WORLD CUP: Saransk known for Depardieu and odd architecture

In this photo taken on Saturday, April 21, 2018 a view on the new World Cup stadium during the Russian second league soccer match between Mordovia and Zenit-Izhevsk in Saransk, Russia. (AP Photo/Julia Chestnova)

MOSCOW (AP) If you have never heard of Saransk, you’re not alone – many Russians haven’t either.

The provincial city of just under 300,000 people was a surprise inclusion as a World Cup host, beating out better-known cities with much more sporting history.

Located in central Russia, Saransk offers a chance to see another side of life outside the big cities.

Here’s what you need to know about one of the 11 host cities in Russia:

THE STADIUM

Saransk has a new 44,000-seat stadium for the World Cup, strikingly decorated in red and orange to echo traditional arts and crafts.

After the tournament, the Mordovia Arena’s capacity will be reduced to 25,000 but that still appears to be too large for an effective legacy. Local club Mordovia Saransk has played this season in Russia’s third tier, often with crowds barely exceeding 1,000 people.

WHAT TO KNOW

Saransk is the capital of the Mordovia region, which is home to the Erzya and Moksha ethnic groups. Their native languages have largely given way to Russian in any public setting, though.

Mordovia is notorious in the Russian underworld because of its many prisons and labor colonies, which have a reputation as some of the toughest in the country.

French actor Gerard Depardieu is a Saransk resident – on paper at least – since taking Russian citizenship in 2013 following a dispute with French authorities over taxes. A local cinema bears his name.

WHAT TO DO

Saransk isn’t known as a tourist destination but expect some temporary attractions and cafes to keep fans diverted. Games will be shown on a big screen in the main Soviet Square.

A drive to modernize Saransk’s Soviet-era center has given the city some unusual architectural styles. Many new buildings are a mix of Czarist-style nostalgia and modern glass designs – often brightly colored.

The city doesn’t have enough hotels to accommodate all World Cup visitors, so some fans will live on camp sites.

WHAT TO WATCH

Saransk will host four matches during the World Cup, all in the group stage. Peru and Denmark meet in Group C on June 16, while Colombia takes on Japan in Group H on June 19.

Portugal plays Iran in Group B on June 25, and Panama faces Tunisia in Group G on June 28.

More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup