RUSSIA’S PERFECT START TO WORLD CUP DECEPTIVE,
WITH PUTIN WATCHING, HOSTS GET THE RESULT THEY WANTED DESPITE EYEBROW-RAISING STATS
Pray for Ovie. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin’s post-Stanley Cup bender was extended Thursday when his native Russia was the better of two bad sides.
Not that it mattered to the Luzhniki Stadium.
Or President Vladimir Putin, who simply shrugged his shoulders when Aleksandr Golovin made it 5-0 in stoppage time.
Perched in the president’s box high above Moscow’s centrepiece venue, the Russian leader’s self-congratulatory grin capped a match that completed the rebranding of a nation burdened with the cold stigma of isolation.
“Sports is beyond politics,” Putin said upon abruptly appearing on stage during this week’s 68th FIFA Congress.
Yet his distinguished guest list didn’t go unnoticed.
This World Cup was something of an ex-Soviet gathering for the Russian leader.
Putin’s invitees Thursday night included the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
A representative of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea also joined a group inside Luzhniki Stadium that was void of western influence.
For as eager as this nation is to soften its image, Soviet nostalgia is omnipresent.
The only figure larger than Putin here Thursday night was the enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin that towers above the wellmanicured lawn leading to the iconic stadium.
The facade enclosing Luzhniki is akin to a Soviet Yankee Stadium, with large columns supporting renovations that weren’t intended to wipe away its history.
This is a country that remains enormously patriotic and inspired by a past the West has all but buried. There were plenty of red and yellow “USSR” and “CCCP” shirts Thursday night alongside supporters donning the Russian federation’s red and white jersey.
The thunderous applause Putin received pre-game demonstrated how soccer is secondary to this country making an impression on the billions of viewers who will take in this tournament.
Saudi Arabia became the perfect punching bag as Russia at least briefly asserted its dominance in Group A, leading Putin to call coach Stanislav Cherchesov post-game and heap praise following a comfortable win.
But objective viewers know the opposite is true.
The Russians simply scored in key moments and tacked on a pair of goals after the Asian qualifiers already had a white flag firmly planted in their half.
You know, it’s a strange result when a team that was blown out had 60 per cent of the ball and completed about 67 per cent (511306) more passes than the host nation.
At least Cherchesov made some sense following the result when he compared Group A to a “crescendo,” with far more difficult games against Egypt and Uruguay looming.
Russia’s bench boss also found out Thursday his side will have to contend with Egypt’s Mo Salah Tuesday when the hosts travel to Saint Petersburg.
Salah’s rapid return from a shoulder separation was all but confirmed by his manager as the Pharaohs prepared to face Uruguay on Friday.
Cherchesov, though, was caught off-guard post-game when a reporter asked him if he could name any Egyptian players he’s wary of aside from the Liverpool talisman.
He named Egypt’s coach and defender Ahmed Hegazi, though he referred to Hegazi as “that guy from West Brom.”
How’s that for preparation? If you’re American or Canadian, you probably found yourself watching Thursday’s game and comparing your squad to what was on display. The Canadian national team wouldn’t have looked out of place against either of these two teams — something that should encourage coach John Herdman as he looks to take Canada to the next level.
But this opener wasn’t about entertaining Russian fans with intricate football or showing the world the hosts are a threat to make a deep run in this competition. It was about getting a positive result to put Russia’s football team back in good standing.
Russia was thoroughly embarrassed two summers ago when it failed to win a game at the UEFA European Championship.
Now they’re back giving Ovechkin reason to continue celebrating — if only for a few more days.
The World Cup kicked off Thursday with host Russia blanking Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament-opening match.
Russia’s Yuri Gazinsky celebrates one of his team’s five goals against Saudi Arabia, which dominated possession Thursday in Moscow.