MOSCOW — The 21st edition of the World Cup took flight Thursday with a carnival of colors, a parade of performers, 12 presidents, three prime ministers, a crown prince, past tournament heroes, a harpist, a supermodel, firebirds and a wolf.
That the two participating soccer teams harbor no hope of raising the 11-pound, gold-plated trophy at this very same venue four-plus weeks forward did not matter a lick to the 78,011 stuffed inside Luzhniki Stadium, the 25,000 partying in the adjacent riverside fanfest and hundreds of millions watching in time zones near and far.
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 Panama, Paraguay, Bolivia and former Soviet republics.
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 6-yard header that settled into the far corner. The arena erupted, except for the green patch of glum Saudi supporters behind the other goal.