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Russia's ready to kick off month-long World Cup party
NOW that US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have finally held their summit in Singapore, the world will soon be fixated on another global event that promises just as much - or even more - drama and suspense.
The Fifa World Cup - the largest single-event sporting competition on the planet - begins in Russia on Thursday night, with the host nation taking on Saudi Arabia (11pm kick-off, Singapore time) in what will be the first of 64 football matches spread over 32 days.
The battles on the field take place across multiple time zones in 12 state-of-the-art stadiums in 11 cities, with Ekaterinburg the furthest east and Kaliningrad the furthest west.
Russia is hosting the quadrennial tournament for the first time in its history, having been awarded the rights by Fifa - the sport's world governing body - in December 2010.
Since then, it has spent an estimated 678 billion rubles (S$14.6 billion) - the most of any of the previous 20 hosts - to get the country ready to stage the biggest football party on earth.
Sixty per cent of that amount reportedly came from the country's federal budget. The final figure could well be much higher, after factoring in money spent from other regional budgets and other miscellaneous expenses.
The priciest of the 12 venues is the 68,000-seat Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, which reportedly cost as much as US$1 billion to build from scratch.
The largest venue in Russia is the historic 80,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium in the capital Moscow - it will host seven matches in all, including Thursday's tournament opener and the grand final on July 15.
Russia and its lacklustre economy will certainly hope to recoup some of its investment, and organisers said they expect over a million visitors for the World Cup. They will spend on hotels, match tickets, food and drinks, shopping and much more.
About 600,000 of them will be international fans, including an estimated thousand or so from Singapore.
According to consultancy services firm McKinsey, hosting the World Cup will generate about US$15 billion for Russia's economy.
However, spread that amount over the six years or so that Russia has spent preparing for the tournament, and the impact is considerably smaller - less than 0.2 per cent of the country's annual output.
Russia has certainly had a rough build-up over the last few years as it counts down to the opening ceremony and the first match on Thursday.
The Kremlin has been dogged by all sorts of scandals and accusations - be it the chemical attack on a Russian double agent and his daughter in England, Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, or the Western sanctions that have been imposed due to the annexation of Crimea.
Several countries including the United Kingdom, Iceland, Australia and Finland have announced that their officials will not attend the World Cup, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both said they will fly to Russia in the very likely event that their teams reach the latter stages of the tournament.
The World Cup itself is a huge money-spinner and companies big and small are all looking for ways to cash in on the hype and euphoria. The 64 matches will be beamed to a global broadcast audience of 3.5 billion people.
Adidas, the German sportswear brand, is sponsoring the kits for 12 of the 32 participating teams, including some of the top contenders like Spain and Germany, and hosts Russia.
Its arch-rival Nike, meanwhile, is supplying the shirts for 10 countries, including England, France and Brazil.
According to marketing agency Zenith, this year's tournament will add US$2.4 billion to the global advertising market.
"For brands, the World Cup offers a unique opportunity to reach these consumers at scale, during shared public occasions they are emotionally involved in," Jonathan Barnard, Zenith's director of global intelligence, told Reuters last week.
Meanwhile, the stock markets are usually a bit quieter as both brokers and investors take some time off. Some studies, including from the European Central Bank, have shown that trading volumes drop significantly during World Cup matches. The biggest plunges take place just after a goal is scored, or any other important moment in a game.
When Brazil hosted the last World Cup in 2014, the monthly volumes for its benchmark Bovespa equities index reached a two-year low.
With the opening match just hours away, fans around the world are ready to plonk themselves in front of the TV or at their favourite pub to soak in the action.
Russia, for all its problems off the pitch, are under pressure not to win the World Cup, but to avoid an embarrassing early exit on home soil.
Anything less than a victory in tonight's match against the Saudis would be a catastrophe for the host nation, as they seek to emerge unscathed from a difficult group that also includes Egypt and Uruguay.
Many of the other 31 countries will also give their all on the pitch. Defending champions Germany, and former champions Argentina, France and Brazil, are among the hot favourites, while dark horses such as Belgium, Croatia and Portugal are also expected to make their presence felt.
Asia's hopes, meanwhile, will rest on the usual suspects like Australia, South Korea and Japan.
The South Koreans - semi-finalists back in 2002 - are grouped with Germany, Sweden and Mexico, and it would be a big shock if they make it to the Round of 16.
The "Samurai Blue", as Japan are known, are not in the best playing form but will still be quietly confident of making the knock-out stage after being grouped with Colombia, Senegal and Poland.
Australia was the last of the 32 nations to qualify for Russia but they are also expected to be on an early flight home as they are in a group that contains France, Peru and Denmark.
After 868 qualifying matches over two years involving 209 countries, all that's left is for one of the final 32 to go all the way in Russia and be crowned World Cup champions.
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