Russia off to a flying start

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MOSCOW — Russia kicked off its World Cup in style Thursday, thumping Saudi Arabia 5-0 in front of an ecstatic crowd in Moscow after President Vladimir Putin officially opened the tournament.

Putin told the 80,000-strong crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium before the match kicked off: "I congratulate all of you at the start of the most important championship in the world."

"Love for football unites the entire world in one team, regardless of people's language or ideology," Putin said to thunderous cheers.

Then, to the delight of the home fans, Iury Gazinsky headed Russia in front in the 12th minute after a cross from Aleksandr Golovin. Substitute Denis Cheryshev rifled home a second shortly before half-time.

Another substitute, Artem Dzyuba, made it 3-0 with about 20 minutes remaining, putting the game out of Saudi Arabia's reach.

Cheryshev scored a stunning goal with the outside of his left foot in time added on and Golovin sealed the rout with a goal direct from a free-kick.

Victory for Russia, ranked a lowly 70th in the world — three places below Saudi Arabia — was vital for the home nation's hopes of progressing, with tougher games against Egypt and Uruguay to come.

Earlier, British pop star Robbie Williams caused a stir during his performance at the opening ceremony by making an obscene gesture to a camera.

The former Take That star raised his middle finger at the end of his performance at the Luzhniki after appearing to mouth the words "I did this for free".

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.

The buildup to the tournament has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals and has shone a light on the challenges facing the country.

On the day of the curtain-raiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organizing an illegal protest.

But British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was arrested for holding a one-man protest against the country's record on gay rights, hours before kick-off.

The World Cup favorites — Germany, Spain, France, Brazil — enter the fray from Friday onward.

Denis Cheryshev said there were "no words to express" how he felt after he struck twice for Russia.

"There are no words to express what I'm feeling right now," said Cheryshev, who was recalled to the Russia squad in March after an absence of more than two years.

"I could never have dreamed of anything like this. I felt very happy when I knew I would be here in the squad but I never dreamed of anything like this."

"I'm happy we've won but we shouldn't stop there," he added.

Russia headed into the curtain-raiser at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki, the crucible of Russian and Soviet sport, without a victory in more than eight months and ranked a lowly 70th in the world.

For Saudi Arabia it was a return to the global showpiece for the first time in 12 years, with its only previous finals wins at the 1994 World Cup.

Only South Africa, in 2010, has failed to advance from the group stage as the host nation and a seven-match winless run had ramped up the pressure on Stanislav Cherchesov's side.

A lack of an attacking threat in recent outings was a primary concern for Russia going into a group campaign in which it will also face Egypt and Uruguay.

Those fears were soon washed away, at least for the time being, as Alexander Samedov and Fedor Smolov carved out early chances only to be denied by desperate sliding blocks.

The opening goal came soon after, as Saudi Arabia failed to clear a corner and a curling cross in from the left by Golovin picked out an unmarked Gazinsky to head low into the far corner.

It was a goal that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, seated alongside FIFA chief Gianni Infantino, and shake his hand.

Russia lost Dzagoev to a hamstring injury midway through the first half, the CSKA Moscow midfielder clutching his hamstring as he crumpled to the turf.

But his replacement, former Real Madrid winger Cheryshev, celebrated his recent recall to the national side with Russia's second goal two minutes before half-time.

Cheryshev was still left with plenty of work to do inside the area after a pass from Roman Zobnin, brilliantly flicking the ball past two closing defenders before rifling into the roof of the net.

Saudi briefly threatened early in the second half when an inviting cross in from the right skipped just beyond the reach of Taiseer Al-Jassam.

Russia then nearly grabbed a third when Abdullah Al-Muaiouf spilled a low drive from Zobnin, the Saudi goalkeeper recovering just time in time to nudge the ball away from Smolov.

The forward was soon replaced by Dzyuba, who struck almost immediately by heading another Golovin cross beyond a helpless Muaiouf in the 71st minute.

Cheryshev hammered in a fourth with the outside of his left foot in stoppage time and Golovin capped a magnificent performance by bending in a last-gasp free-kick. — Agencies


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