1,000 days to Russia 2018: footballers and fans celebrate in Red Square

The 1,000-day countdown to the start of the FIFA World Cup™ might, for some, be nothing more than a pleasant milestone. But that was most definitely not the case for those gathered by the walls of the Kremlin in central Moscow today. In the very heart of the Russian capital, fans were able to enjoy a flavour of the atmosphere at the great festival of football in which Russia will be immersed three years from now.

Could you imagine yourself playing football on a pitch in the middle of Red Square? Even those competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ will not have the chance to play in this world famous, picturesque location, which has held so much historical significance for over 800 years. Today though, U-16s representing teams from Italy, Spain and Germany – the three last World Cup winners - and hosts Russia were given this rarest of opportunities, one they will no doubt remember for the rest of their lives.

"We already took a team photograph but I will also take more personal photos later today," said Italy captain Giorgio Losa, unable to contain his emotions. "To play on the country’s main square is a great honour. To be frank, when I learned that we were going to play here, it felt incredible."

Fans were also barely able to contain their excitement today at the presence of some of the most distinguished figures from world football. The long line of admirers of all ages did not faze the stars who had been invited to the event, notably former Russia captain Alexey Smertin, and also representatives of the three last World Cup-winning nations: Germany legend Lothar Matthaus, former Italy defender Gianluca Zambrotta and Spain icon Fernando Hierro. Despite the admiration shown for these greats of the world game, local fans were no less eager to greet Russian team players both past and present. These included 2018 FIFA World Cup Ambassador Igor Akinfeev, Alexander Kokorin, Vladimir Gabulov and Alexander Kerzhakov.

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking live via video screen with Russia 2018 Local Organising Committee Chairman Vitaly Mutko, said: "We've gathered in the very centre of the Russian capital for this symbolic start of the countdown to the World Cup. Just 1000 days now separate us from this remarkable event and I am sure this time will fly. 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."

Having seen football stars of the past and future, fans then moved on to neighbouring Manezhnaya Square, where a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle awaited them. After the DJ had warmed up the crowds and the official speeches been made, hundreds of red and gold balloons were released into the sky. The crowd caught their first glimpse of the beautifully designed countdown clock, which can now be relied on to show the days left until kick-off of the 2018 World Cup.

For an even better taster of the World Cup atmosphere, fans could also enjoy the Football Park, a huge pavilion laid out beneath the walls of the Kremlin. There, they rushed to line up for a photo with the FIFA World Cup Winner’s Trophy, the very one that will be raised to the sky by the winning captain in 2018.

"If somebody in my childhood or even just ten years ago would tell me that Russia would host the World Cup I would have believed it," said 55-year old Vladimir Leschenko, proudly clutching an autograph signed by Matthaus."I am proud of my country and I can't wait to show the whole planet that we are capable of welcoming the world. The World Cup is like a comet. It arrives and leaves quickly and I will not see it again in Russia during my lifetime."

**There was even more in store for visitors, who were able to enjoy learning about the history of World Cup mascots and balls. Thanks to modern technology, they were instantly transported to any of the 2018 World Cup host cities. Some made souvenir accreditations with their name on, while others had their picture taken in a classic Russian winter hat with traditional earflaps.

But the football still held its own. After strolling around the pavilion, visitors headed back out to the pitch where they could enjoy watching Matthaus, Hierro and Smertin playing with the youngsters in the warm Moscow air, and discover the winners of the international tournament.

Gold medals went, in the end, to Spain, who performed solidly in a 4-2 final win over hosts Russia. Italy and Germany, who lost in semi-finals - 5-2 to Russia and 2-0 to Spain respectively - played out an entertaining third-place match which ended 8-4 in favour of the Germans.

“What could be better than to mark 1,000 days to the start of the World Cup with talented young players in famous Red Square?" said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, summing up this very special date. "Russia, the host cities and FIFA have been working together to prepare a successful tournament in 2018, when fans from all over the planet will come together in the world's biggest country for the 21st global showpiece. Given the current level of preparations, we are fully confident that Russia will prove to be an excellent host both for the teams and the fans."