What Vladimir Putin wants, Vladimir Putin tends to get. The Russian president made it a national priority to win hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup in a fierce FIFA bidding contest seven years ago.
On Saturday, Russia marched on toward hosting football’s biggest party when the rehearsal tournament, the Confederations Cup, kicked off in the $750 million new stadia in Putin’s native St. Petersburg.
Russia’s players duly delivered a victory their head of state had all but demanded this week by beating a poor New Zealand team 2-0.
Putin even got to meet Pele at half time. When the Russian players some unknown outside their home country were given center stage, they forced an own goal from New Zealand defender Michael Boxall in the 31st minute, and forward Fyodor Smolov added a second in the 69th.
But this was Putin’s show. Arriving by helicopter close to the stadium barely 20 minutes before kickoff, he was soon installed in the main grandstand making a speech to launch the tournament.
“Here, on modern football arenas there will be tough, honest, fair fight until the last minutes of the match,” Putin said in Russian, adding that the eight-team, two-week event would “unite nations and continents, to promote the values of fair and beautiful play.”
Both teams were lined up on the pitch for an unusual pre-match protocol, looking up at the VIP boxes to hear from Russia’s leader and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, before being able to complete their preparations.
Days earlier, Putin had called for better results from the world’s 63rd-ranked team to impress the Russian public. Though 50,251 were in St. Petersburg Stadium that still left more than 10,000 empty seats.
“For us it is very important to make people in the country fall in love with the national team,” said Smolov, the 27-year-old FC Krasnodar forward who was named the game’s best player.
Putin had also asked the players to perform like warriors, though they hardly needed to be war-like in dispatching No. 95 New Zealand, which seemed to find the world stage too big.
“We knew the scenario with who was coming to the game,” New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson said. “I don’t know if it played a part or not. We could have been more aggressive.” Russia’s coach suggested it was an advantage to have such a pep talk.
“When the president of your country comes out to make a speech this mobilizes us,” said coach Stanislav Cherchesov, a former goalkeeper who played for the national team before and after the fall of communism.
Russia’s win certainly eased the pressure on winning its second game, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in Moscow on Wednesday. The European champion opens its Group A program on Sunday against Mexico in Kazan.
Ronaldo will be able to focus his fans’ minds on playing after widespread suggestions this week he wants to leave Real Madrid and Spain, where his tax affairs are under investigation.
“Cristiano is totally focused in helping our team. He is focused on what needs to be done here, and without a doubt he will have a great tournament,” Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio said Saturday. In the only match played Saturday, Smolov took his chance to shine.
“It is the first step to the English Premier League now,” Cherchesov said in English as he looked across to his also-smiling forward at a news conference. New Zealand is now without a win in four trips to the Confederations Cup, and next plays Mexico on Wednesday in Sochi.
Russia deserved its first-half lead after twice having shots stopped on the line in the opening 10 minutes. When the goal came, it had an ugly finish after two pretty pieces of individual skill once the All-Whites defense needlessly lost the ball.
Russia’s victory showed it can win a big game at home, even if Putin is in the arena. He prefers ice hockey and saw a team that carried fervent hopes of an Olympic title lose on home ice in the quarterfinals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
A Confederations Cup trophy, never mind a World Cup title, might be too much to ask even for Putin, But Saturday was a start.