For this is not only soccer’s greatest spectacle, but a celebration of sport rivaled only by the summertime Olympiad.
With President Vladimir Putin nodding approval of pregame — and especially in-game — activities, the Russian national team, ranked the lowest among the 32 entries, lifted the spirits of a pessimistic public by thumping hapless Saudi Arabia, 5-0.
And with that, a competition that promises German resolve, Brazilian beauty, Lionel Messi mastery and, let’s face it, inevitable English disappointment, began the 64-match march through 11 cities to the July 15 final.
The opener is rarely about the two foes, and Thursday’s lid-lifter was no different. From Red Square to Arbat Street, in front of the Karl Marx statue facing the Bolshoi Theater and in the jammed trains ferrying fans on Metro’s 1 line, the spirit of the World Cup overshadowed the actual match.
Well, until the Russian goal-fest began.
Experts say Russia has not seen this many visitors at one time since the 1980 Olympics. Outside Luzhniki Stadium, one of two venues in the capital, Saudis mixed with Senegalese, Colombians with Koreans, Mexicans with Moroccans.
Inside the spectacular arena, Russians had all the fun.
With each goal, Putin expressed his condolences to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by reaching across the seat occupied by FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Other dignitaries included, among others, heads of state from former Soviet republics, Panama, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov stepped away from the postgame news conference to take a congratulatory call from Putin. Upon returning, he said: “That was the head of state. He asked me to share his thanks with the team for their performance we put on. And he asked the team to continue playing like this.”
Russia was not expected to go very far in this tournament. In fact, there were genuine concerns that it would become the second host in tournament history to exit after the group stage. (South Africa fell short of the second round in 2010.)
The Soviet Union produced world-class teams, but Russia has enjoyed small levels of success. This team entered the tournament winless in seven consecutive matches.
The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, echoed the thoughts of probably most Russian fans with dour headlines, such as “Destined to Defeat” and “Why Russia Is Doomed to Fail.”
If the Russians are to avoid an early fall, they had to win Thursday, because the level of competition will grow with each match: Egypt on Tuesday in St. Petersburg and foursome favorite Uruguay on June 25 in Samara.
They rose to the occasion, outclassing a young opponent that was out of its element and is sure to head home in 12 days.
Less than 12 minutes had expired when Aleksandr Golovin crossed to Iury Gazinsky for a six-yard header that settled into the far corner. The arena erupted, except for the green patch of glum Saudi supporters behind the other goal.
Russia lost Alan Dzagoev to a hamstring injury in the 22nd minute, but his departure cleared the way for Denis Cheryshev, who scored just before halftime. The foray began in the defensive end, and when the Saudis left acres of emerald grass exposed, the Russians pounced.
In the penalty area, Cheryshev neatly lifted the ball over the outstretched leg of a sliding defender and finished the opportunity with an angled effort from seven yards to the near side of the net. A midfielder at Spain’s Villarreal, he is one of only two players on the squad employed by a club outside of Russia.
The Saudis were in a better place for 25 minutes of the second half, but the outcome wasn’t in doubt and Russia added valuable goals to its portfolio. (After all, goal differential could decide a round-of-16 spot.)
In the 71st minute, another substitute, Artem Dzyuba, extended the lead to three with a header into the right side of the target, set up by Golovin’s sterling cross. Cherchesov pumped his arms once, twice, maybe a dozen times.
Russia added two additional goals in stoppage time, both of extraordinary quality.
First, Cheryshev latched onto the ball at the edge of the penalty area and, with exquisite technique, used the outside of his left foot to spin a rising shot over goalkeeper Abdullah Al Muaiouf. “I couldn’t think,” he said. “I just kicked and scored.”
Of his performance and the team’s, he said, “I could never have dreamed anything like this.”
Later, the 22-year-old Golovin delicately place a picture-perfect free kick from 23 yards just inside the near post — a fitting final touch to a day that belonged to all soccer fans but ultimately rewarded 23 red-clad players and their 145 million followers.
“It’s just the beginning, not the end,” Cherchesov said. “We got three points. In this tournament, we need to gather points. We need to [advance from] the group.”
In-game updates and highlight clips:
Group A, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Thursday’s World Cup opener comes to a merciful end. With its 5-0 stomping of Saudi Arabia, Russia wins its first international match since October and, more importantly, earns a crucial three points in Group A, where second place behind heavily favored Uruguay is up for grabs. Here’s how important that is: Over the past five World Cups, 85 percent of the teams that won their opening game went on to the knockout round. Russia’s immediate plus-five goal differential only helps that cause in the event of tiebreakers.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, takes a bleak outlook into next Wednesday’s match with Uruguay, which could make Thursday’s blowout loss look like a nail-biter. The Green Falcons were known for their possession entering the match but did little to live up to that reputation, giving the ball away at midfield to spark the Russian attack. Uruguay should feast.
Russia: vs. Egypt in St. Petersburg, June 19.
Saudi Arabia: vs. Uruguay in Rostov-on-Don, June 20.
That, apparently, was not enough. Russia’s Alexsandr Golovin blasts a free kick from just outside the box past Abdullah Al-Muaiouf. 5-0.
Okay Russia, that’s enough. Denis Cheryshev scores his second goal of the game on a flick off the outside of his left foot in extra time.
Russia all but seals it in the 71st minute as Roman Zobnin waltzes into the box and flips it to the 6-foot-5 Artem Dzyuba, who heads it in easily. Dzyuba had eight goals in his previous 12 international matches and continued his run only moments after he came onto the field as a substitute Thursday. It’s 3-0.
No, really! The Green Falcons actually mounted something in the 56th minute after an entire game spent fumbling the ball away, needling it up the field and actually getting a shot off, but Taisar Al-Jassim sent his attempt wide. A free kick two minutes later deep in Russian territory was headed well wide of the goal by Salman Al-Faraj. Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has had little to do today.
Halftime: Russia 2, Saudi Arabia 0
The host country is in full control here as Saudi Arabia has failed to mount much of an attack and seems disorganized in all facets of the game. Neither team seems particularly strong — befitting the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament in terms of FIFA’s rankings — but it’s Russia that has made the most of the other team’s ineptitude.
FiveThirtyEight gives Russia a 97 percent chance of victory, which seems about right. Some fans perhaps are using this as a sign to beat the crowd:
Russia goes up 2-0 in the 43rd minute as Denis Cheryshev, who came on as a substitute about 20 minutes earlier, corrals the ball in the box, lets two Saudi defenders slide by him and then plants it into the upper corner of the net. All Russia right now.
The Video Assistant Referee system (VAR), new for this World Cup to assist the officials, was not employed in the first half, though there was on opportunity in the 35th minute when Fyodor Smolov was taken down by Osama Hawsawi in the box on a breakaway. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana kept his whistle quiet, and it appeared to be a clean call.
VAR officials, located in remote locations and not in the stadiums, may intervene when there is “clear and obvious error” in one of four areas: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.
Russia forced to sub already
Midfielder Alan Dzagoev pulled up with what appeared to be a painful hamstring injury in the 23rd minute. He had to depart and was replaced by Denis Cheryshev, one of only two members of Russia’s team to play pro soccer outside the country (Villarreal in Spain). The last thing anyone wants is to burn a sub so early in the first half.
After a feeling-out period that saw Russia control much of the play, Iury Gazinsky took a cross from Aleksandr Golovin in the 12th minute and headed it past a helpless Abdullah Al-Maiouf to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
It garnered this reaction:
Russia almost struck again moments later, but Al-Maiouf was able to punch away a deflected shot from Fyodor Smolov (there also was an offsides that wasn’t called).
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