By Fred Edoreh
As you step into the city of Volgograd on Friday, look up on the Mamayev Kurgan hill overlooking that 45,000 capacity Volgograd Arena, the venue of your game against Iceland, you will see a huge monument of a woman with a long sword. It is called the Statue of Motherland. It is a memoriam of the bloodiest battle in human history, the “battle of Stalingrad”, and a tribute to the spirit of patriotism and honour in defence of one’s motherland.
In 1942, Adolf Hitler’s 6th Army invaded Stalingrad, now renamed Volgograd, with aim to destroy its bubbling industries and block off its Volga River, a key trading route into Central Russia from the Caucasus and Caspian Sea and through which Russia received supplies of warships and other weaponry from the United States.
With heavy bombardments which did not spare civilians, they encircled Volgograd, pushing the resistance of Soviet soldiers and citizens to the edges of the Volga River. Hitler announced that, when fully captured, all its men would be killed and all its women and children would be deported from the land, to forestall any possible uprising from a citizenry stubbornly committed to their nation.
Such high was the stake and it fell on Lt General Vasilly Chuikov of the Soviet Red Army to lead a charge for the deliverance of the city. While military supplies for the mission were very important, the most significant weapon deployed by Chuikov was the weapon of the mind. Hitler declared he will never leave the city but Chuikov declared as follows: “We will defend the city or die in the attempt.”
Working with Commanders Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky who planned the strategies, they launched Operation Uranus, a two pronged attack on the Germans, first decimating the allies on the flanks and then surrounded the 6th Army. After losing over 200,000 of their 250,000 fighters, Hitler’s men surrendered on February 2, 1943. Volgograd was liberated.
General Chuikov has the singular honour of the only Soviet General buried outside Moscow, by the foot of Mamayev Kurgan which was the main battlefield, and besides that huge monument in Volgograd is the inscription: “The Motherland Calls.” It comes with a Russian saying that “you cannot stop an army which has done Stalingrad.”
Today, the World Cup replaces the World Wars, substituting war by arms with battle through sports. This is why the World Cup is more than just a football competition. It is a battle for supremacy among nations.
The Icelanders recognise this. Generally mistaken as minnows, they had been on their way and the world was wrong to have regarded them merely as the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup, ignoring that they had drawn Ronaldo’s Portugal and defeated the Three Lions of England to progress to the quarterfinals of EURO 2016 at which they fell only to hosts, France, but not without putting two goals to make a point.
While we look down at Iceland’s 300,000 population, the Vikings war clap of their 30,000 fans multiplies through the stands. They further demonstrated their strength not only in quickly fighting back in the 24th minute to level up Argentina’s 19th minute goal and packing nine average 6’3 tall men into their defenceline to undermine a ball possession ratio of 22 to 78 for 90 minutes, but also by goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson’s full length dive to save legendary Lionel Messi’s penalty to preserve their 1-1 draw for the glory of their nation.
Hannes who plays for remote Randers in the Danish league and supports his tiny earnings by directing films, is no mate with Messi who has the reputation of world best footballer with receipts of about $70 million a year in Barcelona, but Hannes’ performance was inspired by something greater, passion for motherland.
“We fight for each other. We fight for the love of football and our country. It’s football at its purest. We really don’t fear anybody, ” Halldorsson revealed.
Call them “small mentality” as Ronaldo did in 2016 or say they “practically did nothing, except defend and attack with nothing but long throw-ins” as Messi mocked in frustration after their draw, they know they are not in Russia to please anybody. Their only mission is to deploy all their mental and physical energy to defend the integrity and glory their nation.
“There is nothing in Argentina’s game that surprised us. We already knew they would have 60 percent of possession and we play as we know. It’s a fact their players have more technique, play in better teams. We had a clear approach and everyone understands how to play,” said Heimir Hallgrimsson, their coach.
Many have suggested that drawing Argentina is like a win for them, implying that they can go home satisfied with the feat, but Hallgrimsson has suggested that they have other ideas.
“People are saying, ‘Why do you celebrate a point like you won the game? But just wait and see when we win a game. That’s going to be a celebration,” he said.
So they have plans to win a game, perhaps to continue their act of EURO 2016? They have drawn Argentina, they cannot be too boastful about Croatia which, in any case, is their last group game. So, who do they plan to win in Group D? Your guess is as good as mine.
This therefore defines the stakes as you file out in Volgograd. Iceland is coming with the confidence of its exploit against Argentina and, like the German invaders, they are fancying their chances in the sun and wouldn’t want to let go. The only weapon that can defeat them is General Chuikov’s resolve of the mind: to “defend the city or die in the attempt.”
This simply means the battle requires giving your all. When you feel weary, look up again at the Statue of Motherland on Mamayev Kurgan and draw strength from the realization that motherland Nigeria is upstanding and relying on you, for should you fail to so resolve, literally speaking, “our men will be killed and our women and children taken away,” the pride of our motherland in the comity of nations would be utterly extinguished.
It is that serious. You can understand that from Diego Maradona’s angry charge at Argentina’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, that should he draw or lose again in the group, he should seek another country and not return to Argentina.
That sets the tune for the battle of St Petersburg, to defend the glory of Nigeria against a wounded Argentina in our last group game. It is a battle without mercy, for it is a winner takes all and the loser dies. For this, your ultimate weapon remains the power of your determination, to fight to live or to watch yourself die.
Into this battle, you must draw inspiration from the story of St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. Highly politically reputed as the capital of Russia then, and symbolic for the Russian Revolution, it not only was base of Russia’s military Baltic Fleet, its industries alone contributed over 10% of Russia’s manufacture. Hitler declared that the city must be destroyed. Thus, in “Operation Barbarossa”, the German Army invaded it in 1941 with instructions to take no prisoners – the prosperous city would be reduced to rubbles, all its citizens will be killed and the desolate land gifted to Finland.
They laid siege on St Petersburg, cutting off its roads to prevent its citizens from going out and coming in, and to disable the Soviet Red Army from accessing the area to rescue their citizens. The citizens had organised themselves to build embarkments to prevent the incursion of the enemies, but the Germans punched through them with their high artilleries.
Hitler was said to be so confident of capturing the city that he printed and sent invitations to his allies to attend the celebration of the capture in the city’s highest class Hotel Astoria.
As the historians described the “battle of Leningrad”, “thousands froze or starved to death in the first winter of the siege alone, dying at home in their beds or collapsing from exhaustion in the streets. Meanwhile, German artillery continued to bombard the city. Although the siege lasted for 872 days, the city did not surrender.”
It was so until the Soviet Red Army carved out a remote route to begin the supply of foods to the citizens, still amid heavy bombardments, before they eventually stormed the city gates to dislodge the Germans and lift the siege on Leningrad. Interestingly, the defeat of Hitler and liberation of the city was achieved on the very day Hitler had fixed to celebrate German victory and take over of the city.
St Petersburg’s history is depicted in the “Monument of the Defenders of Leningrad” which you will see at city centre. It is a huge bronze ring with the casting of a mother cuddling her soldier son who, though wounded in battle, returned with victory. It has the inscription: “900 Days 900 Nights.”
The battle against Argentina is for 90 minutes and the keynote from the story of St Petersburg is NEVER TO SURRENDER nor accept defeat. That is quintessential St Petersburg, a spirit which every single Super Eagles player must imbibe as you step into this region of Russia to do battle with Argentina.
It is a battle for survival in which only one result, victory, is acceptable. Blames and excuses won’t count for anything. It is a battle beyond the coach, it a battle in which the soldiers on the field take absolute responsibility for the destiny of their nation.
When the die is cast, you do no longer need to consider the size nor style of your opponent: fight you must fight. The reason why David with his catapult defeated Goliath with his mighty sword and took his giant head in his little fingers.
St Petersburg represents the victory of the mind against all odds. In the tragedy of their siege, in hunger and cold, in the face of superior weapons, be it Hitler’s powerful artilleries or Lionel Messi’s artistry or Argentina’s reputation as a soccer giant, St Petersburg proves that the force of the mind is stronger than any army and if you believe, dare to do and resist defeat, you will ultimately achieve victory.