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Russia 'absolutely ready' for World Cup, Infantino says

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russia is “absolutely ready” to host the 2018 World Cup in June and July, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Thursday as the country made final preparations to stage the soccer tournament.

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Addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin and high-ranking officials in Sochi, one of 11 World Cup cities, Infantino said preparations for the month-long tournament were nearly complete.

“Russia is absolutely ready to host the world, to celebrate a summer of festivities here in this beautiful country,” Infantino said.

Infantino added that Russia was “99-percent (ready) because there is still some work to be done.”

“We know how important of course the last weeks are to finalize the little elements which are still missing,” he said.

Russia will host the World Cup from June 14 to July 15 in 12 stadiums spread across cities including Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi, having worked for years to build new stadiums and transportation infrastructure for the tournament.

“We understand our responsibility, we understand that much still needs to be done... all the events are still ahead,” Putin told Infantino in a separate meeting on Thursday, adding Russia will do “all in its power” to ensure that the tournament meets the highest standards.

Russia has faced increasing scrutiny ahead of the tournament, having pledged to complete all venues on time and ensure the safety of teams and fans.

The country has lauded the benefits of the tournament on its economy, which returned to growth last year after a two-year downturn brought on by Western sanctions and a collapse in global oil prices.

Last month Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said there would not have been any recent economic growth in Russia without investment generated by preparations for the tournament.

But Russian soccer has also made headlines for a string of racist incidents, including at Russia’s friendly against France in March while the country has pledged to combat discriminatory behavior at sporting events.

Russia also has some concerns on the pitch. Its national team was the lowest-ranked team to enter the World Cup at the time of the draw in December.

In their three appearances since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1994, 2002 and 2014, Russia have failed to reach the knockout stages.

On Thursday Putin weighed in on the state of the national team, calling on players to give it their all.

“We are all hoping that our players will be fully in the game, will give themselves entirely,” he said. “And most importantly, that they play the strong-willed, uncompromising soccer that the fans value and love.”

Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Pritha Sarkar