De­fi­ant Putin wel­comes World Cup as Rus­sia win

Tour­na­ment gets go­ing as hosts soundly beat Saudi Ara­bia, with foot­ball the real vic­tor

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

MOSCOW: Rus­sia wel­comed the world to the foot­ball World Cup Thurs­day as fans streamed in, the hosts sa­vored a 5-0 vic­tory on the pitch and Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s govern­ment de­rided Western ef­forts to iso­late him.

The Krem­lin leader, greeted by a huge cheer ahead of the hosts’ open­ing game against Saudi Ara­bia, spoke of show­ing the world a hos­pitable Rus­sia and of sport over­com­ing dif­fer­ences.

Rus­sia is grap­pling with Western sanc­tions im­posed af­ter its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, but a crush­ing win in the first of 64 matches of a month­long fes­ti­val was all many Rus­sians were think­ing about.

Talk­ing of a love of foot­ball unit­ing the planet “as one team,” Putin said: “In this unity, over which no pow­ers reign, in which there are no dif­fer­ences of language, of ide­ol­ogy or of faith, lies the great power of foot­ball, and of all sport.”

Western pow­ers chose not to send se­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the open­ing cer­e­mony but, de­spite some mut­ter­ing this year as re­la­tions soured fur­ther, there are no sport­ing boy­cotts like the one that marred the 1980 Moscow Olympics, or dop­ing bans of the kind that ex­cluded many Rus­sians from the last two Olympics.

“At­tempts at a boy­cott were doomed from the start,” Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Vi­taly Mutko, a close Putin ally and long-time sports min­is­ter – him­self banned from the Olympics – told Izvestiya news­pa­per. “It shows how for­eign politi­cians are some­times cut­off from real life.”

The pres­i­dent, newly re-elected af­ter 18 years in power, heard Bri­tish singer Rob­bie Wil­liams dom­i­nate a col­or­ful half-hour open­ing cer­e­mony at Moscow’s Luzh­niki Sta­dium with what the Krem­lin listed as an ar­ray of 15 for­eign lead­ers,

al­though that in­cluded eight from ex-Soviet neigh­bors as well as two from Rus­sian-backed break­away re­gions of Georgia.

Putin watched the game with Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, stretch­ing across to FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino to of­fer a con­sol­ing hand­shake to his Saudi guest as Yury Gazin­sky put Rus­sia a goal up af­ter 12 min­utes. The com­fort­able win raised hopes that the low-ranked hosts might progress into the tour­na­ment’s later stages.

“Rus­sia in Cen­ter Field,” head­lined the state-run news­pa­per Ros­si­iskaya Gazeta. “The main vic­tory is al­ready won,” it said, prais­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tional ef­fort in which a dozen sta­di­ums have been built or re­built and a huge se­cu­rity op­er­a­tion rolled out.

The big­gest event Rus­sia has hosted since Soviet times, when the United States and oth­ers boy­cotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the in­va­sion of Afghanistan, puts a spot­light on how Rus­sia has, since the chaotic col­lapse of Com­mu­nism, res­ur­rected its econ­omy and a tight so­cial or­der un­der for­mer KGB agent Putin.

Western lead­ers are stay­ing away, though some are likely to at­tend later matches if their teams progress, and protests and crit­i­cism – of con­flict with Ukraine or hu­man rights abuses in Rus­sia – have been largely con­fined to for­eign soil. Bri­tish cam­paigner Peter Tatchell was briefly detained by po­lice for stag­ing a one-man gay rights protest on Red Square.

Gov­ern­ments have warned their cit­i­zens to be­ware of vi­o­lent Rus­sian soc­cer hooli­gans as well of a risk of racial and ho­mo­pho­bic ha­rass­ment in the streets. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, how­ever, dis­missed con­cerns raised when a lead­ing law­maker urged Rus­sian women to avoid sex with vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially those from dif­fer­ent races.

“All coun­tries ac­cuse each other of racism, ho­mo­pho­bia. This has noth­ing to do with the World Cup,” he told re­porters. “As for the women of Rus­sia, they can han­dle any­thing them­selves.” With some 200,000 vis­it­ing fans on hand to fol­low the 32 teams, Putin has urged Rus­sians to put on a show and get be­hind their team – whose poor re­cent form had made them the tour­na­ment’s weak­est side by FIFA world rank­ings.

There was good-na­tured shar­ing at the ground be­fore the match among fans from around the world in som­breros, fur hats, na­tional strips or na­tional flags, with lit­tle of the heav­ily armed se­cu­rity and troops seen at sim­i­lar events in western Eu­rope since Daesh (ISIS) at­tacks.

Vyacheslav Go­likov, a 32-year-old teacher, had come over 4,000 kilo­me­ters from Siberia. “We’re feel­ing amaz­ing emo­tions,” he said. “There’s a sea of peo­ple … We think for­eign­ers’ im­pres­sions will be great.”

Vi­taly Mokhov, 36, came from Vologda in south­ern Rus­sia with his fa­ther to cel­e­brate his 70th birth­day.

“It’s a fes­ti­val,” he said. “We’ve never seen any­thing like it in the his­tory of Rus­sia, and we’ll never see it again in the rest of our lives.” –

Ac­tors per­form dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Rus­sia 2018 World Cup. / AFP / Mladen ANTONOV

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