Saturday, June 23, 2012
Kharkov – Kyiv – Brovary
Fortuitously our bus leaves Kharkov at noon. Otherwise, I suspect, we would never have made it out of here in time. We are in bits after last night’s shenanigans.
It is an eight hour, 480 kilometre bus ride to Kyiv. It would be shorter but the brand new ‘Platini Highway’, connecting the two host cities, only actually exists for about half of the distance, with a large piece of road mysteriously absent in the middle. Corruption – what corruption?
The Patron Saint of Hospitality, Oleksa, is awaiting us at Kyiv bus station, where I take the bullish decision to book a Monday bus to Lviv in the hope that England will play the semi-final in Warsaw next week, placing me just a few hours away from the Polish capital.
“I don’t know what the hell we would have done without you, Oleksa” Neil croaks, clearly the worse for wear after 18 days on the road. He is absolutely right though – without the amazing hospitality of Oleksa life would have been ten times more difficult and expensive…and certainly not so much fun. That's not to mention the brilliant company and many insightful conversations we have enjoyed together.
Thirty air-conditioned kilometres later we are back in Brovary where Oleksa and his wife, Vita, take us out for the evening to an outdoor wooden restaurant set amongst pine trees. It is Midsummer’s night and frankly you couldn’t imagine a more fitting location to spend the shortest night of the year. This is the place where Oleksa took Vita for their first date and where the five of us enjoy shashliks, mushroom pancakes and Chernihovska beer under the stars. There is also a disco pumping out happy Russian and Eurodisco tunes, the music only interrupted briefly to allow a local lad to propose to his girlfriend. It’s a brave move but yes, she does say ‘Da’.
Spain are playing France in the third quarter final but we are happy to miss the match. It has been a gorgeous Midsummer’s evening. Who cares about football anyway?!
Spain 2 France 0
Friday, June 22, 2012
We have decided to lie low in Kharkiv for three nights rather than run to Dnipropetrovs’k or Poltava. Earlier in the tournament we could and would have done it but the batteries are running low and Kharkiv is a fine, fine place to spend a few days in. We have had a fantastic time in Ukraine, rolling back the years. This is my third trip to the country. Ten years ago I seriously considered moving here for a year and now, in hindsight, I kind of wish I had given it a go for a few months. There is a madness; an electricity in the air that makes you feel very much alive and far removed from the predictability and rules of western European life. The summers are also amazing here – the thermometer rarely dropping below 25 degrees for several weeks.
Kharkiv was built on an impressive scale. During the 1920s and 30s it was the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, while during WWII it was battered by the Nazis and the Red Army. It might not sound like the most appropriate thing to say but we get the sense that perhaps this city was closer to the utopian ideal of a Soviet city. It is certainly amongst the finest of the former USSR.
We enjoy varenyky and coffee and explore the city’s parks, squares and impressive architecture before kicking off the evening at a Mexican restaurant where the head chef hails from Ecuador. Close by there is a Lebanese restaurant where locals enjoy shisha and kebabs. This gives you some sense of the cosmopolitan nature of this city.
Germany power past Greece 4-2 but there are definitely chinks in the German armour which could yet be exposed against England or Italy next week. There are probably only 100 visiting football fans left in the city watching the match on the big screens of Freedom Square. Many of the fans that are still in Ukraine have tended to stick to Kyiv and missed out on the many pleasures of ‘Borderland’. We are out for the evening with Tania, Anja and Oksana and return to Shevchenko Park where it is Friday night and positively buzzing. Pairs of elegant girls promenade through the park while groups of friends chat on park benches and families enjoy the arcades and kids’ entertainment. It is like one giant fairground – a fairground where you can buy beer for 50 pence from 24-hour kiosks and sit by cooling fountains chatting to passers-by, before joining them in one of the outdoor clubs or bars, the DJ pumping out Russian and Ukrainian disco tunes long into the night.
Germany 4 Greece 2
Thursday, June 21, 2012
To blog or not to blog: that is the question. It has been impossible keeping More Than a Game up to date during Ukraine & Poland. We have travelled thousands of miles, attended half a dozen matches, partied five nights per week and, occasionally, managed to get some sleep.
The issue with spending too much time blogging is that you don’t spend enough time experiencing. Today is case in point: I spend a good six hours updating the blog but this means sitting alone in the apartment all day when I could be out and about exploring Kharkiv. I also turn down an invitation to sunbathe by the river in 30 degree temperatures with half a dozen girls who are celebrating a birthday party.
Our apartment is on a leafy street called Revolution Boulevard. It is a 15-minute stroll from the main square. Two doors down is a pocket-sized club which goes by the name Art Café. We start our evening watching a Russian rock band perform to a packed room of very middle class locals. There are probably 40 well-dressed, attractive ladies and 20 or so seemingly affable local lads in here. The band is reminiscent of the Perestroika rock bands of the late 1980s. Scotland and England enjoy the club so much that they manage to miss the start of the Czech Republic v Portugal quarter final, being shown live on the big screens of Ploshcha Svobody.
Scotland has a friendly arranged with Ukraine this evening, while I get chatting to Mido and his mate from Iraq, who are both studying Physics in Kharkiv (there are 69 higher educational institutions in the city). They are really decent lads and I feel terribly guilty, during my time with them, about what has been done to their country by my country. We do briefly discuss the matter but they want to make it totally clear that they hold no personal grudge against me. The lads like Kharkiv but tell me that for them they are tired of the locals’ insatiable appetite for non-stop partying, boozing and promiscuity. Clearly, they would like to go home at the end of their studies. I hope they go home to a peaceful, safe Iraq.
Portugal see off the Czechs, who did well, in my opinion, to make it this far. Ronaldo gets the winner - the man from Madeira has been playing some really excellent football for his country in the past couple of games at Euro 2012.
After a couple of kiosk beers in Shevchenko Park, Scotland, England and Ukraine jump in a taxi near the Shevshenko monument and head back to Revolutsia. It’s an ideal opportunity to finish some more blogs while Scotland and Ukraine continue with their international friendly match next door.
Czech Republic 0 Portugal 1
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Donetsk - Kharkiv
I bumped into Copa America Nick at the Donbass stadium – the sound 21-year-old Danish journalist I met in Argentina last summer. He is head of the volunteers for Donetsk (I wouldn't be surprised if he's head of UEFA by the time he's 30) and joins us at the Shaktar Plaza beer garden at 2am for a couple of post-match beers. He is staying with a family in Donetsk so unfortunately we cannot crash down with him but he does help us kill a couple of hours as we swap humorous stories about Argentina 2011 and Ukraine 2012. Nick has got twice the confidence, energy and get up and go mentality that I had at his age. I look forward to meeting up with him at Brazil 2014.
By 4am it is fair to say that we are struggling. We had one hour’s sleep last night and our current predicament nescesitates staying up all night as we have no bed or way of escaping the city. We make three beers stretch as long as they can in the hotel lobby bar - Neil snoring his way through the third - and then chance it down the local bus station in the hope that there might be a 5am bus out of the city. No joy. A taxi ride later at Donetsk train station we discover that every train out of the city until 2pm is completely full. Quite what we can do for another nine hours after two whole nights of no sleep is a question causing a certain amount of tired niggle between the two of us. It is fair to say that we should never have ended up in this situation but, it is how it is. Fighting to the death with one another probably isn't going to solve anything.
There is a secluded ‘VIP’ zone in the station where train ticket holders can sit and rest. Fortuitously for us the VIP room is not only empty but is staffed by security guards, is air conditioned and has several empty leather sofas going begging. With 2pm tickets to Kharkiv bagged, we both crash down on said comfy sofas at 6am, in this oasis of calm, and are away with the fairies until noon. Where there is a will there's a way.
We awaken to find the train station heaving with sweaty, hungover football fans, 99% of whom I’d imagine had hotel beds last night. The good news is that our train to Kharkiv is Moscow-bound which means we have four-bed births on board, while our companion in the compartment is a decent Russian lad called Zhenya. Consequently, most of the seven hour journey is spent catching up with badly needed sleep. Not bad for six quid.
Back at Kharkiv at 10pm it is 29 degrees and the amazingly atmospheric train square, with its fountains and terraces, is full of men and women sat chatting on benches and enjoying a cooling drink in the outdoor cafes. We each sip a beer amazed in truth that we managed to pull off the whole Donetsk trip without accommodation or transport. Elvera comes and picks us up and drops us at our new apartment in the centre of town on a leafy boulevard. She's a hell of a character and is muting the idea of joining us in Kyiv for the Italy v England quarter.
We slurp down a couple of soups and with no matches tonight to watch, crash down in our 30 euro two-bedroom apartment. Mission accomplished. Where there is a will there is a way.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Neil and I walk two kilometers to the Donbass Arena. The atmosphere in the city is laid back, friendly and positive. The BBC Panorama team should get theirs arses down here and make a documentary about the complete lack of xenophobia from the Ukrainians. There is absolutely no way that a tournament held in England with this mixture of teams and fans could pass with as little trouble as there has been in Ukraine.
Feeling absolutely exhausted from our lack of sleep and excesses of the past few days we set up base for a couple of hours in the five-star Shaktar Plaza hotel which is located a couple hundred yards away from the Donbass Arena. It costs less for a coffee here than it did at a couple of the one-star restaurants adjacent to the train station. Once we have got ourselves together I dump our bags in the media centre inside of the stadium and we go for a stroll around the local environs. There are parks, museums, restaurants and cafes all around the extensive grounds of the stadium, as well as panoramic views of the city’s slag heaps, man-made river and super-rich new buildings. Donetsk is a surreal place to say the least.
We grab a couple of Lviv 1715 from a park café and take in the amazing vibe being created by the Ukrainians ahead of this match. I have friends who have given up on UEFA and FIFA tournaments because of the ‘poncy, corporate, sausage fest’ nature of it all in recent years. This is completely unlike any tournament I have been to before. Wish you were here lads.
England have around 4,000 in the stadium. I have got goosebumps as 50,000 ukrainians boom out their national anthem. The Donbass Arena is some stadium. Talk about state of the art and no expense spared. I believe it cost around half a billion euros to build and must rate as one of the best stadiums in the world.
I would dearly like both England and Ukraine to qualify from this group. I hate the fact that for us to qualify we will almost certainly knock out our friendly hosts.
It is a workmanlike performance from England who once again look solid as rock through the middle of the side and very weak down the flanks. I could see this ending 0-0 but England get some fortune and Rooney heads us in front from two yards out. When the Ukrainians ‘score’ but the officials fail to spot it has gone over the line, you know England have suddenly discovered a touch of fortune that we have been missing in the past few tournaments. Almost simultaneously I spot Ibrahimovic put Sweden ahead with a stunning volley on the media monitors and England are suddenly top of the group.
In truth the Ukrainians are lacking that extra little bit of quality to unlock England, while Gerrard and Parker are playing as excellent foils for one another in central midfield. With Sweden going 2-0 up against France a late Ukrainian goal might see both England and Ukraine through…what a party that would be! Alas though, England survive to win 1-0 and the travelling support goes bonkers with a passionate rendition of ‘Vindaloo’. Despite their exit, there is absolutely no retribution from the Ukrainians – not a single punch, middle finger or abusive word. I feel embarrassed by all the pre-tournament bullshit about the Ukrainians from the western European press.
Post-match, Neil and I meet Sergei but it turns out that the 18-seater minibus to Dnipropetrovsk is completely full. Sergei pleads with the bus driver to allow us to sit on the floor but he is too worried about the police stopping him as he pulls out of the city and being punished with a hefty fine. As a result, we now have no transport out of Donetsk and no bed for the night. It is 1am.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
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.
The Ukrainians have invested some serious money in Donetsk central station but what is the point of having a spanking new gleaming train station if there is only one kiosk open on the day of a host match? As has been mentioned previously, we are fortunate enough to speak basic Russian but most England lads, for example, can’t get past spaseeba or dva pivo. Why invest tens of millions in a train station but not put on extra bi-lingual staff in the same station plus a half dozen extra trains? It is absolute chaos in the station and after an hour of trying to sort tickets we are told all trains out of Donetsk until tomorrow afternoon are full. I use my Russian to try to help a couple of England lads who need to get back to Kyiv after the match for their flights home but, likewise, they also have no way of getting out of here and back in time. Clearly they will miss their flights home.
Just as we set off for town, Sergei, a lad from Dnipro says that he will likely have space for the two of us in his minibus after the match. We swap numbers and agree to phone and meet later.
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.
Monday, June 18, 2012
Around 20 chartered flights have left for home with Dutch fans and suddenly Kharkiv feels bereft of football fans. Consequently hotel prices have instantly dived with our hotel now down to 50 euro per night.
It is a day of sightseeing and unsuccessful attempts to book a train or bus to Donetsk for tomorrow. The Ukrainians and UEFA have not put on one extra bus between the host cities of Kharkov and Donetsk, meaning that rather unsurprisingly the two buses that are making the journey south are both full. The same can be said about the fast train to Donetsk which is also full. I would love the UEFA bigwigs to experience this tournament as fans and be forced to travel around by public transport. What the heck are we supposed to do when the two buses and one train are completely full? Aerosvit and Ukrainian Air only want 600 pounds for a one-way flight between the two cities.
Having no idea how we are going to get to Donetsk tomorrow rather overshadows the day but we still enjoy the Group C deciders on the big screens in the fanzone and a couple of beers with Johan and Jeff, and Margus, whose birthday it is today. Margus spent the previous morning slept on a park bench after he forgot the door code and couldn’t get back into the flat after our night out at Panorama.
Time flies by and before we know it we are heading back to the hotel at 2.30am with a 5am start awaiting us. We double check the buses, trains and planes on the internet again but we can find absolutely no way of getting to Donetsk in time for the match. We are going to try and blag our way onto the full 6am train in the morning.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
The worst hangover of the tour necessitates an extra night at Hotel 12, most of which is spent in bed trying to catch up with beauty sleep.
In the evening I get myself down to the Mettalist Stadium for the match between Portugal and Holland and almost knock former England manager Graham Taylor to the ground as I sprint past him to the press centre to pick up my press pass.
The Dutch simply must win to stay in the tournament and when they take the lead through Van der Vaart, they look like they can cruise to victory. But something is seriously amiss with the Dutch team and once Portugal take control of the match, Holland are a spent force. Ronaldo is on fire and could conceivably have scored five. There seems to be very little fight or team spirit in the Dutch camp. They are about to crash out of the tournament with zero points and yet there is very little urgency on the pitch. The same could be said of their fans, most of whom remain seated and silent while Portugal tear them apart. Portugal 2 Holland 1 – the Dutch are going home.
Back in town, it is 28 degrees at midnight and the party is in the main park next to the square. The park is full of bars and clubs and it is absolutely buzzing. We are on our backs at the number of black and Middle Eastern people living in Kharkiv, many of whom are partying to the max around the fountains. I have never seen such a rich diversity of nationalities in any other city in the former USSR and it adds to the many pluses of this very cool city.
After clubbing in the park till six we find some taxis parked up next to the towering statue of Lenin, negotiate a fare in Russian, and set off home in a Lada discussing Ukrainian politics and corruption with our driver. For the Dutch it's a case of Goodbye Lenin!
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Yet again going beyond the call of duty, Oleksa drives us around the ring road into Kyiv and to the central bus station where we sprint and catch our Poltava-bound bus with 5 minutes to spare. Oleksa waves us off and we agree to meet again on our return here possibly after a week.
We are due to stop overnight in Poltava but when, after four hours on the road, the bus pulls into the decrepit edge-of-town station, with nothing but high rise Soviet suburbs in sight, Neil and I both lose our bottle for staying in this town we know almost nothing about. Instead, we jump back on the air-conditioned luxury bus and buy a ticket through to Kharkiv.
Kharkiv is a city of 1.8 million, considered one of the finest in all of the former USSR. It was built on a grand scale with the largest square in Europe, huge wide boulevards, dozens of monuments and an easily negotiable grid of leafy city centre streets with attractive low level architecture. From the moment we get into the area around the fanzone this city feels friendly, vibrant and cool.
Accommodation is very limited in the city with thousands of Dutch in town but with the help of a decent Ukrainian lad we met on the bus – Dima – we find the friendly city volunteers and within an hour of arriving have an air-conditioned twin in the brand new Hotel 12, close to the Botanical Gardens, for 100 euro. Yes, it is well above budget but we have been doing well with accommodation costs and at 50 euro each in a central location and with a great room, we reckon it is a bit of a result.
We meet Jeff, Johan and Margus, who have flown in from Kyiv, at the fanzone and watch Russia surprisingly get knocked out by Greece. I would never have imagined that the Czechs could win the group and Greece could finish second at the expense of the Greeks.
The atmosphere in town is superb and after the matches we all jump into a taxi back to the lads’ apartment where we prepare for a night of clubbing at Panorama with a bottle of vodka. The club is just around the corner from the flat and is considered to be the premier club in the city. This means a premier price to get in but Margus manages to get us in for 100 Hryvnia each. It is a very cool club with balcony views of the city and although there are a good few strutters present it proves to be a friendly night of partying. Amongst the vodka bottles and pretty girls we spot former England international Steve McManaman and French legend Christian Karembeu. Memories of getting home are vague.
Friday, June 15, 2012
Sadly, it is going to prove logistically impossible to visit the orphanage today so instead we relax in Brovery and then drive into the capital where we enjoy an excellent Ukrainian meal at a Carpathy Ukrainian restaurant Oleksa knows in Kyiv. I can’t remember the names of the special meals we had so I will ask Oleksa and add them to the blog later.
The Swedes have 20,000 fans in the city, easily outnumbering the English fans who probably only number 5,000. While the English have been struggling to find accommodation for less than a couple of hundred euros per night in Kyiv, the Swedes struck a deal with the mayor to put a campsite on an island in the Dnipro, making it more than affordable for the Swedes to travel to Ukraine in big numbers.
It is a sea of yellow and blue all around Kyiv’s pristine city centre streets and almost all of the drunken behavior is coming care of the men from Malmo and Gothenburg. In sight of the new multi-million euro Kyiv football stadium we find a bar to watch the earlier match between Ukraine and France only to watch the pictures of the game being suspended because of the severe thunderstorm in Donetsk. We have witnessed a couple of storms like that thus far in Ukraine but nothing quite that extreme. I don’t know how they managed to get all that water off the pitch and resumed the match so quickly. The bar is 90 percent Swedish and we sit with three Ukrainian police officers who later rush off to deal with an incident of fighting between the Swedes and English a couple of streets away.
This is one hell of a stadium but the old iconic floodlights have sadly gone. Sweden might have the numbers but England easily out sing their opponents. The England away end even has Germans in it supporting England with three of them passionately singing the English National Anthem (!).
After starting strongly and going into a 1-0 lead through a superb centre-forward’s goal from Carrol, England begin the second half all over the shop with Sweden attacking with two men down England’s weak flanks. When Sweden go 2-1 up after two incidents of comedy defending it looks like goodbye Vienna for England but the decision to bring on Walcott for Millner proves crucial. England, in my opinion, look best when they are attacking and with the pace and movement of Walcott, Young and Wellbeck the Swedes are in disarray. England go wild when Walcott makes it 2-2 just in front of them but when Wellbeck makes it 3-2 there is almost a touch in the celebrations of that famous night in Munich when England beat Germany 5-1.
The stewarding inside the ground has been virtually non-existent which has allowed a couple dozen England lads to almost encroach the pitch. That aside, England have been pretty well behaved and leave the stadium happy and without too many incidents of it kicking off.
Somehow Neil and I manage to get on the Kyiv metro after the match and jump off at Lisovo. There is no way we are going to allow Oleksa to come and pick us up at 2am but that, of course, is exactly what he wants to do. We couldn’t find a taxi in Kyiv and it isn’t much easier finding one out at the city’s limits. Encamped in a petrol station by the main highway we get chatting to a young IT lad from Brovery who we end up sharing a taxi back with us for six quid. It is definitely a case of job done as we get inside the flat at 2am, crack open some cold beers and watch rerun highlights of the game on Ukrainian TV. What a cracking match!