SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Saransk might be the tiniest in terms of population among the 11 Russian cities hosting World Cup matches and was ignored for the knockout stages, but the Mordovian capital has left no stone unturned to put itself firmly on the world map.
Located in central Russia, Saransk has a population of just 307,000 and will only witness Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal among the top-rated teams during the four group stage matches to be held at the Mordovia Arena.
The brand new orange, oval-shaped stadium, with a capacity of 44,000, stands out among all the architectural construction in Saransk and hosted its first match two months back featuring local clubs.
While fans from Peru and Denmark have started pouring in for Saturday’s opening match in Saransk, the city is busy putting finishing touches to their preparations to welcome them.
About 3,500 residents plan to march through the city streets to the stadium on Saturday to celebrate the occasion.
From young children to seniors, people have been busy rehearsing synchronized dance moves to popular Russian and international songs for Saturday’s march, which more residents and visiting fans are expected to join.
City buildings have got a fresh coat of paint - some have been renovated - while the streets are peppered with ‘Welcome to Saransk’ signs accompanying the World Cup logo and a cartoon of mascot Zabivaka the wolf.
It is difficult to find a speck of dust on the city streets, patrolled by impeccably-dressed policemen.
But it was not difficult to find volunteers when the call went out from organizers to join the celebrations to mark the first World Cup match in the city.
“First of all, (soccer) unites all the people,” said Olga Varlets, a 62-year-old music teacher.
“It stands for peace, friendship and look how our city developed, how the infrastructure was built.
“People are very hospitable, the city is beautiful and certainly it’s a big honour for us and a great responsibility. I think we will manage to do it and everything will be cool.”
Vladimir Sharapov, the director of the event, said the main objective was to welcome the hordes of fans from different countries pouring into Saransk and make them feel at home.
“The main goal of the event is to unite and make friends... just like soccer unites all people,” Sharapov, also the director of a local music theatre, said after a rehearsal of Saturday’s march.
“We want to involve the guests in our show. We want them to feel our traditions, our culture and we certainly want to see their culture.”
The city will also host matches between Colombia and Japan, Iran against Portugal and Panama against Tunisia.
Saransk was a surprise choice as a host city with its small population, lack of hotels and a low capacity airport.
But the local administration has tried to address the problems by building three new hotels to cater to the needs of the teams and world soccer governing body FIFA, while also upgrading the airport.
Although there are still not enough places for the visiting fans to stay, accommodation arrangements have been made on campsites or in newly finished apartment blocks, close to the stadium. The airport has also seen a facelift.
“Saransk is ready to host all events,” said Tatyana Klyueva. “The city becomes lively, thanks to such celebrations. It develops and you can see how beautiful it is here.
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Angus MacSwan and Christian Radnedge