Heart of Football

32 Sides to Every Story: Group A – Russia, Uruguay, Egypt & Saudi Arabia

Welcome to our epic tale of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, told through the eyes of those on the ground. I spoke to a fan from all 32 nations to get a taste for how they had travelled to Russia, their impressions of the tournament and the enduring emotions they were left with.

Group A was perhaps not the most enthralling on paper. Hosts Russia had been a let-down in every tournament since their Euro 2008 campaign. Uruguay were expected to walk the group, though expectations were low for the South Americans despite the star-studded squad featuring the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Egypt were elated simply to have qualified after years of heartache at the playoff stage, though an injury to Mohammed Salah looked set to make the occasion tougher for The Pharaohs. Finally, Saudi Arabia graced the finals for the first time since 2006. Despite a strong qualification campaign which saw them finish above Australia, few would have bet on the Asian outfit troubling the knockout stages of the tournament.

Uruguay topping the group was expected, though Russia comfortably taking second spot was something of a surprise. Their demolition job of Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opener was emphatic and ensured that the feel-good factor was strong in the host nation. Egypt were one of the biggest let-downs in Russia that summer. Far too much pressure was placed on the shoulders of Mohammed Salah, who, ironically, had suffered a dislocated shoulder in the Champions League final the previous month. 

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World Cup royalty Uruguay won the group as expected, but the ease with which hosts Russia took second was a surprise

While both Saudi Arabia and Egypt departed, Uruguay and Russia progressed through to the quarter finals. In the round of 16, Uruguay disposed of European champions Portugal, courtesy of a Cavani double, while Russia fought back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with Spain before defeating them on penalties. Uruguay fell to a 2-0 loss to eventual champions France while Russia lost on penalties to the tournament’s finalists Croatia after a dramatic 2-2 draw.

I spoke to Alexey Zakharov, Daniel Supervielle, Ahmad Badgaish and Aya Shahaat about their experience in Russia that summer.


Alexey (36)

Games attended:

Belgium 3-2 Japan

Travelling to Russia:

I live in Moscow. The atmosphere in Moscow was wonderful. All those fans from all corners of the world – it was probably the biggest non-hostile influx of foreigners in our country’s entire history! I travelled to Rostov-on-Don for the Belgium Japan game. This is about 1000km from Moscow. My wife and daughter took a vacation here and I got to meet a friend, so it was a good experience.

Russia fan Aleksey Zakharov’s daughter gets a snap with two Belgium megafans, and a giant World Cup trophy [image: Aleksey Zakharov]

What were your expectations for Russia at World Cup 2018? The team had underperformed at tournaments since Euro 2008. Were you optimistic of getting through your group?

I was sure we’d qualify somehow. Cherchesov had had ample time to rebuild and prepare the squad as he saw fit, and the group wasn’t particularly intimidating. I didn’t expect much in the knockout stages, of course, but seeing that we last got through a World Cup group in 1986 as the USSR, that was an achievement already. The last time we made the last eight was 1970, when Cherchesov wasn’t even a schoolboy yet!

Tournament highlight:

I think my personal highlight was mingling with fans, both at Nikolskaya street and in the Rostov fan zone

Tell your story from Russia:

My matchday experience was all-round interesting. I went to Rostov on a World Cup train (which were free if you had a match ticket). I managed to snatch one of the last ones on the site! While I was on the train, Russia played Spain. When we won that penalty shootout, the celebration in the train car was pretty loud!

The Rostov Arena, from across the Don River. [image: Aleksey Zakharov]

The trains themselves were quite comfortable, with air conditioning (which was important, since the summer was quite hot). I even caught a mild cold in the train. Rostov was as colourful as Moscow. Before the match, I went to the fan zone with my family to mingle a bit. I got my daughter photographed with the famous Belgian fan, Obelix.

The match was quite the experience, with that goal in the very last attack. I think that even Japanese fans who sat behind me were glad that Belgium scored – nobody was looking forward to extra time and possible penalties, it was already past midnight!

The worst part of my experience was probably getting out of the stadium. The roads in that part of Rostov are quite narrow, and there was a large traffic jam after the game. But before that, I loved every minute of it.

The last, a somewhat funny thing – I left my keys in the car of the guy who helped me to procure a ticket (and drove me to my Rostov friend’s house after the game). Thankfully, he lived in Voronezh, which is on the way from Rostov to Moscow, and my wife got the keys back when she was passing through the city on her way home!


Daniel (50)

Games attended:

Uruguay 1-0 Saudi Arabia

Uruguay 3-0 Russia

Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica

Travelling to Russia:

I went with a group of friends of mine, we played football in the amateur university league in Uruguay. It was a trip with good friends. Sadly, I had to return before the game against Portugal. I spent nine days in Russia with my friends, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Rostov, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Samara… I fell in love with Russia.

Daniel Supervielle with fellow Uruguay fans [image: Daniel Supervielle]

After topping Group A and defeating European champions Portugal in the round of 16, did you think you could go all the way and win? How much did it hurt losing to France in the quarter finals?

Yes, we could have reached the final game, the same as in South Africa and Brazil. Undoubtedly, we had the team to win the cup. If Cavani was on the field against France the history of the World Cup would have been different. France had a great team, but with Cavani, the end of that game would have been different.

Surrounded my fellow Uruguay fans, Daniel Supervielle watches on as his side dismantle the hosts 3-0 in the last group-stage match. [image: Daniel Supervielle]

Tournament highlight:

Just spending time in Russia itself. I never felt afraid. Never had a problem. The Russians were polite. It was not expensive, very safe and wonderful. It was a very good World Cup.

Tell your story from Russia:

I have many stories. 1000 stories. But the best story was in Moscow. My friends and I went to the Red Square when we reached the capital of Russia. It was a big Fan Zone, full of fans from other countries. That night the four of us decided to wear the shirt of Uruguay, known as “la Celeste” (skyblue). There were thousands of fans of many countries: Colombia, France, Croatia, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sweden, Germany, etc… huge crowds of fans with the colours of their national team, all singing songs. We were only four. People started clapping at us because the admiration they felt for Uruguayan football.

Uruguay fan Daniel Supervielle in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral after enjoying the Moscow fanzone. [image: Daniel Supervielle]

The immense respect and admiration I felt from fans from all over the world because of our national players was outstanding. You must remember, we are a very small country between two giants (Brazil and Argentina) and all the people clapping hands and showing respect was the most outstanding experience I have ever felt. Imagine four drops of sky blue in the middle of thousands of people wearing other colours representing their countries. Just four people in the middle of this crowd. An incredible and outstanding feeling that I will never forget.


Ahmad (29)

Games attended:

Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia

Travelling to Russia:

I had decided to go to the World Cup two days prior to the opening game. I understand that is a very late decision, but my cousin and brother were in Russia and when I saw their Snapchat stories, I felt that I needed to go there to enjoy and to experience the World Cup environment. I booked my flight on my own expenses, it cost me around $1500 since my booking was a late one. It was so worth it!

Ahmad Badgaish supports his Saudi Arabia side in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium. [image: Ahmad Badgaish]

What was the general feeling for Saudi Arabia upon exiting the tournament? After a very bad defeat on the opening day, you finished the tournament with your first World Cup win since 1994.

I did not attend the second and the third game. After the big defeat in the opening game by 5-0, I decided to go back home. I was upset, our team had had great performances in the prep period, so I was shocked by our defeat. Our loss was possible since it was against the World Cup hosts, whereas with five goals and without scoring, it was harmful.

Tournament highlight:

It was my first time visiting Russia. I was astonished by how beautiful the atmosphere there. In Red square, I saw people from different regions around the world, which gave me an insight of how football can unite us. Attending my first World Cup game was naturally a highlight for me, despite this defeat.

Tell your story from Russia:

After the first game, in which my home team lost to Russia, I was feeling down but then I said to myself, “it’s only one game we still have an opportunity to qualify to the next stage.” Therefore, I decided to change the mood by eating in a fine diner. The food was great, however it was expensive. The owner of the restaurant noticed me wearing a Saudi flag and offered me to eat on the house just to forget the loss. That was the highlight of my time in Russia.

Ahmad Bagdaish with his Saudi Arabia flag that earned him a free meal, with the Luzhniki Stadium in the background. [image: Ahmad Badgaish]


Aya (29)

Games attended:

Tunisia 1-2 England

Nigeria 2-0 Iceland

Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt

Japan 0-1 Poland

Travelling to Russia:

I went to Volgograd to work as a volunteer. I flew on 7 June, alone, and a little afraid to go to a country that is totally new to me. I don’t speak the language and I had no idea how this experience would go, but at the same time I was so excited.

Pre-match flags are out ahead of Saudi Arabia vs Egypt. [image: Aya Shahaat]

How disappointing was it to see Egypt crash out so early? Do you think things would have been different had Mo Salah not been rushing back from injury?

The first match on the 15 June, Egypt vs Uruguay, was so good even though Salah didn’t participate in that game. We played really well. The goalkeeper, Mohamed Elshenawy, was man of the match. That game got our hopes really high, we expected to see great games after that, so what happened with Russia and Saudi Arabia took us by surprise.

Tournament highlight:

That’s a tough one! It’s hard to pick, but when Russia won against Spain. I was is in Saint Petersburg that day, it was just amazing to cheer with locals and see how they celebrated the big win.

Tell your story from Russia:

Honestly, I didn’t expect to see that much of a success, Russians were so helpful! The way they help others even though most of them, especially in other cities outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, don’t speak English. They tried so hard to help and celebrated everything.

On my last day in every city I just was saying to everyone ‘Спасибо’ – thanks. I was so thankful for everything they did.

Aya Shahaat with some volunteer friends in St. Petersburg. [image: Aya Shahaat]

On my way back home taking the same flight back home I was thinking that a month ago I was here in the same airport scared and excited, filled with mixed emotions, and here I am leaving Russia, a country that I didn’t expect that one day I will visit and be so lucky to be there.

I went home with a family from all over the world, we have shared the entire month, day and night together, I was so lucky to be friends with them. Three days after I got home two of those new family came to visit me in my country where we made new stories as well.

The fan zone was our second home, I have been to three fan zones and everyone is so special.

One of the highlights as well, is that I held the Egyptian flag during the Egypt vs Saudi Arabia match. Holding the flag while everyone around us was singing the Egyptian national anthem is such a great honour.

Thank you to Alexey, Daniel, Ahmad and Aya for their contributions to this article. If you enjoyed this then please come back next week to read about the stories from Group B, including some fighting Spaniards, a missing wife and a highly unconventional nightclub…

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