Hosts Russia get World Cup off to their dream start
Russia started their first World Cup game as hosts with a 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, cheered on by an international crowd.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among the more than 80,000 people watching the match at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, seated beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Gianni Infantino.
Mr Putin had joked with Prince Salman ahead of the match, telling the crown prince that he has to cheer for the home team.
“You know that we have very warm feelings for you, but I think you will understand that I cannot wish success to your team,” Mr Putin said.
Prince Salman took the comment in stride, saying: “No matter the outcome of today’s match, we will still be satisfied because we achieve success in different spheres due to our joint work.”
The crown prince was presented with a football to autograph by the event mascot Zabivaka as he disembarked from his plane, and duly obliged.
The result gave Russia its first World Cup finals win since 2002 and ended a run of seven consecutive defeats for the national side.
“We have the best country in the world, I knew we would win. I can’t describe how happy and positive I feel right now,” Yelena Krasnykh, a 21-year-old student, told Agence France-Presse.
“We’re really very glad. We didn’t expect this, to be honest,” said 34-year-old Veronika Kripolapova.
But the Russian fans cheering on their team where outnumbered by flag-waving supporters from all over the world, particularly South America.
Supporters from Peru, Mexico and Colombia held competitive chant-offs, while cheering for Russia during the game. As Russia scored the final goal, hundreds of Russian and Peruvian fans danced together and chanted “Go Russia!”
“We were a bit worried that Russians would be cold because we South American people are very warm.
“But everyone has been so friendly,” said Gabriela Chang, 29, a visitor from Peru.
Pop star Robbie Williams struck the only jarring note in his pre-match performance, making an obscene gesture at the camera as he sang his hit Rock DJ, but the opening game goal-fest, albeit one-sided, raised hopes for many more excitement displays from the 32 teams vying to make the final on July 15.
The next highlight for fans in the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, is the other group A fixture on Friday, when Liverpool star Mohamed Salah could make his World Cup debut against Uruguay.
Salah’s participation was thrown into doubt after a shoulder injury in the Champions League final against Real Madrid last month but Egyptian manager Hector Cuper said on Thursday that the striker was almost 100 per cent certain to play.
“Mo is doing very well indeed. He’s recovered very, very quickly – we’ve paid a lot of attention to him,” the veteran coach told a news conference before the squad’s last training session ahead of Friday’s match.
“I can almost assure you 100 per cent that he will play, save unforeseen circumstances at the very last minute.”
If he does, it will be a special 26th birthday for Salah as Egypt mark their first appearance in a World Cup finals in 28 years.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at the opening match