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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mutko All Set for the Soccer Big Time

MTSenator Vitaly Mutko
It reads like the story of a typical election race in President Vladimir Putin's Russia: One candidate has openly boasted of his support from the Kremlin, while his chief rival, whose offices were raided by the police, has complained about the use of "administrative resources" and a third candidate has openly professed his support for the Kremlin's pick.

An international observer has been sent to ensure a clean contest.

Although this scenario could apply to a political race anywhere from Anadyr to Sochi, this vote is in soccer, where the Kremlin is now battling to install its man as president of the Russian Football Union.

Three days after Russia's hopes were dashed by a disappointing 1-1 draw with Estonia, reducing even further its already minimal chances of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup finals, the RFU is due to choose a new president in Moscow on Saturday.

The hot favorite to replace outgoing RFU president Vyacheslav Koloskov is St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Mutko, who is currently a senator in the Federation Council and was formerly Premier League chairman and Zenit St. Petersburg club president. As is typical for candidates for high office these days, Mutko was both a friend and colleague of Putin when the future president worked in the office of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s.

Mutko's main opponent is Alexander Tukmanov, the RFU's executive director. Unlike Mutko, Tukmanov is a former professional footballer -- and until recently, Koloskov's heir apparent.

Two other long-shot candidates are former Soviet Union goalkeeper-turned-businessman Anzor Kavazashvili and Mikhail Zhukov, president of Premier League club Shinnik Yaroslavl.

With fears originally that Mutko would run uncontested, there have been suspicions that Zhukov is on the ballot merely to keep up appearances. Zhukov has happily admitted he stands no chance of winning and has freely admitted that he would personally vote for Mutko.

"Mutko is being very heavily pushed by the Kremlin administration, which is using so-called 'administrative resources,'" said a source in the RFU who asked not to be named. He said that regional governors were calling up delegates to Saturday's RFU meeting and telling them to vote for Mutko.

Tukmanov, in an uncharacteristically open attack, told Reuters earlier this week that "the pressure has been enormous and it's getting bigger every day."

"This is not a political campaign. Football decisions should be made by football professionals, not politicians," he said.

Support for Mutko has hardly been subtle.

Last week State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, a soccer enthusiast who also captains the Duma's soccer team, said that the chamber would only pass legislation helping the game if Mutko were elected.

Gryzlov and the government's sports chief, Vyacheslav Fetisov, even called in regional chiefs of the RFU to a meeting at the Duma, where they pushed Mutko's candidacy.

"They are not promoting football, they are promoting Mutko," said the RFU source. "This is not correct or ethical."

One of the dangers for the Kremlin, however, is that pressure by governments on national soccer federations is strictly against the rules of European soccer's governing body, UEFA, and federations have been suspended over government interference before.

UEFA has sent an observer to watch the election and report back.

Mutko has said that he can bring the government and private money together to help solve the many problems that Russian soccer faces.

He said that Roman Abramovich, who was briefly proposed as a possible successor to Koloskov, would invest in the construction of between 30 and 50 artificial soccer fields. Such fields are badly needed in Russia, where for much of the year it is too cold to play outdoors.

Critics of Mutko have pointed out that he lacks Tukmanov's experience, and that he has said he will not relocate to Moscow from St. Petersburg and will continue to serve as a senator if elected RFU president.

Mutko's former club, FC Zenit, has a policy of not hiring black players, club coach Vlastimil Petrzela acknowledged in an interview with Izvestia last month.

However, it would be wrong to say that Mutko is favored purely for his Kremlin and business connections. Many in the game retain a certain dislike of Koloskov and Tukmanov and feel the game needs to take a different route -- one that completely restructures, even revolutionizes, how soccer is run in the country.

"The most important thing is that [Mutko] is not Tukmanov," said Igor Shalimov, a former national team player who took part in a players' boycott of the 1994 World Cup finals because of a dispute with the RFU. "The problems that were there 10 years ago are there now."

Originally appointed under Leonid Brezhnev, Koloskov spent 25 years in charge of the country's most popular game -- and was almost universally hated by Russian soccer fans. He was clumsily forced to quit in January, after a bitter struggle with Fetisov.

The Kremlin's patience with the RFU leadership seemingly snapped after Russia's humiliating 7-1 defeat by Portugal last October. Soon afterward Fetisov, a former NHL hockey star appointed to head the country's sports by Putin, blasted Koloskov and said he should resign.

It took three months but Koloskov eventually went quietly, a few days after meeting with officials in the Kremlin.

Like some other recently ousted presidents outside the soccer world, Koloskov did manage to secure a golden handshake. He retains a pension for life of 80,000 rubles ($2,850) per month, an office and a chauffeur-driven car.

Mutko has promised to root out corruption in the game, an issue Koloskov never really tackled head on, and to make the RFU more transparent.

But Shalimov said that the RFU's new president would inherit a game beset by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of professionalism. Nothing will happen to change that, he said.