The Olympics could learn a lot from the World Cup. No drawn out, storied pageants tracing the history of Russia back to the Palaeolithic period, just a bit of B-list yodelling from Robbie Williams in working men’s club mode, accompanied by the much finer tonsils of Russian soprano Aida Garifullina. Twenty minutes. Done. And that included erecting and removing the set. Budget opening ceremonies R us.
Escorted onto the pitch by Ronaldo, the original, Robbie paraded about the stage like an old English centre half, torso ramrod straight and heavy on his feet. Wisely he elected not to perform his 2016 offering, Party Like a Russian, which includes the lyrics “Ain’t no refutin’ or disputin’ – I’m a modern Rasputin, Subcontract disputes to some brutes in Louboutin, Act highfalutin’ while my boys put the boots in.”
Any phonetic reference to Vladimir Putin in the ‘refutin’ disputin’ Rasaputin’ and the ‘put the boots in’ lines are entirely co-incidental, you understand. The Russian premier followed Robbie into the pulpit, spouting the standard insincerities about football’s remarkable ability to unite nations. Why do politicians expose themselves to ridicule in this way, unless the intended audience is primary school age?
In the past, the Soviet leadership would address the nation via the use of posters full of striking, bold images to propagate its propaganda. This was in a period of widespread illiteracy when the average reading age was indeed about the primary school mark. In these times of improved education, the president’s speech assumes the role of the poster, the over-simplification of the picture no longer targeting the illiterate but the uncritical masses, and plenty of satellite chums beyond, who are wedded to the idea that Putin speaks only the truth.
Flanked by the heads of government of just about every former Soviet state, plus a cabal of human rights bad dudes from further afield, including Bolivian president Evo Morales and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, plus the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Putin was already preaching to the converted, and they nodded approvingly as he hit the high notes of absolute piety.
“Let’s just think of it: we, the devoted fans of football, are so numerous where billions of people on our planet wherever we live, whatever traditions we hold, football brings us together in one single team and we are united by our affection for this spectacular, vibrant, uncompromising game and also players of these teams have a great degree of mutual understanding, a unity which cannot be affected by different language, ideology or faith. It represents the power of football and sport as a whole. The power of its humanistic beginning.”
Crikey, poisoned Russian emigre Sergei Skripal must have been swivelling in his rocking chair deep in the English hinterland listening to that. In truth the politicking around this event always carried greater import for Russia since expectation of the national team is so low.
It was good of Saudi Arabia to roll over, but the smile on Putin’s face had more to do with the developing relations with the Middle East state, especially the major oil pact that is in the pipeline, if you will, following the delegation led by King Salman himself last October. As for the football, the opening match was contested by the two lowest ranked teams in the World Cup and was in a sense better for the supposed shortfall in quality. Mistakes make things happen.
Russia were ahead in the 12th minute largely as a consequence of the poor defending of their opponents, Yuri Gazinsky rising unmarked at the far post to dob a header past Abdullah Al-Muaiouf. The match flowed from end to end with neither side either interested or capable, it seemed, of repelling an attack.
Three minutes before the break Russia bundled home a second, the finish rather more emphatic than it deserved to be given the repeated and ultimately failed attempts to stop substitute Denis Cheryshev getting his shot away.
The Saudis flicked the ball about with some elan at times, sufficiently we hope to justify the proposed investment in the game as part of a wider modernisation process being undertaken by the House of Saud. Now that cinemas are opening and women are allowed to drive a prosperous national football league is the obvious must-have societal accessory.
The third goal was probably unnecessary from Putin’s point of view, and though Artem Dzyuba, whose header it was, and Aleksandr Golovin, who provided the cross, would probably disagree, defender Omar Hawsawi was badly at fault with his positioning.
Putin, sat on one side of Fifa president Gianni Infantino, had the delicacy not to over celebrate before Crown Prince Abdullah, who was stationed on the other. A gentle shake of the head that said you did not deserve that, ensured entente remained intact. As for the fourth, a raking second from Cheryshev, and the fifth, a curled free-kick by Golovin, well, I’ll let you fill in those captions.