After years of costly preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals, the World Cup’s month-long football bonanza kicks off on Thursday with an underwhelming opener pitting the home team against Saudi Arabia.
Russia will get the ball rolling against the unfancied Saudis at the completely refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after an opening ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There was little romance in the prelude as Russia’s problems — from racism and hooliganism to a foreign policy sharply at odds with the West — were exposed and scrutinised.
Expectations low for ‘aging and inexperienced’ home team
Britain and some eastern European states still haunted by Moscow’s rule in the Soviet era tried to organise a diplomatic boycott over the poisoning in England of a former Russian spy.
Neither the British royal family nor British government members will attend, but a wider boycott effort fizzled out.
Russian organisers say they expect more than 20 heads of state to attend the opening match.
“We would like to underscore the validity of the FIFA principle of sport being outside politics,” Russian leader Putin told a meeting Wednesday of football’s governing body FIFA.
“Russia has always adhered to this principle,” he added.
‘Good will and hospitality’
Putin is hoping the most watched event on the planet will help Russia capture the world’s hearts and minds.
“Our goal is to make everyone, from football stars to ordinary fans, feel the good will and hospitality of our people … so that they want to come back here again,” he said.
Russia is spending more than $13 billion (11 billion euros) on its most important event since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
The money will boost Putin’s already sky-high prestige at home even further by giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in generations.
The tournament is also a chance to project Russia as a global player that is accepted and respected even while being at odds with many in the West.
Russia is pulling it all off while bearing the brunt of international sanctions that began after it invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.
Moscow’s military backing of Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in Syria and alleged meddling in the 2016 US election only deepened its worst rift with the West since the Cold War.
But Russia’s troubles don’t end at geopolitics. The bloody beating English fans took from Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has plagued preparations as much as any diplomatic dispute.
Security services have either locked up or checked in on hundreds of Neo-Nazi hooligans to make sure they do nothing to tarnish Russia’s image.
Russia refused to issue tickets to nearly 500 of its supporters with suspected football underworld ties, while England has forced over 1,000 known hooligans to hand in their passports.
Home team embarrassment
Yet from the moment Russia gets the party started against the Saudis — they are the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament — the focus will shift to the pitch.
Brazil have won the title a record five times while defending champions Germany are on four and determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played at Luzhniki on July 15. Both teams enter the fray on Sunday.
The World Cup received its first dose of drama when 2010 winners Spain sacked coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before their opening game Friday against Portugal.
Brazil held its breath waiting for Neymar’s right foot to heal from a March 3 operation, but the world’s most expensive player has scored in his last two matches.
Less certain is the strength of the shoulder Egypt’s super-striker Mohamed Salah hurt in Liverpool’s Champions League loss to Real Madrid, but Salah is training again.
And the preparations of Argentina and Lionel Messi — the attacking genius who has won everything but a World Cup — were jolted by a scandal over their cancellation of a controversial friendly with Israel in Jerusalem.
Russia’s own buildup has been wrought with worries about the team causing embarrassment in front of a global audience of billions.
The hosts have broken Russian and Soviet records by going winless in seven matches and dropping to 70th in the world, meaning no coach faces as much pressure as Stanislav Cherchesov.
“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2018-06-14