Ball girls selected for World Cup opener

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AGRYZ, Russia — A group of 14 Russian girls will act as ball girls in the opening match of the World Cup Thursday, the first all-female group to do so.

The girls, aged 13 to 16, from Agryz, a small town of 19,000 people some 800 km (500 miles) east of Moscow, were selected by the Russian national team after making a sponsor's shortlist of "inspiring entrants" to a national junior football tournament.

"It's like a fairytale for them", said their coach, Ildar Idiyatov.

The 14 girls, who play football for a team in the Russian region of Tartarstan, will have the eyes of the world on them as they return the ball in the Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

The local World Cup organizing committee said 776 children would work as ball boys and ball girls at the 64-match tournament, but this was the first time an all-female group had operated at the opening game of the FIFA showpiece.

"Women are not a weak sex, we are always ready to compete with boys at the same level," said Daria Vasilyeva, one of the ball girls selected for the opening match.

"At the World Cup, all of us are united and we are all just as worthy and can also pass the balls to the football teams."

Neymar star attraction

Brazil attracted an army of excited youngsters — including one who managed to break onto the pitch for a selfie — as they held their first training session Russian soil ahead of the World Cup.

Around 5,000 locals turned out to watch the relaxed session at the Yug-Sport Stadium, next to the Brazilian squad's hotel in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Tuesday is a national holiday in Russia and many fans opted for vantage points along the road leading to the stadium, while others filled the stand.

One young boy broke through security barriers and managed to get close to a group of Brazil players including Neymar, taking a photograph before being led away.

However, most fans contented themselves with chanting the name of the world's most expensive player, who arrived with his teammates in Russia in the early hours of Monday fresh from scoring in a 3-0 friendly win over Austria in Vienna.

Members of the Selecao also had a treat in store for Philippe Coutinho, marking the Barcelona midfielder's 26th birthday by pinning him to the ground, breaking an egg over his head and covering him in flour.

Spotlight on Messi

Around 400 eager fans turned out at Argentina's World Cup base camp to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi and his teammates at an open training session.

A particularly affectionate welcome was reserved for the Barcelona forward, as hordes of adoring young supporters chanted "Messi, Messi" on his way out for an hour-long practice Monday.

After several days of chilly temperatures in the Russian capital, overcast skies gave way to sunshine, with excited locals packing a temporary stand in Bronnitsy, southeast of Moscow, to follow the action.

Injury had already struck Argentina on the eve of their departure for the tournament, with West Ham midfielder Manuel Lanzini ruled out with a serious knee injury.

Enzo Perez was summoned as a replacement for Lanzini, although the status of Ever Banega for Argentina's first group game against Iceland on June 16 remains uncertain after the Sevilla midfielder trained alone.

The odd Messi mask was spotted in the crowd, while others waved Barcelona flags, as well as those of Argentina.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner was then mobbed by dozens of youngsters at the end of the session as players stopped to sign autographs.

Ernesto Lagorio, Argentina's ambassador to Russia, was at the session at the sprawling training center, used by several Russian national sports teams, on the banks of the River Moscow.

"We came to see our national team, it's the first acquaintance with them, it's been great," Lagorio said. — Agencies


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