Heart of Football

32 Sides to Every Story: Group B – Spain, Portugal, Morocco & Iran

Welcome to the second part of 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 B should have been a relatively cut-and-dry group of two halves, with Spain and Portugal battling for top spot and Morocco and Iran scrapping to avoid finishing last. Although the final table may reflect this, the group was an ever-changing topsy-turvy journey that continued to throw up controversy and shock.

Spain were looking to re-establish their stronghold on world football following a couple of mediocre tournament displays, while Portugal were hoping to build on their 2016 European Championship victory. Iran stormed through their tricky qualification group under the guidance of experienced manager Carlos Queiroz, while Morocco topped their qualification group, beating Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali.

Group B saw some remarkable fixtures, and some nail-biting results, but none of the teams made it close to the final at the Luzhniki Stadium. [image: Luis Rosario]

Iran actually topped the group after matchday 1; their 95th-minute goal saw them claim all three points and take advantage of Spain and Portugal’s dramatic 3-3 draw. A string of very tight games then played out, with Spain and Portugal both winning their second games by a 1-0 scoreline, before both drawing their last match.

This saw the European duo finish first and second (Spain finishing top on account of goals scored). Iran could leave with their heads held high after an impressive display. Morocco may have only earned one point, though can take solace from the fact that they remained close in every game, twice dropping points after the 90th minute.

Nobody expected Group B to end up so tight, even if the big guns Spain and Portugal did eventually qualify.

Morocco and Iran left with their heads held high, though Spain and Portugal weren’t far behind them. Spain played hosts Russia, while Portugal faced Uruguay, with both members of Group B billed as favourites for their round of 16 match ups. An Edinson Cavani brace either side of a Pepe goal gave the South Americans the victory in Sochi, while a 78,000 crowd, composed primarily of Russians, cheered the hosts on to a win over the Spanish. Spain took the lead through an Ignashevich own goal early on, but conceded a second half penalty before conspiring to lose on penalties after 120 minutes left the game tied at one goal apiece. 

I spoke to Ivan Calatayud Sempere, Luis Rosário, Amirhossein Borjali and Tarek Mazjoub about their experience in Russia that summer.


Ivan (36)

Games attended:

Iran 0-1 Spain

Travelling to Russia:

Ivan Calatayud Sempere supported his native Spain in Russia with his partner. [image: Ivan Calatayud Sempere]

I went by plane with my partner. We saw Spain vs Iran in the Kazan Arena. The other matches I saw in the fan zones of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Why did so few Spaniards travel to Russia? What were the expectations for Spain in 2018? 

I hoped that Spain would perform better in this competition, but with the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui a few days before the start, my expectations changed, and I knew we would not go far. I think there were few Spanish fans because most of them think that Russia is very far away and it’s cold, when in fact it is less than five hours’ flight, and in summer the temperature is good. 

Tournament highlight: 

My greatest memory of the tournament is the Spain vs Portugal match – very exciting.

Tell your story from Russia:

It was the first time I had travelled to Russia. I thought it was a wonderful country with a lot of charm, I liked it a lot and the people were very friendly. I also really liked the monuments and emblematic buildings, its nature, its customs and culture, the art of its museums and gastronomy, as well as the festive atmosphere for the World Cup tournament… 

There were surprisingly few Spain fans that made the journey to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, but Ivan Calatayud Sempere was one of them. [image: Ivan Calatayud Sempere]

The first week I did not meet any Spanish fans in Moscow and many wanted to take photos with me. On the train to Kazan they were writing down in a notebook how many fans there were from each country, from other countries there were many and the reviewer was surprised when I said that I am Spanish because I was the one the only one in the whole train.

When I got to Kazan I expected to find more, but in two days I didn’t see any either, until the night before the game I saw a group of four Spaniards, I was approaching to greet them and just before arriving …

One of the most famous football fans in the world, and Manolo el del bombo. [image: Ivan Calatayud Sempere]

They began to fight among themselves, I was very amused that the only Spaniards, instead of joining with so few far from home, were fighting among themselves!

The next day it was the Spain vs Iran match and more Spaniards came, but there were many more Iranians. They were also very kind. Despite losing the match they still wanted to have fun and take pictures with the Spanish.


Luis (43)

Games attended:

Portugal 1-0 Morocco

Travelling to Russia:

We came by plane. We went for a full week. I took my wife, who is not a football fan. I applied for tickets so that we could combine tourism and getting to know Moscow and St Petersburg with the World Cup. We visited Moscow first, and on the Wednesday after the game, we went by train to explore St Petersburg.

Luis Rosario came to Russia to watch his native Portugal, but also to see the sights, including the magnificent venue for the World Cup final, the Luzhniki Stadium. [image: Luis Rosario]

After the high of winning Euro 2016, how disappointing was it to go out in the Round of 16 in the World Cup?

Like several other Portuguese, I am not a fan of Fernando Santos and the way the national team plays. I really think we were very fortunate to win Euro 2016, as lucky winning as we were unlucky to lose Euro 2004. My expectations weren’t high, and I was glad that I had a combined purpose on the visit so was a good experience. 

Tournament highlight: 

I really was happy with the quality of some of the football. Croatia, Belgium and France played very, very well. Portugal vs Spain was a terrific match to watch. Belgium vs Japan was another one that really brought a smile to my face.

Tell your story from Russia:

So, it was just one match for the entire week in Russia, but I have a great story. I saw the game alone…! My wife lost the ticket as we were passing the last control barrier before the entrance to the stadium. After searching for a while, we couldn’t find it, so I ended up entering just when the game was about to start, and she stayed outside.

Although his wife lost her ticket and couldn’t watch her country with her husband, Luis Rosario met plenty of fellow football lovers in Russia. [image: Luis Rosario]

She looked a bit for it, then started to relax and dealt with it… she started talking with some of the staff and stayed close to the stadium until the end of the game, making new friends and waiting.

I ended up hugging some strangers when Ronaldo scored, because she wasn’t there. Thankfully she doesn’t like football – if she was there just for the game it would be for sure a traumatic experience… for both of us. 


Amirhossein (27)

Games attended:

Iran 1-1 Portugal

Travelling to Russia:

I went to Russia with my family by airplane. Since the Russian government introduced Fan-ID, it was straightforward and there was no visa issue. We could enter Russia and exit from it multiple times. Putin even extended these Fan-IDs to the end of 2018. In Russia, we used public transport like trains, metro, and bus.

The metro stations in Moscow were amazing, they were like museums themselves. During our stay, we travelled to Saransk, Moscow, and St Petersburg by plane and train. First, we stayed a week in Moscow, then we went to Saransk for the Iran vs Portugal game for a day, and finally, we have travelled to St Petersburg and stayed there for almost a week. 

The whole world expected Spain and Portugal to qualify with ease, however Iran ran them very close. How proud do you feel for how close your country came? How exciting was it to score both goals so late into games to win against Morocco and draw with Portugal? 

In the first game, we were still in Iran. When we beat Morocco in the last minute, the whole country came to the streets and began celebrating until midnight. After the World Cup, Iranian people were really proud of our national team. Actually, it was the second time we had managed to get four points in a World Cup group, and we were so close to qualifying for the next round.

Amirhossein Borjali was there to watch his country claim a point at the death against the reigning European champions Portugal. [image: Amirhossein Borjali]

We lost the game against Spain in a pretty close match. In fact, one of our goals we scored, was rejected by VAR – what a pity! In the game against Spain I was in the Fan-Fest, and after the game, even Spanish fans praised and respected our national team’s good work.

In the last match against Portugal, we were in the stadium, and seeing all those Iranians in a 30,000-population city was terrific. There were so many Iranians so that we could imagine Saransk was like our home. I remember in the stadium, one of the Portuguese fans told to one of the Iranian fans who was trying to get close to the pitch and cameras: “Leave this place for us, you are so many people – let us be seen, too.”

Once our goalkeeper saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty, the whole stadium was praising Alireza Beiranvand, our goalkeeper, who has a good story. He started football in an impoverished family and after a couple of years, he turned out to be the best goalkeeper in Iran. After we scored the goal and drew the match, the whole stadium exploded. You have rarely seen such a passion and whistling in stadiums. You know, in Iran, people die for football, and it is the most favourite sport in the country. So, yeah, we were proud of our national team a lot at the FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament

Tournament highlight: 

I think all of the moments in this tournament were a highlight for Iran, especially against Spain, and Portugal. I remember walking in the Moscow streets and hearing from Russians and other nationalities how good we were in the group games. But if I want to choose one situation, the moment Beiranvand stopped Ronaldo from scoring and caught the ball was amazing, and still people in Iran talk about that moment.

Tell your story from Russia:

It was my first time that I have participated in these kinds of tournaments, and I think it was one of the best World Cup tournaments. It is because there were a lot of cultural diversities, fantastic sceneries, great people, and rich history in Russia. People in Russia, in spite of what we heard in the news, are very kind people and it is a beautiful country.

There were times that we got in trouble, finding tourism attractions or finding different addresses like hotels, restaurants, etc, but always Russian people helped us warmheartedly. I remember we were on the bus and looking for an address in Moscow, and an older man tried to help us to find the place we wanted to go and didn’t get off the bus at his destination and accompanied us until we found that tourist attraction.

The sheer diversity of cultures that merged at the 2018 World Cup was remarkable. [image: Amirhossein Borjali]

Another thing that is worth mentioning is how much they loved Iranian people and our national team and I think it was amazing. Also, they love football, but I think less than the Iranian people. I remember the night that Russia beat Spain, we were in Catherine Palace in St Petersburg. This place is far from the city centre, and the suburb was quite calm on this fantastic night for Russia. But, as we get closer to our hotel, which was in the city centre, the more we saw people celebrating and chanting in the streets, especially in Nevsky Prospekt which is the main street in the city and one of the most famous streets in Russia with a lot of historic buildings.

In conclusion, I think I’ll be participating in all of the following World Cups if I can. Even though Qatar is a small country and doesn’t have that diversity, nature and history like Russia has, I’d still go. Still, I think it’s definitely worth trying, and celebrating the World Cup with other fans of the whole world is a great experience that you shouldn’t miss – it will be with you forever. I recommend FIFA World Cup tournaments to all people, even if you don’t like football at all, because it is an excellent opportunity to get to know different people in the world in a new country, and I think it is incredible 


Tarek (38)

Games attended:

Spain 2-2 Morocco

Travelling to Russia:

I reached Russia by plane via Turkey as I was on holiday over there. I met my friends who came after one day of me arriving there.

Tarek Mazjoub’s enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by his country finishing bottom of their group. [image: Tarek Mazjoub]

Morocco ended the tournament bottom of the group, yet things could have been very different. You lost to Iran in the 95th minute, lost to Portugal with an early goal and drew with Spain, losing your lead in the 91st minute. Were you proud of your team for competing in such a tough group, or annoyed at a lack of focus in games? 

Spain and Morocco were good, and yeah, the whole group was challenging. If Morocco focused more in previous games they would have gone further, as they played well against Spain. I was not annoyed though, it was fun and joyous. 

Tournament highlight: 

My goal was to make my childhood dream come true and live the life of being in this event. I thought it would be difficult, but it was simple and easy and I wish I had done it before. One goal that I will not forget in World Cup was for Pavard from France against Argentina in the Round of 16.

Tarek Mazjoub fulfilled a lifetime ambition to attend a World Cup. [image: Tarek Mazjoub]

Tell your story from Russia:

I worried that I might not even get into the stadium. I bought the ticket for the Spain game online and a day before the game I received an email stating that my ticket was cancelled…. but my friend’s tickets weren’t cancelled.

I had to go to the fan club and ask what happened and they couldn’t help me so I was so depressed that I had come to the World Cup and couldn’t watch a game in the stadium. Luckily, while standing outside, someone came to me and offered to sell me a ticket for the same game and same price, so I didn’t hesitate. Even though I didn’t sit with my friends I still enjoyed it with the fans.

Although Tarek Mazjoub almost had a ticketing nightmare, he bought a replacement and made it into the ground to see Morocco come within a whisker of a dramatic result against Spain. [image: Tarek Mazjoub]

Another time we saw a long queue for one nightclub, I can’t remember the name, so we stood and waited for our turn to come and when we reached to the entry we were asked to pay $1000 each or have a membership. We couldn’t pay this, so my friend called his girlfriend and her connections got us two ladies to take us to a club that was too fancy, VVIP!! We could immediately tell it was a gang club and we didn’t feel comfortable so afterward we went to a public nightclub, a mix of fans and it was nice we enjoyed it. It was all fun because I had my best friends with me.

Thank you to Ivan, Luis, Amirhossein and Tarek for their contributions to this article. If you enjoyed this then please come back next week to read about the stories from Group C, including an all-night drive from Moscow to Saransk, an extremely hospitable train journey and an impromptu foreign-language tv interview…

Read the rest of the series here:


Group A

More articles
12 responses to “32 Sides to Every Story: Group B – Spain, Portugal, Morocco & Iran”
  1. tarek avatar

    Great and well written


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