Moscow — High up in the Luzhniki Stadium, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) president Gianni Infantino was exactly where he loves to be: In among the money.
Russia . . . . .. . . . . . . (2) 5
Saudi Arabia . . . . . . . . 0
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.
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 yesterday, 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 resistance, 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.