Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia
Before we get to the opening game, I think it’s important we should, for a minute, reflect on the opening ceremony. A minute, coincidentally, is exactly how long I’d wish it had lasted. For a nation with such a rich history, vibrant folklore and sense of anchoring tradition to present the best of itself as being a mediocre Robbie Williams medley is, to say the least, a little disappointing.
Our disappointment however must be nothing compared to that of Williams who, one can only assume, was expecting to be the very centre of a towering testament to the sporting zeitgeist. Instead, it was like watching a sous vide Morrissey opening an overreaching private school fete. If Russia took this approach to their military, they’d be terrorising Syria with little more than a kitchen knife gaffa taped to a Second World War rifle.
Williams is an odd choice, to be fair. He is, after all, the man who sang, in Party Like a Russian, “It takes a certain kind of man with a certain reputation/To alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation.” Given this and Robbie’s strong advocacy of LGTB rights, I think it’s fair to say that he's not an artist whose back catalogue Putin has given the closest of readings. Maybe that’s why Robbie flipped the bird to billions watching – as a defiant but barely discernible display of something important but poorly defined. Of course we can never completely eliminate the possibility that he’s just an insufferably smug twat with more chutzpah than talent. We’ll never know… we’ll never know. Probably easier to just turn the gig down really.
Speaking of more chutzpah than talent, all of a sudden there they were – the two lowest ranking teams in the contest, single filing their way onto our tellies to kick off the world's biggest football competition – the World Cup was happening! After the opening ceremony (as discussed, the equivalent of an MC in a working man’s club telling us that the finger buffet was open) no one could have been expecting much. I was just happy to be drinking lager after six weeks on a no-carb diet.
Without a win in the last seven games, Russia were looking to the crowd to give them an extra boost which, given their fans’ performance at Euro 2016, is a bit like asking a special forces unit to "just stand there and cheerlead". Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, must have fancied their chances to nudge Russia towards a first-round exit. “We’re shit,” they must have been thinking, “but then, so are they.”
In fact, Russia were simply too strong for them. While Saudi Arabia went looking for cracks to play through, Russia simply created them through pace and force. Their opener, at 12 minutes, was really the only one where goalkeeper Al-Mayoof might have done better, but the defence was nowhere as Yuri Gazinskiy headed home Golovin's cross. One shot on target, one goal. Already, it looked like there could be more to come, and indeed there were.
While Saudia Arabia seemed content to knock the ball about in their own half, looking for a chink of light, Russia pounced with a mix of clever tactics and running REALLY fast. Substitutions proved key, with Cheryshev bagging a brace after coming on for the hamstrung Dzagoev, and Artem Dzyuba scoring just 89 seconds after coming off the bench. Add to this a superb injury-time free kick by Alexandr Golovin and all of a sudden it looked like it was time to get the vodka out. And in a way, it was.
BUT, BUT, BUT! Despite the result and the entertaining game, some harsh truths still remain. Yes, it’s good to see the home nation do well, but Saudi Arabia were woeful and could be worth a punt for worst defence to ever grace a World Cup. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my mum would have looked more lively – and she’s got chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Despite this, there were still a couple of occasions where Russia looked troubled.
Egypt and Uruguay are an entirely different prospect, and they’re up next…