MOSCOW—Russia has spent the past seven years fretting over every detail of the world’s most popular sporting event amid security fears, tense foreign affairs, and the sudden realization that its soccer team might not be very good. Somewhere along the line, the main concern had become avoiding embarrassment at its own World Cup.
Russians learned on Thursday, however, that there is an old soccer remedy for nervous hosts. It turns out nothing lifts the mood like a truly abysmal opponent. A million things could yet go wrong here, but Russia will always have its opening-day party to look back on, a 5-0 dismantling of Saudi Arabia.
“We’re not trying to silence anyway here,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov said, “we’re just doing our work.”
Surprising as it was, Russia’s rout on the field was perhaps the least incongruous sight of a bizarre evening in Moscow. With the eyes of the world on the Luzhniki Stadium, the largest nation on Earth kicked off the tournament with a faded British pop star giving way to Russian President
who plans to use the World Cup as a month-long pulpit to address outsiders’ perception of Russia.
In his speech to the 78,011 fans in attendance and the hundreds of millions watching elsewhere, he spoke of an “open, hospitable and friendly country.”
“I congratulate the entire, big, strong, multinational football family from all over the world on the kickoff off the planet’s main football tournament,” Putin added. “In our country football is not just the most popular sport. Russians love football. And that is what we call love at first sight.”
Never mind that Putin, personally, is more of a hockey man. Or that he had more pressing matters on his mind this evening than how Russia’s soccer team performed. There was an eminent guest to attend to in the VIP box, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman.
While a pair of sub-par soccer teams did their thing on the field, the leaders of the world’s largest two largest oil producers had themselves an informal summit.
They spent the match sitting on either side of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, a Swiss soccer apparatchik whose rare job description routinely drops him into awkward seats between geopolitical powers.
Putin and bin Salman spent much of the game chatting across Infantino’s lap, even though they were expected to meet separately on Thursday ahead of a potentially fractious OPEC meeting next week. Soccer was likely not the only topic of conversation.
When they did address the game—after each of Russia’s goals, at least—the three men engaged in a strange pantomime. Putin did his best to be gracious with a nod and a smile. Bin Salman would turn up his hands and shrug. And Infantino would shrug back with a look that tried to say “it’s only a game.” But if there was something all three men might have agreed on, it was that from a soccer standpoint, the game they were only half-watching might not have been worth watching at all.
Luckily for the tournament and the millions of non-Russian, non-Saudi fans at home, there are 63 more in this tournament—63 more opportunities to remember that the World Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle of the international soccer. Because what transpired on the field at the Luzhniki Stadium was not it.
Russia may have racked up goals, but Saudi played like 11 men who first met on the Moscow metro that afternoon. They stumbled over their touch. They passed the ball pointlessly in defense. They finished without a shot on goal.
“Our opponents really didn’t have to make a huge effort to win by a landslide,” Saudi Arabia’s Argentine manager Juan Antonio Pizzi said after the game.
“He probably overlooked how disciplined we played, how compact we were,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov replied. “But I think I understand what he is saying.”
No one was expecting world-beaters, of course—and the real international heavyweights were sitting upstairs. Russia is technically the worst-ranked team at this World Cup, languishing at No. 70 in the FIFA rankings. Saudi sits just three spots north a no. 67, which on Thursday’s display might be considered generous.
The first half saw a grand total of two shots, which both resulted in Russian goals, first for Iury Gazinsky and then for Denis Cheryshev. After the break, Russia struck again through Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Golovin and once more through Cheryshev, one of only two players in the squad who plies his trade outside Russia’s mediocre domestic league.
That did plenty to animate the home fans in the colorful crowd that featured jerseys of every team in the tournament. But the loudest roars of the evening came before the game even started. They lavished cheers on Putin and, before him, the singer Robbie Williams, whose heyday was in the 1990s but who continues, improbably, to enjoy some popularity here. He once recorded a track called “Party Like a Russian” that mocked the lifestyles of Russian oligarchs so specifically that he then had to tweet, “this song is definitely not about Mr. Putin.”
Putin didn’t seem to hold a grudge. On Thursday, he had his global stage. He had his friendly oil meeting. And as a bonus, he had a Russian victory, for which he congratulated Cherchesov with a phone call in the middle of his post-game press conference, the manager said. On Day 1 of Russia’s World Cup, everything had come together precisely the way Russia had hoped.
Now there are just 31 more days to get right.
“To be good is one thing,” Cherchesov said. “To be good at the right time and place is another thing altogether.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org