Saransk, the capital of Russia’s republic of Mordovia, is not a place that yet trips off the tongue of football fans but says it is ready for the global spotlight when it hosts the World Cup in 2018.
The city of 300,000 situated in the Volga river basin was world football ruling body FIFA’s most unexpected choice when the list of the 2018 World Cup host cities was announced by the organisers in September.
“When Saransk was named as the host city we were all happy. It wasn’t just recognition of our services, it was a breakthrough for further economic development of the region,” Vladimir Volkov, the head of the Mordovia region told AFP.
“It has changed people’s awareness and boosted the quality of life here. I’m completely sure that in 2018 all of us here in Mordovia will be people of another quality.”
Saransk was famous in Soviet times mostly due to its electronics factory, which supplied the country with light bulbs. But it has become a significant sporting centre in the post-Soviet Russia.
Less desirable is its renown for being home since Soviet times to an extensive network of prison camps in particular for women.
One of the members of jailed feminist punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is serving her two year term at women’s prison camp number 14 in Mordovia.
The region, whose population includes Finnish-speaking Mordvins as well as ethnic Russians, was famously visited by French actor and tax exile Gerard Depardieu in January after he became a Russian citizen.
Depardieu is even said to be considering setting up a home in the region which he described as “beautiful” and populated by “soulful” people.
The city has earned a renown for producing an astonishing sequence of champions in race walking, a discipline regarded as somewhat esoteric in some countries but taken ultra-seriously in Russia.
Valery Borchin, Denis Nizhegorodov, Sergei Kirdyapkin, Olga Kaniskina, Yelena Lashmanova — the list of Olympic and world medalists from the city is seemingly endless.
“Saransk is staging sports and cultural events on a regular basis,” said Volkov. “We have held successfully Russia’s athletics championships and the World Cup in race walking in recent years.”
Mordovia’s chief added that the Saransk City Hall started the preparation for the World Cup immediately after the host city announcement.
“We started the construction of the new football venue just a couple of days after Saransk was named the host city,” he said. “We consulted FIFA to adjust the arena project to their strict demands for the World Cup venue.”
“During the World Cup the stadium’s capacity will be around 45,000 seats. But after the event’s end we are set to dismantle some constructions to turn the venue into a 26,000-seater. We consider it to be an optimum capacity for our town.”
The football club of Saransk won promotion into the Russian Premiership last year.
Though the club are currently anchored bottom of the elite league table with just nine points from 19 matches the republic’s boss remains positive about the team’s future, especially after Romanian manager Dorinel Munteanu took over the club in December.
“Though our side failed to shine in their first year in the top flight the people of Mordovia love the team and show understanding of their uneasy position,” Volkov said.
“I hope the Saransk football team can also achieve something under their new coach, who already has experience of winning the national titles and, I believe, is capable of inspiring our footballers.”
Volkov meanwhile claimed that the Mordovia authorities were developing many other sports in the republic adding that the policy of healthy way of life was already yielding fruits producing a serious social effect.
“We really care about our people’s health and our efforts allowed us to gain almost a complete victory over drug addiction in the republic,” he said.
“Our conscripts are the healthiest in the country. I believe the development of sports in the republic allowed us to reach it.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]