x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Euro 2012: The 'crooks and bandits' fail to ruin the spirit

Support is unwavering for Ukraine, the local delicacies sound far from appealing and Donetsk makes Paul Radley wish he was back in Lviv.

Portugal fans have been enjoying the atmosphere of the Euro 2012 games in the Ukraine. They are even happier now that Cristiano Ronaldo has finally started scoring.
Portugal fans have been enjoying the atmosphere of the Euro 2012 games in the Ukraine. They are even happier now that Cristiano Ronaldo has finally started scoring.

Day 7: Lviv

Cannot imagine it has been a very productive workday in this former Soviet republic.

It is the morning after Ukraine's heartwarming, come-from-behind win over Sweden in their opening Euro 2012 match.

Absenteeism at work must have been high, judging by the late and raucous party that ensued on the streets of Lviv.

Hitherto, the people of this city have not seemed overly given to great shows of sentimentality, but football has ambushed that stereotype.

The streets are decked with flags, and even the most granite-hard faces are flecked with yellow and blue paint. It may be the fact it was being sung by thousands, in moody weather, in front of an Opera House on a square known as Freedom Avenue.

But this country's national anthem certainly fits the category marked "evocative".

The first line translates as: "Ukraine is not dead yet." It is certainly far from it. At least while Andriy Shevchenko is still playing, anyway.

Day 8: Portugal 3 Denmark 2

Just around the corner from the Hotel Nobilis, where Cristiano Ronaldo and company are staying, a restaurant popular with locals serves a dish appetisingly termed "gut with fried lard pieces".

A blood sausage that is a local delicacy, apparently.

Cannot believe anything half as unhealthy has ever passed the cleansed, toned and moisturised lips of Ronaldo.

A low-level seat in the press box for the match just behind the Portuguese bench provides a fascinating close-up of the Real Madrid forward in full narcissus mode.

He must be a nightmare to play with in this mood. His frustration at failing to score again manifests itself first in a strop at an imaginary divot, then in a series of rants at the teammates who are doing his running for him. He is properly ratty.

They say the Seleccao are a one-man team. He may argue otherwise, but on this evidence he appears to believe the hype.

 

Day 9: Lviv to central Ukraine

Having struck up a rapport with the apartment owner, it grates to hear him say upon departure: "Please come again. You will get a far better price next time, because the football won't be on."

If Ukraine does fancy itself as a tourist destination - and Unesco world heritage listed Lviv is certainly worth a visit - they may have missed a trick by hiking prices for their one chance to advertise themselves to the world.

Board the express train from Lviv, which is 62kms from the Polish border, to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. The journey takes 18 hours.

If this is express, how long is the slow train?

Missing Italy-Croatia and Ireland-Spain sparks withdrawal symptoms from live football. No more so than for a 72-year-old Ukrainian named Viktor, who spends four hours traipsing around the carriage trying to get a signal on his portable television.

 

Day 10: Journey to Kharkiv

For most of the time, Uefa's president Michel Platini has that habit peculiar to sports administrators of talking absolute cobblers.

He has never said truer words, though, than when he termed hoteliers "crooks and bandits" for the markup they have made during this tournament.

On arrival in Kharkiv, stunned to find the city centre hotel that has been booked is more than 20 times the price quoted in the Ukraine Lonely Planet.

Bank immediately, block the credit card, meaning momentarily I am actually abroad in a country where I cannot speak the language, with no money and nowhere to stay.

Terrific.

Preaching about hotel qualities to a resident of the UAE is irksome. This is like giving a housing association tower block a lick of paint and a new carpet and calling it the Burj Al Arab. Who are they trying to kid?

 

Day 11: Kharkiv

The area immediately surrounding the Metalist Stadium is an image of Stygian gloom. The Soviet-era high rises have been dressed up to look as presentable as possible for this tournament.

However, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to think an away European fixture against Metalist Kharkiv would be the archetypal tour of hell.

The city centre, just a couple of stops along the red line on the metro from the stadium, might have been built specifically with football supporters in mind, though.

It is essentially one enormous square, the ninth largest in the world, apparently, and can accommodate 50,000 people in its fan park.

Perfect for football of course, as everyone knows the first thing fans on tour do is head for a square and stay there until the game starts.

 

Day 12: Portugal 2 Holland 1

Kharkiv has done a fair job of welcoming visitors, notwithstanding the price schemes, but you get the impression Ukrainians have not been so lucky.

For instance, if foreigners are caught short in public, they get let off.

Locals get fined.

En route from the metro to the game, catch sight of three police officers dealing with one Ukrainian who has committed some misdemeanour or other. The term heavy-handed does not cover it.

Ronaldo relocates his mojo just in time to guide Portugal through to the quarter-finals. His teammates love him for it.

Never in doubt.

It is a shame to see Holland departing early as their supporters are ridiculously good fun. Moping away in their luminous orange sombreros, dungarees and Sideshow Bob shoes, they look like sad-face clowns.

And spotted: the first vuvuzela of the tournament, being loudly tooted by a celebrating Portugal supporter.

 

Day 13: Kharkiv to Donetsk

Most people on the 6.25am train to Donetsk had been up all night, either as reporters working to late deadlines after the 9.45pm kick-off the night before, or supporters celebrating the belated arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Weirdly, the powers-that-be opted to enhance the perfectly comfortable new train by playing a Ukrainian movie. Unlike on a plane, where you can just tune out if desired, the soundtrack was piped noisily through the carriage.

It might have seemed a nice thought, but this was a red eye journey when most people wanted to sleep, not be force fed something that made little sense to the majority.

Euro 2012 inflation, crookedness and banditry reached a new low with the inordinately overpriced accommodation in Donetsk, Ukraine's coal troll. It makes the tenements of Kharkiv look like the lap of luxury.

Oh, to be back in Lviv.

pradley@thenational.ae

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