Russia marks wartime victory at World Cup stadium

A view from the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex, showing one of the new World Cup stadium, in Volgograd, Russia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. The stadium will hold group-stage games at the World Cup. (AP Photo/Dmitriy Rogulin)

In a World Cup soccer stadium built on the Stalingrad battlefield, Russia remembered its wartime dead on Wednesday

VOLGOGRAD, Russia — In a World Cup soccer stadium built on the Stalingrad battlefield, Russia remembered its wartime dead on Wednesday.

The Russian Cup final was played not only on Victory Day — when Russia marks the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany — but on part of the site of the Battle of Stalingrad, the costly and crushing Soviet victory which marked a turning point in World War II.

At halftime of the game between FC Tosno and Avangard Kursk, there was a ceremony to honor surviving World War II veterans.

The new stadium will also host World Cup games next month in a tournament which the government hopes will showcase Russia's prestige.

Under President Vladimir Putin, wartime victory is celebrated as Russia's defining, unifying national story. The mayor of Volgograd — the modern name for Stalingrad — likens the city to holy ground.

"Our city is a warrior city, a city which practically defended the planet, you could say, from fascism," he said Wednesday. "The city was almost entirely razed from the face of the earth and built again. The city is built on the battlefield where more than two million soldiers from both sides were killed."

The remains of 386 bombs and shells, and of two Soviet soldiers, were found during construction of Volgograd Arena. During the Battle of Stalingrad from August 1942 through February 1943, the riverbank on which it stands was the site of fierce fighting over a nearby command post and oil reserves. Fuel on the water meant even the river burned.

Wednesday's cup final, played between two provincial clubs, was largely overshadowed by the symbolism of the events around it.

After a solemn but triumphal military parade in the morning, the game aimed to show off the new 45,000-seat arena. Tickets were free to ensure enough of a crowd to test the stadium to its limits ahead of the World Cup.

Each teams brought its own wartime history to the game.

The town of Tosno was occupied by German forces and almost entirely destroyed during the siege of nearby St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, while Kursk was the site of the largest tank battle of the war. "Stalingrad, Kursk - we know how to win," one banner in the stands said.

With a place in the Europa League on the line, it was by far the biggest game in both teams' history, but neither side's players seemed overawed by the near-capacity crowd.

Tosno took an early lead thanks to a defensive lapse, but Avangard soon hit back through journeyman Igor Kireyev.

With the game heading for extra time, Reziuan Mirzov charged past two Avangard defenders in the 80th minute to score the crucial goal as Tosno won 2-1, prompting wild celebrations from around 200 traveling fans.

The day before the Victory Day game, Germany's under-18 national team played Russia in Volgograd in another game heavy with symbolism. Players and staff from both teams laid flowers at a war monument.

"We thought the game was a very emotional one because of the historical background. I think on the pitch it was a normal game. The Russians didn't hate us," German defender Yann-Aurel Bisseck said.

"Our coaching staff told us: 'You're not only here for football,'" he added. "We knew that and we were very happy to represent Germany."

During the World Cup, Volgograd's visitors will include teams from Poland and England, whose fans fought with Russians on the streets at the last two European Championships. Nigeria, Japan and Egypt are also expected.

The director of a Volgograd history museum, Sergei Mordinov, is hoping the tournament drives tourism but also wants it to craft a new image of Volgograd as a city of peace.

"The city of Stalingrad is known to everyone as the place where, over 70 years ago, the battle on the Volga happened which became the start of the key breakthroughs of World War II," he told The Associated Press.

"Now, over 70 years later, we'll host a battle, but a battle at a sports arena for sports honors. It's a turnaround. Countries can not only solve their disputes using weapons and armies. They can argue through sports, and that's the symbolism."

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