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Russian hopes, fears tied up in Putin’s showcase World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin claims soccer and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he kicked off Thursday is about much more than sports.

It’s about proving to the world that Russia is a global power broker and not an outcast, that it’s an open, confident and generous nation – and not an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.

And the beleaguered Russian team’s stunning 5-0 victory in the tournament opener Thursday against Saudi Arabia was just what Putin needed to make the point that Russia is ascendant again. He promptly called the much-criticized coach personally to congratulate him on the unexpected win.

Sidestepping deep divisions between his strongman worldview and that of many Western countries, Putin welcomed fans to his “hospitable” nation by inviting them to “make new friends with people who share the same values.”

But critics fear the World Cup will legitimize Putin’s autocratic policies at home and Russia’s actions abroad, from alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election to annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. Moscow vehemently denies any interference in the American vote or involvement in the attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Portugal 3-3 Spain ]

Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine – “all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Today the soccer dimension is the most important one.”

The monthlong World Cup is also about Putin proving to his compatriots that he’s both their best global envoy and a man of the people, who brought the world’s most-watched sporting event to ordinary soccer fans in 11 cities across Russia’s expanse.

That’s especially important for a country that prides itself on athletic prowess but whose last massive sporting event – the 2014 Sochi Olympics – was indelibly stained by revelations of doping so widespread that Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Games.

“It’s important for Russia to have this (tournament), we can show that we are a global football power,” said Moscow fan Dmitry Finapetov, his face streaked with white-blue-red paint, as he nearly spilled his beer in excitement at his team’s strong showing at Luzhniki Stadium.

“When I used to travel abroad I would think, `why can’t it be like this at home?”‘ he said. “But now I travel and I think things are better at home. … Now foreigners can see that too.”

Geopolitics were front and center for Thursday’s opener, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Putin’s star guest. The two leaders have forged an alliance that has pushed up the global oil price and reshaped the balance of power in the Middle East.

Putin welcomed a “friendly global family” of soccer fans to celebrate the World Cup, but the Kremlin’s guest list showed where Russia’s allegiances lie: the head of the North Korean upper house of parliament, Lebanon’s prime minister and the presidents of Rwanda, Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama and leaders of eight friendly former Soviet republics. Britain’s royal family and top politicians are among those who pointedly stayed away.

Electrical engineer Sergei Tabachnikov, who came to Moscow all the way from the Pacific island of Sakhalin for the opening match, welcomed the international scrutiny that comes with hosting an event of this scale and hoped Russia learns something from it.

“Criticism is necessary. It helps us improve,” he said.

Russian authorities walked a careful line Thursday between hard-line security measures and a veneer of tolerance.

A British gay rights activist was arrested for a protest action near Red Square, but quickly released. Later a Russian fan displayed a rainbow flag during Putin’s speech, despite a broadly enforced law that bans “propaganda” of homosexuality to children. Security forces shrugged it off.

Minutes before the opening match, riot police hauled an unauthorized flag vendor into a police van just outside Luzhniki Stadium as he shouted “Help me! Help me!” and fans filmed on their phones. An officer then turned to the crowd, speaking in English and saying in a calming voice, “Nothing to worry about, go enjoy the game.”

British pop singer Robbie Williams also played it safe in the opening concert. He revved up the crowd but diplomatically avoided singing his hit song “Party Like A Russian” – which is rife with stereotypes about Russian extravagance and includes a dig at an unnamed Russian leader who “alleviates” the population of its wealth.

“Football and love” was the theme of Thursday’s opening show, as a debate raged among Russian lawmakers about whether Russian women should hook up with visiting fans.

Mostly the mood was exuberant, with Saudi fans taking selfies with Russians in the stadium’s corridors despite their rivalry.

Alexander Klimov, who came from the southern Russian city of Stavropol, summed it up by blowing kisses and saying, “Thank you everybody for coming in our country. Welcome to Russia, we love you guys!”

Associated Press writer James Ellingworth contributed to this report.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Russia gets Putin call, excited over blowout win

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Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov had to pause his post-match press conference following his side’s 5-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia in the first match of the 2018 World Cup.

He took a phone call, and was asked who called and why.

It was Vladimir Putin.

[ MORE: Saudi Arabia “ashamed” ]

“It was the head of state,” Cherchesov said. “He asked me to share his thanks with the team for the performance that they put on and he asked me to keep playing like this.”

So goes the glory of a massive win from a host nation at the biggest tournament in the world, though surely he’ll be hoping the fiercely competitive Putin isn’t approaching the Uruguay and Egypt matches expecting 5-0 score lines for Sbornaya.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Twenty-two year old Aleksandr Golovin impressed big time with a goal and two assists, but it was a long-time hyped player who stoke the show.

Denis Cheryshev, 27, scored a brace in the win. He signed for Real Madrid at age 12, but went on to make just seven senior appearances with one goal before transferring to Villarreal.

“I’m happy for the team and for my own family. They’ve suffered so much with my injures and I think they’ve really deserved this,” he said. “I’m happy we’ve won but we shouldn’t stop there. Any moment you relax you can be knocked out so you have to keep working and looking forward. I would like to carry on at this level so that we succeed as a team.”

VIDEO: Cheryshev, Golovin score stunners for Russia

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Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandar Golovin were the stars of the show for 2018 World Cup hosts Russia as they beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their Group A opener on Thursday.

[ RECAP: Russia humble Saudi Arabia

Cheryshev jumped off the bench in the first half and scored a goal in each half, his first two goals for Russia, and his second was a beauty late in the game with the outside of his left foot.

Golovin finished the win off in style as he curled home a fine free kick to cap off a wonderful individual performance as he also had two assists.

Take a look at both goals below.


Hosts Russia hammer Saudi Arabia in World Cup opener

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Hosts Russia got off to a perfect start as they beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow.

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Russia took the lead early on through Yury Gazinskiy’s header and doubled their lead just before the break as Denis Cheryshev slammed home after fine footwork. Artem Dzyuba jumped off the bench to nod home to make it 3-0, then two fine strikes late on from Cheryshev and then Aleksandar Golovin, who also grabbed two assists, completed the rout.

Despite Saudi Arabia having plenty of possession they hardly threatened the Russian goal as the hosts momentarily went top of Group A ahead of Egypt playing Uruguay on Friday.

Next up for Russia is a clash against Egypt on June 19 in Saint Petersburg. Saudi Arabia take on Uruguay on June 20 in Rostov-on-Don.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

A rapid pace to the game early on saw both teams eager to impress and Russia had the first real chance of the game as Fernandes pulled the ball but the shot was blocked.

Soon after Russia took the lead as a superb cross from the left from Aleksandar Golovin found Gazinskiy at the back post who headed home his first international goal. 1-0 to Russia just 12 minutes in.

Smolov then had a shot deflected towards the top corner but Al-Mayoof clawed it away as the hosts started superbly.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

As the game wore on Saudi Arabia settled down and Al Sahlawi nearly got on the end of an inviting cross but Russia cleared for a corner.

Dzagoev was then replaced by Cheryshev as one of Russia’s key players went down with what looked like a pretty serious hamstring injury. However the hosts were very comfortable as they pressed Saudi Arabia’s defense whenever they could and that led to their second goal.

A slice of luck saw Russia grab the ball and Golovin broke free before teeing upRoman Zobnin who played in Cheryshev. The Villarreal man controlled superbly and then smashed home to make it 2-0.

Russia sat back after the break and Saudi Arabia almost pulled one back as a cross from the right just evaded both Al Sahlawi and Al Jassam.

On the break Zobnin drove forward and his shot was parried clumsily by Al-Mayoof as Saudi Arabia cleared the danger.

Golovin then picked out substitute Dzuyba to nod home with his first touch, as Russia eased to victory and the home fans rejoiced.

It would get better in stoppage time as Cheryshev scored a stunner with the outside of his left foot, then Golovin curled home a beautiful free kick to make it 5-0.

What a start for Russia.

VIDEO: Russia score first goals of 2018 World Cup

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The first two goals of the 2018 World Cup have been scored and hosts Russia are off to a flying start.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Opening up the tournament against Saudi Arabia in Group A, Russia started brightly and went ahead less than 12 minutes in.

Aleksandar Golovin’s cross from the left found Yury Gazinskiy and he nodded home his first-ever international goal.

Then just before half time Denis Cheryshev made it 2-0 with a lovely composed finish.

Watch the videos below to see Russia’s goals.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.