Joseph S. Blatter has today joined a host of dignitaries from football and politics in celebrating the centenary of the Russian Football Union (RFU) in Saint Petersburg. During a day of festivities in Russia’s cultural capital, the FIFA President also attended the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Cup, maintaining a tradition of attending the tournament – which involves teams from several former Soviet states - in each of its 20 editions.
Blatter was accompanied by the likes of Vladimir Putin, prime minister of the Russian Federation, RFU President Sergey Fursenko and UEFA President Michel Platini as tributes were paid on the 100th anniversary of the RFU’s foundation in January 1912. The federation became a member of FIFA later the same year, and the Russians have enjoyed some impressive triumphs in the century since, most notably when – under the banner of the USSR – they won the inaugural UEFA European Championship in 1960, not to mention the Olympic Football Tournament in 1956 and 1988. Such feats were acknowledged by Blatter, who said: “Russia, the largest country in the world, has certainly made its mark on the global football map.
Russian FA President Sergey Fursenko had much to say on the nature of football as a universal principle. "Football is the game which unites everybody, irrelevant of who they are. Football is not only the game. It is also the people. It is based on the principles of fair-play."
Platini, for one, was moved by memories of Russia’s great past in football: "Me and my contemporaries grew up with images of the fantastic Lev Yashin [former Soviet goalkeeper]. I'll never have the chance to give him the UEFA presidential award. He left us too early. But he deserves a never ending place in the history of football."
And, as well as a glorious past, Russia can also look forward to an exciting future. After all, 2018 will witness the country host the region’s first-ever FIFA World Cup, a partnership with FIFA that Blatter is relishing. "Let's look forward to the 2018 FIFA world cup which will be staged in Russia. This decision by FIFA was based on merit, because never before Eastern Europe has had the world cup on its soil,” said Blatter, who, along with Platini and former Russian great Nikita Simonyan, was awarded a new RFU award for humanism in football.
“This World Cup shall connect all people of Russia. I had the opportunity to explain it today to your Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Indeed, football is more than a game. Football brings emotions; football brings hope. Take care of football. By doing so, you take care of the youth. Happy birthday," exclaimed Blatter, who along with Platini, presented President Fursenko with a plaque commemorating the event on stage.
Russian Prime Minister Putin had his own, more practical, ideas about the world finals in 2018. He declared that fans will be able to travel to the 2018 event in Russia without visas. "Russia has decided to let in all the fans for the 2018 World Cup if they have tickets," Putin said during the meeting. "What's more, we are even considering the option of letting fans use their tickets to travel between host cities for free," he said.
The FIFA World Cup may already be uppermost in Russian minds, but there was a smaller-scale showpiece to enjoy first in Saint Petersburg today as the city played host to the 20th edition of the Commonwealth Cup. Iran joined 11 former Soviet nations, all of whom were represented by U-21 sides, in competing for the trophy, and Blatter evidently enjoyed returning to a tournament he knows well.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, he said: “It is a real pleasure for me to be with you today, once again on the occasion of the Commonwealth Cup, a great competition that I have attended every edition of since its beginning in 1993. After attending the tournament’s opening match, the FIFA President went on to meet with leaders of fans’ groups at the Sports Complex Petersburg.