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Russia sports minister Mutko insists Ukraine conflict won't affect 2018 World Cup

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RIO DE JANEIRO - Russia's sports minister insists the conflict in the Ukraine should not affect the 2018 World Cup.

Vitaly Mutko, the local organizing committee chairman and a FIFA board member, on Saturday said he did not foresee "any major issues."

"It's a different subject and it will not influence preparations for the World Cup at all," Mutko told a briefing designed to explain Russia's $20 billion project to host the next World Cup.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is scheduled to attend Sunday's World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, and take part in a handover ceremony between host nations with Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.

Mutko said Putin would express Russia's "immense gratitude" to Brazil for a successful tournament.

Brazil's Foreign Ministry later said Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko has confirmed he will watch Sunday's final World Cup match in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium along with Putin and other world leaders.

Brazil and Russia, which hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February, have defied widespread doubt about their ability to host safe and well organized events.

"Sometimes you have to suffer some criticism," Mutko said through a translator. "Criticism is important. It is stimulating, it's constructive."

Asked about incidents of racism and fan disorder at Russian club matches, Mutko suggested the problems were no worse than other countries and should not be mixed with the World Cup.

Mutko also said he expects Russia to be cleared of any doubt when a FIFA investigation of the 2018 and 2022 bid campaigns is resolved, likely in September.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine could persist for much longer, even if a ceasefire is soon reached.

If Ukraine qualifies for the next World Cup, it could be drawn in a group with Russia, which is automatically seeded as host.

Russia has faced international criticism since annexing the Crimea and allegedly supporting pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

World Cup host city Rostov-on-Don is about 160 kilometres (100 miles) from current conflict in Donetsk. Sochi also faces Crimea across the Black Sea.

They are among 11 host cities which Putin's government is seeking to modernize with new stadiums and other infrastructure projects.

One of the biggest challenges is providing accommodation outside the main cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi and Kazan.

"In some cities we will need to do a lot more with the help of investors," Mutko said, adding that Russia hopes to welcome 1 million international visitors for the month-long tournament.

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