The World Cup kicks off in Russia on Thursday as years of preparations dogged by diplomatic scandals give way to a month of action on the field in football’s global showpiece.

Russia get the ball rolling against Saudi Arabia at the completely refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after an opening ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Brazil have won the title a record five times while defending champions Germany are on four and determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played at Luzhniki on July 15.

There was little romance in the prelude as Russia’s problems – from racism and hooliganism to a foreign policy sharply at odds with the West – were exposed and scrutinised.

Britain and some eastern European states still haunted by Moscow’s rule in the Soviet era tried to organise a diplomatic boycott over the poisoning in England of a former Russian spy.

Neither the British royal family nor British government members will attend, but a wider boycott effort fizzled out.
Russian organisers say they expect more than 20 heads of state to attend the opening match.

“We would like to underscore the validity of the FIFA principle of sport being outside politics,” Russian leader Putin told a meeting Wednesday of football’s governing body FIFA.

“Russia has always adhered to this principle,” Putin said.

Russia is spending more than US$13 billion (11 billion euros) on its most important event since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

The money will boost Putin’s already sky-high prestige at home even further by giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in generations.

Cities like Saransk were sleepy outposts with decaying buildings until World Cup construction workers put them firmly in the 21st century.

The tournament also offers Putin a chance to project Russia as a global player that is accepted and respected even while being at odds with the United States.

Russia is pulling it all off while bearing the brunt of international sanctions that began after it invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.