Friday, December 15, 2017 | ePaper
Unlikely host city Saransk transforms for World Cup
The metallic framework of the Mordovia Arena stadium dominates the centre of Saransk, the smallest Russian city to host next year's World Cup and an unlikely venue for such a global event.
Located some 500 kilometres (310 miles) southeast of Moscow, Saransk is mainly known to Russians as the main city of a region dotted with prison colonies.
Most recently, French actor Gerard Depardieu injected some rare star power by acquiring an apartment in Saransk after President Vladimir Putin granted him Russian citizenship so that he could avoid high taxes at home.
When the city of just over 300,000 residents was picked in 2012 as one of the 11 host cities including Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Sochi, the choice took many by surprise.
The other host city was widely predicted to be the larger southern city of Krasnodar, which has two very popular football teams.
"But why not Saransk?" retorts the city's mayor Pyotr Tultayev, who is clearly used to answering this question.
The city does have certain advantages: it is compact and nothing is more than a few minutes' travel away.
Geographically, "we are at the centre of the World Cup," boasts Alexei Merkushin, minister for special programmes in the Mordovia region, of which Saransk is the capital.
Saransk has also clearly benefitted in recent years from a political will to develop the region. New buildings in the centre house the university and a theatre.
'Nothing excessive' -
At the construction site of the Mordovia Arena stadium, 1,200 workers scurry around, aiming to complete it on schedule by the end of December.
"We've finished putting up the roof structure and we're going to start on the removeable stands," says Marat Bikkinin, who is in charge of the construction site.
The stadium will host four matches in the World Cup with a capacity of 45,000. After that, the upper tier of stands will be taken down, reducing its capacity to 30,000.
"We're totally aware that we don't need a stadium with 45,000 seats," acknowledges Merkushin.
"We don't want to build anything excessive, we want to build things that people can use afterwards."
Even with reduced seating, the stadium will seem spacious indeed for local football fans.
Last season on average 2,200 people turned out to watch the local third-division club Mordovia Saransk play at its old stadium where the seats were open to the elements.
A keen supporter of Mordovia Saransk, Ivan Kubantsev said he backed the "brave" decision to build the stadium.
"We didn't have anywhere to hold big events, not even just sporting ones," the 36-year-old said.
And at least during the World Cup there will be "a chance to see some decent teams," he adds, smiling.
Saransk has not lavished all its funding on the stadium.
It is also reconstructing its old airport with a new domestic terminal and building an innovative temporary terminal for fans arriving on international flights.
FIFA has insisted that the airport, which previously only served Moscow, must also accept international flights.
The airport, which is closed until January, is still a huge construction site.
But Vladimir Speransky, the deputy president of the company in charge of the works, points at a pile of earth where he promises that by September there will be the "first temporary terminal in Russia."
"This will be very rapid construction. It will be a light structure put up in one month," he says.
After the tournament, it will simply be taken down.
The city is building two hotels but currently has little suitable accommodation due to its location far from the tourists' beaten track.
"We know how many new hotels we need. The others will be renovated," Merkushin insists.
He boasts the city has proved "the cheapest for organising the World Cup."
The authorities have opted to build accommodation for the anticipated thousands of fans that will afterwards be converted into university halls of residence or social housing.
Local official Merkushin refuses to name the cost for Saransk of hosting the World Cup. But according to numerous sources, the stadium will cost around 17 billion rubles ($300 million, 267 million euros) while the reconstruction of the airport will cost 2 billion rubles, 700 million of which came from the Russian budget.
In February, the total budget of the World Cup was named as around 10 billion euros.