MOSCOW, June 14: The World Cup kicks off in Russia Thursday (Jun 14) as the host nation take on Saudi Arabia in front of 81,000 people in Moscow after President Vladimir Putin officially declares the tournament open.
The buildup has been dogged by controversy and diplomatic scandals and has shone a light on the challenges facing Putin's Russia.
On the day of the curtain-raiser, Russia freed the main opposition figure to Putin, Alexei Navalny, from jail after he served a 30-day sentence for organizing an illegal protest.
The completely refurbished Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow hosts the opening match, against the two lowest-ranked sides in the tournament.
Excitement has been steadily building in Moscow, with thousands of Saudi fans in green and white arriving in the city for the match.
British pop star Robbie Williams performed at the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki.
The World Cup favorites enter the fray this weekend.
Brazil and their superstar Neymar are seeking a sixth global crown while Germany, who won their fourth World Cup in Brazil four years ago, will be determined to draw level with the Brazilians when the final is played in Moscow on July 15.
France boast possibly the most talented squad while Lionel Messi is desperate to make amends for Argentina's defeat in the 2014 final.
Iker Casillas is back at the World Cup and he has been reunited with the Trophy he lifted as Spain captain in 2010.