Moscow (AFP) – The World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday as years of preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals give way to a month-long feast of action on the field.
Russia get the ball rolling against Saudi Arabia at the completely refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after an opening ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.
On the day of the curtainraiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organising an illegal protest.
Russia is spending more than $13 billion (11 billion euros) on hosting football’s showpiece, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Brazil and their superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, who won their fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played in Moscow on July 15.
France boast possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina’s defeat in the 2014 final.
Putin was keen to attract the tournament to Russia to show its modern face, but in the run-up the country’s problems — from racism and hooliganism to a foreign policy sharply at odds with the West — have been exposed and scrutinised.
Britain and some eastern European states formerly under Soviet rule tried to organise a diplomatic boycott over the poisoning in England of a former Russian double agent. British royals and government members will not attend in protest but a wider boycott effort fizzled out.
“We would like to underscore the validity of the FIFA principle of sport being outside politics,” Putin told a meeting of football’s governing body FIFA on Wednesday.
“Russia has always adhered to this principle,” he said.
– Hearts and minds –
The money lavished on the tournament will boost Putin’s already sky-high prestige at home by giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in generations.
Cities such as Saransk were sleepy outposts with decaying buildings until the World Cup reconstruction put them firmly in the 21st century.
The tournament also offers Putin a chance to project Russia as a global player that is accepted and respected even while being at odds with the United States.
He is attempting to do so despite Russia bearing the brunt of international sanctions that began after its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.