Russian football players were protected from being caught doping under direct government orders that laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov said he followed to ensure cheating was covered up.

Outlining his involvement in football for the first time to The Associated Press, Rodchenkov claimed an instruction to “avoid any scandal” came from Vitaly Mutko, the former Russian sports minister who now serves as a deputy prime minister despite being implicated in a far-reaching doping controversy.

“Russian footballers were immune from doping-control actions or sanctions,” Rodchenkov said in response to questions through his lawyer from his hiding place in the United States.

Rodchenkov fled Russia two years ago to confess to his role in a widespread doping cover-up in his homeland — notably at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and by track and field athletes.

In correspondence with the AP, Rodchenkov provided his first account of how he helped footballers escape doping sanctions at the behest of the government.

“Mutko ordered protection for Russian footballers when he was the president of the Russian Football Union,” Rodchenkov said. “He told me directly to ‘avoid any scandal by hiding positive results’ and ‘doping would be handled internally,’ meaning that those doping irresponsibly or without protocols could be disciplined or reported.”

While not stating that he helped footballers to obtain drugs — like in other sports — Rodchenkov admits to being complicit in the cover-up.

“When they had [adverse analytical findings],” Rodchenkov said, “those results were supposed to stay out of [WADA’s administration and management system].”

The focus is sharpening on doping practices in Russian football with the World Cup kicking off in Moscow in four months. Amid mounting evidence of his role in the doping deception that turned his country into Olympic outcasts, Mutko recently stepped down as head of both Russia’s football federation and the World Cup organising committee. While Mutko has been banned for life from the Olympics, he has not faced any footballing sanctions.

FIFA has only recently strived to obtain evidence relating to football from Rodchenkov, with particular suspicion around 34 cases identified by the World Anti-Doping Agency which are said to include members of the 2014 World Cup squad. Rodchenkov is sceptical about FIFA’s determination to uncover the extent performance-enhancing substances were used by Russian players and avoid punishment.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently appeared to pre-empt the outcome of internal inquiries — which the governing body’s media department insists it is undertaking as a matter of urgency — by saying: “If there was a big issue regarding Russian players who would be doped, we would by now already know it.”

When asked about Infantino’s remark, Rodchenkov replied to the AP: “This is more burying heads in the sand.”

FIFA said it has now submitted 59 “specific questions” to Rodchenkov through a lawyer designated by WADA.

Doping samples retrieved from the Moscow anti-doping lab could help to build cases against footballers who escaped action in the past.

Although Rodchenkov oversaw the destruction of around 8,000 doping controls in 2014, when the state-backed scheme was exposed, WADA managed to seize 3,000 samples. According to FIFA, forensic checks have just started on 154 samples from footballers to detect any manipulation of the samples, including scratch marks that could prove that bottles were forced open and tainted urine swapped out.

Time is running out for FIFA to complete the investigation before the World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14.

“The process is ongoing and FIFA has been informed by WADA that this is a lengthy analysis which includes the delivery of a detailed report for each sample, taking a number of weeks,” FIFA told the AP.

The FIFA statement took the form of a question-and-answer briefing note. Reflecting wider doubts about FIFA’s willingness to take on Russia, the final question read: “Can you guarantee that you will finalize your investigation before the World Cup? There is an impression that FIFA is deliberately delaying this process.”

“There has not been any delay in our investigation,” FIFA wrote in response to its own question. “Since the very first moment, FIFA has undertaken comprehensive action to determine whether football players were involved. We have been regularly informing and exchanging information with WADA about our progress and they have agreed to our approach. It is obviously in FIFA’s interest that the investigations are finalized as soon as possible.”

But FIFA signalled the process might stall after a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing recently cast doubt on the quality of Rodchenkov’s evidence as the basis for banning athletes.

“As the recent CAS jurisprudence shows, special care and attention has to be given to the investigation to ensure that if sanctions are taken, these are solid and fully substantiated,” FIFA said.

The governing body consistently points out that tests on Russian players around Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup were all negative. The investigations, though, focus on a domestic cover-up designed to subvert doping controls.

“Sanctions cannot be imposed based on mere suspicions or limited facts,” FIFA said.

Russia has denied there was a state-sponsored doping system.

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