Russian president Vladimir Putin and with FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Getty Images

Russian president Vladimir Putin has promised an “unforgettable and vibrant tournament” ahead of Russia’s World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

Putin was the surprise guest of honour at FIFA’s annual gathering on the eve of the World Cup, and was welcomed on stage by Gianni Infantino, the governing body’s president.

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Speaking in Russian, Putin thanked FIFA for being “one big team” that has helped Russia prepare for the “most significant event in global sport”.

He said his country was ready to welcome players, fans and viewers at home to an “unforgettable and vibrant tournament…the creme de la creme of football”.

Putin also singled out Infantino for praise, saying he “always had positive sentiments” for Russia and was a “good frontman and a true fighter”.

n a barbed reference to his critics, Putin claimed “sport is beyond politics” and Russia has always had “close ties with those who see the incredible potential for human development” that events like the World Cup present.

In turn, Infantino gave Putin a “big, big thank you from the bottom of our hearts” for Russia’s “engagement” with the World Cup.

He then escorted Putin off the stage and the conference – which announced North America would host the 2026 World Cup – stopped for an unscheduled coffee break.