World Cup fever builds as fans, teams pour into Russia
World Cup fever is finally taking hold in Russia, where wild enthusiasm in provincial centres such as chilly Kazan is filtering through to Moscow ahead of Thursday's opening match in the capital.
While curious locals have clamoured to see the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar, it has proved a slow build-up to the June 14-July 15 showpiece, which is being held in Russia for the first time.
The tournament opener featuring Russia and Saudi Arabia at the imposing 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium has so far failed to capture the imagination of Muscovites, although they have warmly welcomed foreign fans.
Groups of South American supporters with drums and whistles took to the streets around Red Square this week, posing for pictures with shoppers.
In response, a small knot of local fans gathered, waving flags and good-naturedly chanting "Russia, Russia".
But it has been outside the capital where enthusiasm for the beautiful game has really taken hold.
Australia were pleasantly surprised Monday when a crowd of 3,200 turned up to see Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk put the Socceroos through their paces in Kazan, a two-hour flight east of Moscow.
A public holiday gave fans the opportunity to show their support at Australia's state-of-the-art training complex in the capital of the semi-autonomous Republic of Tatarstan.
"It was good to see all the fans from Kazan come out and support us, we didn't really expect it," said Australia defender Josh Risdon, who postponed his honeymoon following his selection to the Socceroos' squad.
"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Go, Go, Go," screamed sections of the crowd, many waving yellow and green Australia flags handed out by organisers.
Defender Josh Risdon appreciated the backing ahead of Australia's Group C campaign against Euro 2016 finalists France at the Kazan Arena on Saturday.
"It was good to see all the fans from Kazan come out and support us, we didn't really expect it," said the player, who postponed his honeymoon following his selection to the Socceroos' squad.
- Brazil pulling power -
In the Black Sea resort city of Sochi about 5,000 people turned out to watch the Brazilian squad train, chanting the name of Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.
Croatia had barely touched down in Russia before they launched a charm offensive that won over supporters at Roshchino outside Saint Petersburg.
Hours after arriving they staged a training session where free footballs, scarves and flags were launched into the stands.
Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric also exchanged passes with delighted youngsters.
The build up has not been without controversy, with Egypt's Mohamed Salah attracting critical headlines in Britain after posing for a photograph with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Reports said Kadyrov, who with Moscow's support rules Chechnya with an iron fist, personally picked up the Liverpool, striker at his team hotel in Grozny and drove him to training in front of 8,000 cheering fans.
While the atmosphere remains muted in the larger of the 11 host cities such as St Petersburg, it is sure to intensify as an estimated one million fans from 32 participating nations pour into the country.
President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address last week that he wanted the event, which has cost Russia $13 billion to host, to be "an unforgettable experience" for all involved.
"We want this event to be a celebration, filled with passion and emotions," he said.