Moscow (AFP) - Moscow's Red Square was transformed Friday into a football pitch as Russia launched its 1,000-day countdown to the 2018 FIFA World Cup it will host in 11 cities.
Attended by high-ranking officials and football stars, the celebrations come as world football's governing body is embroiled in a corruption scandal, partly over the awarding of the 2018 tournament to Russia.
On Thursday, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke was abruptly relieved of his duties over his alleged involvement in a ticketing scam.
"Preparations for the World Cup in 11 cities of our country [..] are in full swing," President Vladimir Putin said by video link from Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
"Everything will be done to suitably host the planet's leading 32 national squads.
"We are always happy to see guests and promise to organise grand celebrations in Russia, which will make history in the world of sport and football."
The Kremlin has said that the country honestly participated in the bidding process and that its status as host country should not be called into question.
The culmination of the ceremony came at 13:23 Moscow time (10:23 GMT) when former World Cup winners Lothar Matthaus of Germany and Italy's Gianluca Zambrotta along with Spain's former football great Fernando Hierro and Russia's international keeper Igor Akinfeyev pressed the red button launching the countdown.
Russia's first deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, the country's sports minister Vitaly Mutko, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin also took part in the ceremony.
"Only 1,000 days remain before the World Cup start and a plenty of work still awaits us," Shuvalov said.
"It doesn't mean that we have not done anything before this moment.
"We all will do our best to make our president's promises come true. To present the great football occasion to all the game lovers."
Friendly matches among the under-16 national squads of Russia, Italy, Germany and Spain were played on the pitch set up on Red Square near the walls of the Kremlin.
Some football fans and youth club teams travelled a long way to take part in the celebrations.
"My wife and I came specially for this," said 50-year-old Alexander Krisenko, from the far eastern city of Khabarovsk.
"The World Cup is important, it will stimulate the development of youth football, there will be lots of stadiums and we will be able to watch games in person."
Grassroots football coach Alexander Ossipov, who runs a sports academy in the city of Dmitrov, north of Moscow, said he and his players had come to support Russia's under-16 national team.
Similar events are taking place in more than 30 cities, including the host cities of Saint Petersburg and Kazan.
The 2018 World Cup opening match will take place at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018.