The World Cup kicked off in Russia yesterday as the host nation took on Saudi Arabia in front of 80,000 people in Moscow after President Vladimir Putin officially declared the tournament open.
Russia is spending more than $13 billion on hosting football’s showpiece, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
The buildup has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals and has shone a light on the challenges facing Putin’s Russia.
On the day of the curtainraiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organising an illegal protest.
The completely refurbished Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow hosted the opening match, against the two lowest-ranked sides in the tournament.
Minutes before the opening match Putin said: “I congratulate all of you at the start of the most important championship in the world.”
“Love for football unites the entire world in one team, regardless of people’s language or ideology,” Putin said to thunderous cheers from the capacity crowd.
He said Russia had approached preparations for the most-watched event in the world “responsibly, doing everything to make sure fans can enjoy this celebration.”
“This grand sporting event is taking place in Russia for the first time, and we are truly happy,” he said.
“In our country, football is not just a popular sport, not just the most beautiful sport — people here truly love it,” the Russian leader said.
Russia has left no stone unturned preparing for its most important event since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, spending more than $13 billion (11 billion euros) on infrastructure in the 11 host cities.British pop star Robbie Williams performed at the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki.
The World Cup favourites enter the fray this weekend.
Brazil and their superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, who won their fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played in Moscow on July 15.
France boast possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina’s defeat in the 2014 final.
The money lavished on the tournament will boost Putin’s already sky-high prestige at home by giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in generations.
Cities such as Saransk were sleepy outposts with decaying buildings until the World Cup reconstruction put them firmly in the 21st century.
The tournament also offers Putin a chance to project Russia as a global player that is accepted and respected even while being at odds with the United States.
He is attempting to do so despite Russia being hit by international sanctions following its invasion of 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 on President Donald Trump’s behalf only deepened its worst rift with the West since the Cold War.
Putin hopes the most-watched event on the planet provides Russia with the “soft power” needed to capture a sceptical world’s hearts and minds.
Russian authorities have gone to great lengths to ensure nothing soils the country’s image.
The bloody beating English fans took from nearly 200 Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has influenced preparations as much as any diplomatic dispute as hosts don’t want a repeat of 2016.