Former Manchester United and England captain Rio Ferdinand has attended a meeting with Vladimir Putin today – amid outrage in Britain over the Novichok crisis.
Ferdinand, a pundit for the BBC during the World Cup in Russia, met the President at the Kremlin in Moscow today along with fellow football legends including Denmark’s Peter Schmeichel and Germany’s Lothar Matthaus.
The delegation, which included England Ladies star and BBC pundit Alex Scott and FIFA president Gianni Infantino, presented the Russian strongman with a shirt with ‘Putin 11’ on the back.
Ferdinand’s attendance at the event comes amid a fresh diplomatic storm after a British couple were left foaming at the mouth in Wiltshire having been poisoned by the Soviet-made nerve agent Novichok.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and boyfriend Charles Rowley, 45, are believed to have fallen ill after finding a vial, syringe or tub used to carry the substance in Salisbury.
Former Manchester United and England captain Rio Ferdinand has attended a meeting with Vladimir Putin today – as a new Novichok crisis unfolds in Britain. From left-to-right Zvonimir Boban, Alexandra Scott, Lothar Matthaus, Gianni Infantino, Russian Football Union Vice President Nikita Simonyan, Peter Schmeichel, Jorge Campos Navarrete, Diego Forlan, and Rio Ferdinand
Hundreds of specialists are searching for the ‘contaminated item’ left behind by the assassins who targeted Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4.
Yesterday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid accused Russia of using Britain as a ‘dumping ground for poison’.
In the Kremlin today, Ferdinand and the rest of the football delegation seemed relaxed around the Russian president.
Also in the party was retired Croat and AC Milan star Zvonimir Boban and retired Mexican footballer Jorge Campos Navarrete.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino told Putin the world was ‘in love’ with World Cup hosts Russia and praised him for overcoming negative stereotypes about the country.
The FIFA delegation listen on intently as Vladimir Putin speaks during the meeting at the Kremlin
‘We all fell in love with Russia,’ Infantino told a beaming Putin at the televised meeting in the Kremlin.
‘Everyone who has been here for a period of time now has discovered a country that we didn’t know.’
Human rights groups have warned that Putin is using the world’s biggest sporting event to gloss over his authoritarian rule.
Human Rights Watch said the tournament is taking place ‘during the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era.’
But the World Cup has created an unusual carnival atmosphere in traditionally conservative Russia – not least due to the home team’s own unexpected success.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Mexican footballer Jorge Campos Navarrete as FIFA President Gianni Infantino looks on
Infantino telling a clearly impressed Putin ‘we all fell in love with Russia’ with Peter Schmichael (right) and Nikita Simonyan (left)
‘Russia has become a true football country. The virus of football has entered into the bodies of each and every Russian citizen,’ Infantino said.
Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are visiting, with many saying it has allowed them to discover a different, softer side to Russia.
‘Many stereotypes about Russia have simply collapsed,’ Putin told his guests, who also included Lothar Matthaus of Germany and Marco van Basten of the Netherlands.
‘People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country which is friendly to visitors.’
Infantino praised Putin’s government for busting negative anti-Russian stereotypes.
‘All the fears that some were trying to put on us with regards to this World Cup, well not only they were not true but it’s actually the opposite.’
Infantino was elected president of world football’s governing body in 2016. His predecessor Sepp Blatter resigned following a corruption scandal.