World Cup: Robbie raises the curtain on Russia 2018
● Putin welcomes fans to ‘splendid football festival in a hospitable and friendly country’
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