It still feels surreal to think about the fact that on Friday, I was one of forty thousand fans to witness Iceland and Nigeria do battle. Like, how often can you say you’ve seen them do battle on the world’s biggest stage? If you’re lucky, once every four years. After flying in on Thursday night, my Friday consisted of me feeling extremely giddy. So, at noon, six hours before kickoff, I headed on into town (on free public transport, no less; everybody with their Fan ID’s are entitled to that on match days) to partake in the soccer festivities. Yes, that was early, but in fairness, the stadium opens for admission at 3…which still meant people had to wait a further three hours. Anyways, after killing time at the amazing Mamaev Kurgan/The Motherland Calls, I decided it was time to see the brand new Volgograd Arena. Situated on the banks of the Volga, the stadium is super impressive, as you can see in the pictures. Getting there was super easy, as it was basically right down the road from Mamaev Kurgan. However if you’re not coming from that direction, don’t panic-the awesome tram system will deposit you right in front. Getting inside was easy enough, thankfully. Even though I got there way early, all I had to do was just scan my Fan ID and my ticket and bam, I was in! Almost right away, I encountered vendors selling the official beer of the World Cup, Budweiser, which was a bold way to get people to drink. Having said that, I did spend $5.50 on one, which came in a souvenir cup. What’s so special about this cup, you might be wondering? For starters, the bottom lights up, the material is stronger, and it comes specifically with the two respective teams’ flags on them. (You also can bet that I have taken them back to Moscow with me. Heck, even a Nigerian guy in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport asked if he could have my spare one, which I acquiesed to. Can’t wait to see these guys pop up on Ebay after the tournament is done and dusted.)
Having spent plenty of time describing the lead-up to the match, how was it? Nigeria pulled off a 2-0 victory thanks to two solid Ahmed Musa goals, but the atmosphere was worth it. Iceland fans were the bee’s knees, and I even got roped into becoming Icelandic for one impromptu photo op by local fans! This all happened after greeting a fan with Áfram Ísland (“let’s go Iceland”), which then sparked a conversation. We covered the travel Icelanders faced to get to Russia, the prospects of the team, and feelings toward Russia in general. I have to say that all the fans, not just the Icelandic ones, were incredible. People were super happy to be here and come together-you couldn’t miss all the “hey, do you mind if we get a picture with you”s and the general congeniality. Maybe because of their incredible kits or their spirit, Nigerian fans were in high demand to take selfies. After grabbing another beer/souvenir cup and a hot dog, I chatted a bit more with my new Icelandic friend and headed over back to my seat. All throughout the leadup, the Icelanders were buzzing, which was especially noticeable since they were in the section over to my right. And by the way, did you know that they have their own fan song? Hearing that belted out legitimately gave me chills! Seeing the pride in when the anthems were played was another awe-inspiring moment of passion that was worth the price of admission.
The match could be characterized as a tale of two halves. In the first, Iceland definitely was pressing more, and they had several tantalizingly close shots on goal. These moments of brilliance were interspersed with Nigeria counterattacking, but it remained 0-0 after 45 minutes. However, in the second half, the Africans clearly had the upper hand. I’m not quite sure what was responsible for the change of momentum, but one would have to guess that the heat (+33C/91F) was partially to blame. Finally, in the 49th minute, Musa took advantage of a snafu in the Iceland end and put in his first; the Nigerian fans (both from the diaspora, the homeland, and Russia) scattered all over went crazy. Like, they were dancing the samba and everything. History repeated itself as in the 79th minute Iceland’s Hannes Halldorsson miscalculated his angle in which to tackle Musa, who took full advantage of this. More Nigerian rejoicing, VAR giving Iceland a PK, Gylfi Sigurdsson subsequently bricking it, and loads of unconverted chances meant that the match finished at 2-0. However, it should be said that despite this blow to their chances of moving out from the group stages, the Iceland fans never waned in their dedication. They were by far and away vocal all the time, and several of their famous Viking Claps (HÚ!) were started. Speaking, I got to participate in that and might honestly have shed a tear or two out of the sheer awesomeness from that! Sure, it wasn’t the world’s (haha) best match, but I was entertained by the back and forth nature of it, since there certainly were some scrambly moments that made my heart pressure rocket up. In short, I can die happy knowing that I was there!
Walking out of the stadium and into the ensuing horde of people, that was interesting. Along the way I was consoled by the Nigerians, who were incredibly polite about it, and they had nothing but good things to say about my Icelandic boys. This was just the final feather in the cap to an awesome summer day spent watching the beautiful game!