Heart of Football

32 Sides to Every Story: Group D – Argentina, Croatia, Iceland & Nigeria

Group D, on paper, should have been a group of two halves: Argentina and Croatia were meant to be battling it out for top spot, while Iceland and Nigeria were expected to be battling it out to avoid finishing last. Argentina had been underwhelming in qualifying, though Messi and co would have been hoping to carry on from their 2014 tournament, where they finished as runners up.

Croatia and Iceland were very familiar with each other having faced each other in qualification. They both won their home fixture against the other, though it was Iceland who finished top of Group I. Nigeria easily topped a tricky group, overcoming Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria, despite having a draw against Algeria turned into a defeat by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player.

This group was not as cut and dry as many predicted. Croatia were in scintillating form, winning three games from three and conceding only once in the process – a penalty against Iceland in their final match. A disappointing draw to Iceland and a heavy loss to Croatia, coupled with Nigeria winning against Iceland, meant that Argentina went into their final group game knowing they had to beat their African opponents.

Chidi Okereke was high up in the St. Petersburg Arena stands to watch Argentina vs Nigeria. [image: Chidi Okereke]

In a hard-fought game it looked like Nigeria were going to progress until an 86th minute Marcos Rojo goal fired Argentina into the round of 16. Iceland began well by taking a point from their opener with Argentina. A tough loss to Nigeria and a last-gasp Croatia defeat meant the World Cup debutants left the tournament with a single point.

Nobody expected Argentina to come within four minutes of being knocked out

It is interesting to note that Iceland outperformed Croatia during qualifying and lost to them in the final minute during the group stages, yet they departed the tournament bottom of their group, while Croatia marched on to the final, dispatching Denmark, Russia and England in the knockouts.

Nigeria will be devastated to have conceded so late to Argentina, knowing a point would have been enough to secure them a knockout tie against France, a redemption match from 2014. Argentina may have felt like a corner had been turned by simply qualifying from a hard-fought group. They came up against a punishing French team who put four past them to send the South American side home to lick their wounds.

I spoke to Ivan Mardešić, Chiara Pellinacci, Chidi Okereke and Birkir Olafs about their experience in Russia that summer.


Ivan (28)

Games attended:

Argentina 0-3 Croatia

Croatia 1-1 Denmark 

Travelling to Russia:

I’m from Croatia but my wife is Russian and that year we lived in Moscow. Because of this I didn’t need to travel from far, only in the city where the matches were played.

Ivan Mardešić with his wife at Croatia vs Denmark. [image: Ivan Mardešić]

Croatia defied expectation by making it to the World Cup final. How proud did you feel to watch your country in the biggest game in world football, and what could they have done differently in hindsight?

Since World Cup ’98, fans in Croatia have always believed that “this is our year”.  We believed that 2018 could be our year because we had the strongest midfield players in the world – Modrić and Rakitić. We believed that we could at least repeat our efforts at World Cup ‘98 in France. Of course, we had a lot of luck in the draw, because after we managed first place in qualification, Denmark, Russia and a young England team were not at that time top teams.

Ivan Mardešić outside the ground ahead of Croatia v Denmark. [image: Ivan Mardešić]

Every Croatian match was stressful, but we were so proud, especially after the semi-final win. I don’t think we could have done any more in the final. Maybe the first France goal was a foul and the second wasn’t for the penalty, but after three games of extra-time football we had no more energy to play at such level anymore. We were a little bit sad, but still we won a silver medal… it’s a big success for such a small country!

Tournament highlight: 

The best highlight for me was of course the match with Argentina, 3-0. I was at that match and I couldn’t stop singing…

Tell your story from Russia:

I worked in a hotel where there were Peru fans staying. They already bought a ticket for the next round, hoping that Peru would qualify as a second seed from their group. Unfortunately for them, that didn’t happen, and they decided to sell those tickets and stay in Moscow. I didn’t have any money to buy it from them and I refused to take it.

Ivan Mardešić supporting his country in the stands. [image: Ivan Mardešić]

They left an iPhone 8 on the reception desk by accident and nobody noticed. I eventually found it after a few hours and called them to tell them their phone was safe. After they came back, they asked me: “are you free tomorrow?” I said, – yes. They again asked… and I said yes, of course. Then they gave me two tickets for the following day’s Croatia vs Denmark match. So, if they read this article then I would like to give them a big thanks one more time!

Ivan Mardešić in the Moscow fanzone with his wife. [image: Ivan Mardešić]

So, after this I immediately called my wife and told her that she had to come home now and get ready because early the following morning we were going to Nizhniy Novgorod and we had to make FAN IDs. It was really funny, so cool!


Chiara (21)

Games attended:

Nigeria 1-2 Argentina 

Travelling to Russia:

I went via airplane. It was a get-together for my whole family. My grandpa and my aunt came from Argentina but me, my brother and my parents travelled from Barcelona, because we are living there currently. It was a big family meeting!

Chiara Pellinacci brought plenty of smiles to St. Petersburg to watch Argentina vs Nigeria. [image: Chiara Pellinacci]

What did you expect of Argentina at the World Cup? How disappointing was it to see fans travel all the way from Argentina to see that display?

I wouldn’t change it for anything. I know Argentina were bad, but I think all fans go to a World Cup because of the celebration. I cried when I was leaving the St Petersburg stadium because we finally were in round of 16. It was amazing.

I know it would have been better if Argentina had gone further, but I really enjoyed that game. I think I was lucky because I only attended the game where Argentina won, so I can’t complain. When you are there what matters least is how they are playing. You only care about being with other fans cheering.

We think Chiara Pellinacci *might* be enjoying the atmosphere with her family watching Argentina vs Nigeria… [image: Chiara Pellinacci]

Tournament highlight: 

Well, there was more than one tournament highlight for me. Colombia vs Senegal in the fan fest in St. Petersburg was incredible. Colombian people know how to party and of course the game was very intense till the end. I think it was in the last 20 minutes that Colombia scored and I don’t know why but that moment in that place I will remember forever. I have a friend that’s from Colombia, he was watching the game in Barcelona, and I remember doing a Facetime with him shouting. It was a day to remember.

Chiara Pellinacci supporting her native Argentina against Nigeria. [image: Chiara Pellinacci]

When I returned to Barcelona I saw the last game that Argentina played, against France, in a bar in Barcelona. It was a very active game with many goals that it was not known who was going to win until the very end. I was really nervous.

Tell your story from Russia:

My highlight was the day before the Nigeria vs Argentina game. I remember that days before we had lost to Croatia 3-1. The spirit of the players was not very high. So, the fans plan to meet, as usual, in the Hermitage Square to cheer on the team. I was really surprised when people came from nowhere to cheer our team. We went from being 50 to being 500 or more. It was amazing!!

Chiara Pellinacci taking in the spectacular St. Petersburg architecture on her dad’s shoulders. [image: Chiara Pellinacci]

After a while we knew that the team was arriving at the hotel, which was three blocks away. We decided to go to the door to cheer them on for the game the next day. We were walking in the middle of the streets, shouting, cheering and singing to our team. A great avenue filled with our people. We finally arrived at the hotel. Finally, upon arrival at the hotel, half of the players came out with us to sing and be with us. We were all together. It is a feeling I can’t describe, but I want to live it again.

Chiara Pellinacci outside the magnificent Gazprom Arena (St. Petersburg Arena for the World Cup) ahead of Argentina vs Nigeria. [image: Chiara Pellinacci]

I would also add all those moments that I have lived with people. It is an unforgettable experience, where we are all friends of everyone, and we have one thing in common: we are all with our country and we are there to enjoy. I have become friends during that week with people that I have not seen again, but how easy we could have a beer together if it is soccer and a passion.


Chidi (28)

Games attended:

Croatia 2-0 Nigeria

Nigeria 2-0 Iceland

Nigeria 1-2 Argentina 

Travelling to Russia:

I went by myself. But I had friends join me when I was in Russia.

Chidi Okereke with the Volgograd Arena in the background. [image: Chidi Okereke]

How heartbreaking was it to lose that late goal to Argentina, which effectively eliminated you from the World Cup?

My heart was shattered. The disappointment was palpable. Our hopes were dashed by that goal and it left a bitter taste in our mouths. Apart from die-hard Messi fans, all Nigerians felt it deeply, because we were so close to qualifying. So, so close. We were playing against a team that had the GOAT. The stadium was overwhelmingly filled with Argentine supporters. Yet our players played with their hearts. You could see it. They gave it their all, but destiny was not on our side.

Chidi Okereke enjoying the matchday experience. [image: Chidi Okereke]

Tournament highlight: 

Nigeria defeating Iceland. The stadium was packed full of Iceland fans so watching Musa score those vital goals would forever remain in my memory.

As a United fan, I also loved Pogba scoring at the final, and helping France lift the trophy, in the rain. It was a moment.

Tell your story from Russia:

I arrived at the stadium for the first game late and I went with a bag – I didn’t know bags were not allowed. I had to go put my bag in storage, and in the process, I lost my ticket. While I was looking for it, someone found a lost ticket and it was mine. The problem was, the ticket was not purchased in my name, so there was no way I could prove it was mine.

Like so many others, Chidi Okereke was able to enjoy mingling with fans from all over the globe. [image: Chidi Okereke]

I also couldn’t speak Russian, and while one of the attendants could speak some English, she still couldn’t understand why I was claiming ownership of a ticket that wasn’t in my name. It wasn’t until my friend came and spoke Russian to them that they understood that the ticket was bought in someone else’s name, but it was mine. I missed the entire first half.

Chidi Okereke had a challenge on to outdo Iceland fans for colour and noise, but they gave it a good shot. [image: Chidi Okereke]

The person I paid to get me tickets for all the games disappointed me. I only got tickets for Nigeria’s games. I was supposed to watch at least one game in every stage of the knockout rounds. I didn’t get the tickets, but the most painful was when I got to the venue of the final and I couldn’t get in, because he disappointed me again. It was the most heartbreaking moment for me, because I had always dreamed of watching a World Cup final live and I still have not. Now I have to go to Qatar.


Birkir (33) 

Games attended:

Argentina 1-1 Iceland

Nigeria 2-0 Iceland

Iceland 1-2 Croatia

France 1-0 Belgium 

Travelling to Russia:

The traveling part was a bit of a puzzle. I went three times to Russia!

I flew with my friend to Moscow for the Iceland vs Argentina game. We arrived at the hotel about three o’clock at night the same day that the game was. It was an amazing experience being at the stadium and witnessing Iceland’s first game, goal and penalty save at the World Cup. We flew back home the day after the game.

Birkir Olafs with his fellow competitions winners on his THIRD trip into Russia during the World Cup… [image: Birkir Olafs]

I flew back to Russia four days later with a group from the Tólfan (supporters of the national team). Me and my friend went to the hotel where the team was staying and got the flags and the drums. The national team staff took it from game to game for Tólfan. We even bumped into some players and the president and Vice President of the Icelandic football association. We went to the game and had a good time, though the result wasn’t what we had hoped for. 

A legend of Icelandic football – and Rúrik Gíslason. [image: Birkir Olafs]

The day after, all of the group except me flew back to Iceland. I had always planned to stay because I was going to the game against Croatia in Rostov. We went to the game and again the result wasn’t good. Before the trip I hadn’t booked a flight home because I was determined to stay if Iceland would have got further in the tournament. The night after the game I had to book a flight. I ended up taking a 32-hour trip home from Rostov. I flew from Rostov to Tbilisi, then to Kiev and then to Gatwick airport, in the UK. I stayed there and tried to get some sleep sitting down with my feet on my bag. The morning after I flew to Iceland.

I had one trip left. That was the FIFA trip to the semi-final game between France and Belgium which I had won in a Twitter competition! I took three flights to get to St. Petersburg… First to Stockholm. From Stockholm I flew to Qatar. I just had an economy ticket but when I got to the gate, I was told that I had been moved to business class. That was surrealistic. All the comfort. I enjoyed that a lot because it’s not every day that I get to fly business class.

Birkir Olafs with Nigeria fans at the World Cup. [image: Birkir Olafs]

What was it like to be there supporting your country in one of the most beloved fan-groups in the world?

To be a part of the Icelandic traveling supporters is an amazing feeling because Icelanders are liked very much wherever we go.

I myself got a lot of attention because of the red beard and my helmet – a basic Viking look. It’s great to have the eyes of the world on us because we were making history as the smallest country to ever get to the finals of the World Cup.

Tournament highlight: 

My tournament highlight was the game against Argentina, getting that draw and of course the penalty safe from Hannes Halldórsson vs Messi.

Tell your story from Russia:

Russia wasn’t anything like people expected. Everyone was very nice, it was a great experience. I would love to go back there someday. The greatest thing for me is seeing things and meeting people. I made a lot of friends from all over the world in Russia. On my final trip to Russia for the semi-final, I met some of the film crew that would follow me and four other winners in Russia. There was a woman from Brazil, a girl from Argentina, a guy from Indonesia and a guy from Malaysia.

Birkir Olafs meeting an Argentina fan. [image: Birkir Olafs]

It was great to meet all of them – I ended up giving them each an Iceland shirt. I think football brings people together. It doesn’t matter where you’re from because we all talk football. All of the film crew and others that were there with us and taking us places and asking questions were from Germany. I got to know them as well. I even went to a football game in the 2. Bundesliga with one of them.

I haven’t got anything bad to say about my experience in Russia but the low point for me was a bus trip like I took. I was on it for 10 hours and I had a lot of time on my hands. My mind started thinking home to my girlfriend, my four-mouth old daughter and my fourteen-year-old son then and I missed them dearly. I adore football, but some things in life are simply more important.

Birkir Olafs showed plenty of Viking spirit in Russia. [image: Birkir Olafs showed plenty of Viking spirit in Russia]

Thank you to Ivan, Chiara, Chidi and Birkir for their contributions to this article. If you enjoyed this then please come back next week to read about the stories from Group E, including a surprise coffee with some national team players, a multinational pre-game kick about and a pint with a Pope…

Catch the previous installments in the series here:


Group A

Group B

Group C

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