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Less than 14 minutes after it started, the 2018 World Cup already had its defining image. It came shortly after Russia scored the first of (shuffling papers) hundreds of goals against Saudi Arabia.

In the stands, Russian President Vladimir Putin shot an amused look at his seatmate, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The pair began to shake their heads and waggle their hands in unison – the international gesture for “Do you feel as cartoonishly evil as I do right now?”

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Putin reached out for a handshake. Prince Mohammed received the offer warmly.

A couple of years ago, their two countries were effectively fighting each other in a proxy war in Syria. Now, apparently, they’re pals. One looks forward to the weepy McDonald’s ad about the power of sport to turn bitter enemies into best friends.

The sports headline out of Thursday’s opener is “Russia – not as bad as all that.”

The more compelling take was “Vlad’s Big Day.”

Putin paid a fortune in treasure and credibility to bring this tournament to Russia. In recent months, that was beginning to look like a miscalculation.

Russia’s global reputation was at low ebb. The Russian team was terrible. The only reason to host a World Cup is marketing your country to the rest of the planet. This World Cup was instead putting all of Russia’s faults into sharper relief.

But on Thursday at least, all that tension bled away. So what if the West’s major leaders had taken a pass on attending? That only left more room at the broadcast buffet for the star of the show. As the world stopped to watch him preen, Putin must have felt his wager paying off.

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Crucially, the soccer part turned out right – 5-0 for Russia. Since Russia hadn’t won a game in eight months, that was far from given. Looming over the encounter was the fact that no host had ever lost the opening game of a World Cup.

Aesthetically, the match was atrocious. The Saudis played like a bunch of very fit men who’d first heard a week ago that there is this thing called “soccer.”

(In fairness, this is a country that banned playing the sport until the fifties and whose powerful clerics have repeatedly issued fatwas against it, so they have some ground to make up.)

The Russians weren’t a whole lot better, but they did seem to understand the basics – the ball goes forward, you should not let people run by you unhindered, probably smart to jump when everyone on the other team is jumping, etc.

After each goal, Putin would turn to bin Salman. The Saudi grew increasingly less receptive to these “friendly” gestures. As the last goal went in, Putin was still waggling his hands, but bin Salman was staring dead ahead, planning a change to his route home.

The crown prince already owns a $400-million house in France and a $650-million yacht in Bermuda. Perhaps he can detour up to Rome and inquire about the price of the Italian national football team. Because the Italians aren’t using it at the moment.

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You could forgive Putin his celebratory excesses. Things were going much better than the last time the world watched him watching something.

That was at the Sochi Olympics. Putin had the habit of drifting into hockey games after they’d started, taking a seat up near the rafters of the Bolshoy Arena.

Russia lost to the United States in the opening round as Putin looked on grimly. He took a pass on the quarter-final and was spared an up-close look at the Finns ending his gold-medal dream in the sport he cares most about.

Soccer matters less, perhaps not at all, to the Russian leader. He only had to show up once and hope things worked out.

As per usual, the opening ceremony was an expensive, incoherent mess. It featured jugglers, rock ’n ’roll harpists, a ball they shot up to the International Space Station and the best musical talent rubles can buy (so, Robbie Williams, time warped in from 1997).

These preshows never change, creating the impression that the World Cup is held in some neutral, imaginary venue. You began to forget who was hosting and allowed yourself to relax into the narcotic comfort of the Big Show.

Reading from a lectern, Putin spoke at length beforehand. He welcomed the world to “an open, hospitable and friendly country” filled with people visitors will find “share the same values.”

It didn’t quite jibe with a country involved in three ongoing foreign wars, but it sounded nice.

He got a nice petting from Swiss soccer boss Gianni Infantino. This was Infantino’s big international TV debut. He managed to strike the traditional FIFA tone – somewhere between smug and servile.

“As of today, for one month, football will conquer Russia,” Infantino said, pointing into the crowd like he’d just won a Daytime Emmy. “And from Russia, football will conquer the entire world.”

It was an oddly martial way of putting it. One presumes Infantino was attempting to speak in terms his audience-of-one understands.

(Putin must have been channelling Stalin as he heard this – “How many divisions does soccer’s pope have?”)

If it was a bit tacky, that was the point. After all the bogeyman talk in the lead-up, Russia was allowed to look just as gauche a party planner as its Western critics.

Williams – who was raked beforehand by activists for “selling his soul to a dictator” – captured the mood by flashing a raised middle finger at the camera. Maybe they paid extra for that.

Putin needed no rude gestures to make his point. All he had to do was sit there and look agreeable. By the end he appeared positively mirthful, like the cat that got the cream.

It’s difficult to say how much these events cost, especially in countries that aren’t transparent with their finances.

Sochi was something in the region of $60-billion. The World Cup is a bargain by comparison – $14-billion or so.

It’s still an awful lot of money. But when you have for years been someone people fear and suspect, it may seem like a fair price to enjoy one whole day as the belle of the world’s ball.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada have been picked to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, despite their currently fraught diplomatic relations. Reuters
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