Saturday, June 30, 2012
Euro 2012 in Ukraine
Seven Euro 2012 games in Ukraine following England plus three other group B matches.
It began with a flight from London to Kiev after which I hired a car and drove to Poltava (about 300km)
The weather was hot and sunny whilst the roads continued to be partly under improvement.
In Poltava I watched some of the opening games including the second half of the Poland v Greece match.
Neither of those two looked like tournament winners.
June 9th Denmark 1 Holland 0 in Kharkiv
The classic situation where one team misses loads of chances and the other side has hardly any but scores from one of them, and then through the goalie’s legs.
In the end it became amusing, as long as you were not Dutch, to see superstars like van Persie and Robben consistently fail to convert.
Holland were clearly the better side but you have to score to win.
There were the usual banks of Dutch fans in their orange plus considerably less Danes.
At times the chants for Russia arose, soon followed by a response from the Ukrainians.
Unlike at most games it was relatively easy to park fairly close to the stadium which enabled a quick getaway for the drive back to Poltava.
Where I watched the last twenty minutes or so of the first German game.
From Poltava I headed towards Dnipropetrovosk and then in the direction of Donetsk, stopping in Krasnoarmiisk, an industrial town about 60km from the city.
I could obtain a hotel bed for a reasonable price (c.£35) for one night but had to pay double that on ‘match night’.
Getting food and refreshment was certainly good value, typically around £5 for a meal plus a couple of large beers.
June 11th England 1 France 1 in Donetsk
I set off (too) early for the city, got parked about fifteen minute walk from the impressive Donbass arena.
From there you can stroll into the centre and checkout the range of England flags around the favoured bar.
But it was very hot (32 degrees)
Thankfully you can get some respite in the main hotels, with the Shakhtar,close to the stadium, being the logical choice before the match.
In the game itself , as has become a trend, we were outpassed by the opposition but we did score the opening goal as Lescott rose to head in Gerrard’s free kick.
France clearly had some dangerous players with Ribery’s trickery and evident threats from Benzema and Nasri.
It was the latter who drove in the equaliser past a possibly unsighted Joe Hart.
Towards the end the match became a languid stalemate with neither team seemingly having the energy to create a winner.
I watched from the side as you were able to walk around to get a better view.
Inside the stadium was as impressive as the exterior with its three levels and a Shakhtar themed colour scheme.
The ground was not full and there was a clear Russian presence.
Away quickly I found the exit route back to the west and saw the latter stages of the second game whilst enjoying some soup and beer,
Plus a free glass of champagne from a friendly local.
Then I had the long drive from near Donetsk to Lviv.
This was done in two stages firstly a tricky negotiation of the centre of Dnipropetrovosk and eventually a stopover in Uman.
Where it was also very hot so much so that I couldn’t stay awake for most of the second (Russia) match - signs these very late kickoffs were beginning to take their toll.
June 13th Denmark 2 Portugal 3 in Lviv
I’d driven the second stage of the 1200km from Donetsk to near Lviv where there was a very affordable (£20) motel outside of town.
Lviv proved one of the more difficult cities to negotiate with its cobbled streets and numerous diversions plus a police cordon that restricted parking anywhere near to the stadium.
I seemed to end up in another oblast.
But once again the ground was an impressive two tier construction and a capacity of 33,000.
Denmark had a decent number of red-shirted fans and Portugal a much smaller group.
There were noticeably no chants for Russia, unlike at the other two games.
I was pleased that Portugal won otherwise there was a danger my final match in this group (NL v Portugal) could become a dead game.
Reminiscent of van Persie another top goalscorer couldn’t do the necessary at the Euros.
This time it was Ronaldo of Portugal.
He missed two gilt edged chances.
Chances he would surely have scored from in the Bernabeu.
So he was overshadowed by Nicklas Bendtner who scored two to get the Danes back onto level terms after Pepe and Postiga had moved Portugal 2-0 ahead.
The late winner came from sub. Varela who rifled in, right footed, at the second attempt.
Lviv seemed a lot more officious than the grounds further to the East with more stewards constantly moving on fans plus the severe parking restrictions.
This time I indulged in some popcorn and a coke at the inevitably inflated prices.
Walking around you were struck by the number of food outlets (and service people) but each and every one sold exactly the same thing - even down to the same flavour of crisps.
I walked back to the main road, jumped in a shared taxi and eventually was out of the city and back to my motel by 10pm having stopped for a beer and some potato chipsticks along the way.
At least in Lviv the temperature was more manageable.
As it was in Zhytomyr where I stopped for an overnight stay.
The city is more westernised than many with a range of street cafes and restaurants.
I watched Itay play Croatia whilst enjoying some caviar, steak and ice cream (not all together) washed down with some moderate wine and a mojito (a popular cocktail in Ukraine)
In the end the late nights and tiredness got to me again & I watched very little of the Irish game.
The next morning breakfast was soup and pancakes or eggs - followed by black tea or coffee.
By Friday midday I was outside of Kiev, the road from Zhytomyr being much better than many.
Along the way I met some Swedish fans who had driven from Malmo having been on the road for over 30 hours.
And there were Swedish fans in my hotel plus many more in the fan park in the centre of Kiev.
June 15th England 3 Sweden 2 in Kiev
I watched the first half of the earlier Ukraine game in a Japanese restaurant near to the ground and hoped to see the rest in stadium but for some reason it wasn’t displayed on the large screens.
Inside the rebuilt Olympic stadium the Swedish support far outnumbered the English.
Again I chose not to sit in my own, cheap, seat and viewed from the side.
It was a small triumph for England who had led through an impressive Carroll header but got overtaken by a slightly fortunate goal and another resulting from poor marking.
But we came back well with sub. Walcott’s effort beating a perplexed goalie and he showed typical pace to cross for Welbeck to finish cleverly.
So a show character by England after a serious setback and elimination for the Swedes.
I walked back to metro and was back at the hotel by 1am.
From Kiev I drove the 500km or so to near Kharkiv.
June 17th Holland 1 Portugal 2 in Kharkiv
A day when I didn’t need to drive came as some relief.
Being based about 30km from the city I could get the bus then the metro to the centre.
Where the fan park, overlooked by Lenin, was mostly filled with Dutch fans.
So what do you when the kick-off is at 9.45pm ?
I opted for a look at the famous XT3 tractor factory (mostly shielded by trees) and some of the ubiquitous apartment blocks in Saltovka.
Refreshment was water and a pastry.
The local metro is as efficient as most in this part of the world and you never seem to wait more than 3 minutes.
Near the ground I drank some refreshing lemonade and watched the scenery.
At the stadium, fuller than for the first game, the Dutch were out in force vastly outnumbering the Portuguese.
In a way the game was set up for the Iberians as Holland attacked leaving Ronaldo and co. to pick them off on the break.
For a while it seemed promising as Van der Vaart scored a fine opening goal.
But it couldn’t last that Cristiano would keep missing chances and he converted after being put through.
His second later on came from a typical breakaway - taken with complete control.
Holland, despite having 5/6 attackers failed to create much although van Persie did have a golden opportunity to atone for his misses.
He put the ball wide and the Dutch departed having lost all three matches.
I took a taxi back, it probably being too late to expect the buses to run (and nobody could either understand or convey this information)
Finishing with a large vodka, for less than a pound, and some highlights of the Germany game prior to another late bedtime.
On to Donetsk via some more interesting surroundings, including hills and valleys.
I secured a motel about 7 or 8 km outside of the city for the fairly reasonable price of 550uah per night (£45)
It had the added convenience of being on a bus route.
In the city the day before the big game I partook of some excellent blond Belgian beer whilst having a chat to some other English fans in the Golden Lion ‘pub’.
Back at the hotel for meal, and an argument about the bill - the prices being based on a certain weight when in practice you received 2 or 3 times that.
Another midnight finish.
June 19th England 1 Ukraine 0 in Donetsk
So we went through as group winners after a Rooney header meant both co-hosts leave before the knockout stages.
And France lost to Sweden meaning most of us would celebrate returning to Kiev even though there was an option to got to beach in Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast should we have been second in the group.
The game’s controversial moment, surely the final nail in the coffin of these fifth/sixth officials, for once favoured England as it seemed like a goalbound deflected effort had gone over the line for the Ukraine equaliser.
Early on the hosts, with plenty of home support produced some dangerous shots but we weathered the storm.
Helped by some great play by captain Gerrard England continued to caused them problems.
Even with local hero Shevchenko coming on for his last appearance they couldn’t produce a reply.
Ukraine came away with some good memories but we progressed, as group winners, to meet the tricky Italians in the capital.
After the match, there being no sign of any buses, I took a taxi back to my hotel where the locals had the music and dancing going, the sounds being mostly local with some unmistakable Rammstein (!) mixed in.
I enjoyed the vodka and retired by 1am contemplating the England victory.
So no more visits to Donetsk for a while.
Its not so much the city itself, though it has limited attractions, but the location so far in the east that makes it awkward.
So it was on towards Kiev, around Dnipro, with a stop at Poltava to access the internet and book a hotel for four nights in the capital.
After about 500km I spend the night at a motel close to main highway and enjoyed a good evening meal in the adjacent restaurant and one of the best breakfasts on the trip (eggs on toast)
On the Thursday morning I returned the rental car having driven over 4,400 km on the Ukrainian roads.
June 24th England 0 Italy 0 (Italy won 3-2 on penalties) in Kiev
Most predicted a close game and though the result was close Italy certainly won ‘on points’.
They created more chances and generally looked the better quality side.
Having said that we defended very well and as was likely one goal would win we could have gone through with Welbeck’s opportunity or maybe Johnson’s early chance.
But overall Italy definitely deserved to prevail.
In the shootout for a while we could dream as Montolivo pushed his penalty wide and Rooney and Gerrard converted.
But Pirlo’s chip seemed to change the dynamic as first Young hit the bar and then Cole’s indecisive effort was well saved by Buffon.
Thus we maintained our poor record against top teams in competitive matches and a losing run in penalty shootouts.
I’d spent the past few days in the sunshine in Kiev, had some drinks, visited a museum, the fan zone and a more sobering metro ride to Babi Yar the sight of a massacre in WW2.
I left Kiev on Monday morning having booked the train to Lviv.
Arriving in the evening I stayed in the slightly surreal station hotel, reached after a circuitous route through the station.
The room was as big as a communist apartment and the restaurant resembled a dining area , complete with staircase, from another era.
Fortunately the pork (and vodka) were more modern.
Then I took the bus to the border followed by some strategic queue jumping (people with me needed to catch a flight) and another bus to Pryzemsyl for the train to Krakow.
Where I stopped overnight near to the station.
The trip involved plenty of car travel, mostly negotiated without too many issues.
Inevitably the roads were, lets say, variable in quality and it was hard to average much more than 90km/hour.
I got lost a couple of times, mainly in Dnipro, and was stopped just once by the police when I crossed a continuous white line having got in the wrong lane - the official was relaxed and let me off without penalty.
Having the car would have saved money on hotel bills and it gave me the opportunity to visit locations outside of the main cities.
The weather was hot - for me often too hot.
As to the games I saw in the tournament - they mostly produced exciting matches in impressive stadiums.
Some superstars failed to deliver (van Persie) others (Ronaldo) eventually did.
The negative could be expressed as the creeping ‘Americanisation’ of these events.
Which have become football festivals with an ‘opening ceremony’ at every game, the ‘wave’, the countdown, the fancy dress and the tiresome restrictions.
And finally to England.
It was an arguably an ‘on par’ performance to top the group and be knocked out in the quarter finals.
It gave us hope for the future based on a batch of speedy young players that would have gained considerable experience from being at this tournament..
But it probably signals the end for many of the older generation (Terry, Lampard, and maybe Gerrard and Cole)
more pictures at http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/1330421212