Dutch soccer great Van Basten rejects Putin meeting concerns

Russian President Vladimir Putin, third right, attends a meeting with world soccer legends in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 6, 2018. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Dutch soccer great Marco van Basten says he only discussed soccer with Russian President Vladimir Putin during meetings at the World Cup

MOSCOW — Dutch soccer great Marco van Basten dismissed criticism of his meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he only discussed the sport and did not raise the downing of a plane which killed 196 people from the Netherlands.

Pressure has built on Russia from the Netherlands since its government announced in May that it was holding Moscow legally responsible for its role in the July 2014 missile strike that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, claiming 298 lives.

Van Basten, who is FIFA's chief officer for technical development, said he was only at the Kremlin last Friday to discuss matters related to the World Cup with a delegation from soccer's governing body. Billed by the Kremlin as a "meeting with football legends," the group posed for pictures with Putin and held a round-table discussion that celebrated Russia's hosting of the World Cup.

"We were talking only about football and about the tournament," Van Basten told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I am aware of the fact that a lot of families in Holland, they have a problem with what happened with the airplane. But this is another matter. I was just asked to come there and have a chat about football."

Jerry Skinner, a lawyer representing victims' families, was quoted as saying earlier this week that Van Basten should have told Putin to take responsibility for the deaths.

The Kremlin party also included two former England players, Rio Ferdinand and Alex Scott, who are working at the World Cup as commentators for the BBC. Britain has blamed Russia for the poisonings in England this year using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. Moscow has denied any involvement.

"This was a FIFA arranged visit," the BBC said in a statement to the AP. "All our freelance pundits are able to carry out other duties outside of their BBC commitments."

Scott said she was only "discussing the power of world football."

At the same meeting, FIFA President Gianni Infantino lavished praise on Russia despite concerns about Putin's leadership, including the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

"Russia is a big country, is an important country in the world," Infantino told Putin. "We all fell in love with Russia."

An international team of investigators said detailed analysis of video images established that the Buk missile that brought down the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was from the Russian military's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in the Russian city of Kursk.

Putin denies involvement in the July 17, 2014, surface-to-air missile strike on the Boeing 777, which was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Asked if he was playing a part in helping to enhance Putin's image, Van Basten responded: "I am not helping him. I just had a discussion with him about the football. Nothing else."

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More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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