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Vitaly Mutko, a Russian deputy prime minister who has been dogged by allegations of involvement in the Russian doping program, said Wednesday he will step down as head of the local organizing committee (LOC) of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Mutko’s move is apparently aimed at deflecting criticism of Russia as it prepares to host the World Cup.

Mutko, who retains his Cabinet job, told Russian news agencies on Wednesday that he would be replaced by another World Cup organizer, Alexei Sorokin.

FIFA thanked Mutko for his “invaluable contribution to the preparations for the competition so far.”

It added in a statement that it “will continue to work in close collaboration with the LOC under its new leadership as well as with the Russian government, the Russian Football Union and the host cities with the aim to deliver an exceptional event in June and July.”

The tournament starts June 14 and ends July 15.

Mutko still has role in preparations

Russian organizers learned of Mutko’s decision with “great regret,” emphasizing in a statement that “the change in the leadership of the Russia 2018 Local Organising Committee will not affect the preparation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.”

They said Mutko still has a role to play in preparations for the tournament.

“Given his ongoing duties as member of the federal government of Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Mutko will continue to oversee the preparations of the regions as well as co-ordinate the construction of the necessary infrastructure,” organizers said. “Our goal remains unchanged — to host the tournament at its best organizational level for the fans and participants.”

Mutko’s announcement comes two days after he said he would temporarily step down as president of the Russian Football Union.

Mutko denies all doping allegations

Investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee alleged that Mutko, who served as Russia’s sports minister during the Games, was involved in a state-sponsored doping program during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He has strongly denied all doping allegations.

The IOC didn’t accuse Mutko of being personally involved in doping, but banned him from the Olympics for life, saying he and his ministry bore overall responsibility for “failure to respect” anti-doping rules.

Mutko said Wednesday that he has filed a lawsuit with the Court of Arbitration for Sport to contest his ban from the Olympics.

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