Written by Tom Garry
Thanks to a thrilling 3-2 victory over Sweden for Roy Hodgson’s men, it is hardly surprising that our trip to Kiev has been a good one. In truth, the whole experience has been perfect and that is not just down to the fact that England fought back to win a tournament match in 90 minutes for the first time ever.
Firstly, of all the host cities to visit during the European Championships, I’m inclined to say that we experienced one of the best in Kiev: a vibrant, global city. The Ukrainian capital and the venue for July’s final, Kiev has been a joy to visit and its people have truly embraced Euro 2012 in every possible way. The daily carnival atmosphere in the city’s huge Fan Zone has epitomised everything that is good about football, bringing people of different nationalities together to enjoy the beautiful game without a hint of abuse. Significantly, we have seen no reason for any of the concerns regarding racism expressed by the British media prior to the tournament. Having seen first-hand the kindness of the locals, their love for football and the excitement that the Euros has brought to their every-day lives, I have drawn the conclusion that everything was blown out of proportion by the press. The existence of racially-motivated hooliganism within eastern-European football clearly cannot be denied, and remains a concern, but the general consensus in Ukraine is that those involved are merely a small minority.
Whilst we have sadly only seen a few black/Asian England fans in Kiev, there have been many hundreds more here supporting other teams and yet we have not seen or heard of any trouble, racist abuse or chanting towards anybody. A common viewpoint of supporters we met was that England’s fans were unnecessarily afraid of coming to the Ukraine. During the post-match celebrations on Friday night, the jubilant England fans sang a song specifically ridiculing Sol Campbell’s pre-tournament warning in which he advised England fans not to travel to Poland/Ukraine. In reality though, it is sad that so few England fans have made the journey to Euro 2012.
Personally, I’m glad I didn’t miss out. It has to be said that the Olympic Stadium is a fantastic arena with a great atmosphere. Away from the football, there are also many things in Kiev that are well-worth seeing, including the beautiful St. Michael monastery, St. Sofia Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Church as well as many stunning monuments and historic museums. Something that stands out in the churches themselves is that the artwork is painted on the walls and the windows are plain, as opposed to the stained-glass windows approach to religious art that is seen in most churches in western-Europe. There are also a number of unique and bizarre things in Kiev, from completely underground Bullring-style shopping malls to traffic lights that count down the seconds. The streets range from wide and spacious boulevards to Mumbai-style alleyways crammed with stalls selling everything from fake Dynamo Kiev shirts to stray animals. The food is generally delicious and great value, the local produce very cheap and packed with flavour. Sashlik is a must-try local dish, as of course is Chicken Kiev, and who would have thought that chocolate and cottage cheese would ever go well together in a cake?
We found the good value to be reflected in the transport too, being able to travel from the city centre to the airport in the outskirts, a journey taking 55 minutes on public transport for as little as 28p! The alcohol is outrageously cheap too and we found a number of bars where the crisps and nuts were almost twice as expensive as the beer! Being home to the deepest underground metro stations in the world means that some of Kiev’s escalators are not for the feint hearted and we found one escalator that was three minutes long, long enough to sing an entire round of “there were 10 German bombers in the air” from top to bottom.
As if the city itself wasn’t good enough, the Swedish fans have also been fantastic, providing good banter whilst being genuinely nice guys. Completely outnumbering us at the Olympic Stadium, they taunted us prior to the match with their “God shave the Queen” flags, chants of “Where’s the famous Wayne Rooney?” and other songs including one detailing precisely what John Terry was going to do to our wives, all in good nature as they drank with us and posed for photos in the build-up to the crucial match, everyone wishing us good luck and for the rest of the tournament.
Their knowledge of the English game, even the lower leagues, was staggering, as was their impeccable English speaking. Polite and gracious in defeat, they even invited us to join them for drinks in their campsite on nights after the match, some revealing a surprising passion for British TV programmes including Fawlty Towers and Midsummer Murders.
Our stay in Ukraine has been a great one then. However, our abiding memory of the trip will always be England’s vital win over the Swedes, in which the team fought back from 2-1 down in the second-half and hopefully won over the hearts of the fans back home. It can’t be denied that Hodgson’s tactics worked on the night, the aerial threat of Andy Carroll proving crucial as he rose to power home Steven Gerrard’s inch-perfect cross. Theo Walcott’s introduction certainly changed the game, injecting pace into the English attack that James Milner had not offered. The win over Ukraine, despite being a nervy and slightly fortunate one, should not be underestimated.
The home crowd in Ukraine, as we experienced in the Fan Zone during the co-hosts match against France, are a noisy bunch to say the least. The noise of 100,000 fans in Independence Square roaring “U-ker-ina” and “Sheva, Sheva” will live long in the memory. Thankfully, England will be back in Kiev for a tasty quarter-final. Let’s hope they can be there again for the final.