Without a moment of hesitation, Colombia supporter Hector Varela agreed to change his branded sports shoes for the village-style handmade bast shoes to try his luck at Mordovian football as the province's capital of Saransk readies itself to host the Colombia-Japan World Cup match on Tuesday.
The local football game is dubbed "lapotball" – lapot in Russian is the traditional shoes made of vine that Mordovians used to wear in ancient times. While the inner part of the plant is used to produce the shoes, the bark serves as a foundation to make the football, which is heavier than the usual ball. So fans with no experience need to practise and be patient to score.
However, being a football coach with 30 years of experience, London-based Varela easily juggled a ball and scored several times to the applause of an excited crowd.
"I just practised this typical for Mordovian region game," said Varela, 55, wearing a sombrero volteado – a typical Colombian hat. "It reminds me of times when I was a kid.
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"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 treasures the family skills of producing vine-made items, including shoes, amulets and home decor – knowledge he received from his grandfather.
His small lapotball pitch, located at an open-air ethnographic Mordovian museum in the heart of Saransk, has turned into one of the main tourist attractions for football-mad fans coming to Russia.
"The origin of the game goes back to old times when people wore bast shoes and made balls from what they had," Glukhov said. "Village children played in the villages. So I would say it's a very ancient game.
"Here in Saransk we combined traditions of wearing lapot instead of boots and using such a ball made of bark with soccer, with the festival and celebrations," he added.