Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the World Cup draw ceremony on Friday and promised ‘a great festival’ at next year’s tournament.
On stage with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Putin painted a picture of Russia as a welcoming nation with a rich sports history.
“Our country can’t wait to host the World Cup and intends to host it at the very highest level,” Putin said. “Anyone who has come to Russia even once knows how we welcome our friends.”
Putin extolled the values of fair play and “friendly and honest competition,” values which Russian officials have been accused of betraying when it hosted the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Olympic doping scandals, political tension and controversy around the World Cup bidding process have often overshadowed Russia’s preparations for next year’s soccer tournament.
The legacy of the Sochi Olympics has been a series of damaging investigations into doping and cover-ups at the games. The number of Russian athletes disqualified by the International Olympic Committee hit 25 on Friday, with the IOC due to vote Tuesday on banning Russia from the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.
While Putin didn’t touch on Russia’s sporting woes during the draw, he has always denied any government involvement.
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko delivered a fierce defense of the country’s reputation earlier Friday, painting Russia and its athletes as victims of an international conspiracy to portray the country as “an axis of evil.” Mutko also vowed to defend them “to the last bullet.”
Russia was also forced onto the defensive at last year’s European Championship when hundreds of fans from organized hooligan groups fought with English supporters on the streets of Marseille and inside the stadium as Mutko looked on. The Russian government says it has tightened security measures and there won’t be a repeat during the World Cup.
Russia’s other concerns ahead of the tournament include construction delays at the stadium in Samara - though the situation is markedly better than ahead of the last World Cup in Brazil - and cost overruns. The official budget currently stands at 678 billion rubles (£8.6 billion), though some related infrastructure projects are not included in that sum.
At Friday’s draw, Putin promised World Cup fans “unforgettable memories,” but Russia faces a struggle to ensure the tournament is not remembered for all the wrong reasons.
England were handed a favourable draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia after being chosen to face Belgium, Panama and Tunisia in Group G.
After avoiding Argentina, Brazil and Germany, England were the penultimate team picked from Pot 2 by Diego Maradona in the draw ceremony in the Kremlin’s State Palace.
Gareth Southgate’s side will face Tunisia in their opening game in Volgograd on June 18, a repeat of their first game in the 1998 World Cup in France, when goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes gave England a 2-0 win in Marseille.
They will then travel to Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 to take on Panama, with their final group fixture against Belgium on June 28 in Kaliningrad.
England have never lost to Belgium at a major tournament and have only lost one of their 21 matches against them.
Former England captain Shearer told the BBC: “I don’t want to say it’s a good group or a bad group because I’ve heard it so many times over the years.
“We’ve got six days of rest after our first game, which if they are worried about travel, that shouldn’t be an issue.”
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan