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Stalingrad history a constant presence for World Cup workers


A photo taken on August 22, 2017 shows the Volgograd Arena in Volgograd. Volgograd Arena will host several games of the FIFA World Cup 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AP) Sergei Kamin knows exactly what to do if his workers find a bomb from the Battle of Stalingrad.

“The first procedure is surprise. The second procedure is fear,” he jokes. Step three is to call in the specialists.

Kamin is directing construction of a stadium for next year’s World Cup in the city of Volgograd - known as Stalingrad during World War II. Four World Cup matches are set to be staged in the new stadium.

For locals, 2018 brings the World Cup but also the 75th anniversary of the end of one of the bloodiest battles in history, which left the city devastated.

The stadium’s riverbank location was a key site in one of the war’s pivotal battles, where German forces were first stopped from crossing the Volga, then gradually surrounded and beaten. The battle lasted more than five months, with more than a million casualties on the Soviet side alone, as Germany was forced onto the defensive in the East.

When the battle finally ended, the wrecked city of Stalingrad held a football match, marking the first hopes of a return to normal life.

Local team Dynamo Stalingrad beat Spartak Moscow 1-0 on May 2, 1943, in front of some of the city’s few surviving inhabitants. The Soviet state hailed the match as a symbol of its people’s resilience and grit.

“It’s a historic match. And today we have huge traditions of football here in Volgograd,” governor Andrei Bocharov says.

The effects of the war can still be felt. During construction, Kamin’s workers have found more than 200 shells and other armaments, as well as the bodies of two still-unidentified Soviet soldiers. The site was home to a Soviet command post during the battle of Stalingrad.

When munitions were found during excavation, police sealed off the area to allow specialists to work, causing a few headaches for construction bosses. Thankfully none of the shells turned out to be live, Kamin said. It’s not a problem isolated to Volgograd, either. German aerial bombs have reportedly been uncovered during work on other World Cup stadiums in Moscow and Rostov-on-Don.

Fans coming to Volgograd for the World Cup will see reminders of the city’s violent past everywhere they go. The city is packed with memorials to the dead of World War II and also the Russian Civil War, where Volgograd - then called Tsaritsyn after the Russian emperors - was a battleground between 1918 and 1920.

Towering behind the stadium is the Mamayev hill, a complex of monuments topped by an 85-meter sculpture of a woman - representing the Russian Motherland - wielding a sword.

The Volgograd stadium was designed to be partly below ground, to ensure it didn’t block views of the memorial. “It really fits in,” Kamin says.

Governor Bocharov, a former soldier who was decorated in the First Chechen War of the 1990s, says Volgograd should be a symbol of peace.

“Every millimeter of ground here has been watered with blood,” Bocharov says. “We know the price of victory and it is very high.”

A World Cup game there between Germany and Russia would be the perfect symbol, Bocharov added, though it’s all up to the draw.