Eyes of world on Russia as football carnival kicks off
The giant clock that sits in Red Square in the bustling heart of Moscow has counted down the weeks, then the days, and now it's counting the hours.
Russia's time has finally come.At 4pm today the 2018 World Cup will kick off, turning the spotlight on this vast land of 11 time zones and 12 seas, with cities rich in culture, history and intrigue.
Over the next month a uniquely universal audience will watch enthralled as 32 teams vie for football's greatest prize.
The build-up has been long and feverish and it has rarely focused on the sport.
For this is a World Cup like no other, played out against an uneasy backdrop of heightened tension and apprehension.
Here, sport and politics will mix like never before.
And that is why, more so than ever, we need a World Cup that is remembered for its football.
One that showcases the genius of stars like Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Neymar; a tournament that delivers something special.
Because from the very moment the World Cup was awarded to Russia in 2010 it has been mired in controversy.
For some its chief purpose is to serve as a propaganda boon for Vladimir Putin.
Last Saturday a promotional video was released showing a smiling President offering the hand of international friendship.
Yet over the last eight years there has been little to smile about.
The world converges on Russia at a time when the Putin regime stands accused of a double poisoning on the streets of Salisbury.
There is the meddling in foreign elections and incursions into eastern Ukraine.
The rancour stretches back to the bid process, now widely accepted as having been won by means more foul than fair.
It was this win-at-all-costs mentality which corrupted the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.
Professor Richard McLaren's report for the World Anti-Doping Agency, published in 2016, set out the lengths Russia went to in its desperate quest for national honour.
"It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy," it said.
In other words, state-sponsored cheating on an industrial scale.
Add to this the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine that killed 298 people, the annexation of Crimea, the defence of Bashar al-Assad's brutal Syrian regime, the racism, the suppression of internal dissent.
Social media edits of official World Cup posters - recast and circulating online - drive the point home.
One depicts a player juggling the ball in a radiation suit, accompanied by the title 'Novichok 2018'. Another shows a football hurtling, missile-like, towards a passenger jet.
And so it is against this unhappy background that the tournament kicks off today as the hosts take on Saudi Arabia.
Not that you will see any hint of the problems on the branding that greets fans in the arrival hall of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Russia has pumped billions into staging the World Cup, and is determined that it will be a success.
So too the many thousands of fans following their teams here from across the world.
They will carry colour and noise and emotion to the 11 host cities, from the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad to Ekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains.
For all the troubled build-up, this is not the first World Cup to be overshadowed by controversy.
Its staging in Argentina in 1978 came two years after a military coup, with the country in the grip of Jorge Rafael Videla's brutal authoritarian regime.
In Brazil four years ago the tournament became a lightning rod for a country's grievances, with anti-World Cup protests in host cities.
Yet both came to be defined not by controversy, but by stories of greatness and timeless images, from Argentina's triumph amid the ticker-tape of Buenos Aires to Germany's humbling of Brazil en route to glory in 2014.
Now the stage is at last set for Russia 2018 to deliver on all the hype.
It isn't asking the world.
See Sport pages 52-56