By Andrew Warshaw in Moscow
June 14 – Walking round the streets of Moscow in the days leading up to tonight’s World Cup opener, you wouldn’t necessarily have known the Russian capital was about to herald the start of a competition that has taken eight years to organise and was so vital in terms of image and public relations.
Apart from round the Kremlin and fan zones, the usual trademark flags and bunting were largely conspicuous by their absence. Russians are fiercely patriotic – the older generation at least. But many, it seemed, were not that fussed about football.
Maybe that was because the hosts were the lowest ranked team in the tournament. Maybe it was because no-one gave them much of a chance. After all they hadn’t won in seven games.
But you can only beat what’s put in front of you, as they say, and this huge and diverse nation celebrated collectively as Russia opened their account by sweeping majestically past a desperately poor Saudi Arabia for the biggest opening-day victory since 1934.
There are far greater dangers lurking for Team Russia, of course. But in terms of putting down a marker it could not have gone much better apart from losing one important player to injury.
Hence coach Stanislav Cherchesov ‘s cautious optimism as his team defied all predictions to put pressure on group rivals Egypt and Uruguay.
“It’s just the beginning,” said Cherchesov, charismatic and understated in equal measure.”All we have proved is that we are on the right track. We have an established starting eleven but we don’t have a core squad. But I believe in the players as much as I believe in myself. what we are better at now is being disciplined, compact and mature.”
Before kickoff, Spain’s former World Cup winner Iker Casillas and model Natalia Vodianova got the opening ceremony under way by showing off the World Cup trophy itself. Russia are not likely to win it but maybe it perhaps inspired their players.
The 78.000 crowd also heard an opening welcome from Russian President Vladimir Putin for whom the World Cup in so important when it comes to presenting a kindly, hospitable face. But the highlight was an appearance by Robbie Williams, dressed in sequined maroon jacket and assisted by the Vienna State Opera’s Aida Garifullina.
Thereafter Gianni Infantino got in on the act and made a brief speech of his own before the action switched to the really important stuff.
It won’t always be as easy as this over the next few weeks of course. Or perhaps Team Russia have been kidding us all along and have been waiting for their moment ever since the draw was made.
Contact the writer of this story at firstname.lastname@example.org