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Mohammed bin Salman looks on as Saudis kick off World Cup in Russia

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Mohammed bin Salman (R) embraces FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Thursday (Reuters)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among dignitaries in Moscow on Thursday as his country’s team faced hosts Russia in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup.

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Bin Salman, who is known as MbS, had not been seen in public since late April, when an influential Saudi blogger known as Mujtahidd posted reports on Twitter of gunfire near royal palaces in Riyadh, prompting weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.

Photos last week showed MbS attending the first meeting of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council in Jeddah with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, while Saudi Arabia has also published images of him chairing meetings in Riyadh.

MbS was also seen in images as Gulf leaders gathered in Mecca earlier this week to discuss an economic support package for Jordan.

Television coverage of Thursday’s match showed MbS shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Yuri Gazinsky headed the hosts into a first half lead at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The handshake came despite Russia and Saudi Arabia backing different sides in the war in Syria, where Russia has played a leading military role supporting the Syrian government while Saudi Arabia has backed opposition rebel groups.

Images also showed MbS embracing FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

Denis Cheryshev added another for Russia before halftime, and then Artem Dzyuba headed home after 70 minutes to leave the Saudis three goals down and sliding towards a heavy loss.

A defeat could leave Saudi Arabia needing to beat Uruguay in their next match on Wednesday to stand a realistic chance of advancing beyond the group stage of the tournament.

Egypt, the other team in Group A, face the Uruguayans on Friday in Ekaterinburg, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia then play each other in a ‘Red Sea derby’ match in Volgograd on 25 June.

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