Defiant Putin opens 2018 World Cup during glitzy ceremony

 sbs.com.au  6/14/2018 4:34:26 PM 

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Russia welcomed the world to the World Cup on Thursday as cheerful fans streamed into Moscow and 10 other cities 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, as the country grapples with Western sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago.

Talking of a love of soccer 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, nor doping bans of the kind that excluded many Russians from the last two Olympiads.

"Attempts at a boycott were doomed from the start," Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, a close Putin ally and long-time sports minister, told Izvestiya newspaper. "It shows how foreign politicians are sometimes cut off from real life."

Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and President Wladimir Putin of Russia look on
Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and President Wladimir Putin of Russia look on during the opening match

The president, newly re-elected after 18 years in power, heard British singer Robbie Williams dominate a colourful half-hour opening ceremony at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium with what the Kremlin listed as an array of 15 foreign leaders -- though that included eight from ex-Soviet neighbours as well as two from Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.

obbie Williams performs at the opening ceremony prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium
obbie Williams performs at the opening ceremony prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium

Putin watched the game with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stretching across FIFA President Gianni Infantino to offer a consoling handshake to his Saudi guest as Yury Gazinsky put Russia a goal up after 12 minutes.

"Russia in Centre Field," headlined the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"The main victory is already won," it said, praising an organisational effort in which a dozen stadiums have been built or modernised and a huge security operation put in place.

No boycott 

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, will put a spotlight on how Russia has, since the chaotic collapse of Communism, resurrected its economy and a tight social order under the former KGB agent.

Relations with the West have also been strained by Putin's role in supporting Syria's president in the civil war. But talk of a sporting boycott after Britain accused the Kremlin of using a banned nerve agent to try to kill a former Russian spy in England failed to materialise.

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 protest on Red Square outside the Kremlin demanding Russia respect LGBT rights.

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.

Police detain British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in Moscow
Police detain British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in Moscow

"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 in the country to follow the 32 teams, Putin has urged Russians to put on a show and get behind the home team -- a task not helped by poor form that makes them the tournament's weakest side by FIFA world ranking.

Amid thousands from around the world, in sombreros and fur hats, national strips or draped in flags from dozens of nations, there was good-natured sharing around the ground before the match with little of the heavily armed security and troops seen at similar events in western Europe since Islamic State attacks.

Vyacheslav Golikov, a 32-year-old teacher had come over 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Siberia.

"We’re feeling amazing emotions," he said. "There's a sea of people, everything looks nice. 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."

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