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Russia To Play Saudi Arabia In 2018 World Cup Opener


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino walk on stage ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup football tournament final draw at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow on December 1.

Hosts Russia will meet Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow on June 14.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 1 presided over the draw for the event at an elaborate Kremlin ceremony featuring Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona and other soccer notables.

"We will do everything to make it a major sports festival," Putin said, predicting a World Cup of "friendship and fair play, values that do not change with time."

Russia is hosting the event at 12 stadiums in 11 cities from June 14 to July 15.

Egypt and Uruguay will join Russia and Saudi Arabia in Group A.

Group B will comprise Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran.

Group C includes France, Australia, Peru, and Denmark.

Argentina Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria will make up Group D.

Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia will be in Group E.

Group F includes Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea.

Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, and England will compete in Group G.

Poland, Senegal, Colombia, and Japan will make up Group H.

The World Cup draw comes ahead of a December 5 meeting at which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is expected to decide whether Russian athletes will be barred from the Winter Olympics in February due to allegations of state-sponsored doping.

The 2018 World Cup will be the first held under new leadership at FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, after corruption scandals that led to bans for leading officials including former President Sepp Blatter, who has warm ties with Putin.

New FIFA President Gianni Infantino is expected for the evening draw at the Grand Kremlin Palace, along with coaches from 30 of the 32 teams that qualified for the competition held every four years.

Former England player Gary Lineker is co-hosting the draw with a Russian sports journalist and assistance from former greats including Argentina's Maradona, ex-England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, and Russian Nikita Simonyan, 91.

Popular Russian state-TV personality showman Ivan Urgant is to host the show surrounding the draw, in the Grand Kremlin Palace, which is to feature prominent Russian performers including pop star Alsou and singer Larisa Dolina.

As host, Russia automatically qualified for the World Cup. Absent from the tournament will be such perennial powerhouses as Italy, the Netherlands, and reigning South American champion Chile. The United States also failed to qualify.

Russia has appeared in three World Cups -- 1994, 2002, and 2014 -- since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has not advanced beyond the first round.

Being barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics would lengthen the shadow hanging over Russian sports and Putin, whose government is accused of having run an elaborate doping system that has tainted the results from the 2014 Sochi Olympics and many other international competitions in recent years.

The February 9-25 games in South Korea come one month ahead of an election in which Putin, who has held power as president or prime minister since 1999, is widely expected to secure a new six-year term in the Kremlin. The World Cup starts about a month after the president's inauguration in May.

In his remarks on December 1, Putin did not comment on the doping scandals facing his country.

Putin asserted on November 9 that allegations of a Kremlin-sponsored sports-doping program could be part of a U.S. campaign to interfere in the Russian presidential election and disrupt the election in Russia, a charge analysts said appeared to be part of an effort to rally voters around anti-Americanism.

The official budget for the 2018 World Cup is 678 billion rubles ($11.6 billion), but many analysts believe Moscow has spent far more.

With reporting by dpa, Interfax, TASS, and AFP
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