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Russia basks in World Cup 2018 victory

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MOSCOW — Fans waved flags and screamed "Russia! Russia!" on Thursday after the country was awarded the 2018 World Cup in what Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called a deserved victory.

FIFA voted in Zurich to send the sport's biggest event to Eastern Europe for the first time, picking Russia over bids from England, Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands.

Putin, who personally lobbied throughout the bid campaign, was flying to Switzerland to thank voters for their decision.

"Russia loves football. Russia knows what football is and in our country we have everything to conduct the 2018 World Cup on a very worthy level," Putin said. "The decision corresponds with FIFA's philosophy for developing football, especially in those regions of the world where that development is needed."

Earlier, Putin had said "Russia deserves the World Cup."

Putin was such a key figure in Russia's bid that when he announced on Wednesday that he would not travel to Zurich ahead of the vote, many observers wrote off the country's chances. Putin flew to Guatemala in 2007 to lobby IOC members deliver his first public speech in English to help secure the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi.

Putin's influence — and control over the country's vast oil-fueled revenues — appears to have swayed the voters on FIFA's 22-man executive committee.

Putin was reportedly in a meeting with Russia's chief rabbi Berel Lazar when FIFA announced its decision.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who played no visible role in securing the event, wrote on his Twitter account: "Hurrah! Victory! We're hosting the 2018 championship!"

"Now we have to get ready for hosting the World Cup. And, of course, perform well," Medvedev wrote.

Former Manchester United and Russia winger Andrei Kanchelskis said he was glad FIFA decided to give Russia the World Cup.

"Yes, the English could hold the tournament today, but, you see, in seven years the requirements will be different," Kanchelskis said in television interview. "There will be stadiums, hotels and airports. It's a big plus for us to start from scratch."

The announcement was met with jubilation in a high-end sports bar in downtown Moscow, where dozens of football fans jumped into the air, hugged and kissed each other and chanted "Russia! Russia!"

Russia is so ill-prepared at the moment for a World Cup that its bid was based on computer graphics and blueprints to give FIFA executives some idea of what stadiums and transport infrastructure might look like by 2018. Only one of the country's stadiums meet the organization's requirements.

FIFA warned during a recent visit that building of venues, roads and other infrastructure would need to start immediately if the country stood any chance of being ready on time.

Russia says the clean-slate approach is a plus, that building from scratch ensures the needs of the facilities can be thoroughly planned and existing clutter need not interfere.

But officials immediately sought to allay fears of spiraling costs, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin vowing World Cup spending will be lower than that on the Sochi Olympics. Russian news agencies said Kudrin gave no figures. Russia is halfway through building all facilities for the Olympics from scratch in a project originally slated to cost $12 billion but now thought to be much higher.

Russia has vowed to waive visas and provide free ground transportation for all World Cup ticket holders.

Officials say the World Cup will include 13 major cities, in the country's European territory, stretching from the enclave of Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east.

There are four clusters where matches are to be held: A northern cluster is based around St. Petersburg, a central cluster around Moscow, a southern cluster around Sochi — where an Olympic stadium will be converted into a football venue — and a Volga cluster named after the river and incorporating a slew of cities along its path. Russia is promising 16 football-only arenas, and says some are already under construction while others are being refurbished.

Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.