MOSCOW, RUSSIA – Vladimir Putin craves sporting glory, and he got another taste of it in the opening match of the World Cup.
Russia ended a 16-year wait for victory in the tournament by routing Saudi Arabia 5-0 Thursday in Group A, with the Russian president watching from the VIP box alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino and the Saudi crown prince.
It was the host nation's first World Cup win since 2002, and it raises the hope that Russia can get past the group stage for the first time since the Soviet era.
Yuri Gazinsky initially put Russia ahead with a header from Alexander Golovin's cross when the Saudis failed to clear a corner in the 12th minute. Gazinsky charged forward to meet the ball as Saudi player Taisir Al-Jassam stumbled, leaving a simple finish.
Putin and Infantino smiled and shrugged as they sat next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Putin then reached over to shake the prince's hand.
Substitute Denis Cheryshev soon scored the first of his two goals. He chipped the ball over two Saudi defenders in the 43rd minute and shot over goalkeeper Abdullah Al Muaiouf's right side to make it 2-0. He later chipped the ball in for Russia's fourth goal in stoppage time.
“I have never done anything like this,” Cheryshev said. “I already felt very happy when I knew I could come here with my squad, but I never, ever dreamed of something like this.”
After Cheryshev's first goal, Artyom Dzyuba made an instant impact off the bench to make it 3-0 in the 71st with a header from Golovin's cross. Golovin added the fifth from a free kick.
Following a lavish opening ceremony featuring British singer Robbie Williams, Putin welcomed visiting fans and promised Russia would be a “hospitable and friendly” host.
Putin has made no secret about his desire for success in international sports, especially at the Olympics. But high points for Russian athletes have been rare since the country's image was tarnished by doping, with numerous Olympic medals stripped for drug use.
In a World Cup first, the video assistant referee system was available for the match between the tournament's lowest-ranked teams, though it wasn't used for an official review.
The Saudis, who last won a match at the World Cup in 1994, failed to get a single shot on target.
The win for Russia is a big boost to its hopes of advancing, but it will still face a tough test against Egypt on June 19 and Uruguay six days later.
With the five goals against the Saudis, a draw could be enough against either of its two remaining opponents.
Saudi Arabia's route to the knockout round is much more difficult. The Saudis will face Uruguay on June 20 and then Egypt on June 25. Egypt and Uruguay play Friday in Yekaterinburg.
KEY TO SUCCESS
Russia's players were significantly taller and heavier than the Saudis, a help when challenging for the ball and when the penalty area was crowded.
That had an effect on Gazinsky's goal, which came after the Saudis struggled to clear a Russian corner, and the header from the tall and stocky Dzyuba.
One concern for Russia is that creative midfielder Alan Dzagoev picked up a suspected hamstring injury, but that was what allowed Cheryshev to come off the bench and change the game.
FRINGE PLAYERS TRIUMPH
Russia's bench players had their day of glory.
Dzyuba had played only once for Russia since 2016, while Cheryshev and Gazinsky made two appearances in that time.
Raised in Spain, where his father Dmitry taught at Real Madrid's youth academy, Cheryshev showed his technical skills by beating the two Saudi defenders before his first goal.
Dzyuba spent half the season on loan after reported disputes with Zenit St. Petersburg management, but forced his way back into the Russia team with strong play.
Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi: “We were not doing what we wanted to do. The opposing team did not have to make a huge effort to win.”
Golovin: “For us, each game is like the last.”
It was Russia's third win from 10 World Cup matches since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Cheryshev hadn't scored for Russia in his 11 previous appearances. Saudi Arabia has now lost a game by four or more goals at each of its last four World Cup visits, including an 8-0 rout at the hands of Germany in 2002.