Moscow (AFP) – Russia kicked off their World Cup in style on Thursday, thumping Saudi Arabia 5-0 in front of an ecstatic crowd in Moscow as President Vladimir Putin basked in the glow.
Putin declared the tournament open at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium, saying football “unites the entire world” before watching his team overwhelm their hapless Group A opponents.
In a performance beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ardent home fans, two goals from substitute Denis Cheryshev were the highlight as Russia ended a seven-match run without a win in style.
Iury Gazinsky got the party started early, heading Russia in front in the 12th minute before Cheryshev rifled home a second shortly before half-time.
Another substitute, Artem Dzyuba, made it 3-0 with about 20 minutes remaining before a delicious late goal from Cheryshev with the outside of his left boot and a fifth from Aleksandr Golovin sealed the rout.
Victory for Russia, ranked a lowly 70th in the world — three places below Saudi Arabia — was vital for the home nation’s hopes of progressing, with tougher games against Egypt and Uruguay to come.
“There are no words to express what I’m feeling right now. I’m happy we won and happy I could help my team,” said man-of-the match Cheryshev.
“I felt very happy when I knew I would be here in the squad but I never dreamed of anything like this.”
– Williams gesture –
Earlier, British pop star Robbie Williams caused a stir during his performance at the opening ceremony by making an obscene gesture to a camera.
The former Take That star raised his middle finger at the end of his performance at the Luzhniki after appearing to mouth the words “I did this for free”.
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.
The buildup to the tournament has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals and has shone a light on the challenges facing the country.
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.
But British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was arrested for holding a one-man protest against the country’s record on gay rights, hours before kick-off.
– Big guns –