Moscow: The FIFA World Cup kicked off Thursday here as the host nation took on Saudi Arabia in front of 80,000 people after President Vladimir Putin officially declared the tournament open.
Minutes before the game started in the Luzhniki Stadium here, Putin said: “I congratulate all of you at the start of the most important championship in the world.”
The buildup has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals. On the day of the curtain raiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organising an illegal protest.
Prior to Putin’s speech at the glitzy ceremony British pop star Robbie Williams and Russian soprano Aida Garifullina performed.
The 15-minute show produced by Russia’s state ‘Channel One’ broke from World Cup tradition, focusing on musical acts including a performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky in front of full stands at the Luzhniki stadium.
Iker Casillas and Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova brought the World Cup trophy onto the pitch in a Louis Vuitton travel case.
Robbie Williams performed hits ‘Let Me Entertain You’ and ‘Rock DJ’ accompanied by dancers and freestylers. He was joined in a duet by Garifullina, a soloist from the Vienna State Opera, who entered the pitch on a firebird, singing Williams’ hit song ‘Angels’.
The money lavished on the tournament will boost Putin’s already sky-high prestige at home by giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in generations.
Cities such as Saransk were sleepy outposts with decaying buildings until the World Cup reconstruction put them firmly in the 21st century.
The tournament also offers Putin a chance to project Russia as a global player that is accepted and respected even while being at odds with the United States.