MOSCOW – Alone among the thousands Aleksandr Golovin stood still. In the field his Russian teammates ran towards him. By the way, his coaches hopped and bounced around.
In the stands, his long and newly acquired fans stood up, arms raised, flags flapping and golden stars flickering. In the executive box, even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was usually so impassive, winced the corners of his mouth, which could be recognized as a smile.
This World Cup was almost off the starting line, like Putin. He helped swing the ballot to bring them here. He rolled the arms of the Russian oligarchs to pay for it. He uses it to project the power of Russia to his own citizens and the rest of the world.
But at that moment, when Golovin was in the field in the Luzhniki Stadium, he stretched his arms wide and invited everyone to glory The brilliance that had inspired Russia to a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia changed. As long as the host country stays in the tournament – whether that lasts only 10 days or longer – the most important Russian in this World Cup is not the president of the country, but the gambling playmaker.
Amid all the excitement of Russia's hosts, this game had been dreaded. On paper, it seemed so easy: Saudi Arabia was the lowest team to qualify for the competition. Not one of his players consistently works in Europe or Latin America or anywhere else than in his homeland. For most it seemed like a gimme.
Not to Russia. After Russia, the game seemed to be a humiliation, just waiting for it to happen. The Moscow Times had ordered the host to be "doomed" in his own tournament. Artem Dzyuba, Russia's striker, had felt moved to ask the local media to put an end to merciless negativity.
The fear was not only that Russia would be eliminated in the group stage, but that it could lose all three games. In a pre-match press conference on Thursday, every single question to the coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, began with the same words: Good luck. It was not immediately apparent where the focus was
Everything else was fine: the stadiums were ready, and the opening ceremony, led by Robbie Williams, the pop star of the 1990s, and Aida Garifullina, the Russian soprano, was just as good As nonsensical 15 minutes can apply interpretive dance. But the team was the point where everything could be exposed as a thin facade.
In Golovin, Russia has exactly what it feared was missing: a player of real substance. Saudi Arabia may have had little resistance, but for a 22-year-old who is so devastating under pressure that suffocation deserves the highest praise. Russia scored five goals: Golovin created the first and third, was central for second, then scored the fifth. Only the fourth, a pretty nice, overturning hit by Denis Cheryshev, did not carry his imprimatur.
Neither that nor Golovin's deft free-kick a few minutes later greatly influenced the outcome of the game. Russia was already clear at the time and Saudi Arabia was beaten. The two goals could have some importance in a week and a half, but if the Russians have to rely on the goal difference to get out of the group.
But they had a seismic effect on mood. The first three goals were all greeted with a little more relief than joy: Maybe that would not be so bad. Cheryshev, the fourth of the crew, had kept his mouth open.
The fifth, so soon afterwards, turned the mood back into something else, something closer to delirium. Russia will not win this tournament. It will almost certainly not make the quarter-finals. But it will feel like it is possible now, at least for a day or two. A mere victory does not have this effect, but a defeat can.
It will not be in the least that this was not a game of the highest caliber, that it was pockmarked with fake passports and obvious mistakes, that Saudi Arabia was so weak and sometimes even relatively pedestrian friendly that there are much better teams, who are waiting for their talents.
The quality of football is particularly secondary at a World Cup; only later does it take on its role as a benchmark for the global health of the game.
And the crowd at a World Cup match is less orthodox than club games, full of people who get carried away by the zeal of a big event. As proof, testify to the wave – the mark of an audience that was not absorbed in a game – that swept around the Luzhniki after four and a half minutes of this game. It felt like a record that no country should be particularly proud of.
What matters is the individual performances, the memorable moments, the feelings that they produce.
Thanks to Golovin – and Cheryshev, scorer of two goals, including the one who could prove to be the best in the tournament – the feeling unfamiliar to the host is a beaming optimism, a feeling that it is not hosting the party would not be invited otherwise.
Of course, Putin will be as relieved as anyone else. He does not want to invest in failure. He called Cherchesov immediately after the game, congratulated him and asked the coach to pass them on to his players. "He asked us to keep playing," said Cherchesov.
Whether Russia will win against Egypt and then against Uruguay, the opposition that is significantly larger than Saudi Arabia, remains to be seen. But at least now, the host country has hope in the form of the cherubic boy in the shirt No. 17, which stands in the middle of the fray.