On the night when the Russia national team achieved its biggest success in the post-Soviet era – reaching the UEFA EURO 2008 semi-finals with a 3-1 victory over the Netherlands – the entire country experienced an unprecedented outpouring of emotion. People came out onto the streets in towns and cities, celebrating long into the night. That evening was also the first time Valeria Taburenko experienced football's unifying ability.

“I was preparing to take an art exam in my home town of Obninsk not far from Moscow,” Valeria recalls in an interview with FIFA.com. “You always feel gloomy and lonely the night before an exam, but suddenly people were running out onto the streets and starting to party. Friends started phoning me and telling me all about the victory.

“It made me feel a lot better for some reason. I saw that it wasn't just me who wasn't going to sleep all night. I wasn't a football fan before then but ever since I've known how football can bring people together.”

Now Valeria Taburenko studies at the Saint Petersburg State University of Technology and Design, while living near Sportivnaya metro station right next to Zenit's Petrovsky Stadium. 

It is unsurprising, then, that she signed up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ Official Mascot competition and her work was then picked out as one of the three finalists. Valeria views this as a great opportunity, mainly for her choice of future career. 

“I'm a student at the design faculty and I expect to get a job in an advertising agency designing advertising banners. Nevertheless, I see myself first and foremost as a good artist. I've been doing this for five years and even before school I would go to draw in a studio, this has always helped me. 

“However, illustrators and animators have to work all the time, whereas I had a long break for a few years. But the fact I was chosen is a sign for me. It means that you should work at at what you do best.”

Asked how she felt on finding out she had been selected, Valeria says: “I was scared, it was like I had grown up too fast. You understand that the expectations after your success will only grow and you're afraid you might not justify them, but this moment quickly passes. My parents believed in me.”

Valeria's father is submariner and her mother is a former detective. Nevertheless, they are delighted their daughter has chosen to pursue a creative career. “My dad said he knew that this would happen. Parents are the people who believe in us more than we do ourselves,” she says.

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.

Valeria hopes that her Amur tiger, which she created over the course of three weeks, is able to really unify the entire nation during Russia 2018. As for whether it will become the tournament's mascot, we'll find out in autumn 2016 when her tiger, a wolf and a cat are handed over in their final designs for a countrywide vote to decide the Russia 2018 mascot.