Hospitable Russians welcome one and all

English singer Robbie Williams (left) and Russian soprano Aida Garifullina perform during the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup.
English singer Robbie Williams (left) and Russian soprano Aida Garifullina perform during the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup.

Moscow - President Putin spoke of sport overcoming differences

By Reuters

Published: Thu 14 Jun 2018, 9:39 PM

Last updated: Tue 30 Nov 2021, 8:47 AM

Russia welcomed the world to the World Cup on Thursday as cheerful fans streamed into Moscow and 10 other cities and President Vladimir Putin's government derided Western efforts to isolate him.

The Kremlin leader, greeted by a huge cheer ahead of the hosts' opening game against Saudi Arabia, spoke of showing the world a hospitable Russia and of sport overcoming differences, as the country grapples with Western sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago.

Talking of a love of soccer uniting the planet "as one team", Putin said: "In this unity, over which no powers reign, in which there are no differences of language, of ideology or of faith, lies the great power of football, and of all sport." Western powers chose not to send senior representatives to the opening ceremony, but despite some muttering this year as relations soured further there are no sporting boycotts like the one that marred the 1980 Moscow Olympics, nor doping bans of the kind that excluded many Russians from the last two Olympiads.

"Attempts at a boycott were doomed from the start," Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, a close Putin ally and long-time sports minister, told Izvestiya newspaper. "It shows how foreign politicians are sometimes cut off from real life."

The president, newly re-elected after 18 years in power, heard British singer Robbie Williams dominate a colourful half-hour opening ceremony at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium with what the Kremlin listed as an array of 15 foreign leaders - though that included eight from ex-Soviet neighbours as well as two from Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.

Putin watched the game with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

"Russia in Centre Field," headlined the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "The main victory is already won," it said, praising an organisational effort in which a dozen stadiums have been built or modernised and a huge security operation put in place.

With some 200,000 visiting fans in the country to follow the 32 teams, Putin has urged Russians to put on a show and get behind the home team - a task not helped by poor form that makes them the tournament's weakest side by Fifa world ranking.

Amid thousands from around the world, in sombreros and fur hats, national strips or draped in flags from dozens of nations, there was good-natured sharing around the ground before the match.

Vyacheslav Golikov, a 32-year-old teacher had come over 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Siberia.

"We're feeling amazing emotions," he said. "There's a sea of people, everything looks nice. We think foreigners' impressions will be great." - Reuters

Vitaly Mokhov, 36, came from Vologda in southern Russia with his father to celebrate his 70th birthday

"It's a festival," he said. "We've never seen anything like it in the history of Russia and we'll never see it again in the rest of our lives."

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