Fans defy fears to enjoy Kiev

Our man in Ukraine reports from Kiev where fans have been ignoring Sol Campbell's warnings about Euro 2012.


There is a rather rude refrain that has followed England around at Euro 2012, with fans singing it lustily both in the stands and in Ukraine’s streets. “F**K off Sol Campbell,” the ditty goes, “we’ll do what we want.”

It is a forceful response to the rather sensationalist claims of the former England defender who, in an interview with BBC’s Panorama, gave the following stark warning to supporters of the national side: “Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don't even risk it ... because you could end up coming back in a coffin."

Of course, the vast majority of those singing a song that has proved more popular than England’s official brass band are not from the minority groups that Campbell was specifically speaking to when he urged extreme caution in travelling to a country that undoubtedly has issues with racism in its society.

But the point still stands: England supporters have defied such pre-tournament scaremongering and are enjoying their visit to a country that many would not have considered experiencing otherwise.

Those who have shied away from Ukraine may yet be proved correct to do so. Certainly Tuesday night’s decisive meeting with Ukraine in Donetsk will be one the football authorities fear. However, after a pleasant two days in a friendly and hospitable Kiev, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the many who did travel are being rewarded for doing so.

Certainly the Football Supporters' Federation, who are working hard to support the England fans who have visited eastern Europe for the finals, are very happy with how the finals are panning out for supporters in Ukraine, bar a few mishaps over hotel rooms and camp sites that have vanished into thin air.

"I think generally it has been a very positive experience," FSF spokesman Kevin Miles tells Eurosport in Kiev. "There have been one or two hiccups but most people have had a good time. It has confounded expectations in many ways."

As for those fears over racism, Miles reports there has been "none whatsoever. The observers for Football Against Racism in Europe reported zero incidents yesterday [in the Sweden v England game] as well.

"That was a bit of a one-sided interpretation, to say it generously. Sol had been shown some footage and was very shocked by it, reacted, and very, very few England fans are likely to have been put off by hearing that."

After roughing it in Donetsk, a trip to Ukraine’s western capital is a rather different experience for those intrepid England supporters who have made the trip. Surrounded by green hills and bisected by the monumentally large Dnipro river – so broad that writer Nikolai Gogol once said it was “rare that a bird can fly to the middle" – it has a more picturesque, more central European feel to it.

While birds may not be able to fly to the middle of Kiev's grand river, Sweden fans flocked there prior to the tournament to set up camp on an island in the middle of the Dnipro. With all three of their games in the city, around 20,000 Sweden fans are in Kiev for the duration, their blue-and-yellow chromatic scheme aligning perfectly with that of the host nation and making them a natural fit for the city. Sadly, having been eliminated by a 3-2 defeat to England, their final match against France will not be the party some were hoping for.

England fans, divided between Kiev and Donetsk for the group stage, have been vastly outnumbered in the stands, in the restaurants and in the giant fan zone that stretches along the chunky vul Khreshchatyk thoroughfare and pours into Maydan Nezalezhnosti, the city's main square and epicentre for the country's Orange Revolution of 2004. In the Olympic Stadium itself on matchday, a mottled pattern of blue and yellow seats gradually turned the latter shade with increasing intensity as the stadium became filled with Sweden fans. England’s corner was bright white, yet often drowned out by the whistles of the distinctly Scandinavian support.

Though finding themselves firmly in the minority, there was much for supporters to enjoy in a location that thanks to its grand baroque buildings and smattering of cobbled streets feels more like a major European city than industrial Donetsk.

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Many England fans have, unsurprisingly, made the pilgrimage to Dynamo Kiev’s unprepossessing Valeriy Lobanovsky Stadium. It holds only 17,000 supporters – higher profile games are shifted across to the Olympic Stadium – but carries rather more cultural and historical significance than many arenas. As a standing monument to one of the most influential coaches in the history of the game – a man who applied science to sport in a unique way and won countless trophies as manager of Dynamo – it is a must-see for any football aficionado. His bronze statue, placed appropriately on a bench, sits nobly in front of the arena.

It was Lobanovsky who managed the last great Dynamo side – the team of Shevchenko and Rebrov, which burst onto the European consciousness in the Champions League in the 1997-98 season and then made the semi-finals the following year before being broken up – and such is the esteem the former coach of the Soviet Union is held in in his native Kiev, it is believed in excess of 200,000 people lined the streets for his funeral in May 2002.

For those of a certain generation, a mention of Dynamo Kiev will bring on a bout of nostalgia, thoughts drifting back to glimpses of an exciting team emerging from a new country; an unknown quantity before the advent of YouTube made almost every league in the world accessible. As such it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in the presence of a local, Anton, in his flat 15 minutes’ walk from the Olympic Stadium, during the Spain v Ireland game as conversation turned to Shevchenko’s Dynamo during an education in Ukrainian beer.

It might have been the effect of a few bottles of Korona – no relation – but Anton’s recollection of a wall of smoke rising from the stands as 80,000 nervous souls puffed their way through a semi-final, first leg draw with Bayern Munich in 1999 during which Dynamo threw away a two-goal lead, their chance of a place in the final gone just months before Shevchenko would be poached by Milan, evoked a certain wistfulness.

This is a place with a very significant sporting culture and history - an essential stop on a world football tour. Vibrant and lively, with three million inhabitants, it is also a great European city.

Kiev isn’t perfect – for one, it has sporadically aggressive bands of wild dogs patrolling some areas of its suburbs – yet this is a place with much to commend it, and those who did follow Campbell's advice are missing out on a great experience.

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