Soccer’s governing body is standing by the 2018 hosts - just as it has done throughout six years of scrutiny since the contentious vote to hand the World Cup to Russia for the first time.

“Preparations for the World Cup are in full swing,” Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “FIFA said yesterday that they are preparing for the World Cup to be held in Russia.”

And 2018 is not the only countdown. FIFA is less than 11 months from staging the Confederations Cup, an eight-team warm-up competition, in Russia.

Dick Pound, the former WADA president who authored the earlier report on doping in Russian track and field, said FIFA now has another “credibility issue” to confront following McLaren’s findings.

Still recovering from its own corruption scandals, FIFA is now under the new leadership of President Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura, a newcomer to sports governance but with diplomatic experience from the United Nations.

“In the last 18 months, FIFA has leaked a lot of oil and has a lot of reputational exposure,” Pound, a Canadian lawyer and former IOC vice president, told The Associated Press. “(Russia) is one of the ethical exposures they have to wrestle with now it involves doping.”

The escalating doping scandal is not the only issue to cause problems for Russia, though, as it prepares for the World Cup.

The safety of fans attending the tournament is under the spotlight after Russia was threatened with expulsion from the European Championship last month over the violence perpetrated by hooligans in France.

And only this week, Putin ordered organizers in St. Petersburg to speed up construction of the city’s troubled World Cup stadium. Putin instructed officials to “adopt comprehensive measures to eliminate the gaps” in the stadium’s construction schedule and gave similar instructions to authorities in Samara and Kaliningrad for their venues.

The fact that stadiums are being built for the World Cup should not dictate any discussion about stripping Russia of its hosting rights, according to Pound.

“There are lots of countries in Europe and elsewhere that could accommodate a World Cup at a couple of years’ notice,” Pound said.

When FIFA was asked Wednesday if it retained full confidence and trust in Russia as World Cup hosts, the governing body referred the AP to an earlier statement announcing a “full inquiry” into the 11 positive tests of Russian soccer players that WADA investigator Richard McLaren said were made to disappear in the state-sponsored doping program from 2011 to 2015.

FIFA said it will be in charge of anti-doping programs at the World Cup “ensuring the highest standards including the latest science and recommendations by WADA.” That will see doping samples flown to laboratories outside Russia during the World Cup for testing.

But the IOC, which has announced a series of measures to punish Russian athletes and officials implicated in doping, doesn’t believe the country should be hosting any sporting events.

In an uncharacteristically tough edict, the IOC executive board ruled Tuesday that it would not organize or “give patronage” to competitions there for the foreseeable future.

Despite those moves, FIFA is still standing by its council member Mutko, who was accused by McLaren of having personally intervened in his role as Russian sports minister to cover up a positive doping test for a foreign player in the Russian Premier League.

“Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the minister of sport is also president of the football federation,” Pound said.

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