MOSCOW, Russia — The World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday as years of preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals give way to a month-long feast of action on the field.
Russia get the ball rolling against Saudi Arabia at the completely refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after an opening ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.
On the day of the curtainraiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organising an illegal protest.
Russia is spending more than $13 billion (11 billion euros) on hosting football’s showpiece, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Brazil and their superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, who won their fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played in Moscow on July 15.
France boast possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina’s defeat in the 2014 final.
Putin was keen to attract the tournament to Russia to show its modern face, but in the run-up the country’s problems — from racism and hooliganism to a foreign policy sharply at odds with the West — have been exposed and scrutinised.
Britain and some eastern European states formerly under Soviet rule tried to organise a diplomatic boycott over the poisoning in England of a former Russian double agent. British royals and government members will not attend in protest but a wider boycott effort fizzled out.
“We would like to underscore the validity of the FIFA principle of sport being outside politics,” Putin told a meeting of football’s governing body FIFA on Wednesday.
“Russia has always adhered to this principle,” he said.
Hearts and minds
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.
He is attempting to do so despite Russia bearing the brunt of international sanctions that began after its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.
Moscow’s military backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and alleged meddling in the 2016 US election on President Donald Trump’s behalf only deepened its worst rift with the West since the Cold War.
Putin hopes the most-watched event on the planet provides Russia with the “soft power” needed to capture a sceptical world’s hearts and minds.
Navalny, who was barred from challenging Putin in March’s presidential election, tweeted after his release: “I’m with you again after a 30-day business trip. I’m so happy to be free.”
Racism and riots
Russian authorities have gone to great lengths to ensure nothing soils the country’s image.
The bloody beating English fans took from nearly 200 Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has influenced preparations as much as any diplomatic dispute.
Neo-Nazi hooligans who organise mass fights in forests and chant racist slurs at players have been a feature of Russian stadiums for years.
The anti-discrimination network Fare said Russia’s football federation was making matters worse by punishing those who reacted to racist abuse “while ignoring the perpetrators”.
Security services have either locked up or checked in on hundreds to make sure they do nothing to tarnish Russia’s image.
The scare tactics have worked. Some football gang members say they will be leaving town once the games begin to avoid getting rounded up and Russia refused to issue tickets to nearly 500 of supporters with hooligan links.
Field of dreams
On the field, Russia and the Saudis do not represent the most glamorous opener — they are the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament.
The host nation have broken Russian and Soviet records by going winless in seven matches and dropping to 70th in the world, meaning no World Cup coach faces as much pressure as Stanislav Cherchesov.
“We have to take all the criticism and turn it into something positive,” Cherchesov said.
The preparations of 2010 winners Spain are in tatters after coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked just two days before their opening game on Friday against Portugal. He had angered his federation by taking the job of Real Madrid manager.
While Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, has recovered from a broken bone in his foot in time, the strength of prolific Egypt striker Mohamed Salah’s injured shoulder is less certain.
And the preparations of Argentina and Messi were jolted by a scandal over their cancellation of a controversial friendly with Israel in Jerusalem.