In Summary
  • British pop star Robbie Williams performed at the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki, which will also host the final on July 15.
  • The World Cup favourites enter the fray this weekend.

MOSCOW

The World Cup kicked off in Russia Thursday as the host nation took on Saudi Arabia in front of 80,000 people in Moscow after President Vladimir Putin officially declared the tournament open.

Russia is spending more than $13 billion (11 billion euros, Sh1.3 trillion) on hosting football's showpiece, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Russian model Natalia Vodianova stand next to the World Cup trophy during the opening ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | JUAN MABROMATA | AFP

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Russian model Natalia Vodianova stand next to the World Cup trophy during the opening ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | JUAN MABROMATA | AFP

Russia fans pose as they wait for the start of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | PATRIK STOLLARZ | AFP

Russia fans pose as they wait for the start of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | PATRIK STOLLARZ | AFP

A performer juggles with 3 footballs during the Opening Ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV | AFP

A performer juggles with 3 footballs during the Opening Ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV | AFP

A football fan with the Russian flag painted on one of her nail holds a cup reading

A football fan with the Russian flag painted on one of her nail holds a cup reading "Russia vs Saudi Arabia" before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV | AFP

Minutes before the game started in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Putin said: "I congratulate all of you at the start of the most important championship in the world."

The buildup has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals and has shone a light on the challenges facing Putin's Russia.

On the day of the curtainraiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organising an illegal protest.

Excitement has been steadily building in Moscow, with thousands of Saudi fans in green and white arriving in the city for the match.

British pop star Robbie Williams performed at the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki, which will also host the final on July 15.

British singer Robbie Williams performs during the opening ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | MLADEN ANTONOV | AFP

British singer Robbie Williams performs during the opening ceremony before the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. PHOTO | MLADEN ANTONOV | AFP

The World Cup favourites enter the fray this weekend.

Brazil and their superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, who won their fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians.

France boast possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina's defeat in the 2014 final.

HEARTS AND MINDS

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