MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Saturday launched the World Cup trophy on a tour across Russia ahead of the 2018 championship, with the head of world soccer’s governing body lauding Russia’s readiness for the event.
“To the people of Russia, I tell them: enjoy and celebrate the trophy tour and then the World Cup. And to the people of the world, I tell them: come to Russia, enjoy Russia and celebrate the World Cup,” Infantino said, standing next to Putin on a stage in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium.
Surrounded by hundreds of young soccer players, Infantino and Putin took turns to hold the FIFA World Cup in their hands before it started its 123-day, 26,000 km (16,250 mile) journey.
“We are starting now the tour...to prepare the whole world for next year’s event when in this stadium three billion people around the world will watch this trophy being handed over to the next world champion,” Infantino said.
Moscow has eased visa regulations for foreign soccer fans and pumped billions of dollars into stadiums, hotels and other infrastructure as the Kremlin is keen to improve Russia’s image in its worst crisis with the West since the Cold War.
Russia has come under several rounds of Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s role in Ukraine’s conflict with pro-Russian separatists.
“Everything is proceeding according to plan, everything is financed properly,” Putin told Infantino at a separate meeting later in remarks shown by state television.
The Luzhniki stadium, which has undergone a five-year reconstruction, will host the opening and final games of the World Cup 2018.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Angus MacSwan