Russia defies critics to throw World Cup party
A picture taken on June 8, 2018 shows the Nizhny Novgorod stadium, in Nizhny Novgorod. The World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday as years of preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals give way to a month of action on the field in football's global showpiece. (Martin BERNETTI / AFP)
(AFP) - The World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday as years of preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals give way to a month of action on the field in football's global showpiece.
Russia get the ball rolling against Saudi Arabia at the completely refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after an opening ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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.
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.
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," Putin said.
- Hearts and minds -
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.
Cities like Saransk were sleepy outposts with decaying buildings until World Cup construction workers 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.
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 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.
"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," Putin said Wednesday.
- Racism and riots -
Russia's troubles do not end in the high-brow world of geopolitics.
The bloody beating English fans took from nearly 200 Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has plagued preparations as much as any diplomatic dispute.
Neo-Nazi hooligans who organise mass fights in forests and chant racist slurs at players have lorded over Russian stadiums for years.
The anti-discrimination network Fare said Russia's football federation was making matters worse by punishing those who reacted to racist abuse "while ignoring the perpetrators".
Security services have either locked up or checked in on hundreds of hoodlums to make sure they do nothing to tarnish Russia's image.
The scare tactics have worked. Some football gang members say they will be skipping town once the games begin to avoid getting rounded up.
Russia refused to issue tickets to nearly 500 of its supporters with suspected football underworld ties. England has forced over 1,000 known hooligans to hand in their passports.
- Field of dreams -
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 enter the fray on Sunday when they take on Switzerland. The Germans start their campaign against Mexico the same day.
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 embarrassing 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.
© Agence France-Presse