The Matt Slater Column: Fifa and Mutko seek their message

Press Association’s chief sports reporter wraps up the year at an extraordinary press event in Moscow, ahead of a massive year for sport and Russia.

The Matt Slater Column: Fifa and Mutko seek their message

Gianni Infantino gives the impression of a man who loves nothing more than a plinth packed with cameras filming him being charming in one of the half dozen or so languages he speaks so well.

Which is why the press conference before the World Cup draw in Moscow must have been such a disappointment for the Fifa president, particularly as all the elements were in place.

He was on a stage in front of a room stuffed with journalists from around the world, including yours truly.

That room was in a building inside the Kremlin, a palace which houses Russia’s most sacred sites, ran an empire and still projects fear and respect around the globe – the kind of place that only heads of state and Fifa presidents get to visit without wearing lanyards around their necks.

Sat beside him was Russia’s deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko, chairman of Russia 2018’s organising committee, president of the Russian Football Union and former sports minister – not just any old apparatchik, then.

But what unfolded over the following 77 minutes was not on the carefully prepared media plan and the language Infantino spoke most fluently was body language, which came across loud and clear.

I first noticed it when the Swiss-Italian leaned forward in his blue armchair, put his elbows on his knees, rested his chin on a clinched fist, and frowned.

At this point, Mutko was ten minutes into an answer to a fairly generic question from a German reporter about the then impending International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision on what to do about Russia’s systemic doping – an answer that had started with him saying he did not want to say much about that because we were all there for the football, right?

Between Mutko’s breezy start and Infantino’s frown, we got a full house of Russian responses to claims it operated a state-sponsored doping conspiracy to sabotage at least two Olympics and several major championships – and probably the 2018 World Cup, too, if it had not been rumbled by a coalition of whistleblowers, reporters and anti-doping investigators.

“There was no conspiracy, we’re no worse than anybody else, why aren’t you talking about Norwegian biathletes and the asthma medication of British footballers, what was the World Anti-Doping Agency doing before, the whistleblowers are degenerates who have done deals to buy new lives in the United States…” There was more later but this was Mutko’s opening gambit.

Eventually, he stopped and somebody else got a question in.

Ah, thank God, Infantino must have thought, it is from a Brazilian, this must be about football, surely.

No, this one was about the ongoing football corruption trial in New York and, to mix sports and metaphors for a moment, was a bouncer directed at Infantino’s shiny noggin.

Unlike the verbose Vitaly, genial Gianni swerved this one, keeping it brief, reinforcing his key message that it was about the past and he represents the future. Fifa, he reminded everybody, are the victims here.

Unfortunately, that was an idea that kept coming back to me as Vitaly fired Mutko II and Mutko III at follow-up questions about his own suitability to run a sports tournament, given the fact the doping scam was run out of his ministry, from two British journalists working for American titles.

During these meandering missile strikes, Mutko’s shade spread to how often athletes are tested in the main US leagues, LA’s anti-doping lab, when his main accuser Dr Grigory Rodchenkov really wrote his diaries, The New York Times and his belief that if anybody checked they would find microscopic scratches on lots of urine sample bottles, not just the ones the Russians are supposed to have opened at Sochi 2014.

Infantino, meanwhile, shifted his weight from cheek to cheek but could find no comfort.

He then demonstrated some considerable cheek by trying to lecture the room on the type of the question we should be asking, suggesting if journalists from Australia or Peru had asked one he would be talking about football.

Questions from Australia or Peru came there none, which is hardly surprising when you consider the real story of the day – the actual draw – had not happened and when it did, we all had plenty to write and talk about it.

For that precise moment, however, we really wanted to talk to Mutko about his role in the biggest global sports news story of the last 18 months and Infantino’s attempts to restore Fifa’s reputation after the biggest sports news story of the previous year.

The fact that the only memorable non-scandal-related question was a moan from a local journalist about Russia’s “false” ranking of 65th in the world spoke volumes about Infantino’s predicament.

He is committed to holding his organisation’s most important event in a country considered to be a pariah state by many in the sports world, forced to share stages with men responsible for that perception, at a time when that country’s economy has stalled and its image has been tarnished by electoral meddling and war. And their football team is rubbish.

This might be irrelevant if Fifa had much credit in the bank. Unfortunately, that trial in New York is emptying its meagre reserves once more.

Mutko ended the press conference by dashing off the stage to harangue a journalist, underlining the international take on things that he was losing his marbles but, no doubt, looking like a Russian bear growling at the nasty foreigners for the domestic audience.

Oh well, it is only one World Cup, I suppose. There is always Qatar 2022 to look forward to… Oh. Bugger.


Press Association is an official SportsPro media partner. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper.

This column originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.