x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Euro 2012: The incredible journey to Donetsk

A slag heap and the stadium are the city's two attractions, but 2,000 Spanish fans are expected for the semi-final.

Two thousand Spanish fans are expected for the semi-final.
Two thousand Spanish fans are expected for the semi-final.

DONETSK, UKRAINE // The streets of this city on the far eastern edge of Ukraine had a party feel yesterday, but the sort of party where most guests had already made their excuses to skip when the invite arrived.

In Pushkin Boulevard, a bohemian concourse in the centre of Donetsk, a folk band played Ukrainian and Russian songs to entertain their visitors. For most of the time, the troupe outnumbered the tourists they were playing to.

In some ways this place is an inappropriate destination for a match of the magnitude of Portugal against Spain in the European Championship semi-final.

For Iberian supporters travelling from the west, it is the furthest point of this broad country, and not necessarily easy or cheap to access. Much further and you end up in Russia.

As neat and tidy as it is, it does not have that much to sell itself to visitors.

It is difficult to think of any noted landmarks more out of keeping with their surroundings anywhere in the world than the football stadium in the middle of the city.

Lonely Planet's Ukraine edition lists two things to do in this coal mining city. The first is to see the Donbass Arena, the 50,000 capacity football ground, which is as spectacular on the outside, with its showy glass facade and blue neon lighting, as it is inside the gates.

The second is looking at slag heaps - and the chief attraction of that is you can turn around and see the football ground once bored of the piles.

"I think it was a big mistake from the very beginning having it here," said Patricia Fernandez, 29, a Barcelona supporter from Almeria.

"It has been spoken about a lot in the newspapers at home about how few Spain supporters have been able to come here. It is a pity.

"I spoke to family and they said it looks like lots of supporters are here from the TV, but they are Ukrainians wearing Spain shirts. They are the clever people, supporting the winning team."

Spain's national team have endured an exhausting round trip to avoid staying here. They left the stadium at gone midnight after their match against France on Saturday, and returned to their base in Poland - even though they had to be back here yesterday.

It may say something about the relative merits of the shopping in Donetsk that the wives and girlfriends opted to stay on, however.

"I think there will be around the same amount [around 2,000] of Spanish people as were here for the quarter-final," said Javier Garcia, 25, a Real Madrid supporter from Murcia about the attendance for the Portugal match. "It is a shame but it is not easy to get to."

To get here for the quarter-final against France, and now tonight's game, Garcia flew from Madrid to Krakow in Poland, took a nine-hour train trip to Lviv in the west of Ukraine. Another train ride taking 23 hours across the country brought him to Donetsk.

"It was an adventure, but it has to be like that if you want it to be a cheap trip," he said.

pradley@thenational.ae

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