With Vyacheslav Koloskov, the Russian Football Union (RFS) president, sitting on a conference podium beside him, league chief Nikolai Tolstykh, who is challenging for his job at an election next month, also angrily denied accusations by Koloskov that he had threatened him with violence.

Koloskov, who has run Soviet and Russian soccer for some 20 years, publicly accused Tolstykh of making threats and said he had hired bodyguards because he feared for his life.

“I stress again that I have made no such statement and no threat against the head of the Russian Football Union,” Tolstykh told Reuters. “Let that be on Vyacheslav Ivanovich’s (Koloskov) conscience. He wants to run Russian soccer at any price.”

During the league-run conference, Tolstykh, who is also president of police club Dynamo Moscow, referred to Russian television reports this week that questioned the financial management of the RFS, which has struggled to provide adequate funding for the national team since the collapse of communism.

Koloskov earlier this week dismissed suggestions that he personally profited from RFS money although he did not deny he has a large country house near Moscow.

At the conference, he angrily brushed aside television allegations that he had consorted with criminal gang leaders and diverted funds, insisting he was the victim of a smear campaign.

But Tolstykh said: “If you watch the programmes, it’s a very serious accusation.”

“Everyone is given a certain time in life and 20 years in charge of football is enough,” he said, addressing Koloskov.

“In that time you could have put funds into soccer and not hidden them abroad…Somebody has to be responsible. We’re talking about millions of dollars.”

Questioned later by Reuters, Tolstykh said he was not accusing Koloskov directly of wrong-doing but was concerned to shed light on allegations made in the Russian media.

With less than two weeks to go until the December 8 election the fierce arguments are likely only to intensify.

Talk of threats is not taken lightly in Russia, where contract killings are commonplace and leading sportsmen and officials have been victims. Among them, the head of the ice hockey federation and the business manager of soccer champions Spartak Moscow were both gunned down two years ago.

Koloskov faces seven challengers all of them promising to pull Russian soccer out of its worst slump in decades.

The national team failed to reach this year’s World Cup and has lost all three games so far in qualifying for the 2000 European championships – most recently to Iceland.

Allegations of match-fixing and financial irregularities have long dogged Soviet and Russian soccer.

Koloskov has spoken out against the influx of “dirty money” from Russia’s flourishing criminal economy into league clubs which he says has distorted competition and caused bloodshed.

“If criminals pay, then have no fear, they’ll start to… demand results at any price. The means are well known – both bribes and putting on the frighteners,” he told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.