Putin will not attend World Cup vote

ZURICH - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will not travel to attend Thursday's World Cup hosting decision in Zurich, dealing a blow to his country's hopes of staging the tournament in 2018.

Putin, who said First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov would attend the ceremony, said Russia had faced "unscrupulous competition" in the bid to host the World Cup.

"We have unfortunately witnessed a campaign against members of the FIFA executive - filth and compromising material has been poured over them. I see this as unscrupulous competition ahead of the vote," Putin told ministers in Moscow.

"I would have liked to have gone myself but under these conditions, I have decided to refrain from travelling out of respect for the members of FIFA, the members of the FIFA executive, so that they can make a decision calmly without any pressure from the outside."

Football's world governing body FIFA will choose the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups on Thursday.

Russia, England, and joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium are contesting the 2018 finals, while the United States, Qatar, Japan, South Korea and Australia are bidding to stage the 2022 tournament.

"If the decision is made in favour of our bid I will immediately meet (FIFA president Sepp) Blatter and members of FIFA's executive to discuss the plans," Putin added.

"Russia wants and hopes and has the ability, including financial, to host this largest of tournaments. If we are given the chance we will do this in the best possible way."

CONTROVERSIAL RACE

The race to host the finals has been mired in controversy with an investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation's Panorama programme accusing three members of FIFA's executive committee (Exco) of taking bribes.

All denied any wrongdoing. Blatter has criticised British media entrapment in claiming corruption within his organisation, although two Exco members were suspended earlier this month following allegations of wrongdoing made by the Sunday Times newspaper.

The hosting decision will therefore now be made by 22 members of the FIFA executive committee instead of 24.

Putin has been a key supporter of the Russian bid while England's delegation includes Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron as well as midfielder David Beckham.

Portugal Prime Minister Jose Socrates and Spanish counterpart Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero were named as leaders of their joint bid for 2018, with Spain's World Cup-winning goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas also among the delegation.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo has been unable to attend because he needs treatment on a bruised ankle.

As expected, former United States President Bill Clinton was to lead the American delegation bidding for 2022, heading a committee which also included actor Morgan Freeman.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-shik was named at the top of the South Korean delegation bidding for 2022 and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was due to lead the Middle Eastern country's delegation.

The Dutch-Belgian bid for 2018 included former players Ruud Gullit and Johan Cruyff as well as the two countries' prime ministers.

Sony Corp CEO Howard Stringer leads the Japan bid for 2022, while Australia's bid is backed by supermodel Elle Macpherson.