MOSCOW — Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is staying in charge of football in the 2018 World Cup host nation.
He faced down a revolt Saturday from coaches and officials critical of tight government control and poor national team performances.
Mutko remained president of the Russian Football Union (RFU) after beating former national team coach Valery Gazzaev by 266 to 142 votes at the extraordinary conference.
Gazzaev alleged Mutko used his ministry’s influence to coerce voters into backing him.
Mutko acknowledged that “there are problems in football today with economic conditions, organization conditions, attendance” but said he has long-term plans to fix them, in part using the legacy of the World Cup.
Mutko has run the RFU since last year and was also president from 2005 to 2009 when he stepped down after becoming Sports Minister, a post which carries wide-ranging influence over Russian football, even down to the number of foreign players allowed on the pitch during league games. He is also a FIFA council member and head of Russia’s World Cup preparations.
Mutko rattled off numbers of newly-built football fields and sports facilities in a speech to voters delivered at full volume and defended his record on Russia’s doping crisis. He also promised to wean clubs off state funding.
Most votes Saturday were cast by regional football federations, which typically rely on the state for licensing and funding. Gazzaev suggested some had been forced to back Mutko.
“I know that the Sports Ministry has switched on its administrative resources at full strength and the current RFU management is pressuring you,” Gazzaev told the conference. “I understand perfectly that some of you could lose your jobs.”
Mutko denied the accusation.
Gazzaev accused Mutko of presiding over a decline in Russian football, citing the national team’s group stage exit at this year’s European Championship, a lack of young talent and declining low attendances at domestic games.
Gazzaev is no political outsider. He was confirmed Friday as a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament following recent elections and has worked closely with influential figures at the state gas company Gazprom, particularly on a failed attempt in 2013 to merge the Russian and Ukrainian football leagues.
His bid to oust Mutko had backing from the Russian coaches’ association, which claimed Mutko’s role as a minister and RFU president broke FIFA rules on conflicts of interest and government interference. Former RFU official Alisher Aminov told The Associated Press he had filed a complaint to FIFA’s ethics commission alleging Mutko was ineligible.
“Generally speaking, we do not see an issue as long as the conflict of interest rules of the FIFA Code of Ethics are respected,” a FIFA spokesperson said by email when asked about Mutko.
There was further controversy at Saturday’s conference when controversial fan leader Alexander Shprygin was led away by police for unclear reasons. Shprygin is head of the All-Russian Fans’ Union, two of whose board members were given prison sentences by a French court for their involvement in violence at Euro 2016 in June.
The ARFU said in a statement on Twitter that its offices were being searched, but did not specify the reason.