Waiting for Cristiano: Football’s mega stars descend on provincial host city of Saransk

Locals pull out all the stops to turn tiny city into standout World Cup venue

Oliver Carroll
Monday 25 June 2018 23:49 BST
Fans of Iran cheer in front of the hotel where the Portuguese team were staying in the city of Saransk
Fans of Iran cheer in front of the hotel where the Portuguese team were staying in the city of Saransk (AFP)

It was the day Saransk had waited years for: the arrival of a world football star; the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Late on Sunday evening, the Portuguese football team slipped into the newly built Mercure hotel – an odd blue and white modernist lump shaped like a Flex toothbrush. Within a heartbeat, the hotel was surrounded by the footballing United Nations. Russians, Portuguese, and Iranians stood together, chanting together in homage to the three-time golden boot winner.

But the God of football was also – it transpired – a simple man with worldly needs. With a wave, thumbs up, and a gesture indicating that he might just fancy a kip, Mr Ronaldo sent the children of the World Cup home – for a few hours at least.

By next morning, there would be no need for divine intervention: The police had inserted a second line of barriers.

Some of the fans and news cameras stayed on, hoping for a glimpse of the star.

Outside their hotel, Eduardo Martinez, 18, told The Independent he had travelled from Guadalajara, in Mexico to see his hero. How could he miss the chance to see “the most complete player in the world”? Michelle Alves, 27 who, holding an “I (heart) CR7” sign, had travelled nearly as far, from near Toronto, Canada, said the same.

Iranian Siavush Omidi, 28, was technically supporting the opposing side. He wore the shirt of Iran, but the “CR7” emblazoned across the front showed his competing loyalties. He had come to see a player he had adored for 10 years, he said; he had come to see him score.

Locals, too, had vigorously prepared for the footballer’s arrival.

In advance of the match, murals to the superstar appeared across the city. One was painted down the side of a block of flats on the road from the airport. Bookmakers took bets on whether he would stop by to take a selfie. (He didn’t).

And then there was Marina Bogomolova, 44, a local woman who declared herself Mr Ronaldo’s “Russian bride” soon after the announcement of Saransk as a host city. She left little to chance, she told The Independent, embarking on extreme fitness drive, and losing over 90kg in preparation for the “date”.

In the event, Bogomolova was unable to secure a meeting with her beau. But she was not disheartened: “He might not be trying to find me, but I will find him. Just maybe not in Saransk”

The choice of the tiny, provincial city to play host to the world’s top footballers certainly raised eyebrows. At the time of the bid, the city was only Russia’s 64th most populous, with a corresponding level of infrastructure. There were many much more obvious footballing locations in Russia than a city with hardly a football team to speak of.

Plenty of Russians hadn’t even heard of Saransk. And those that had associated it as the capital of Mordovia, a region with a far more famous tradition: prisons. The heart of Stalin’s Gulag system, Mordovia still hosts two dozen high-security colonies.

Saransk did have clear attributes however: a local government on excellent terms with the Kremlin. And a local population that voted in huge majorities for the president.

Unsurprisingly, there have been teething problems. A lack of accommodation for visitors led to much criticism of the host city. Saransk’s few hotel rooms sold out almost immediately. Swathes of mediocre apartments rented out for several hundred dollars a night. Indeed, the city seemed incapable of even hosting the many visitors flowing in. At the Peru vs Denmark match on 16 June, shops reported bread shortages. The city’s few restaurants have seen long queues.

But the warmth and charm of this very Russian city has seen it morph into a stand out venue. The city has been loud and beautiful; filled with music and dancing. Performances by a troupe called the Hip Hop Tigers, and a Russian-language version of Hippy Hippy Shake, might represent the limit of the city’s sophistication. But they provided joy that would warm the most cynical of hearts.

The compact Mordovia Arena has also produced some of the most electric matches. Today’s match continued the voluminous tradition set by the Peruvians nine days ago. The fans, almost entirely Iranian, took the volume to unprecedented heights.

And Ronaldo? He played the villain as expected, being lucky to escape a sending off. His saved penalty offered the Iranians a brief a lifeline. It was not enough, however; Iran leave the tournament on goal difference. They will be missed.

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