Sunday, June 24, 2012
I awaken with a serious case of PMT – Pre-Match Tension. England in the quarters tonight, exceeding my expectations already. Somehow, this could be our best opportunity to make it to at least the semi since 1996. Maybe the first final of my lifetime? Doubt it – the vodka must be clouding your vision.
While England’s ‘bwave’ four thousand are preparing for the big match with copious amounts of beer in Khreshchatyk, we are picnicking it forty kilometres away by the banks of the Dniester River with Vita, Oleksa and his sister. It is sun, shashliks, Georgian wine and good company in temperatures topping 30 degrees. All around us locals BBQ below the trees and swim in the river in their speedos and bikinis, some of them the wrong side of drunk to be diving off tree branches into the strong currents below. Zhigulis serve as temporary pantries and mobile discos; lunch time soon becomes 6pm.
Neil won’t be coming to the match with me. He’s had some tragic news from home and flies back tonight from Kyiv to Luton just as Italy v England kicks off. This isn’t the place to go into the details but the circumstances of the tragedy remind us that we must live life each and every day.
Oleksa drives us into Kyiv and drops me close to the Olympic Stadium, where Neil and I part company. I must say Scotland played a fine tournament and helped make the trip what it’s been. Ukraine has been reminiscent at times of some of the road trips we did together in this part of the world ten or fifteen years ago. I am sad to part company with Neil. He will spend the night on the floor of Luton Airport before flying home to Glasgow tomorrow morning. I don’t envy him what he’s got to go home to.
Dropped off adjacent to the Olympic Stadium, I end up with a panic on my hands after it turns out I cannot exchange my England voucher for an actual ticket here at the matchday stadium as some officials had told me and need to find some way of getting to the Dynamo Kyiv stadium instead. With it mobbed everywhere I jump on the metro to Arsenalna and taxi it, drenched in sweat, from there to the Dynamo Kyiv stadium, a good couple of kilometres away from the Olimpiski. Walking back along Kreshchatyk the atmosphere is good but I can’t be doing with hanging around an ‘English pub’ with a load of England singing ‘You’re shit but your girls are fit.’ I am very selective about the England I hang out with at tournaments and prefer to meet the locals and away support of opposing teams.
In Ukraine, kiosks are open 24 hours per day which means I can bag a 1715 from a kiosk for 7 Hryvnia, instead of the ‘30’ they are charging at some of the pubs on Kreshchatyk, and stroll down to the stadium, beer in hand, with an hour to spare until kick off.
We haven’t seen a sniff of trouble in Ukraine but in the England end of Kyiv’s national stadium Aston Villa and Blackburn are rowing with each other while England are threatening some Azerbaijan who have naively placed their flag overlapping an England flag. Close by two gobby female squaddies are turning the air blue with quite possibly the highest number of swear words it is plausible to fit into a single sentence. The two angelic Ukrainian girls adjacent to me have clearly never seen or heard anything like it before and blink in shock. “F##k off, you f##king f##kers!” exclaimed in the midst of the Villa v Blackburn hard talk.
But love or hate England the fans are passionate beyond words. Roy Hodgson’s Barmy Army echoes around the stadium and could be the vocal work of 20,000 not 6,000. I am more than annoyed Rooney is starting. He looked seriously unfit against Ukraine and his touch was poor. He was abysmal for England at the World Cup in South Africa. Quality for Man United, rubbish for his national team for all but a handful of matches since 2004.
The match starts at frenetic pace with Italy hitting the post and Glenn Johnson almost scoring from 8 yards out within the first five minutes. Both sides are going for it and the tackling is, on the whole, amazingly clean when you consider the playing styles of the two sides. I am stood with a top lad from London called Christian, who has flown in for the quarters. He’s a forty-something business lad who knows his football and makes more sense than the whole row of muppets stood on their seats for the entire match in front of me. Parker and Gerrard are playing well as is Italy’s Pirlo, who could well end up being the player of this tournament. Balotelli is also causing England some serious problems with his movement although his finishing looks a bit lacking and Terry, aside from pace, seems to be dealing with him.
The second half is more a case of hanging on for England although with the clock ticking down injury time at the end, a better delivery on the overlap from Cole down the left wing would have left Carol with a free header in the centre after losing his marker. As the ball comes back into the box, there is a collective gasp as Rooney goes for the overhead kick which will win it for England. He always manages it in the TV ads he’s paid a fortune for to endorse but with destiny before his eyes he fails to get a proper connection and puts it miles over the bar. England could have stolen a semi-final place in the very last minute.
Extra time is a largely dull affair brightened up by England’s vocal efforts behind one of the goals. Roy Hodgson’s Barmy Army don’t pause for breath for the whole thirty minutes. Once Parker is taken off, England are a spent force. What would we give for bringing Lampard on in extra time instead of a totally inexperienced Jordan Henderson?
Somehow Italy are seemingly content to play for penalties. I guess they know how this ends. This time around though I have a sneaking feeling we will do it. Lady luck seems to have been with us in Ukraine and when Ashley Young has the chance to put us 3-2 up after three kicks apiece, you realise that we are potentially three hundred beats away from making it to the semi.
When his shot smacks back off the bar that familiar sinking feeling is back. Buffon seems to double in size and belief. We have been here before: 1990, 1996, 2004, 2006…Cole misses…2012. 46 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.
I don’t even bother to stay and applaud off the England players. I have been here too often. I’d rather focus on how the hell I am gonna get back to Brovary as it is already half past midnight when the penalties finish.
I grab another beer from a kiosk and march down Kreshchatyk with the 60,000. At the metro station there are literally hundreds of riot police and militsia, suggesting they expected England to get knocked out and not take it well. They even have militsia riding the metro. I am the only England riding all the way to Lisova where I phone Oleksa and he kindly comes to pick me up.
Yes, Italy were better than England but they have reached finals themselves where they have played negative football and not deserved to progress. We also had our chances tonight: in the final minute of the ninety and leading on penalties. Fortune favours the 'bwave'.
46 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.