FIFA World Cup 2018: In ‘hero city’ of Volgograd, England fans see a glimpse of Russian soul
In the end, Harry Kane delivered salvation, but, ultimately, for England fans that was of secondary importance. They will move on to Nizny Novogorod and Kaliningrad, but in the ‘hero city’ of Volgograd, they had seen a glimpse of the Russian soul and they liked it.
Volgograd, Russia: In the glowing sunshine, the statue Motherland Calls, at 85 metres slighter bigger than the Statue of Liberty, towered dramatically over Volgograd and the Mamayev Kurgan’s memorial complex, as an imperious beacon of safety, almost protecting the city from invaders, menacingly wielding a sword. Fans climbed the stairs of the memorial complex, snapped photos and watched the changing of the guard. They had come from everywhere: Tunisia, Spain, Morocco, Colombia and Novosibirsk. The Tunisians donned red shirts, were draped in flags and scarfs and wore fezes.
Downtown, near the Volga, Russia’s mightily meandering river, the scene wasn’t much different. The Tunisians were singing and flooding the wide avenues of Volgograd. They had come with sleeper trains from the Russian capital and were gearing up for Tunisia’s fifth World Cup. Their march conquered the inner city, and yet amid the sea of red, England fans were conspicuously outnumbered.
At Volgograd’s main railway station, the English Supporters Federation were on hand to offer advice as the 12-hour sleeper from Rostov-on-Don and the 20-hour long-haul train from Moscow arrived. They estimated that fewer than 3,000 England fans had made the trip to Volgograd.
“We have been told that Russian don’t like English,” said England fan Ellen Love, 24, and a designer who made her way en-route to London from South Korea to Russia’s south. “The media have scarred a lot of people, but on a human level that is not the case. The Russians can offer us a lot and we can offer them a lot.”
But the England fans didn’t encounter a horror scenario. On a day of scorching temperatures and blue skies, locals and fans strolled through the city. Some even took a dip in the Volga. In Volgograd, the Euro 2016 doom scenario was simply inconceivable. During the weekend local authorities had called in the local hoodlums, including far-right extremists. They were told in no uncertain terms that harassing the English was out of the question.
Relations between Russia and England had recently soured following the attempted assassination of the Russian spy Sergei Skripal on British soil and so English fans were deterred from making the long and arduous journey to Volgograd, a city that is closer to Tehran than Moscow.
The Three Lions — or at least the one-man show in the form of Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane — won their opening match against Tunisia, but the fans had a bigger souvenir to take home: the genuine, Russian hospitality. “It is been lovely,” said Tom, Ellen’s boyfriend. “The Russians have been welcoming. We haven’t had a single problem. We have shared beers and chatted. We came here with the English and Western press in mind, who didn’t paint a positive picture of Russia — but the reality is very different.”
Ellen and Tom were still to visit Motherland Calls, the statue, rising over the new-built Volgograd Arena with its lovely wicker style exterior, reflecting the spokes of a bicycle’s wheel. Motherland Calls moves, commemorating Russia’s extraordinary sacrifice during the battle for Stalingrad. ‘The Great Patriotic War’, as Russians call the Second World War, came at a great human price as German and Axis forces attacked the city in a titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin, who both considered the bloodshed of great propaganda value, a soft power tool steeped in blood. They sent hundreds of thousands of men to their death. Stalingrad never fell, but Nikita Khrushchev's administration changed the name of the city to Volgograd, Volga City.
“We are aware of the history of the city, the importance of that battle in the Second World War,” said England coach Gareth Southgate. The England coach has always offered solid opinions and rare perspective, which is so often lacking at the England media circus during a major tournament. “To see the statue and have an understanding of the history reminds you some things are even bigger than football. That’s a good perspective for us all.”
Motherland Calls calls to arms but at the same time is a reminder of the industrialised insanity and savagery that mankind is capable of. Her remembrance silenced all fans — until they returned to the stadium, where England were almost the architects of their own downfall again in a puzzling and deeply perplexing Group G game. They were England-ing their way through the 90 minutes in mastering an utterly dystopian style of the outrageous and the comical.
In the end Kane delivered salvation, but, ultimately, for the England fans that was of secondary importance. They will move on to Nizny Novogorod and Kaliningrad, but in the ‘hero city’ of Volgograd, an outer corner of Russia, they had seen a glimpse of the Russian soul and they liked it.
FIFA World Cup Qualifiers: 'No excuses', Ronaldo urges Portugal to quickly bounce back from shock Serbia loss
Playing at home and needing only a draw to clinch a berth in the tournament in Qatar, Portugal conceded in the 90th minute in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Serbia and was relegated to a playoff that will be held next year with 11 other nations.
Italy will face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semi-final next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot in the World Cup.
Finalists at the last World Cup in 2018, Croatia looked bound for the play-offs for much of Sunday's game, as they toiled on a waterlogged pitch against a resolute Russian defence.