Russia whipped into a frenzy as World Cup hosts find perfect pitch
Vladimir Putin shares his congratulations after five-star opening night performance
Yuri Gazinskiy celebrates scoring Russia’s opening goal with team-mates in the World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photograph: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images
Russia 5 Saudi Arabia 0
All happy families are alike. The national football team was supposed to be the weak link in Rossiya’s football extravaganza but instead they whipped Moscow into a frenzy with five goals which nobody expected, including a strike from Denis Cheryshev that will, in time, become a familiar World Cup moment.
Russia’s 5-0 thumping of hapless Saudi Arabia was the biggest winning margin in any opening game since the first tournament back in 1930. Shortly after the final whistle, Stanislav Cherchesov, Russia’s big, doleful coach was seen answering a phone call. Whether he had Vladimir Putin’s name in his contacts is unclear. At any rate, he took the call. The president was happy.
“It was the head of state who called me with congratulations and he asked me to share his congratulations with the team. And he asked us to continue playing in this vein.”
No pressure. This was Russia’s first World Cup finals win since 2002 but what a night to produce it. The lowest ranked team in the tournament, the hosts were under an unspoken pressure not to disgrace the country and rose to the occasion with such effortlessness that towards the end of the game, it began to look as if they had played a magnificent ruse on the world.
“To kid so many people is very difficult,” Cherchesov said exaggeratedly, “even for such masters as my players.”
If the World Cup is still part of Putin’s vague intention of re-inventing outside perceptions of his country, the opening act couldn’t have gone any better. The game, featuring two countries who exist at the thorny edge of international diplomacy and human rights records, was just the centrepiece of a strange opening night which was part political opportunism, part cabaret.
Russia had a rich musical lineage to draw upon but in running through their short list – Tchaikovsky (too dead), Pussy Riot (too banned) – they found themselves settling on Stoke-on-Trent’s Robert Peter Williams to get the football world in the mood. And no better lad to brazenly saunter through his catalogue of yesteryear Euro disco hits in front of a polite if indifferent Luzhniki crowd.
Robbie wore a red leopard suit in honour of his hosts, later sauntered over to meet a smiling and slightly bewildered Ronaldo, on the pitch to do nothing other than stand there as a bona fide Fifa legend. Finally, caving to his legend as England’s cheekiest chappie, Williams walked up to a camera and flipped the middle finger to the watching audience around the world.
In the stadium, nobody really noticed, least of all Putin, who was sitting back with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman to watch their teams do battle.
As it turned out, Williams’s gesture was like the universal sign language for the address that the Russian president would issue from the podium minutes before the match started. Speaking in Russian, Putin paid tribute to the “big strong football family from around the world” as, unblinkingly, he enthused about shared values, the “lasting humanistic value” of sport and of “mutual understanding between nations”.
There were a few muted sounds of restlessness during his speech – he remains, after 18 years, a remarkably underwhelming orator – and a sense that Muscovites have grown bored by their leader’s speeches. Mostly, they just wanted the football to begin.
What Putin and the Saudi crown prince do share is a mutual understanding of is the cost of a barrel of crude oil and, perhaps after this game, a recognition of the rising value of Aleksandr Golovin, Russia’s quicksilver midfielder. Earlier on Thursday afternoon, the state leaders had an official meeting at the Kremlin to discuss increasing rates of oil production. As they sat and watched the match, sandwiching Fifa president Gianni Infantino, it was hard not to imagine international stock values oscillating wildly as the players on the field grappled for control of the prestige opening game – and of their own modest prospects.
But from the beginning of the night, it was as if something inspired caught fire within the Russian team. The Russian anthem – the Soviet anthem restored by Putin in 2000 – was given a lusty rendition and on the pitch below, the players responded.
Fears that they would would disintegrate under the weight of expectation disappeared in the first 10 minutes when it became obvious that Golovin, Fedor Smolov and Yuri Zhirkov, the Zenit midfielder winning his 83rd cap, had enough to terrify the Saudi defence – such as it was.
There are many football nations ranked far above Russia who will wait a long time for their team to score five against anyone. The Russians played a compact 4-4-2 but broke with intent and verve and finished their chances with sustained composure. Yuri Gazinsky ignited the big stadium with his powerfully headed goal in the 12th minute and after that, Russia could do no wrong: the silky Golovin concluded a perfect night with a late free kick but Cheryshev’s second goal was emblematic of a dream opening for the Russians.
“We spent some time working on that in training sessions. I was trying to run with [Artem] Dzyuba,” said Cheryshev.
“He won with a header and it so happened that I was in control when I kicked. I had no time whatsoever to think. It unfolded very quickly. I just kicked and scored. That is the way it was.”
After the fifth goal went in, Putin gave a kind of helpless shrug at the totality of Russia’s superiority, possibly mindful of the lucrative air defence contract he had agreed with the Saudi’s last autumn. The prince looked stony faced. The state leaders vanished behind their smoked mirrors and a few minutes later, Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi looked like the loneliest man in all of Moscow as he tried to explain away a nightmare match for his team.
“Of course I studied Russia. I don’t think that the opposing team did anything to surprise us. They have won by a landslide. But I have not seen many surprises in Russia’s game.”
He was by himself there. Nobody predicted this. The world watched. The team gave 150 million Russians something to shout about. The land was happy. Putin basked. You can be sure he likes football a little more this evening.
RUSSIA (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev; Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov (Kuzyaev, 64 mins), Golovin, Dzagoev (Cheryshev, 24 mins); Smolov (Dzyuba, 70 mins). Booked: Golovin.
SAUDI ARABIA (4-5-1): Al-Muaiouf; Al-Buyayk, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Othman, Al-Shahrani; Al-Shehri (Bahbir, 74 mins), Al-Jassam, Otayf (Al-Muwallad, 64 mins), Al-Faraj, Al Dawsari; Al-Sahlawi (Asiri, 84 mins). Booked: Al-Jassam.
Referee: Pitana Nestor (Argentina).