The 21st edition of the World Cup is set to kick off in Russia, with the hosts playing Saudi Arabia at the newly refurbished 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
The game starts at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT/UTC) after an opening ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dignitaries from around the world.
The competition will last for more than one month, with the final scheduled match to be held at the same stadium on July 15.
The event features 32 teams, including holders Germany, competing in 64 games over 32 days.
The games will be played in 12 stadiums, across 11 cities, spread over 2,900 kilometers.
According to officials, Russia has been spending some $13 billion for the organization of the World Cup — a competition which traditionally attracts more viewers around the world than any other sports event.
It is also the most important international competition organized by Russia since the 1980 Summer Olympics.
The tournament is taking place as Moscow finds itself increasingly isolated internationally and subjected to sanctions for its role in several international crises — the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, its support for separatists in Ukraine’s east, its intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, and more recently its alleged poisoning in England of a former Russian spy.
Al these, plus the alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, only deepened Russia’s worst rift with the West since the Cold War.
Neither the British royal family nor British government members will attend after London accused Russia of being behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a nerve toxin in March in the English city of Salisbury.
However, a larger boycott of the competition proposed by Britain and some Eastern European states eventually fizzled out.
Russian organizers say they expect more than 20 heads of state to attend the opening game, despite Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling on world leaders last month to boycott the opening ceremony in protest of Russia’s “atrocities” in Syria.
“We would like to underscore the validity of the FIFA principle of sport being outside politics,” a visibly satisfied Putin told a FIFA meeting in Moscow on the eve of the tournament.
“Russia has always adhered to this principle,” Putin said.
Defending champion Germany (ranked No. 1 by FIFA), Brazil (2), Portugal (4), Argentina (5), and France (7) are among the favorites to compete for the title.
Among the notable countries missing from the tournament will be Italy and the Netherlands, which failed to qualify.
Brazil has won the title a record five times while defending champions Germany has four titles.
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.