Russia Soccer Pundit Breaks TV Taboo by Mentioning Putin Foe

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s former national soccer coach, Leonid Slutsky, broke an unwritten rule of working on state television when he mentioned President Vladimir Putin’s main political foe, Alexey Navalny, by name live on air during a World Cup match commentary.

Slutsky made the taboo remark in current champion Germany’s game against Mexico on Sunday, after match commentator Kirill Dementyev used an obscure homonym of the opposition leader’s name to say that the Germans should play “high-pressure soccer” to try to overcome a 1-0 losing score. Slutsky responded with a quip asking if Navalny plays soccer, adding: “That would be interesting to see.”

Dementyev didn’t reply on air to the comment. On Tuesday, after the Russian team all but guaranteed qualification for the World Cup’s next round with a 3-1 defeat of Egypt, Slutsky announced that he’ll no longer be offering commentary for the country’s most-watched channel because he’s leaving to pursue other activities.

Channel One confirmed Slutsky’s exit was due to his responsibilities with Dutch soccer club Vitesse, Interfax reported, citing a spokesman. Slutsky said in an interview with Argumenty i Fakty newspaper published last week that he’ll travel to The Netherlands on Thursday to start work as the team’s new head coach.

‘Very Sorry’

Navalny, who was barred from running against Putin in presidential elections in March, tweeted on Wednesday that he was “very sorry” to hear of Slutsky’s departure.

Putin has consistently refused to mention Navalny by name in interviews and press conferences, sometimes referring to him instead as “that character.” After lavishing $11 billion on preparations to host the World Cup for the first time, the Kremlin’s determined to present a friendlier, more open image of Russia after years of international political tensions.

State television remains tightly controlled, however, at a time when the soccer tournament offers a rare opportunity to persuade younger Russians to tune in. They’re more used to getting information from the internet and social media such as YouTube and Twitter, where Navalny has 2.2 million followers.

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