After eight long years, the big day has arrived. Ever since Russia won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, the football machinery in the country has been chugging and grinding its way towards this day. World football's showpiece event is finally ready to take off.
It might be a milestone in the history of Russian sports, but the pessimism about the Russian team's chances seems to have put a dampener on the opening day. This is Vladimir Putin's World Cup, yet even Putin himself cannot defend his team.
Russian coach Stanislas Cherchesov was the subject of a “moustache of hope” campaign on social media, where Russian celebs were sporting moustaches similar to Cherchesov's in a bid to back him. Yet, even this cannot save him from the wrath of the Russian fan, for whom he has been public enemy number one for the poor results under him.
At his pre-match press conference, the day before Russia's opener against Saudi Arabia, he said: “Russia is so big and vast, that half the people will realise that we are hosting a World Cup only after the whistle is blown tomorrow.” Rather than the size of the nation, the general apathy among locals is striking as they ever so slowly shift into World Cup gear. Blame it on the team, blame it on the lack of football culture, blame it on xenophobia; over the next few weeks, Russia has to prove its very vocal haters and detractors wrong.
Festivities had been limited to the metro stations and the Red Square, in Moscow, before the heightened security began to cordon off the famous locality for three days straight. Assuming to be because of the Russia Day celebrations inside the square, it seemed acceptable. But when asked about it the day after the national holiday, the guards refuse to give a proper answer. “Security concern,” they tell me.
Even the Fan Fest, which hosted about 25,000 people on June 10 the day of its opening, was closed to public, leaving travelling fans no common place to congregate and celebrate. But they did it anyway. As an act of defiance perhaps, in the areas surrounding the Red Square. Large groups of fans sang traditional songs from their homelands and danced like there was no tomorrow.
The World Cup hadn't even begun, and yet the South Americans who travelled half way around the globe made it seem that they had already won. No Europeans, whatsoever. They may have won the last three editions, but nothing captures the football spirit like the South Americans do. The Russians have tried to join in, but clearly don't fit the mould of the partying football fan.
Meanwhile, the teams are nestled in their carefully chosen base camps, presumably with their game faces on―every team except Spain, which has had a disastrous final two days after their football association took the liberty of destroying the team's best chance to redeem itself by sacking the coach.
Youngsters Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford suffered injury scares but seem fit to make it to their teams' opening games to make their debuts. On the other hand, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are busy trying to make sure their teammates work like clockwork around them on the field, as they are most likely to make their final charges for this last infinity stone.
And so, the opening ceremony will take place at the beautiful Luzhniki stadium, during which audiences will be forced to listen to a tasteless official theme song, which could not be saved even by Ronaldinho's appearance in the video. It will soon be forgotten, just like how the footballing community chooses to forget the years of dirty politics that FIFA has hurriedly brushed aside.
Despite the incredibly political atmosphere linked to both FIFA and Russia, the numerous controversies that preceded the tournament and the buzz around the winning 2026 World Cup bid, all these will take a back seat for a while.
It will be 35 days and 64 matches of goals, tackles, saves, bookings, upsets, surprises, quirky celebrations, shoulder bites, hands of gods... oh wait, there's VAR for that. But it will be pure, unadulterated entertainment for a whole month. Because once it begins, nothing, absolutely nothing, can spoil a FIFA World Cup for the football lover.