Russia welcomes boycott-free World Cup
Russia welcomed the world to the World Cup on Thursday as cheerful fans streamed into Moscow and 10 other cities and President Vladimir Putin’s government derided Western efforts to isolate him.
While Western countries chose not to send senior representatives to the opening ceremony, there are no sporting boycotts like the one that marred the 1980 Moscow Olympics, or doping bans of the kind that excluded many Russians from the last two Olympic Games.
“Attempts at a boycott were doomed from the start,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, a close Putin ally and long-time sports minister, told Izvestiya newspaper. “It shows how foreign politicians are sometimes cut off from real life.”
Putin, grappling with Western sanctions since seizing Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, will attend an opening ceremony at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the first match of the month-long festival, pitting the hosts against Saudi Arabia.
The president, newly re-elected after 18 years in power, will listen to British singer Robbie Williams with what the Kremlin listed as an array of 15 foreign leaders – though that included eight from ex-Soviet neighbours as well as two from Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.
Rwanda, Lebanon and Panama were also named along with a senior official from North Korea.
Putin hailed the world football’s governing body FIFA for keeping to a motto of “sport without politics”. Speaking on Wednesday, as FIFA chose to host the 2026 tournament in the United States, Canada and Mexico, the Russian leader spoke of sport’s potential to promote “humanity without borders”.
“Russia in Centre Field”, headlined the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. “The main victory is already won,” it said, praising an organisation effort that has seen a dozen stadiums built or modernised and a huge security operation put in place.