Truth laid bare as Russians show they are not so bad after all

‘Alie told often enough becomes the truth.’

Vladimir Lenin stood sentry over the avenue of sponsors’ stalls that leads up to the Luzhniki Stadium and watched on as a chaotic sea of capitalism swilled all the way up to his feet.

The towering bronze statue of the father of communism doesn’t include an inscription of perhaps his most famous quote, but it would have been a fitting Thursday evening tagline as the world snaked by Lenin’s feet on their way to the opening match of Russia’s World Cup.

The lie that has been repeated ad infinitum in the build-up to this tournament and plenty that have gone before is that a World Cup needs a strong host nation on the field to be a true success. It’s flatly untrue.

In the wake of the most emphatic opening day victory in the history of the World Cup, the lie will likely be told plenty more. 

Russia, having rattled five past a truly hapless Saudi Arabia, are suddenly now maybe not the worst host nation in tournament history and they may not follow in South Africa’s footsteps and exit at the group stage. 

And for that we are all supposed to breathe a sigh of relief.

However, the World Cup is now so big, so all-consuming that it has long since outgrown any need for a host nation to be engaged for as long as possible. 

Throughout the streets of Moscow on the eve of the tournament, packs of partisans from all corners of the world gathered in their country’s colours and made themselves seen and heard. 

The locals who strolled by the assembled hordes on Nikolskaya Street seemed marginally interested, but largely left the visitors to it.

Maybe more than any that has come before, this World Cup can indeed be left to it. Even before the Spanish Inquisition on Wednesday this was a tournament that teemed with beguiling storylines and subplots. 

Almost none of them had centred on the two teams who would get the whole thing going.

This was an opening match that had loomed a bit like the church part of a wedding. We’d all sit there and listen to the man in the dark attire drone on about faith and love and respect. 

There’d be a few more ceremonial bits to tie up — Russia and the Saudis going through the motions — before we could actually get on with enjoying the whole thing.

Bodies poured into the Luzhniki and, sure, there were plenty of Russians and a healthy whack of Saudi Arabian fans too, but all of the 30 teams looked to be represented too, with Latin American supporters particularly prevalent across the concourses. 

Perhaps they were here to make sure Russia and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t muck things up or run from the altar and spoil all the fun that was to follow.

The man in the dark clothes did indeed step up in front of the congregation (but not before an unholy show from Robbie Williams) and espouse ideals on faith and love and respect, Vladimir Putin commanding an eerie, unsettling quiet from the assembled thousands.

Then, we were almost there, just 90 minutes away from the good stuff.

But Aleksandr Golovin wasn’t about to hold his peace.

Robbie Williams performs at the opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup 2018 (Tim Goode/EMPICS Sport/PA)

Instead the precocious 22-year-old grabbed what had shaped to be — and for some stretches became — a dour affair and enlivened it with blurring flashes of playmaking brilliance.

The CSKA Moscow midfielder was at the heart of everything that was good about opening day, playing a hand in three Russian goals before stealing even the thunder of Denis Cheryshev, scorer of two beautiful goals, with a sublime free-kick as the clock ticked down.

The scoreline ran up to a historic 5-0.

As elated Russians streamed off into the night, manager Stanislav Cherchesov was asked if his side had played some great trick on their country, even the world, by presenting themselves in the build-up as one of the worst teams at their own tournament only to unveil their true worth on opening night.

“To kid many people is very difficult, even for such masters as my players,” he smiled, knowing that much greater examinations of their worth await. 

“We haven’t been kidding anybody; we’ve been doing our job with a clear understanding of what is expected of us. We saw that we are on the right track, but we should forget this game and concentrate on the next one.”

There’s a beautiful truth in that for us all. Concentrate on the next one… and the next and the next. 

Because, whether the host nation are a surprising force or in fact as feeble as so many had thought, they have now completed their most important task. 

They’ve got what shapes to be a captivating World Cup going.

On to the next one.


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