LONDON • Russia is at the centre of another doping scandal after it emerged the country's entire 23-man football squad from the 2014 World Cup is being investigated by Fifa over possible drugs offences.
Russia is hosting the Confederations Cup and in under a year will stage the World Cup, but these allegations are likely to throw its suitability to stage such events into serious doubt.
The 23-man squad, who were knocked out in the group stages of the World Cup in Brazil three years ago, are among 34 Russian footballers being investigated by football's world governing body. Five of the 23 players tested in 2014 are members of the squad who were knocked out of the Confederations Cup on Saturday.
A report by the Mail On Sunday alleged the footballers were among 1,000 "people of interest" to the officials charged with establishing where the tentacles of Russia's doping racket extended.
A Fifa spokesman told the Mail On Sunday: "Fifa is still investigating the allegations made against the football players."
It is understood Fifa is in possession of detailed evidence and intelligence.
Dick Pound, a former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), told the Mail On Sunday: "There is a huge onus on Fifa to reach a sensible conclusion on these matters before the World Cup takes place.
"It is incumbent on them to say what steps they are taking, what they find and take whatever action necessary to protect the integrity of sport."
However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko yesterday blasted theBritish newspaper report as "nonsense".
"There have never been and will never be any problems with doping in our football - our team are permanently being tested, they undergo doping tests after every match," he told Russia's TASS news agency.
The new allegations follow the publication of two reports commissioned by Wada and authored by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren. It found at least 1,000 sportsmen were assisted by what McLaren described as an "institutionalised manipulation of the doping control process in Russia".
On Saturday, the relaid pitch at St Petersburg stadium was again criticised - this time by Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos after their 4-0 win over New Zealand in the Confederations Cup. The 68,000-capacity stadium will be a flagship venue at next year's World Cup and will also host the final of the current tournament on Sunday.
The pitch had to be hastily re-turfed after severe criticism from football officials when it cut up badly during the inaugural match there in April.
It appeared to survive the previous games between Russia and New Zealand and Cameroon and Australia, but Ronaldo reopened the wounds on Saturday.
"It was a difficult pitch where the grass was somewhat too long and it was almost impossible to play better than we did," he told Portuguese media after picking up his third successive man-of-the-match award.
Russia also struggled for positives on the field after they crashed out of the Cup following a 2-1 defeat by Mexico in Kazan on Saturday. It was an ominous sign of how the hosts might fare at next year's World Cup.
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE