England’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup FIFA games is set to be in Volgograd, Southern Russia, on June the 18th. There is mounting expectation and tension as the games grow ever nearer, and the location of this first game is poignant; the city of Volgograd having played a fundamental part in the history of Russia and the ultimate outcome of WWII.
In respect for the city’s past, police will be issuing fans with guides ahead of the games; Volgograd has countless sensitive sites, many of them memorials. Warnings have been issued against the typical football antics, with a request to appreciate the past of this historically fraught site: the singing of inappropriate songs and use of English flags has been a particular focus. Understandably, there has been some concern around this, with all hopeful there will not be a repeat of the violent clashes that occurred during the Euro games in France in 2016.
The Russian casualties at Stalingrad - approximately 1.8 million - were horrific. As such, it is particularly important for fans attending the games to bear the historical significance of the location in mind, and the fact that many of the buildings and landmarks in the city are memorials and testaments to this devastating loss.
Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, was renamed in 1961 by Khrushchev, as part of his efforts to distance Russia from the clutches of Stalin in a process famously known as “de-Stalinization.”
But this was not the city’s first name change. Stalin himself changed the name from its original Tsaritsyn, to Stalingrad, in 1925, during the Red Army’s occupation of the territory in the Russian civil war. His grand plans for the city soon saw it become a thriving industrial and transportation centre.
The city is perhaps best known for its integral role in WWII and its resistance during the Battle of Stalingrad, where the Russian forces managed to oust the Germans from their occupation of the city through intensive fighting, much of which was house-to-house conflict. The battle was one of the most bloody and destructive wars of WWII, with a significant loss of life, including a great number of civilians through the devastating air bombardment of the city.
Today, Volgograd remains a bustling industrial city and transport hub, with the Volga lake at its heart. Its location as the opening match site is important for the city and its people, who are still touched by the city’s tumultuous past. But seen in a positive light, the choice of the location is a testament to how far the city has come since the dark days of WWII. As long as fans remain respectful towards the history of the site, all should go well for the first Group games of the tournament.