SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Without a moment of hesitation, Colombia fan Hector Varela changed his branded sports shoes for village-style handmade boots to try his luck and skills at Mordovian soccer.
Varela was one of many fans to have made the journey to Mordovian capital of Saransk, where Colombia take on Japan in a World Cup Group H match on Tuesday.
The local version of soccer is dubbed ‘lapotball’. ‘Lapot’ in Russian refers to the traditional shoes made of vine which Mordovian residents used to wear in olden days.
While the inner part of the plant is used to produce the ‘bast’ shoes, the bark serves as a base to make a soccer ball which is heavier than the usual one.
Fans with no experience in the tricky, one-man game have to practice and need to be patient in order to score.
It was, however, easy for Varela.
Being a soccer coach with 30 years of experience, the 55-year-old from London easily juggled the ball and scored several goals to the applause of an excited crowd.
“It reminds me of times when I was a kid,” Varela told Reuters, wearing a ‘sombrero volteado’, a typical Colombian hat.
“Back in Colombia, I played soccer on the beach, in the streets with the ball made of pieces of different fabric, made of paper and other things.
“It was great to recall my beautiful childhood memories from Colombia.”
Saransk resident Sergei Glukhov is proud of his family skills if producing vine-made items, including shoes, amulets and home decor, with the knowledge passed on to him by his grandfather.
“The origin of the game goes back to old times when people wore bast shoes and made balls from what they had,” Glukhov said.
“Children played in the villages. So I would say it’s a very ancient game. Here in Saransk we combined the traditions of wearing lapot instead of boots and used the ball made of bark with soccer, with the festival and celebrations.”
His small lapotball pitch located at an open-air Mordovian folk museum in downtown Saransk has become one of the main tourist attractions for the soccer fans travelling to Saransk.
“This type of game is great to enjoy on a day like this when there’s no match and then we watch normal competitive soccer on match day,” said Varela, who has been following Colombia in the World Cup for the past 20 years.
Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Pritha Sarkar