Deaf, 'psychic' cat picks winner of World Cup opener

MOSCOW: Russia's football team has failed to chalk up a single victory in eight months but things could be about to improve -- according to a supposedly clairvoyant cat who predicted a win for the side in the first World Cup match.

Achilles, a deaf white cat who is the official animal soothsayer for the tournament, on Wednesday chose a bowl of food bearing the host's flag rather than that of Saudi Arabia, who Russia will face on Thursday evening.

The match will be shown live in Thailand beginning at 10pm.

The tournament then will shift into high gear on Friday with three matches: Egypt vs Uruguay at 7pm; Morocco vs Iran at 10pm and Portugal vs Spain at 1am Saturday.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah has recovered from his shoulder injury and will play in his country's World Cup opening match against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg on Friday.

Egypt's crucial performer has been battling against time to be fit for the Group A encounter since hurting ligaments in an awkward fall in the early stages of last month's Champions League final.

The blue-eyed feline Achilles is usually part of a team of dozens of cats that guard Saint Petersburg's Hermitage museum from rodents, but has taken on a new role for the football event.

"Achilles is already used to the public and shouldn't be too stressed," said vet Anna Kondratyeva, who manages the animals.

Achilles the allegedly psychic cat, paused for a moment and then went for the food under the Russian flag.

The cat follows in the tentacle-prints of Paul the Octopus who became a star in 2010 after predicting winners for that year's World Cup by choosing one out of two boxes containing food.

Others have made a play to be the next Paul -- including Swiss guinea pig Madame Shiva in 2014 and British Piranha Pele -- but none quite had the mollusc's foresight.

Earlier in the day the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill said he would pray for the national team to give a worthy performance.

The hosts, who take on Saudi Arabia in the Thursday curtainraiser, need all the moral support they can get as they come into the event without a win in seven games.

In another interesting development, Spain will play its opening World Cup match on Friday (1am Saturday, Thailand time) against Portugal and Cristiano Reynaldo, the European champions, with a coach who has been on the job for only two days.

Fernando Hierro, a former national team player who had been acting as the national team's sports director in Russia, will coach the squad following the Spanish federation's shocking decision to fire Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday.

"We have to stop thinking about the past and focus on our match against Portugal," Hierro said Wednesday. "We don't have time to lament. We have to be mature. We have to change our focus. We have an obligation to do it."

Portugal had been the team dealing with off-the-field distractions ever since Ronaldo hinted after the Champions League final that he was going to leave Madrid. He said he would reveal his plans when he joined the national team, putting the spotlight on himself instead of Portugal's World Cup preparations, but he was yet to make any announcements.

"We are in a very difficult situation," Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales said. "It's very complicated. I'm not going to come here and say that this was the best solution."

Everything appeared to be running smoothly for Spain, with Lopetegui leading the team on a 20-match unbeaten streak and turning it into a top title contender again after disappointing eliminations from the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship.

But Rubiales, the newly elected federation president, didn't like the timing of Madrid's surprise announcement on Tuesday and decided to take the drastic measure of firing the coach. He said that winning was important but not as much as maintaining the federation's values.

"I talked to the players and they have shown their commitment to do everything they can to take the national team as far as possible in this tournament," Rubiales said. "This is already in the past. We are moving forward."

Hierro, a former national team player and Real Madrid captain, is taking on his first major coaching job. He was Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Madrid after Zinedine Zidane left the post in 2014, and coached second-division club Real Oviedo two seasons ago.

"I only have one year of experience with Oviedo and one year of experience as an assistant coach," Hierro said. "(But) I've been near a ball for 30 years."

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