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 By Reuters

Vladimir Putin says football unites planet as World Cup begins in Russia

ESPN FC's Kasey Keller praises Russia's direct play and how well they used their strengths in a convincing 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia.
Russia and Saudi Arabia fans are out in full force ahead of the 2018 World Cup opener.

Russia welcomed the world to the World Cup on Thursday as fans streamed in, the hosts savoured a 5-0 victory and President Vladimir Putin's government derided Western efforts to isolate him.

The Russian leader, greeted by huge cheers ahead of the hosts' opening game against Saudi Arabia, spoke of showing the world a hospitable Russia and of sport overcoming differences.

Russia is grappling with Western sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, but talking of a love of football uniting the planet "as one team," Putin said: "In this unity, over which no powers reign, in which there are no differences of language, of ideology or of faith, lies the great power of football, and of all sport."

Western powers chose not to send senior representatives to the opening ceremony, but there are no sporting boycotts like the one at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

"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, newly re-elected after 18 years in power, heard British singer Robbie Williams dominate a colourful half-hour opening ceremony at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium with what the Kremlin listed as an array of 15 foreign leaders -- although that included eight from ex-Soviet neighbours as well as two from Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.

Putin watched the game with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stretching across FIFA President Gianni Infantino to offer a consoling handshake to his Saudi guest as Yury Gazinsky put Russia a goal up after 12 minutes.

The comfortable win raised hopes that the low-ranked hosts might progress into the tournament's later stages.

"Russia in Centre Field," headlined state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "The main victory is already won," it said, praising an organisational effort in which a dozen stadiums have been built or rebuilt and a huge security operation rolled out.

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