Heart of Football

32 Sides to Every Story: Group G – England, Belgium, Tunisia & Panama

Group G was, baring a near-miracle, always going to be a group of two halves. England and Belgium would be competing for top spot while Tunisia and Panama were battling it out to avoid finishing bottom. England topped their qualification group, withstanding pressure from Slovakia and Scotland, drawing two games and winning the rest. Belgium topped their qualification pool in emphatic style, winning nine games and scoring a staggering 43 goals in the process.

Tunisia were far from convincing in qualifying but managed to top their group ahead of their nearest competitors, DR Congo. Panama were not scintillating in qualifying, winning only three games out of 10. They finished third in their group, their goal difference of -1 putting them ahead of Honduras and avoiding the inter-continental playoff. They guaranteed qualification in the 88th minute of their final match, a header from captain Román Torres proving crucial… had this game finished a draw, Panama would have finished fifth and elimination would have been sealed.

Aymen Najahi met some England fans in Russia. [image: Aymen Najahi]

While many English fans believed they could finish top of the group, Belgium were considered the bookies’ favourites to top the group, and this played out as expected. Belgium and England both did their jobs, dispatching of Tunisia and Panama. By the time they met each other on matchday three they had both qualified, with many believing England wanted to lose, as their path through the tournament appeared easier with this route.

Tunisia almost had the dream start. After conceding earlier in their opener to England, they equalised and held on to this until Harry Kane’s 91st minute goal. They lost their next game to Belgium but recovered to beat Panama in their final game. Panama lost all three games, though they got to rub shoulders with some of the world’s best players and would be encouraged by their performance against Tunisia on matchday 3.

Group G finished as expected, with Belgium and England going to reach the semi-finals

Belgium and England thought they had seen the last of each other following their dead rubber meeting in Kaliningrad. Belgium went on to play out a thrilling last-gasp 3-2 win over Japan in the round of 16, while England finally ended their penalty hoodoo to dispatch of Colombia. A surprisingly comfortable 2-1 win over Brazil was next for the Belgians, while England played out a professional victory over a resolute Swedish side.

her nation may have lost all three matches, but Maruquel Quirós came away with some amazing memories. [image: Maruquel Quirós]

The semi-finals spelled the end of the road for both sides, with Belgium losing 1-0 to eventual champions France, while England let a 1-0 lead slip, losing 2-1 to Croatia in extra time. For the second time at the 2018 World Cup, England lost to Belgium in a non-event, goals for Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard sealing a third-place finish for Belgium.

I spoke to Rob Francis, David Sansun, Aymen Najahi and Maruquel Quirós about their experience in Russia that summer.


Rob (37)

Games attended:

Belgium 3-0 Panama

Belgium 5-2 Tunisia

England 0-1 Belgium

Belgium 3-2 Japan

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

France 1-0 Belgium

Travelling to Russia:

Due to work commitments and my girlfriend, I made three separate trips for the first-round games, then combined the second round and quarters (and took a long-distance train from Rostov to Kazan – more on that below!), and then a separate trip to St Petersburg for the semi-final. This all necessitates lots of overnight flights. In Russia they don’t have any rules on night flying, so you had flights leaving for Europe at 2am etc. I would often get back in the office in Brussels, having been to the evening game in Russia the night before and not having really slept at all.

Belgium were in dominant form against Tunisia in the Moscow sunshine. [image: Rob Francis]

I fixed my own itinerary and travelled back and forth on my own, but I knew lots of people. Most of my Belgian friends only stayed out for the first-round games though, so in the latter half of the competition I was really on my own. I did get to know other people as the tournament progressed, however.

Belgium and England seemed to build up a bit of a rivalry during the tournament, what did you make of this? When both teams made the semi-finals did you think this rivalry would come together in the World Cup final? 

I wouldn’t overstate the rivalry – both games were essentially dead rubbers. Belgium hadn’t played England competitively for about 15 years, so that was a novelty, but that was about it. The notion of a World Cup final between the two was obviously possible, but I don’t recall thinking too much about it, weirdly enough.

It may have been a dead rubber out in the western enclave of Kaliningrad, but the Belgian fans didn’t care. [image: Rob Francis]

I was slightly resentful that England had such an easier route to the final – I guess the thought of getting to the final outweighed everything (I would have had a ticket if Belgium had got there). At the game in Kaliningrad there were England fans in our section, but the banter was good – I guess it helped that Belgium won! The England fans seemed a bit of a miserable bunch, to be honest!  

Tournament highlight: 

For Belgium there were many – most would say the comeback against Japan, but De Bruyne’s goal against Brazil was amazing. 2-0 up in the first half, with the ground dominated by Brazilian supporters, and then holding on for victory. Some locals who were sat with the Brazilians came over to our section because they saw that we were having so much more fun. When I think of the World Cup, that’s what I think of. The semi against France was a massive disappointment – Belgium’s worst game of the tournament.  

Belgian fans were in fine voice. [image: Rob Francis]

Tell your story from Russia:

Travelling on the train from Rostov to Kazan – between the Japan and Brazil games – was amazing. 36 hours, and this wasn’t a dedicated football train, this was a train full of Russians coming back from their holidays on the Black Sea. They all wanted photos with me and to link up on Instagram. We followed the England penalty shootout in the restaurant car. This was the best “real Russia” experience. 

Rob Francis mingling with Belgium fans in a dried fish and booze bar. [image: Rob Francis]

Together with our fan group we also re-discovered our “beer and fish” pub in Sochi, the size of most people’s living rooms, which we had first come across in a friendly with Russia in 2017. It’s a place which literally only sells alcohol and dried fish. Partying in Moscow with some friends who had come down from St Petersburg (I tend to avoid the fanzones) was also great – Moscow was the hub of the tournament, and it felt like it – a real party town – but the whole experience was amazing.

Home of Spartak Moscow, the Otkritie Arena was one of two venues in Moscow for the World Cup. [image: Rob Francis]

The weather was so hot everywhere we went. It was notable that there were LOADS of South Americans but comparatively few Europeans – they had probably been scared off by the anti-Russian media stories. Some Peruvians had sold their house to attend the World Cup – I probably saw more Peruvians than any other country, decked out in their distinctive River-Plate-esque kit. 


David (28)

Games attended:

France 2-1 Australia

Iran 0-1 Spain

Poland 0-3 Colombia

South Korea 2-0 Germany

France 4-3 Argentina

Colombia 1-1 (aet) England 

Travelling to Russia:

I travelled solo to Kazan. I knew people living in the city and had a lift from the airport sorted from a local at 4am, I just stayed at his house overnight. I was then sharing a hotel room with an Aussie I knew from Twitter for the first few days. 

The World Cup was a pilgrimage for Rubin Kazan fanatic David Sansun, as it was his first opportunity to see the city of Kazan in person. [image: David Sansun]

I spent most of my time there with people I met while out there or who I knew before travel but had never met.

What was it like having a feel-good England team? Exiting the World Cup without a swathe of hate from the media?

I spent so long in Kazan where England didn’t play and as pretty much the only Englishman in the city that I didn’t really feel the big hype until I got to Moscow later on. 

Early in the tournament when I watched the England games in the fanzone I got the sense that people were against us in general, but that mood changed after the Tunisia game. I think I then missed the peak of the hype as I was on a flight home during the England vs Sweden match, though there was a cheer when the score was announced on board.

David Sansun outside the Otkritie Arena ahead of England vs Colombia. [image: David Sansun]

I had low expectations from England and while we sort of lucked our way through some easy ties, it was certainly nice. The high of the penalty shootout and that evening in Moscow afterwards was amazing, especially as the stadium was practically 80% Colombian. 

Tournament highlight: 

There were so many to choose from…

– Russia beating Egypt and being in the Kazan fanzone with all the Russian fans (sadly I was on the train for the Spain match)

– England pen shootout win 

– Watching the France Argentina match in person

– The Belgium comeback vs Japan was pretty special for me, that was a great match.

– And of course, there was the France Argentina match. The Argentina fans were 3x as many as the French and great, and the match was of course fantastic with some brilliant goals and the Mbappe show 

David Sansun racked up an impressive array of fixtures at the tournament. [image: David Sansun]

Tell your story from Russia:

Russia was amazing. The people were so great, friendly, willing and helpful. Just being in a city for two weeks and watching all the different groups of fans come and go, I was blessed by seeing some big teams and great games. 

I got a tour of the Rubin Kazan training base, I got invited to peoples houses for dinner, I met people from tonnes of countries. The feeling of being at a World Cup is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

The World Cup was not only the greatest football show on earth, but it also brought together people from all over the world- David Sansun met up with friend and Scouted Football colleague Stephen Ganavas (who featured earlier in this series). [image: David Sansun]

The sheer wonder on some Russians faces when they realise you’re English. They just instantly pommel you with questions.

I remember being on a bus with a load of Argentines on the way to the stadium. They were singing the old “ole ole ole” song. A little Russian kid on the bus, a toddler, repeated a word said over the tannoy, which was Ostanovka, meaning stop/terminal, and the Argies instantly just chanted it the whole way there “ostanovka, ostanovka, ole ole ole”

Much as there was some incredible attacking talent on display, we reckon the real reason David Sansun loved this game was the venue in Kazan… [image: David Sansun]

At the Colombia vs Poland match, there were two Colombian girls cheering and dancing all game, basically in a shouting match with a few Polish guys nearby, severely outnumbered. At half time they talked and laughed for the whole time and then went straight back to their shouting match in the 2nd half.

The summer of 2018 in Russia was something of a haze for many, a bit like this image itself featuring Russian Football News colleagues David Sansun and Andrew Flint meeting after years of knowing each other online. [image: David Sansun]

Low point was missing the Russia vs Spain match and the ensuing party, or having an unfortunate incident with a drunk homeless guy in a Saint Petersburg McDonald’s at 6am who told me he had a gun. Thankfully I speak some Russian, so it amounted to nothing as it was just an empty threat.


Aymen (37) 

Games attended:

Tunisia 2-1 England

Belgium 5-2 Tunisia

Panama 1-2 Tunisia

Travelling to Russia:

I went to Russia with some Tunisian friends. Two came over from Tunisia like I did. One came from France, another from Belgium and then one already resided in Moscow. The three of us coming from Tunisia flew to Moscow from Tunis. I was actually living in his house in Moscow for the duration of my stay in Tunisia. I actually lived in Russia for three years between 2011 and 2014, so I speak Russian and know how to live in this country!

Aymen Najahi’s match kit – there is nothing quite like being there in person at a World Cup. [image: Aymen Najahi]

Tunisia competed in their fifth World Cup, once again failing to get out of the group stages. How frustrating was it to be drawn against teams like England and Belgium, knowing Tunisia are unlikely to qualify ahead of them?

It’s true that Tunisia never goes beyond the group stages in the World Cup, but you know in this World Cup Tunisia played with two big and strong national European teams. Let me just say that we had only a little chance to get out of the group stages. 

Tunisia didn’t quite reach the heights of this stilt-walking Tunisia fan, but Aymen Najahi still smiled. [image: Aymen Najahi]

In our first game with England we lost the game by the only one goal in the last two minutes! If we had been able to take a point from this game then who knows? We then lose the game with Belgium and won the last game with Panama. If we got the point versus England then we would have had a chance to get out of the group stages! 

Tournament highlight: 

I remember the best game being Spain v Portugal – 3-3. It was just amazing with lots of goals! Goals from Diego Costa and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, it was special.

Tell your story from Russia:

Personally, I have a lot of stories from this World Cup…

There was only really one real low point: losing the game against England in last two minutes… I’m crying at this moment!

Aymen Najahi met some England fans in Russia. [image: Aymen Najahi]

There were so many good points though… Meeting a lot of people from around the world and taking photos with them, having fun with them, singing and dancing in fanzone. Just discovering Russia, really. Eating the famous foods, having fun in night clubs (with t-shirts of our Tunisian national team and a traditional hat). It was an experience.

There was a very large number of Tunisian supporters who showed up for this World Cup, both inside the stadiums and outside them. You know there were more than 20,000 Tunisian supporters in this World Cup?

I think the best thing that happened to me was on a train from Moscow to Volgograd. It’s around 24 hours on the train.


Maruquel (45)

Games attended:

Belgium 3-0 Panama

England 6-1 Panama 

Travelling to Russia:

In order to get to Russia, I had to go to Madrid, Paris, Prague and Moscow.  I went to Russia with my friend Pavel and his wife.  I wanted to go, but none of my friends are big fans of our soccer team, so one night Pavel asked if I was going to Russia and told me to join him.

A Panamanian walked into a Russian stadium… [image: Maruquel Quirós]

How did it feel to see Panama in their first ever World Cup, and what was your reaction to such a tough group?

This is the first time I’ve been asked to describe that feeling. To see our flag and hear our national anthem in the stadium made me cry. As a child I always said I was going to the Fifa World Cup the day Panama gets there, so I did!  To tell you the truth, I was happy because our team was going to play with great nations. 

Maruquel Quirós with Tunisian fans just outside Red Square in Moscow. [image: Maruquel Quirós]

I knew that it was going to be really hard for Panama to win, but at least we scored our first World Cup goal against England. I remember that day, I was sitting next to two English guys.  I remember telling them ‘if Panama scores one goal, Panamanians will go crazy…! The next thing, Felipe Baloy was scoring the first goal and the hearts of all 4 million Panamanians beat and we celebrated that goal as if we had won the World Cup.

Tournament highlight: 

I loved watching Russia vs Croatia in the quarter finals. It was a very good game and went all the way to penalties!

I also loved our game against England. Even though we lost I still loved seeing Panama score their very first World Cup goal.

Tell your story from Russia:

Most of Russians were nice to me, the tournament was as exciting as I have ever dreamed. I felt like a movie star! So many people asked to have a picture with us if someone saw any our flags or the soccer jersey. It was so nice to feel loved by people I didn’t even know.  I remember two German kids singing Panama and they had their faces painted with Panamanian flag and they even had our “sombrero a la pedrada” put on. It was lovely.

Maruquel Quirós with a young German fan. [image: Maruquel Quirós]

I think the most powerful moment to me was to hear the National Anthem in the stadium at a World Cup match. It is something that you feel deep in your heart, it really brought a tear to my eye. Hearing that for the first time is a moment that I will never forget.

Thank you to Rob, David, Aymen and Maruquel for their contributions to this article. If you enjoyed this then please come back next week to read about the stories from Group H, including some high praise from the mayor of Kazan, the exchanging of scarves and the beginning of a beautiful relationship…

Catch the previous installments in the series here:


Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F



More articles
2 responses to “32 Sides to Every Story: Group G – England, Belgium, Tunisia & Panama”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: