The first day of the 2018 World Cup went off almost without a hitch for the hosts, Russia, with a barnstorming victory after a brief but polished opening ceremony which even a rude gesture by Robbie Williams could not derail.
The biggest worldwide event held in Vladimir Putin’s Russia began with a contest between the two worst teams in the competition on paper. But Russia, who were without a victory in seven games, exceeded expectations as they dismantled a hopeless Saudi Arabia defence to win 5-0.
Eight years and about £11bn has been spent preparing for football’s showpiece and inside the Luzhniki Stadium it felt as if organisers had struck the right note, with enthusiastic fans and well-drilled stewards. The result helped, too, with a fifth goal seconds before the final whistle which had even Putin rolling back in his seat and puffing his cheeks in disbelief.
Given the enormous budget of this World Cup, the opening ceremony was a relatively low-key affair with the British pop star Williams a surprise headline act. He had almost finished performing his hit Rock DJ when he raised his middle finger to a TV camera, provoking widespread outrage and no little confusion.
So nice of Robbie to say hello to @dele_official ! pic.twitter.com/R5jWVeR73F
June 14, 2018
It was not obvious what the 44-year-old meant by the gesture but he is known to be a campaigner for LGBT rights and was heavily criticised for accepting the invitation to perform in a country known for its outdated stance on gay people. Putin was in the stadium but had not yet taken his seat.
Just 15 minutes before kick-off the Russian president was driven in a convoy of cars with blacked out windows into an underground space beneath the 81,000-seat stadium. Large swaths of the crowd burst into a spontaneous chant of “Vladimir, Vladimir”. When Russia won the right to host the World Cup eight years ago the Russian president possibly expected it to be an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the international community. The aims have changed drastically since then, with Russia’s involvement in wars in Ukraine and Syria, allegations of meddling in foreign elections and one of the biggest doping scandals in sporting history. But it was clear this tournament will not harm his popularity in his own country.
World Cup Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email
Putin was joined in the VIP box by a host of lesser known world leaders including Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the president of Kyrgyzstan, and Juan Carlos Varela, the president of Panama.
They watched as Yuri Gazinskiy opened the scoring on 12 minutes with a header which the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper, Abdullah al-Mayouf flapped at. By the time Denis Cheryshev hit an unstoppable rifle of a shot into the roof of the net just before half-time it was clear Russia would be putting a halt to their streak of seven games without a victory, their worst run since 1998.
It was not only a day when Russia were a happy surprise on the pitch. Outside the stadium, where some visitors had expected police and security services to be overly aggressive, they were an unobtrusive but reassuring presence. The security searches to enter the stadium were extraordinarily thorough, with fans being ordered to switch phones and other electronic devices on and off before submitting to a full body pat‑down.
Locals spoke of concern that people would be apathetic towards football’s showpiece on their doorstep but Russian fans happily mingled with visitors in the afternoon sunshine. There was evidence, too, of progress being made through football in the less enlightened corners of the world. Yasser, an IT engineer from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, attended the game with his wife and two primary school age daughters. They were surprise visitors, especially as women were not even allowed into football stadiums in Saudi Arabia until January this year.
“We love football and wanted to come as a family,” Yasser said. “It’s a lifetime event and we can say in 20 years’ time we were here. Everything is great now all the women can watch football in Saudi Arabia.”
The red and white of Peru was the dominant colour on the streets of Moscow, with many of their 35,000 fans travelling to Russia making a stop in the capital before their opening game in the city of Saransk on Saturday. Peru are returning to the World Cup after a 36-year absence and the country is united behind them. Juan Quiñónez, a former professional footballer, and his girlfriend, Tatiana, made the journey from Lima. “We are a very poor country so I’m not sure how all these people can afford to come,” he said, “but everyone feels they need to be here.”
The pedestrianised Nikolskaya Street, which connects Lubyanskaya Square, home to the headquarters of the FSB security agency, with Red Square, is adorned with twinkling lights and has become an unofficial gathering space for fans.
In a pavement cafe Bryan Chaloner and Damian McAlister, retired policemen from Burnley, enjoyed an early afternoon pint of local beer. The pair have attended most of the World Cups and European Championships since 1998. Two years ago they were at Euro 2016 when organised groups of Russian thugs targeted English fans and violence on both sides marred the tournament. The numbers of England fans travelling is significantly down on previous tournaments, with tickets still available for two of their three group games.
But they had no reservations about travelling to Russia. “As retired policemen it’s been our job so we weren’t worried about coming,” Chaloner said. “We were in Marseille when it all kicked off but you can avoid it if you want to. Yes, you might be unfortunate and be jumped on here but that can happen in Manchester, too.”
Their main gripe was with inflated prices of accommodation for the tournament meaning they were in bunk beds in a hostel with a shared bathroom for £100 a night.
The notable low moment in Moscow on Thursday came with the arrest of Peter Tatchell. The LGBT campaigner was detained by police after standing beside the statue of Marshal Zhukov near the Kremlin holding a poster which read: “Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people.”
One-person protests are usually legal in Russia and official approval is needed only for protests of two people or more. But during the World Cup a temporary rule has been introduced meaning even one-person protests are illegal in some areas.
Tatchell was released later and will have a court hearing on 26 June. Organisers will hope they can keep the spotlight on the football in the meantime.