Volgograd (Russia) (AFP) – Iceland and Nigeria fans soaked up the “awe-inspiring” history of Volgograd on Friday as they explored the World Cup city that was annihilated during World War II.

Nazi Germany’s advance into Russia began exactly 77 years ago, on June 22, 1941, and was halted in the city, then known as Stalingrad, in February 1943.

The Battle of Stalingrad is among the bloodiest in history.

It raged for almost six months and when it was over the city was in ruins and around two million Nazi and Soviet soldiers and civilians had lost their lives.

“It’s real history,” Iceland fan Heidar Gudjonsson told AFP as he walked up the 200 steps to the “Mamayev Kurgan” monument to the battle — a giant sculpture of a woman with sword raised.

“It’s shocking and this monument is something else, it’s extremely dramatic. It’s awe-inspiring and it really has an influence on you,” added Gudjonsson.

The memorial complex to the battle is set on a hill overlooking the new 45,500-seat Volgograd Arena and includes the towering 85-metre statue known as “The Motherland Calls”, and a hall where an eternal flame to the city’s fallen burns.

“The World War II history here is one of the most important parts of the 20th century in Europe so it was definitely a factor in our coming here,” he added.

“We extended our stay here for two nights when we realised it was Stalingrad,” said another Iceland fan, Finnur Einarsson, describing the lure of the city’s historical sites.

“It’s overwhelming that five, six times the population of our country died in this one city in just six months. You just can’t really fathom how much that is.

“The plan was to come yesterday and just be here game day. But we got excited because we will probably never see Volgograd again, so having enough time to see the museum and the sights and everything was definitely worth it.”

Nigeria’s supporters were also climbing the 200 steps to the Stalingrad memorial complex in the heat and were similarly overwhelmed by the sense of history. 

“We heard this was the place that the Second World War happened,” said one fan named Suleman. 

“It is beautiful. I never thought Russia would be like this before I came. And now I have seen the essence of football. It has united us all.”

On Monday, the morning of England’s clash with Tunisia in Volgograd, Britain’s deputy ambassador to Russia, Lindsay Skoll, and Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, laid wreaths to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.

“I think what this demonstrates more than anything is that the enduring nature of the relationship between the UK and Volgograd outweighs any political ups and downs,” Skoll said.

The positive sentiments were shared by football fans on Friday.

“The World Cup brings people together, war tears people apart. So it’s a thing we should try to do, bring people together,” said Gudjonsson.