World Cup 2018 Is Saransk the most unusual host city in Russia?

World Cup 2018 Is Saransk the most unusual host city in Russia?

Nobody could really tell me what Saransk, the capital of Mordovia and about 430 miles east of Moscow, would be like, but this was an interesting start.

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Speaking of the curious, down a side street soon after that I saw yet another overweight cat, this time carried in a womans arms.

Speaking to Russians in Moscow, the reaction was always the same: a scrunched nose, two raised eyebrows, and a sympathetic tone. Ah, so youre going to Saransk

What about the entirely new district built up around the stadium. It used to be a boggy wasteland. What will it be next? Will people move here?

A curious place then, happy on the surface as it lives through maybe the biggest week in its history.

On a warm evening, with swifts flying overhead and shashlik smoke drifting across the square, a Colombian television presenter addressed her audience back home – a glimpse of this unknown place sent out across the world.

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On the way back home later that night, I passed a Colombian fan who had brought his white husky with him, all the way from Medellin. Yeah, you have to say they have done a really good job and its great to be here, he said. First time in Russia, lovely people. Very curious about us.

There were Colombia shirts, Denmark, a few Japanese. Many Peruvians had stayed and were dancing to music they asked a kebab hut to play through its loudspeakers.

Later, Oleg grabbed me in the street and was almost breathless in his excitement when I told him I was from England. The night before Colombia played Japan, we walked to Millennium Square together, where women in local Mordovian dress were singing traditional, pleasingly atonal, folk songs. Some in the crowd danced with Colombians – that was the real centre of attention.

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At one end of the street is the four-star hotel where the Colombia team stayed. Five young boys are hanging around, debating how long they might have to wait there to get a glimpse.

Time will tell. Mordovia president Vladimir Volkov said on Friday before I got here: We will do all we can to ensure that the World Cup legacy will continue to serve the people.

I walked down Communist Street, down Lenin Avenue, crossed Proletarian Road and through the Fifa Fan Fest on Soviet Square. Not far from there, Lyubov, Sasha and Tatyana were sitting on a bench in Pushkin Park watching a new world walking by.

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The next day, afterDenmark beat Peru 1-0,the roads were reopened. Metal-box buses clanked and chugged along as a souped-up hatchback with one lime-green tyre rim raced past, blaring techno music as it went. Maybe the closures did make sense.

Its a small place, Saransk. Everyone was surprised when they said the World Cup would be coming, he said. Now people will know we are here.

You can see the investment in the new stadium, the new university building facade, the new shopping centre across from that. But you dont have to walk far away from the centre to reach Saransks more ramshackle outskirts.

The fans from Peru who got off my plane carrying inflatable llamas and wearing giant plastic ears were a column of noise as they walked straight through this one-baggage-belt airport in no time at all. There was a bus waiting, but things would soon slow down.

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Were happy now, and well still be happy. Now people will know more about Saransk and this is really good.

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Welcome to the city nobody expected to host the World Cup.

I was only in town half an hour before I saw him – a man taking his overweight cat for a walk, down the road and under a bridge on a makeshift lead.

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Maybe that is why the city is so keen to impress. Every fan I spoke to here had the same story: welcoming, beautiful weather, great atmosphere. Yes, the prices have been hiked up, but veterans of past tournaments had seen all that before.

By way of explanation, there was a shrug from a policeman whose oversized hat slipped as he gestured down the road. I was meant to understand that actually this is all quite normal.

The stadium is brand new, opened this year. Next season it will welcome Mordovia Saransk, a team who two years ago were in the third tier and last year struggled to pay their players. The capacity will be reduced from 45,000 down to about 30,000.

Artur, 15, is possibly the most excited in this group. He says: Even people in Russia havent heard of Saransk. You tell people and they say: Where?

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Lets start at the beginning. It was a nightmare to get to the hotel on Saturday morning. For some reason, the local government thought it was a good idea to totally shut off the main roads on matchday as the hours ticked down until Peru played Denmark.

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I spoke to Viktor, one of five men working in a team of gardeners, a coin collector with hands like bark.

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Traditional wooden houses generally inhabited by elderly men and women remain where, in other parts of the city – like in the new hotel complex by the stadium, they have been destroyed to make way for the new.

But for all the sense of happiness the World Cup has brought to Saransk there is also the question – a now familiar World Cup question – of legacy. What will happen to all of this once the party ends?

Artur and his friends are only thinking about the future positively. How will you feel in a few weeks time I ask, once Cristiano Ronaldo has been and gone? Well still be in high spirits, says Faridyn, the eldest of the group at 16, almost 17.

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How can you not enjoy it? Its one big party, Sasha said. Im really happy that our town was chosen and weve seen all this. And its brought improvements – the city has changed a lot in the past five years I would say, its cleaner now and theyve made it more attractive. Delivered with two big thumbs up.

But this week, this city of around 300,000 people has, in the words of one of the so many brilliant local volunteers, gone from its usual grey dullness to one big party full of life. Thirty thousand Peruvians will do that for you.

Saransks old stadium, over the river and down the road, was this week being used as a practice venue for the presentation ceremonies that take place before the games here. What will happen to that?

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