Veliky Novgorod is one of the oldest and most important cities in Russian history. This is where the Russian state was born, and in the 14th century Novgorod was one of the largest cities in Europe. Located between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, this ancient metropolis could also become the birthplace of the Russia 2018 mascot.

The design of a cat created by Sofia Podlesnykh – a student at Yaroslav-the-Wise Novgorod State University – has been nominated for the final stage of the campaign to design the mascot for the tournament.

“I come from a small town which is famous from a historical point of view in the Novgorod region called Staraya Russa,” Sofia proudly declared in conversation with “It's as old as Novgorod itself and only 30,000 people live there today, but before it was a very important town. They used to mine salt here, which had huge value in ancient times. There are loads of birch bark manuscripts and other treasures from ancient Russia in Staraya Russa today.”

“In such a small town like ours, it's hard for children to keep themselves occupied. However, we do have an art school which I started going to when I was little. I have loved drawing since my childhood and couldn't imagine myself as anything other than an artist. When I grew up, I wanted to become a designer.”

Taking part in the Russia 2018 mascot competition was Sofia's first serious project. “I wanted to do a real job, trying to create something not for myself or my studies. I found out about the project towards the end of it and therefore had to complete my drawing very quickly,” revealed Sofia.

“I got everything ready in a week. However, I didn't really believe that my design would be picked out. Honestly, they couldn't get in touch with me for an entire week because I simply didn't think that they would be phoning me about this!”

Sofia's mother, who works in a library, also couldn't believe that her daughter had won: “She thought that it was a prank. Right up until the last moment when I sat on the train for Moscow, she thought that I was going to turn around and come home."

Sofia imagined a cat as the Russia 2018 mascot: “There are two reasons why I decided upon a cat. Firstly, I wanted to draw something that I like personally and I love cats. I have a non-pedigree cat called Misha, who was my main inspiration. Secondly, I thought that a cat's shape aligns very neatly with the other visual elements of the competition.”

Sofia hopes that her home town and Veliky Novgorod where she studies will benefit from increased tourism flow at Russia 2018, even though the nearest Host City – Saint Petersburg – is 200km away. As for herself, she's planning on going on holiday if she wins the competition. “Maybe I'll go abroad for the first time in my life, to Switzerland for example.”

The campaign to select the Official Mascot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ kick-started in April 2015. During the first stage of the campaign, young fans chose ten characters to be in the running for the Official Mascot: An Amur tiger, Bogatyr (a legendary medieval Russian figure), a wolf, a Far Eastern leopard, a firebird, an alien, a cosmonaut, a cat, a bear and a robot. They were brought to life by the efforts of Russian design students in the second stage of the campaign, and three finalists were selected by a specially appointed jury panel.

We'll discover whether Sofia emerges victorious in autumn 2016 when the nationwide vote to determine the Russia 2018 mascot takes place. Alongside her cat, a wolf and a tiger are also in contention for the honour.