The world is becoming accustomed to pronouncements emanating from Russia not standing up to vast amounts of scrutiny, but even so, having been welcomed on at least six separate occasions to the Greatest Show on Earth, ITV’s viewers might have allowed their hopes to extend in the first instance beyond Robbie Williams in a scarlet tiger print suit, and in the last Clive Tyldesley welcoming the Russian and Saudi Arabian teams to the pitch with these words of Borat and Alan Partridge in precisely equal parts: “These are the two largest crude oil producing nations in the world, and the two lowest ranked teams in the tournament.”
World Cup opening ceremonies bear scant relation to their Olympic counterparts, lasting scarcely more than 10 minutes, and are low-risk popstar oriented as opposed to hours-long nationalistic celebration of the host country’s history.
As such, no giant dancing tsars were executed, no local drama students were required to breakdance their way through the collectivisation of their farms. Rather Robbie Williams emerged, busked his way through a medley of his two-decade old hits and was gone again in a pleasing hurry.
It is meant to be at least a week before the collective soul searching begins. “England looked tired ... out of sorts ... their heads weren’t in the right place,” that sort of thing, so it seems unfair to start doing so now. But it is, nevertheless, time to consider the introduction of a winter break for silver haired ex-dancers from Take That.
The Russian opera singer Aida Garifullina appeared for the final bit of Williams’s medley and as the pair of them were loving Angels instead, fireballs spat round the stadium by way of introduction for the 32 nations of the XXI World Cup who were represented in glorious technicolour costume by what looked to be ku klux klansman dragged in to the 21st century through a bold touch of styrofoam.
The legendary Brazilian Ronaldo, distinguishable if not in name then certainly in silhouette from his Portuguese namesake brought on the match ball, with the Russian model Victoria Lopyreva. This ball had been to the International Space Station a few months ago, but the ceremonial “first kick” was a low key affair, as it has been ever since 1994, when Diana Ross notoriously blasted it wide from the penalty spot.
The crowd wisely cheered the arrival of Putin, which will do nothing if not set the organiser’s minds at rest. Four years ago, that being the most recent time the World Cup took place in a systemically corrupt country, it quickly became clear that president Dilma Rousseff’s face had to be kept off the big screens at all times, or else a deafening chorus of boos could be absolutely guaranteed, matched only if Fifa’s then president Sepp Blatter, appeared next.
Four years on, Fifa is led by an instantly forgettable Swiss-Italian lawyer by the name of Gianni Infantino, to whom it has fallen to lead the game through its 12-year twilight zone from which it can only emerge when the Qatar tournament has been and gone.
No one booed Infantino, because no one knows who he is, which is precisely how it should be.
On the domestic front, Fifa 2018 will certainly act as great legitimising exercise for a corrupt and murderous gangster government.
On the international front, if the sight of Russia basking in the international limelight is enough to turn the stomach, the most effective coping strategy is to enjoy what will surely be a great telegenic reminder of a fascinating and wonderful country, with an unrivalled contribution to the cultural history of the world, and a diverse people that frankly deserve better. And not just from their government, but from Robbie Williams too.
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