Russian hopes, fears tied up in Putin's showcase World Cup

From left: FIFA President Gianni Infantino Russian President Vladimir Putin, Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Pre

From left: FIFA President Gianni Infantino Russian President Vladimir Putin, Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Pre

People cross the road passing by the graffiti of the Marvel Universe fictional characters playing with soccer balls in the background in Moscow, Russi

People cross the road passing by the graffiti of the Marvel Universe fictional characters playing with soccer balls in the background in Moscow, Russi

A Russian police officer guards the hotel of the German team during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Vatutinki near Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 201

A Russian police officer guards the hotel of the German team during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Vatutinki near Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 14, 201

Soccer fans ride in the metro near the Luzhniki stadium before the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup

Soccer fans ride in the metro near the Luzhniki stadium before the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia which opens the 2018 soccer World Cup

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Lebanese President Michel Aoun, shake hands while posing for a photo prior to their talks in Moscow, Russ

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Lebanese President Michel Aoun, shake hands while posing for a photo prior to their talks in Moscow, Russ

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, left, shake hands while posing for a photo prior to their talks in Mosco

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, left, shake hands while posing for a photo prior to their talks in Mosco

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Bolivia's President Evo Morales prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13,

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Bolivia's President Evo Morales prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13,

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin claims soccer and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he's hosting is about much more than a ball game.

As the monthlong tournament opened, Putin is seeking to prove to the world that Russia is a global power broker and an open, confident nation. Russians hope it dispels their country's image as an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.

Critics fear the Cup will legitimize Putin's autocratic policies at home and Russia's controversial actions abroad.

Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine — "all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup," his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "Today the soccer dimension is the most important one."

"Football and love" was the theme of the show ahead of Thursday's kickoff match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

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More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup