An international opera gala at Moscow's Red Square has kicked off festivities as Russia prepares to host the world’s biggest sporting event, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, amid persistent tension with the West.
President Vladimir Putin attended the event late on June 13 on the eve of the opening soccer match that will pit Russia against Saudi Arabia in the Russian capital.
The musical extravaganza featured Russian singer Anna Netrebko and pianist Denis Matsuev, Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, and renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky orchestra. British pop singer Robbie Williams is scheduled to sing at the tournament's opening ceremony.
Putin, who is set to attend the opening match starting at 6 p.m. local time in Moscow’s 80,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium, has pulled out all the stops to present Russia in a good light for the monthlong competition, which attracts some 3.5 billion television viewers, about half the world’s population.
Russia has spent an estimated $11 billion to $14 billion to stage the event, including $6.11 billion for transport infrastructure, $3.45 billion for stadium construction, and $680 million to build and refurbish accommodation facilities, according to an analysis by the RBC news outlet.
Games will be held at the Luzhniki and Spartak stadiums in Moscow as well as in St. Petersburg, Sochi, Kazan, Saransk, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, and Samara.
Putin addressed the 68th FIFA Congress in Moscow on June 13, telling the soccer federations that he wanted to “make special note of FIFA's adherence to the principle of sports outside of politics.”
"Russia has always supported this approach," he added.
Russia is hosting the World Cup as ties between Moscow and the West have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over issues including Russia's aggression of Ukraine, its role in Syria’s seven-year conflict, its alleged meddling in U.S. elections, and the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in Britain in March.
In addition, global rights groups have criticized Moscow ahead of the soccer tournament, with Human Rights Watch saying it will take place amid "the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era."
The New York-based rights watchdog on May 15 called on FIFA to use its influence and bring up with the Russian authorities issues such as labor rights abuses, restrictions on basic freedoms, and the current crackdown on human rights activists.
HRW, Amnesty International, and other groups have has also urged FIFA to use its influence to win the release of several activists being held by Russian authorities on what they call "fabricated" charges.
Meanwhile, despite having home advantage, Russia will have a difficult task to end up on top of the 32 teams in the tournament and is ranked 70th worldwide by FIFA. Host countries receive automatic invitations to the World Cup.
Defending champion Germany (ranked No. 1 by FIFA), Brazil (2), Belgium (3), Portugal (4), Argentina (5), and France (7) were expected to compete for the title.
Among the notable countries missing from the tournament will be Italy, the United States, the Netherlands, and Ghana, all of which failed to qualify.
The next World Cup will be held in Qatar in November-December 2022. The 2026 event will be jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico, and Canada.