World Cup perspective

Nearly 60 years since it changed its name to Volgograd, the Russian city once called Stalingrad and its bloody history loom large even in the midst of the fun and football of the World Cup.

Stalingrad, the name of the city on the Volga river between 1925 and 1961, is now often shorthand for one of the most violent battles in history. The exact death toll can never be known, but historians believe about a million people from both sides died that savage winter of 1942-3 when the Nazi war machine was stopped from crossing the Volga, then surrounded and defeated.

The city was basically reduced to rubble and its modern-day residents will forever remember the sacrifices of their ancestors.

"It's sacred for us because in every family in the Volgograd region, there are people who died in the battle and we mustn't forget about it and every year we do patriotic action and do some lessons for children so they know all about it," said 21-year-old Daria Kolomyichenko.

"It's our history and we are very proud."

To visitors, particularly from nations that fought against the Nazis, the monuments around the city — especially the 85-meter (280-foot) statue known as "The Motherland Calls!"— are also a reminder that the sacrifices of Russians at Stalingrad were crucial to the Allies winning World War II. With Britain and Russia feuding politically, the English team played their first match of the World Cup in Volgograd.

The battle is a constant presence in the city of around 1 million. While the monuments loom large in the Hero City — the honour granted by the then Soviet Union. Volgograd is now a thriving regional centre, bustling with attractions, parks and visitors. There is more than enough to appreciate to ignore the occasional swarms of flies and mosquitoes that hounded fans as England beat Tunisia 2-1 at Volgograd Arena Monday night

The stadium was constructed on the banks of the Volga and at the bottom of the Mamayev Kurgan, the hill that was savagely fought over by the Red Army and the Nazis. Sometimes changing hands several times on any particular day, it is said the ground on the hill was so soaked in blood that the springs were poisoned.

No wonder the Soviet authorities more or less enshrined the hill's status as sacred. A collection of memorials and outsized structures on the hill include a granite pool, an eternal flame and mass graves. But it's the sculpture on the top that draws one's breath. The Motherland Calls casts a long shadow across the city.

England fans also joined up with dignitaries to lay a wreath to commemorate the dead.

"I'm into football and you're into football, but when you have an event like this, you realize it's more, there's more than just football," said fan Billy Grant.

Football is a game that perhaps unites the world more than any other, and certainly more than any political or religious creed. Russia may be facing international censure for its annexation of the Crimea peninsular from Ukraine, for its alleged role in the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in southern England and meddling in the U.S. election, but visitors from all over the world are reminded of the magnitude of the nation's role in World War II, regardless of what one thinks of Josef Stalin.

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