KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- After all the hype, all the controversy, all the political brouhaha, the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals are finally under way, despatched into long-awaited eventual action by hosts Russia trashing Saudi Arabia 5-0 in a delighted and surprised Luzhniki Stadium.
The capacity crowd – after enjoying the opening ceremony – thrilled to the first-half football even more as Russia seized control. Krasnodar midfielder Yuri Gazinsky headed the first goal of the finals in the 12th minute and substitute Denis Cheryshev followed up shortly before the interval.
A further substitute, Artem Dzyuba, headed a third midway through the second half and Russia then struck twice in stoppage time through man of the match Cheryshev again and outstanding playmaker Aleksamdr Golovin. It was the biggest win in an Opening Match since 1934 and maintained any hosts’ unbeaten record in World Cup kickoffs (seven wins and three draws from 10 matches).
Six nations, at most, had arrived with reasonable hope that history will alight on their shoulders: record five-times winners Brazil, holders and four-times title-holders Germany, double-winners Argentina plus one-off champions England, France and Spain.
Russia had not been among such optimists. Indeed, they ranked last among the 32 competing nations according to the world federation’s own latest pre-tournament rankings.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov had worked as diligently as possible with a limited group of players but most home fans, according to polls and surveys, had thought progressing beyond Group A would be a struggle.
Maybe not now.
Former World Cup winner Iker Casillas and supermodel Natalia Vodianova set the show under way by unveiling the gold trophy itself.
Then the pitch was taken over by customary troupe of costumed dancers accompanied by Robbie Williams and the Vienna State Opera’s Aida Garifullina. Old Brazilian hero Ronaldo and World Cup mascot Zabivaka added a suitably off-beat note to the scene.
“You’re making me feel so nice,” Williams roared out and then left it to Russia’s footballers to prove the the sentiment more than a passing fancy.
Before the action, however, the 78,011 crowd heard the obligatory opening address from Russian President Vladimir Putin for whom the World Cup was meant to have been the crowning glory of a decade of sport to polish the nation’s image rather than a lightning conductor for political antagonism.
Naturally FIFA president Gianni Infantino had to make a speech of his own. Football will conquer Russia, he promised, and then the entire world. Then time for the real action and to watch Russia conquer the footballers of Saudi Arabia.
A lively opening produced a sharp contrast between the organised endeavor of the Russians and the nimble energy of the Saudis.
Only 12 minutes were needed before Gazinsky headed the opening goal of the finals, converting an angled left-wing cross from Golovin, Russia’s outstanding creative force.
The goal delighted the hone fans who grew increasingly voluble in support of their team as they saw the Saudis start to wilt. Their passing grew increasingly loose and only a one-handed save from keeper Abdullah Almuaiouf prevented Fedor Smolov scoring a second.
Russia suffered a setback when injury-prone playmaker Alan Dzagoev pulled a hamstring and had to be substituted. But there was positive consolation in replacement Cheryshev sidestepping his way through a forest of the legs in the 42nd minute to increase the hosts’ lead.
Alexander Samedov thumped an over-optimistic effort high over the bar after the interval and the Saudis responded with a right-wing raid which took Russia by surprise.
Fortunately for Cherchesov’s men Mohammed Al Sahlawi and Taiseer Al Jassam were just to late to reach a right-wing cross from Salman Al Faraj which skidded across the face of goal.
The biggest win in a post-war Opening Match was Brazil’s 4-0 defeat of Mexico in 1950 and Russia came within a goal of matching that margin by increasing their lead in the 72nd minute. Golovin again found space for a decisive cross – this time from the right – and another newly-arrived substitute, Dzyuba, headed in.
Dzyuba rhen provided the assist from which Cheryshev, the Real Madrid cast-off who plays his club football in Spain now with Villarreal, struck a superb fourth deep in stoppage time. Golovin wrapped it all up by curling home a right-wing free kick at the near post for No5. It was no more than Russia deserved.
Last July Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Saudis’ coach, guided Chile to the final of the Confederations Cup here in Russia. He will do well to even take his current team out of the group stage. The Saudis rank 67 in the world and, frankly, barely looked even that good.