Kharkiv - Donetsk
After, at best, one hour of restless sleep we are up at 5am and take a 5.30am taxi to Kharkiv train station hopeful at best that we are going to pull a rabbit out of a hat and find a way of getting ourselves to Donetsk with an hour or two to spare before the England match. Our taxi driver is Olivera, a young business lady who hails from Odesa, who tells us she will try to help us get on the fast train to Donetsk despite it being completely full.
Down at Kharkov’s architectural masterpiece of a station, hundreds of Ukrainians, decked out in yellow football tops are grabbing a last coffee or a pivo before setting off to Donetsk. Before the clock has struck six it is already 26 degrees. Without Olivera we would definitely be struggling to pull this off. There are only a few minutes before the two morning trains set off and thanks to a 50 hryvna kick back to a babushka working in the station we have tickets in hand for the fast train to Dnipropetrovsk and connecting trains from Dnipropetrovsk to Donetsk. If we needed an angel to get us through this particular predicament then Olivera is that angel. Not only has she found us a way of getting to Donetsk but she has actually managed to get us on a fast train that first stops at Dnipro and then, after a 40 minute stop, continues on to Donetsk. She puts the two bumbling fools on to the 06:10, gives us her business card should we return to Kharkiv in the coming days and asks just four quid for our crack of dawn taxi ride and thirty minutes of running around the station sorting out our mess.
After the torturous potholed mashrutka journeys earlier in the tournament we have somehow landed ourselves on one of the brand new state of the art Hyundai double-decker trains, fully air-conditioned. Three hours later we pull into the most industrial city we have seen on the tour – Dnipropetrovsk – which, with its skyline of chimney stacks and heavy industry, and curious mix of crumbling Soviet infrastructure and brand new super-rich riverside business area is best described as a combination of Stoke-on-Trent, a Siberian Russian city and Vancouver.
On the second leg of our journey to Donetsk we manage to catch up on an hour of two’s sleep and meet a top Dnipro lad who goes by the name Roman. He is a TV presenter in Dnipropetrovsk and is on his way to Donetsk with some mates for the big match. At Donetsk he very kindly helps us try to sort out train tickets for after tonight’s match. Our preference would be to catch an early morning fast train out as Donetsk is seriously short of accommodation options and anything that is available is in the 200-500 euro per night price range or some very dubious efforts out of the city centre for upwards of 80 euro. As it stands we are going to try and last the whole day (8 hours until kick off) and night without a hotel.
My main concern going into the tournament has always been this day in Donetsk. I have been fearful of retribution from the locals if we knock them out and/or some England lads kicking off and dirtying our name for the rest of the tournament. Frankly, I have been dreading turning up in a working class industrial city with nowhere to stay and no guaranteed way of getting safely out of the city. As it turns out, Donetsk is a huge place which stretches on forever. The very nature of the city’s layout makes it very less likely there will be any trouble here aside from a couple of potential flashpoints at one of the city centre English pubs or the train station.
Roman takes us into town with one of his mates and we find an air-conditioned Ukrainian pub for lunch, a chill and a chat. There are a few England around but, in general, the English are conspicuous by their absence. The familiar story we have heard all the way through this tournament is that the current Ukrainian political regime is rotten to the core. Viktor Yanukovich is essentially a gangster who is moneying the pockets of his Oligarch friends in Donetsk whilst actively destroying a decade of progress in Ukraine. Before becoming president, we are told he actually served two jail sentences in his twenties – one of them after being convicted for rape. We have heard the same story from both ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian nationals. In western Ukraine we got the feeling that most ethnic Ukrainians think their Russian Ukrainian brothers are supportive of the Yanukovich regime. In actual fact, it seems like both detest the corrupt power elite which currently runs the country.