Russia declared the FIFA World Cup open in a ceremony full of glitz, colour and some acoustic trouble at the Lushniki Stadium in Moscow.
The show, which lasted just 15 minutes before the focus switched to the opening match between the hosts and Saudi Arabia, centred upon British pop star Robbie Williams and Russian opera singer Aida Garifullina.
But Williams’ performance started off in faltering fashion, with his microphone feed coming through intermittently for television viewers in their millions. Then, right before the end of the show, he gave a cheeky middle finger to the camera.
Spanish World Cup winner Iker Casillas, alongside Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova, brought the World Cup trophy onto the pitch in a sleek Louis Vuitton travel case, before Williams opened the song and dance numbers with the ever-reliable Let Me Entertain You.
But the old chart topper was bedevilled by acoustic issues for television viewers at least, making for an awkward start as the 44-year-old Brit looked to get the crowd going from a dais in the centre circle.
But sat upon a giant firebird, Garifullina — a soloist from the Vienna State Opera — looked to make amends with her dazzling soprano, before Williams’ microphone began behaving for renditions of Feel, the crowd-pleasing Angels, before making way to the sidelines for Rock DJ as crews hurriedly prepared the pitch for the opening match.
But never one to let the chance to steal some attention go by, Williams shocked some viewers by offering a quick middle finger to the camera on the sideline, right at the close of the song-and-dance number.
The show opened with a performance of Pyotr Tchaikovski by violinist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Daniil Trifonov.
Among the dignitaries present at the ceremony was Brazil great Ronaldo — a World Cup icon and scorer of both Brazil’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final win over Germany — who took centre stage alongside a young Russian footballer and the tournament’s mascot.
Unity ‘the great power of football’, says Putin
Right before kick-off, Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged to huge cheers from the Moscow crowd, saying a hospitable Russia would showcase sport overcoming differences, amid sanctions imposed on the country following its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine four years ago.
Talking of a love of soccer uniting the planet “as one team”, Mr Putin said: “In this unity, over which no powers reign, in which there are no differences of language, of ideology or of faith, lies the great power of football, and of all sport.”
Western powers chose not to send senior representatives to the opening ceremony, but despite some muttering this year as relations soured further there are no sporting boycotts like the one that marred the 1980 Moscow Olympics, nor doping bans of the kind that excluded many Russians from the past two Olympiads.
The Kremlin said 15 foreign leaders were in attendance alongside Mr Putin — though that included eight from ex-Soviet neighbours as well as two from Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia.
Mr Putin watched the game with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stretching across FIFA President Gianni Infantino to offer a consoling handshake to his Saudi guest as Yury Gazinsky put Russia a goal up after 12 minutes.
It didn’t get much better for the Crown Prince as Russia romped home to a 5-0 win, which raised hopes the low-ranked hosts might progress into the tournament’s later stages.
“Russia in Centre Field,” headlined the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
“The main victory is already won,” it said, praising an organisational effort in which a dozen stadiums have been built or rebuilt and a huge security operation rolled out.