Russian football bosses are rallying behind World Cup anti-racism inspector Alexei Smertin in an embezzlement probe unfolding less than two months before kickoff.
The scandal surrounding Moscow police club Dynamo brings together two major problems facing Russia ahead of the June 14-July 15 final: monkey chants and corruption.
A former Chelsea player, Smertin serves both as the World Cup’s chief anti-discrimination official and Dynamo’s executive director.
His second job turned into a poisoned chalice when evidence came to light of 1.6 million euro ($2 million) being stolen from the team by former general director Yevgeny Muravyov.
The sums involved are not large when compared to the money splashing around in the bigger European leagues.
But they have added to organisers’ headaches as they race against the clock to put on the most expensive World Cup ever staged.
Dynamo on Tuesday confirmed that it had submitted financial records linked to Smertin and Muravyov to the interior ministry.
The RBK business news site said Muravyov is suspected of wiring the 1.6 million euros to his own shell companies using the cover of two fictitious business deals.
Dynamo concedes that the documents authorising the money transfers were signed by Smertin — a charismatic former national team captain who played for English Premier League giants Chelsea in 2003-2006.
But it argued on Tuesday that Smertin was forced into approving the transactions by Muravyov.
“The information available to (the team) permits us to believe that Smertin was intentionally deceived by, and was carrying out the direct orders of, Dynamo’s former general director,” it said.
A Russian football source familiar with the investigation told AFP that police also did not hold Smertin responsible for the wire transfers.
The interior ministry has issued no comment and Muravyov has denied being aware of any wrongdoing at Dynamo.
“I have no idea what people are talking about,” he told the Sport Express website on Monday.
Smertin is responsible for raising awareness about racism in Russian football and cleaning up the domestic game.
It is a high-profile role on which world governing body FIFA is placing special emphasis because of racial abuse at Russian matches in the past months.
FIFA has opened disciplinary proceedings against Russia over monkey chants heard during a World Cup warm-up against France in Saint Petersburg in March.
And Russian football chiefs on Wednesday will study video of abusive chanting directed at Cape Verdean midfielder Nuno Rocha during a domestic cup semi-final in Moscow.
Dynamo are a storied club who were backed by the secret police in the Soviet era but have had financial difficulties in more recent years.
They were relegated to Russia’s second division in 2016 and underwent a management overhaul in March.
Smertin began his carrier playing for Dynamo’s northern Siberia squad in his native city of Barnaul.