RUS­SIA’S PER­FECT START TO WORLD CUP DECEPTIVE,

WITH PUTIN WATCH­ING, HOSTS GET THE RE­SULT THEY WANTED DE­SPITE EYE­BROW-RAIS­ING STATS

National Post (Latest Edition) - - NEWS - KURTIS LAR­SON in Moscow klar­son@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/KurtLarSun

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.

JACK GUEZ / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

The World Cup kicked off Thursday with host Rus­sia blank­ing Saudi Ara­bia 5-0 in the tour­na­ment-open­ing match.

MATTHIAS SCHRADER /AP PHOTO

Rus­sia’s Yuri Gazin­sky cel­e­brates one of his team’s five goals against Saudi Ara­bia, which dom­i­nated pos­ses­sion Thursday in Moscow.

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