World Cup: Rob­bie raises the cur­tain on Rus­sia 2018

● Putin wel­comes fans to ‘splen­did foot­ball fes­ti­val in a hos­pitable and friendly coun­try’

The Scotsman - - Front Page - By MAR­GARET NEIGH­BOUR

Rob­bie Wil­liams marred what had been a vin­tage per­for­mance of his great­est hits dur­ing the World Cup’s open­ing cer­e­mony by show­ing his mid­dle fin­ger to the cam­era.

The for­mer Take That singer was the star turn of a colour­ful, 15-minute per­for­mance which fea­tured a duet of An­gels with Rus­sian so­prano Aida Gar­i­ful­lina, lots of dancers and Brazil­ian foot­ball star Ron­aldo.

Wil­liams made the of­fen­sive ges­ture dur­ing his last song, Rock DJ, hav­ing opened with Let Me En­ter­tain You and Feel, which means he de­cided not to per­form Party Like a Rus­sian, the song which lam­poons oli­garchs.

De­spite the ill-man­nered sign-off, the Rus­sian crowd ap­peared to love the 44-year-old’s show­man­ship and many in the crowd knew the lyrics.

Within min­utes of Wil­liams leav­ing the pitch, the real main man took cen­tre stage: Vladimir Putin.

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent start- ed by wel­com­ing sports fans around the globe to a “splen­did foot­ball fes­ti­val in a hos­pitable and friendly coun­try”. Mr Putin said “Rus­sians love foot­ball” and for them it had been “love at first ever since the first of­fi­cial game in 1897”. But in a speech that went on a lit­tle longer than they usu­ally do on these oc­ca­sions, Mr Putin made sev­eral veiled ref­er­ences to the coun­try’s cur­rent iso­la­tion on the global stage af­ter a se­ries of diplo­matic crises. He talked about “sport’s hu­man­is­tic value” and its power for sup­port­ing “peace and un­der­stand­ing be­tween na­tions”.

FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino spoke next, in Rus­sian, English and Ara­bic, a ges­ture that was warmly greeted by both sets of fans, Rus­sia’s and Saudi Ara­bia’s.

“As of to­day, for one month foot­ball will con­quer Rus­sia and from Rus­sia foot­ball will con­quer the whole world – en­joy the big­gest cel­e­bra­tion on earth,” said In­fantino in English.

The na­tional an­thems were then played, and sung gustily, hand­shakes were made and the 2018 World Cup’s first game kicked off with a match ball that spent March or­bit­ing the earth in the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. Rus­sia won a re­sound­ing 5-0 vic­tory.

Mean­while gay rights cam­paigner Peter Tatchell was re­leased af­ter be­ing ar­rested in Moscow fol­low­ing a one­man protest near the Krem­lin.

Peter Tatchell was de­tained near the statue of Mar­shal Zhukov in a pub­lic square which was busy with foot­ball fans ahead of the first game of the World Cup, while hold­ing a poster at­tack­ing Mr Putin.

The poster read: “Putin fails to act against Chech­nya tor­ture of gay peo­ple”.

Sev­eral po­lice of­fi­cers moved in to de­tain Mr Tatchell and told him he had bro­ken the law in Rus­sia. He was al­lowed to walk to a nearby po­lice car where he was ques­tioned be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to an­other car and be­ing driven away to a po­lice sta­tion.

Mr Tatchell shouted “OK” as he left the first ve­hi­cle be­fore be­ing flanked by two of­fi­cers in the car which drove him away.

He was re­leased on bail about an hour later, and the Peter Tatchell Foun­da­tion said he had been “treated well”.

Ear­lier, Mr Tatchell de­fended his right to protest, say­ing: “I was ex­er­cis­ing my law­ful right to protest, un­der the Rus­sian con­sti­tu­tion, which guar­an­tees free­dom of ex­pres­sion and the right to protest in Ar­ti­cles 29 and 31.

“A one-per­son protest, which is what I did, re­quires no per­mis­sion from the au­thor­i­ties and the po­lice.

“Get­ting ar­rested is stan­dard for Rus­sians who protest for LGBT+ rights or against cor­rup­tion, eco­nomic in­jus­tice and Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and its bomb­ing of civil­ians in Syria.”

He said he had been treated more le­niently than Rus­sian pro­test­ers be­cause of his Bri­tish pass­port and said he was “awed” by their courage.

He said it was his sixth visit to the coun­try, where he said he has twice been ar­rested dur­ing protests.

The Olympics could learn a lot from the World Cup. No drawn out, sto­ried pageants trac­ing the his­tory of Rus­sia back to the Palae­olithic pe­riod, just a bit of B-list yo­delling from Rob­bie Wil­liams in work­ing men’s club mode, ac­com­pa­nied by the much finer ton­sils of Rus­sian so­prano Aida Gar­i­ful­lina. Twenty min­utes. Done. And that in­cluded erect­ing and re­mov­ing the set. Bud­get open­ing cer­e­monies R us.

Es­corted onto the pitch by Ron­aldo, the orig­i­nal, Rob­bie pa­raded about the stage like an old English cen­tre half, torso ram­rod straight and heavy on his feet. Wisely he elected not to per­form his 2016 of­fer­ing, Party Like a Rus­sian, which in­cludes the lyrics “Ain’t no re­futin’ or dis­putin’ – I’m a mod­ern Rasputin, Sub­con­tract dis­putes to some brutes in Louboutin, Act high­fa­lutin’ while my boys put the boots in.”

Any pho­netic ref­er­ence to Vladimir Putin in the ‘re­futin’ dis­putin’ Ras­a­putin’ and the ‘put the boots in’ lines are en­tirely co-in­ci­den­tal, you un­der­stand. The Rus­sian premier fol­lowed Rob­bie into the pul­pit, spout­ing the stan­dard in­sin­cer­i­ties about foot­ball’s re­mark­able abil­ity to unite na­tions. Why do politi­cians ex­pose them­selves to ridicule in this way, un­less the in­tended au­di­ence is pri­mary school age?

In the past, the Soviet lead­er­ship would ad­dress the na­tion via the use of posters full of strik­ing, bold images to prop­a­gate its pro­pa­ganda. This was in a pe­riod of wide­spread il­lit­er­acy when the av­er­age read­ing age was in­deed about the pri­mary school mark. In these times of im­proved ed­u­ca­tion, the pres­i­dent’s speech as­sumes the role of the poster, the over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the pic­ture no longer tar­get­ing the il­lit­er­ate but the un­crit­i­cal masses, and plenty of satel­lite chums be­yond, who are wed­ded to the idea that Putin speaks only the truth.

Flanked by the heads of gov­ern­ment of just about ev­ery for­mer Soviet state, plus a ca­bal of hu­man rights bad dudes from fur­ther afield, in­clud­ing Bo­li­vian pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales and Rwan­dan leader Paul Kagame, plus the Crown Prince of Saudi Ara­bia, Putin was al­ready preach­ing to the con­verted, and they nod­ded ap­prov­ingly as he hit the high notes of ab­so­lute piety.

“Let’s just think of it: we, the de­voted fans of foot­ball, are so nu­mer­ous where bil­lions of peo­ple on our planet wher­ever we live, what­ever tra­di­tions we hold, foot­ball brings us to­gether in one sin­gle team and we are united by our af­fec­tion for this spec­tac­u­lar, vi­brant, un­com­pro­mis­ing game and also play­ers of these teams have a great de­gree of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, a unity which can­not be af­fected by dif­fer­ent lan­guage, ide­ol­ogy or faith. It rep­re­sents the power of foot­ball and sport as a whole. The power of its hu­man­is­tic be­gin­ning.”

Crikey, poi­soned Rus­sian emi­gre Sergei Skri­pal must have been swiv­el­ling in his rock­ing chair deep in the English hin­ter­land lis­ten­ing to that. In truth the pol­i­tick­ing around this event al­ways car­ried greater im­port for Rus­sia since ex­pec­ta­tion of the na­tional team is so low.

It was good of Saudi Ara­bia to roll over, but the smile on Putin’s face had more to do with the de­vel­op­ing re­la­tions with the Mid­dle East state, es­pe­cially the ma­jor oil pact that is in the pipe­line, if you will, fol­low­ing the del­e­ga­tion led by King Sal­man him­self last Oc­to­ber. As for the foot­ball, the open­ing match was con­tested by the two low­est ranked teams in the World Cup and was in a sense bet­ter for the sup­posed short­fall in qual­ity. Mis­takes make things hap­pen.

Rus­sia were ahead in the 12th minute largely as a con­se­quence of the poor de­fend­ing of their op­po­nents, Yuri Gazin­sky ris­ing un­marked at the far post to dob a header past Ab­dul­lah Al-muaiouf. The match flowed from end to end with nei­ther side either in­ter­ested or ca­pa­ble, it seemed, of re­pelling an at­tack.

Three min­utes be­fore the break Rus­sia bun­dled home a sec­ond, the fin­ish rather more em­phatic than it de­served to be given the re­peated and ul­ti­mately failed at­tempts to stop sub­sti­tute De­nis Ch­ery­shev get­ting his shot away.

The Saudis flicked the ball about with some elan at times, suf­fi­ciently we hope to jus­tify the pro­posed in­vest­ment in the game as part of a wider mod­erni­sa­tion process be­ing un­der­taken by the House of Saud. Now that cin­e­mas are open­ing and women are al­lowed to drive a pros­per­ous na­tional foot­ball league is the ob­vi­ous must-have so­ci­etal ac­ces­sory.

The third goal was prob­a­bly un­nec­es­sary from Putin’s point of view, and though Artem Dzyuba, whose header it was, and Alek­sandr Golovin, who pro­vided the cross, would prob­a­bly dis­agree, de­fender Omar Haw­sawi was badly at fault with his po­si­tion­ing.

Putin, sat on one side of Fifa pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino, had the del­i­cacy not to over cel­e­brate be­fore Crown Prince Ab­dul­lah, who was sta­tioned on the other. A gen­tle shake of the head that said you did not de­serve that, en­sured en­tente re­mained in­tact. As for the fourth, a rak­ing sec­ond from Ch­ery­shev, and the fifth, a curled free-kick by Golovin, well, I’ll let you fill in those cap­tions.

A ca­bal of hu­man rights bad dudes nod­ded ap­prov­ingly as Putin hit the high notes of ab­so­lute piety

Clock­wise from main: Rob­bie Wil­liams and dancers; Rus­sian so­prano Aida Gar­i­ful­lina; Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin; VIP’S watch the open­ing game; Rus­sian fans cel­e­brate their team’s vic­tory; World Cup mas­cot Zabi­vaka

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