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Watching football in downtown Kyiv turns out to be a more unusual experience than standing at the back of the sweaty rammed bars of back home. Wales’s 1-0 victory is greeted with a subdued stoicism by the locals, and, of course, there is a war on, which sets the football experience in a different context. You learn that as you soon as you start talking to anybody watching.
The first fan I turn to for a post-game reaction, Alexander, 25, works for a morgue in the country’s second city of Kharkiv, and is in Kyiv for the weekend. Six bodies a day arrive in the facility, including Russian soldiers who are exchanged for Ukrainian dead. He offers to show me pictures, which I immediately decline.
This disturbing revelation puts a rather different cast on the previous 90 minutes of proceedings. “It would be brilliant if we had won,” Alexander reasons, “but it does not matter that we lost. We played well, and anyway what matters is that we will win the war.” It is hard to argue for the primacy of football given what else is going on.
Many people have left the capital behind as the war enters its fourth month - but Kyiv on Sunday night is lively enough for the moment. A few dozen fans and other assorted diners gathered in Porters pub in the heart of a warm and sunny capital, mostly keeping a cool eye on proceedings from their tables, only reserving shouts and jeers on the rare occasions Ukraine get close to the penalty box.
The own goal by Andriy Yarmolenko from a Gareth Bale free-kick after 34 minutes does little to help the mood. Nevertheless, one of the fans watching, Vladislav, also 25, is quickly able to rationalise the situation as we discuss the state of play at half-time. Dressed casually, he says he has been fighting on the front lines in the three-month war, although tonight he is off duty and he and a friend mean to head off with their girlfriends later.
Wales, he says, are too reliant on the former Real Madrid superstar, Vladislav observes, and that while “yes, he is a world-class player, Ukraine are the better team”. This, Vladislav adds, embodies a military philosophy where “to win a war you have to work together to win” although when we spoke it looked as if Ukraine were struggling to break down the Wales defence.
“It would mean so much to win, no other country deserves more to go to the World Cup. I think everybody here thinks we have to be there,” Vladislav adds in response to the obvious question.
It is hard to argue with this, although I gamely point out that Wales are already one-nil ahead. “This doesn’t mean anything, Real Madrid were behind with five minutes to go,” and it feels good to talk about footballing matters, even if the prediction turns out to be faulty.
The situation becomes tougher in the second half as the TV feed freezes on several occasions, forcing the committed to watch or listen to the match on their phones. It is not obvious why and nobody seems overtly to mind, although one broadcaster, OLL, had its feed taken down by Russian hackers mid-game, who replaced it with Russian separatist news from the breakaway region of Donetsk. “Hacker attack,” the TV commentator Viktor Vatsko said on the channels where the service was not interrupted, before telling the Russians to “burn in hell” – the sort of anger that does not take long to come to the fore when chatting to any Ukrainian about their take on the war.
Kyiv has not been in the frontline for several weeks now, and the city, which had a population of over three million before the war, does not feel obviously dangerous, even allowing for the first airstrikes in just over five weeks overnight.
People largely ignore air-raid sirens on their daily business, although its bars, many of which have reopened after the most dangerous weeks when the Russian troops were on the outskirts of the city, remain half-full at best. A curfew, which begins at 11am and runs until 5am, in practice forces the locals to go home from 9pm, so it was a relief the match started at 7pm and that there was no danger of penalties.