World Cup off to a flyer in Russia
THE World Cup kicked off in Russia yesterday as the host nation took on Saudi Arabia in front of 80,000 people in Moscow after President Vladimir Putin officially declared the tournament open.
Russia is spending more than US$13 billion on hosting football’s showpiece, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Minutes before the game started at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Putin said: “I congratulate all of you at the start of the most important championship in the world.”
And to make matters even better for the hosts, Iury Gazinsky scored the first goal of the tournament to give Russia a 1-0 lead against Saudi Arabia.
Gazinsky headed into the net in the 12th minute, sparking scenes of delight from the home crowd.
Earlier, excitement was steadily building in Moscow, with thousands of Saudi fans in green and white arriving in the city for the match.
British pop star Robbie Williams performed at the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki, which will also host the final on July 15.
The World Cup favorites enter the fray this weekend.
Brazil and its superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, which won its fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians.
France boasts possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina’s defeat in the 2014 final.
But today Spain and Portugal meet for just the second time in the World Cup in one of the most intriguing games of the group stage. Spain is in chaos after firing its coach two days before the match, and Portugal has been fending off distractions since star Cristiano Ronaldo hinted at an upcoming announcement about his future.
The Group B match in Sochi is at Fisht Olympic Stadium, the first World Cup game to be played at the venue.
The Spanish soccer federation fired coach Julen Lopetegui because he accepted a job to coach Real Madrid after the tournament. Lopetegui was unbeaten in his 20 matches in charge of the national team. Fernando Hierro, a former Spain player who had been acting as the team’s sports director in Russia, will lead the country in his first major coaching job.
“I’ve been near a ball for 30 years,” Hierro said while dismissing his lack of coaching experience.
Prior to the stunning firing of Lopetegui, it had been Portugal trying to stay focused on the match. Ronaldo hinted after the UEFA Champions League final he might leave Real, but said he wouldn’t reveal his plans until he joined the national team. It’s had the attention on Ronaldo instead of the match.
Portugal won the 2016 European Championship, has 13 players from that team in Russia, and looked much like that winning squad in a 3-0 preseason victory over Algeria.
Egypt is making its first World Cup appearance in 28 years and will take on two-time champion Uruguay today in Group A. Egypt may also start the oldest player in World Cup history if 45-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary gets in the game.
A Group B clash at St Petersburg Stadium sees underdogs Iran and Morocco lock horns.