FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday heaped praise on hosts Russia, saying they had staged the best World Cup ever and changed what he named mis-perceptions.
The head of the ruling body also called the introduction of the Video Assistant referee (VAR) a success as he stressed that football had taken centre stage again after years of scandals within FIFA and its officials.
“Since a couple of years I was saying it will be the best World Cup ever and today I can say with more conviction it is the best World Cup ever,” Infantino told a news conference two days ahead of the final between Croatia and France.
“A big thank you to the Russian people, the government, President [Vladimir] Putin, the local organizing committee, the Russian football federation, everyone who made sure this would be the best World Cup ever.
“[And] the volunteers who were the smile and the heart of the World Cup,” said Infantino, wearing a volunteer hoodie.
The FIFA boss said “Russia has changed to become a real football country” with the sport now “part of the country’s DNA and culture” through the run to the quarter-finals of the home team and the state-of-the-art infrastructure.
He praised the party atmosphere across the country, but especially in the early days of the tournament in Moscow with tens of thousands of Latin American fans.
Teams have also praised Russian organizers and the country’s hospitality, which Infantino endorsed, saying that big scepticism ahead of the tournament had been unfounded.
“The perception of the world to Russia has changed. There were around 1 million people in Russia, they discovered a beautiful and welcoming country and people who are keen to show to the world that what is sometimes said doesn’t happen here,” he said.
“A lot of preconceived opinions have changed because of this World Cup. Everyone has seen the true nature of Russia,” he said.
But asked whether the mainly Dutch victims of flight MH17 brought down over eastern Ukraine, those in the Ukrainian territory occupied by pro-Russian forces or political opponents of Putin would make of this, Infantino was evasive.
“There are many injustices in the world. Many things are not working how the citizens of the world would like them to work,” he said.
“We try to work and speak to make things change for the good. But here we are at the World cup, we are focussing on celebrating football … Football can contribute, the World Cup is testimony and that is a positive outcome.”
Instead, Infantino suggested that Qatar and its neighbours could talk with each other again should the field of the 2022 World Cup be increased from 32 to 48 teams.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar last year, accusing it of financing and supporting terrorism but Infantino said Qatar could co-host a 48-team World Cup with others which could lead to a new situation.
“You could bring some people to talk with each other who have communication problems. Maybe it is easier to discuss football than problems,” Infantino said.
Going back to Russia, Infantino reeled off tournament figures such as 98 per cent stadium occupancy during the 62 games so far, more than 1 million foreign fans coming to Russia, 7 million at the fan-fests in the 11 host cities, some 3 billion television viewers, and the digital channels clicked more than 11 billion times.
Looking at VAR, Infantino said that they in Russia had checked 440 incidents leading to 19 reviews, 16 of those leading to change the decision from wrong to right while confirming the decision in the three other cases.
“VAR is not changing football it is cleaning football, making it more transparent and honest,” he said, naming as one example that “you will never see a goal scored in offside any more.”
More decisions could come in the third-place game between England and Belgium Saturday, and the big final Sunday at the Luzhniki.
“Big congratulations to France and Croatia – it is a unique final, we have never seen like this. It shows that the level of football at the top is very wide,” Infantino said.
“Big and small doesn’t exist any more – what counts is the quality of the 11 players on the pitch.”