By Dmitriy Rogovitskiy
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and Ukraine might be put into different groups at the 2018 World Cup finals if the Ukrainians qualify and relations between the two countries do not improve, FIFA said on Tuesday.
However, FIFA denied a comment attributed to President Sepp Blatter, who was quoted by the R-Sport agency as saying "you can be sure about this" in reply to a question about whether the two countries would be kept apart.
"The President did not say that they would be kept apart or that such a decision has been made. It seems (there was) a translation mistake," said FIFA in a statement to Reuters.
"What the FIFA president actually said was that, in any qualifying campaign, the aim is always to avoid problems as was done in the past between teams where high tensions can be anticipated.
"On Ukraine/Russia situation, he said that we have to see how this evolves but, if the geopolitical situation were to remain as it is now, when it comes to the final competition then FIFA could decide that the respective teams would not be in the same group."
Blatter, who was on a visit to Moscow for the unveiling of Russia's official World Cup emblem, said politics should not mix with sport following calls to move the 2018 tournament to a different country due to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
"A boycott never achieves anything and does not have a positive effect. FIFA is fully supporting the World Cup in Russia,” said the 78-year-old in an interview given to ITAR-news and R-Sport.
"When we received letters from North America, we answered that this is football. We believe in the country (Russia) and their government.
"The mass media should help us with this. We have experienced such things in the past at the Sochi Olympics. However, during and after the (Winter) Games there was not one bad word written about the event.
"You know, Russia is in the focus of the world press. Football cannot only unite Russia, but can also show the whole world that it is stronger than any protest movement,” he said.
PRAISE FOR PREPARATIONS
Blatter said he was pleased with Russia's preparations for the tournament.
“In comparison with Brazil’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup, Russia is well ahead of them with four years to go.”
He said the third place playoff will be kept despite calls from teams to abolish it.
“We will not be getting rid of it. It’s very important. If there was no third place playoff then the head of (European body) UEFA, Michel Platini, would never have taken home a bronze medal. These games are always well fought,” the Swiss said.
(Additional reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Rex Gowar and Toby Davis)