For my first trip over to the Ukraine, I travelled to Kyiv to attend the last quarter-final match between England and Italy. But even if the game turned out to be one of the most exciting so far in the tournament, my afternoon spent roaming around the streets of the Ukrainian capital told me one thing : during the Euros, the football matches are just the tip of the iceberg.
As soon as I left the Boryspil airport, I could smell the sweet fragrance of an international football competition in the air : Ukrainian flags everywhere, massive UEFA Euro 2012 along the roads leading to the city and local children messing around with a football in their Shevchenko-branded Ukrainian shirts. The local legend was actually a guest in my hotel but I was ever so gutted to miss him as he just left while I was checking in.
My bad luck continued half an hour later : as I came down to the reception, one of the Orange hostesses told me that Ukrainian boxing legend Wladimir Klitschko had just walked by in the lobby ! With such luck, I was somehow expecting a long and boring 0-0 draw in the night’s game between England and Italy. I was half-right…
But with a few hours to spare before kick-off, I decided to take a stroll in the Fan Zone, over 2 kilometres of streets blocked off to cars where supporters could come and share their passion for football, drink a few pints, exchange predictions about the match and basically have a good time. With the night’s game looming, it was no surprise to see a majority of British and Italian supporters soaking up the sun in an incredibly friendly atmosphere. Despite the importance of the night’s game, both sets of supporters were making the most of their time in Kyiv to make sure that whatever the outcome of the game may be, their trip to the Ukraine would have been worthwhile.
I was more surprised however to see a fairly large contingent of Swedish fans onsite, the Scandinavian outfit having been out of the tournament for almost a week. But as a slightly tipsy English fan told me, the Swedes “love a good party” and a lot of them decided to stay in Kyiv for some “extra-time” fun !
And that’s exactly what the Fan Zone is all about : a melting pot of cultures brought together by the love of the game. And with the sponsors ever so present throughout this football “theme park”, there are plenty of activities for everyone. Three-a-side football for the children, table football for the slightly elder, vintage coin making for the ‘culturally aware’, a scream-o-metre cabin for the supporters to test how hard they could shout and numerous photo booths for the ones eager to capture the moment.
And I could feel the moment couldn’t come quickly enough, as the fans were growing louder while the sun was setting on the Ukrainian capital. After a quick pit stop at the hotel, the two friendly Orange hostesses in charge of my security ‘escorted’ me to the brand new Olympic stadium, where thousands of pumped up supporters were flooding in.
In an international game, one of the most moving moments has to be the national anthems. It’s the one moment inside the stadium where players and supporters unite as one to celebrate their belonging to their nation. And whether or not you’re an English supporter, you can’t feel indifferent when hearing “God Save The Queen”…
After this short but moving musical prelude, it was time for the eagerly-anticipated game to begin. After coming close to getting the opener through Glen Johnson, England left the possession of the ball to the Italians, to try and surprise them on the break. But Italy has been a growing force since their opening draw with holders Spain in the group stage and created the better chances, whilst foiling England’s rare attempts with ease.
Throughout the game, the atmosphere inside the stadium was wild, but funnily enough, the providers weren’t the English or the Italians, but the Ukrainians ! Indeed, thousands of locals were in the ground for the game and all one could hear at times were the “Ukraina ! Ukraina !” bursting from the stands.
After 90 hard-fought minutes, the game went into extra-time, and once again, several chances from both teams went agonizingly close but as many had predicted, the tie would be decided in a penalty shoot-out. With both teams’ track record in such a nerve-racking exercise being so poor, the pressure was on and despite taking an early lead with Montolivo’s miss, England once again cracked up, as Ashley Cole and Ashley Young missed their attempts, while Diamanti buried the decisive penalty to take Italy through to the semi-finals.
Despite the stalemate draw, this was one of the most enjoyable games to watch in this UEFA Euro 2012, and the attitude of the players on the pitch reflected that of the fans inside the stadium : impeccable and committed. On my way back to the hotel, there was a clear contrast in the streets of Kiev between the ecstatic Italian fans and the dismayed English supporters. Fairly tired after my trip from Paris and all the emotions from the game, I decided to go back to my hotel. But the many bars and night clubs open near the stadium leads me to believe that for the rest of the fans, the party was only getting started…