RUSSIA NO. 1 — FOR A DAY AT LEAST
With Putin watching, hosts waltz past Saudis in World Cup-opening match
Pray for Ovie.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin’s post- Stanley Cup bender was extended Thursday night when his native Russia was the better of two bad sides.
Not that it mattered to fans at Luzhniki Stadium.
Or to 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 withthecoldstigmaofisolation.
“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.
Thisworldcupwassomething ofanex-sovietgatheringforthe 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.
Foraseagerasthisnationisto 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,withlargecolumnssupporting renovations that weren’t intended to wipe away its history.
Thisisacountrythatremains enormously patriotic and inspired by a past the west has all but buried.
Therewereplentyofredand 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 apairofgoalsaftertheasian 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 (511-306) more passes than the host nation.
At least Cherchesov made some sense following the result when he compared Group A to a“crescendo,”withfarmore 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 St. Petersburg.
Salah’s rapid return from a shoulder separation was all but confirmedbyhismanagerasthe Pharaohs prepared to face Uruguay 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 thatshouldencouragecoach John Herdman as he looks to take Canada to the next level.
But this opener wasn’t about entertaining Russian fans with intricate soccer 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 soccer team back in good standing.
Russia was thoroughly embarrassed two summers ago when it failedtowinagameattheuefa European Championship.
Now they’re back giving Ovechkin reason to continue celebrating — if only for a few more days.
World Cup fever hit Russia Thursday as the tournament host trounced lowly Asian qualifier Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the first match of soccer’s biggest spectacle — this despite the Russians being out-possessed and completing more than 200 fewer passes than...