World Cup diary here we go

Day One: Russia 5:0 Saudi Arabia

On 24 February 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked, large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, its neighbour to the southwest, marking an escalation to a conflict that began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbass. Stop The War!

A reasonable start to the World Cup. Fans on the ground seem to be happy and enjoying the down to earth and friendly Russian people, in contrast to the austere enforcers in government who project such a negative image to the outside world.

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia World Cup 2018.

Vladimir Putin opened the show of course with a speech of the usual but necessary platitudes of the globe uniting in love of sporting endeavour, but the whole ceremony, less than half an hour long, was mercifully free of any nationalism. It is odd that the World Cup is more readily linked to patriotism but has less of it in its opening ceremony than the Olympic Games, which is more about individual endeavour.

Bravo to the host nation for such a fireworks display in their opening match, albeit against a side who not for the first time did not seem to be of the calibre of the World Cup finals.

We can all agree the host nation needs some success to keep the atmosphere buzzing, but one wonders if that was Russia's one and only moment of glory.

Vladimir Putin had his bit to say of course, the usual but necessary platitudes about sport being a uniter across cultures - let's hope the Russian hooligans were listening, some hope...

Sitting beside the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as every Russian goal hit the net cannot have been easy for Vlad, even if his true love is ice hockey and naked horseback riding in the Steppes.

Day Two: Uruguay 1:0 Egypt, Iran 1:0 Morocco, Spain 3:3 Portugal

Mohamed Salah sat on and watched as Uruguay failed to ignite in Group A until the final minute when they found the Egyptian net. The match as a whole was disappointing after the Russian fusillade in Moscow.

Luis Suarez made a successful return to the World Cup i.e. not biting any opponent's anatomy. Long may that toothless spell last. It was also interesting seeing the banks of empty seats in Yekaterinburg, rather reassuring in fact that not everyone had bought into the FIFA hype.

Morocco v Iran was more entertaining at first because there was a contrast of continental styles. The North Africans looked more battle-hardened and with a better shape and superior pressing - proof perhaps of their players' European league experience.

Iran looked awed for the first half hour before opening up and causing some trouble if not danger with some probing channels balls.

Iran's Sardar Azmoun missed the best chance on 43 minutes when one on one with the goalie but the football gods happily injected some life into a lifeless second half when Morocco's Aziz Bouhaddouz headed past his own keeper in injury time. Never mind lad, these things happen.

The evening match was one of real, top-draw quality. Spain's marinated possession brought back memories of the tiki-taka golden age. They were clearly better than the European champions, who seemed to rely on the counter-attack and whose passing was ragged in comparison.

Raging bull Diego Costa, otherwise a fish out of water in a cultured passing side, proved his worth with a brace, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored three, albeit the first a penalty kick he had cheekily won against his Real Madrid team mate Nacho.

David De Gea's stance for the Ronaldo free-kick, rooted to the spot like a Russian war memorial in the wrong place, was reminiscent of Alan Rough watching Zico's free kick rocket into the Scottish net in Espana 1982.

Nacho's revenge, which sounds like a western or a fairground ride, was the goal of the tournament so far, a swerving rocket from 20 yards.

Excellent football but a bit of a quiet atmosphere wasn't it? Were there not enough travelling fans, put off by costs and fears of violence? The cameras struggled to find them, preferring mostly Russian girls with temporary face tattoos.

Anyway, Spain seem to be fine without their manager and CR7 is back with aplomb. Now bring on Messi.

2018 World Cup Logo

Russian Hostels

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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