High up in the Luzhniki Stadium, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was exactly where he loves to be: in among the money.
On one side, sat Saudi royalty; on the other, President Vladimir Putin. As the third Russian goal went in, Infantino gave his robed friend a little shrug of commiseration. That’s football, it seemed to say. And indeed it is.
So all’s well that ends well, for FIFA and Russia, for now. They played quite probably the poorest team in the tournament to open it, won by the biggest winning margin in the history of World Cup opening matches, and kept the feelgood factor that always envelopes World Cups at the start going for another five days at least. Mohamed Salah, and Egypt, may provide a truer test of this aging Russian defence in St Petersburg on Tuesday but, until then, the hosts can imagine they are quite the team. This outstripped the most emphatic opening game victory – Brazil 4-0 Mexico in 1950 – although much of that was to do with the weakness of the opposition.
Russia’s players had cause for celebration on Thursday as they swept aside Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the 2018 World Cup opener
Yuri Gazinsky made history when he scored the opening goal of the 2018 World Cup to put Russia ahead against Saudi Arabia
Just before half-time Russia doubled their lead when Denis Cheryshev fired home on 43 minutes
With his first touch of the match, substitute striker Artem Dzyuba headed home to make it 3-0 to the hosts on 71 minutes
Cheryshev scored his side’s fourth of the game with a truly stunning strike worthy of winning any match at this tournament
Aleksandr Golovin completed the scoreline in injury time with this well-taken free-kick as Russia routed Saudi Arabia
Russia: Akinfeev, Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov, Zobnin, Gazinsky, Golovin, Samedov, Smolov, Dzagoev.
Subs: Lunev, Semenov, Cheryshev, Kuzyaev, Kudryashov, Granat, Aleksey Miranchuk, Anton Miranchuk, Erokhin, Dzyuba, Smolnikov, Gabulov.
Saudi Arabia: Al-Mayouf, Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Al-Shahrani, Al-Jassam, Otayf, Al Dawsari, Al-Shehri, Al-Faraj, Al-Sahlawi.
Subs: Al-Mosailem, Al-Harbi, Al Bulaihi, Bahbir, Al-Khaibri, Kanno, Al-Khaibari, Al-Moqahwi, Al-Muwallad, Asiri, Motaz Hawsawi, Al-Owais.
Referee: Pitana Nestor (Argentina)
Saudi Arabia even fell for the oldest trick in football’s book – the big lump upfront, slung on late to hold the ball up and get on one put into the mixer, which he duly did, roughly a minute after arriving. Artem Dzyuba was the lump in question; a colourful sort, well known in these parts for mocking Unai Emery when he was manager of Spartak Moscow, and later falling out with Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov. Emery ended up at Arsenal, Dzyuba on loan at Arsenal Tula, so it’s fairly obvious who got the last laugh there.
Still, he was wildly popular on Wednesday, getting the goal that ended any fanciful thoughts of a Saudi revival. There was a neat exchange of passing between Mario Fernandes – beautiful Russian name, as the Pub Landlord might say – Roman Zobnin and most crucially Aleksandr Golovin who whipped the ball in for Dzyuba to meet with a neat header into the corner.
In injury time, the two that rewrote the record books. Denis Cheryshev got his second of the night, highlighting the gulf in class. He strolled into the area, unguarded, no-one in his path, before clipping a lovely shot into the far corner. With almost the last kick of the match, Golovin – arguably Russia’s best player on the night – went one better than Brazil. This was a curling free-kick out of the reach of goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, who by then looked like he regretted even putting in for his Russian visa.
In fact, it could have been more. The result flattered Saudi Arabia, really. They offered little, were terribly sloppy and overly intricate at the back, and a better team might even have won by a greater margin. Maybe someone will. That’s the problem with first games. This looks a quite brilliant result for a Russian team low on confidence, but par against the Saudis could turn out to be two more. It is hard to see how they can shore the defence up with Salah, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to come. Salah might score five on his own.
Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov stand side-by-side for their country’s national anthem before kick-off
Fyodor Smolov (centre) tries to control the ball under pressure from two Saudi Arabia players during the opening exchanges
Alan Dzagoev (left) fends off a challenge from Omar Hawsawi as the hosts go in search of the opening goal
Russia made a breakthrough when Gazinsky found himself unmarked at the back post to head home Golovin’s cross
Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf could do nothing to prevent the header – despite being at full stretch
Saudi Arabia’s No 1 could do nothing but watch on as Gazinsky’s header bounced into towards the bottom corner
Gazinsky wheels away in celebration in what was a joyous occasion for the 28-year-old and his country
Russia are the lowest-ranked side in the tournament but you wouldn’t have known it by their impressive start in Moscow
However, Russia’s attempts build on their lead took a major blow when Dzagoev pulled up with a left hamstring injury
Dzagoev was consoled by his team-mate Aleksandr Samedov as he trudged off with his tournament hopes now in tatters
Just before half-time Russia doubled their lead when Denis Cheryshev fired home on 43 minutes
After a quick counter-attack, the midfielder fooled three Saudi Arabia players when it seemed the moment had gone
However, it hadn’t as he smartly cut inside all of them before blasting this left-footed strike into the top corner
The goal clearly meant a lot to the 27-year-old as he pointed to the heavens after scoring his first goal of this tournament
Russia’s No 6 was promptly mobbed by his team-mates after doubling their advantage just before half-time
The Villarreal winger ran over to celebrate with a corner of the home fans inside the Luzhniki Stadium
The acronym for Saudi Arabia is KSA, the K standing for ‘Kingdom’. To be frank, Russia would have got a better game out of KFC. This was as easy as a World Cup opener can get for a host nation which, considering the state of Russian international football right now, is probably just as well.
Russia last won a match at a World Cup finals more than 16 years ago – June 5, 2002, against Tunisia in Kobe. Many were fearing that run would continue, after a winless run of seven matches coming into this competition. The inevitable toll of two years of friendlies cannot be wholly to blame. Russia have injuries, a creaking defence, good players spurned and youth not trusted by coach Stanislav Cherchesov. Fortunately, even these weaknesses could not trump one inescapable truth: Saudi Arabia are useless.
Four years ago, a series of controversial decisions helped hosts Brazil overcome Croatia. In this World Cup, conspiracy theorists will have to trace their steps back to the day the draw was made. Pulling out Saudi Arabia as opening day opponents is the biggest favour FIFA could have done the hosts. Uruguay and Saudi Arabia are the other teams in Group A and both nations boast individuals that could cause even the strongest defensive lines all manner of problems. Not Saudi Arabia. They were nimble, occasionally, lively on the break – but mostly weak and overwhelmed by either the occasion or a home team that knew it had to win to stand a chance of getting to the last 16.
Putin gave his speech, the crowd roared its approval. He went on a bit long. They lost interest. But it was a reminder that there is more than political prestige riding on this tournament. Russia do not want to be embarrassed as hosts, out at the group stage like South Africa in 2010. Nothing can be guaranteed with their hardest games ahead, but Saudi Arabia were never going curdle the positivity on day one. Russia scored from their first attack of the game, and did not look back.
Halfway through the second half, Cherchesov made a change up front as Artem Dzyuba replaced Smolov
The 29-year-old watches on as his header back across goal flies into the bottom far corner of Almuaiouf’s net
The towering striker punches the air with delight after extending his side’s lead in the Russia capital
His emotion was matched by Cherchesov who saw his substitution pay off in the most brilliant of fashions
Dzyuba and Cherchesov, who have had their differences in the past, embrace in celebration of the former’s goal
It is a recent tradition that the scorer of the World Cup’s first goal never adds to his tally and that may be the case for Iury Gazinsky, too. He is a defensive midfield player by trade, a toiler with FC Krasnodar and considered rather fortunate to be in the squad. Most had him down as making up the numbers, but no more. When a Yury Zhirkov corner was cleared, Aleksandr Golovin recycled the ball with a deep cross and Gazinsky met it with a header, steering the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. There was, potentially, and infringement as Gazinsky jumped with his marker but replays suggested a loss of footing, rather than a push. Saudi Arabia were weak where Russia were aggressive; Gazinsky was simply more determined to get to the ball.
The second was another defensive catastrophe. Russia broke, given far too much space again, and the ball eventually found its way to the feet of substitute, Denis Cheryshev. Once of Real Madrid, now with Villarreal, he is one of the more skilled Russian forwards, but was given considerable help. Saudi Arabia’s centre-halfs Omar Hasawi and Osama Hasawi share a name but little else, including a sense of timing. With one turn inside, Cheryshev left them both scooting past the ball and slipping on their backsides. Faced with a clear shot at goal he found the roof of the net. Just two minutes before half-time and Saudi Arabia were done.
So, too, sadly is the World Cup of one of Russia’s better players, Alan Dzagoev. He looked to have pulled a hamstring chasing in support of a break and was swiftly withdrawn for Cheryshev. It proved fortuitous on the day but, long term, is deeply unhelpful. Dzagoev is undoubtedly one of Russia’s best players and if the injury is a bad as it first looked will play no further part in the tournament. They certainly don’t have too many like him to spare.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.