Kharkiv: racists redeemed?

A matryoshka doll is the classic one-inside-another souvenir you see everywhere way out east.

Arjen Robben visits the fanzone in disguise
Arjen Robben visits the fanzone in disguise

It struck me the more I thought about the day of Holland v Portugal that it had so many personal layers of meaning for me, and was such a wonderful occasion, that it was, however absurdly, something of a matryoshka match.

Doll 1 – BBC Panorama

Kharkiv took a kicking from BBC’s Panorama, and rightly so. Whatever Ukrainians may say, racism is not unusual in their country.

When I taught English out here four years ago I twice was told by students, one a barrister, one a banker: “Dinamo Kyiv would be much better if they had no Africans in the team.” This, to no obvious dissent from classmates.

Three years ago, Welsh supporters played in a fans’ tournament in Lviv. We reached the quarter-final and turned up at a ground to play Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk supporters. They looked like a fearsome bunch who’d escaped from a zoo. One skinhead had a lardy stomach with tattoos on. I looked closely.

In a semi-circular arc between his navel and his groin he had the words ‘White Hooligans’ carefully tattooed – given extra prominence by his burgeoning belly.

Ten minutes later with us 1-0 up, the ball fell loose in front of their goal and I darted at it hoping to score. I missed and stepped on this guy’s foot. Very sharp intake of breath. He looked at me, the pain travelled up his body and exploded into a series of ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’, while hopping extravagantly. Phew. Luckily we lost 9-1.

Doll 2 – Dutch fans

So after all the negative publicity Ukraine earned, it was almost as though placing the Dutch in Kharkiv was the footballing gods’ divine intervention.

It’s hard to understate just how amazing the Dutch fans were on the day of this game. I’ve seen them before – in Aveiro and Porto and at Wales games. But I was awestruck by their warmth, which was even more remarkable given that they were on the verge of going out and up against a decent Portugal.

At first, the fanzone – overlooked by a huge statue of Lenin – seemed overly dominated by the Dutch – about 5,000 of them. They were singing along stupidly to Queen (a band I can’t stand) and all their silly oompah ditties.

A famous entertainer?  Who is she?
A famous entertainer? Who is she?

And then the penny dropped. The oompah ditties – they sound like nursery rhymes for adults to me – are the ice-breaker, you sing along to a silly tune and it brings a smile to your face. So with the ice broken, you spread the love, which is what happened.

Locals were anointed with the slide-on Dutch flag, embraced as Dutch and posed with for pictures.

Some fat, Buster Bloodvessel lookalike got on stage and sang some non-oompah silly tunes and was roared on like Madonna; Fred the fanzone ferret picked out Holland as the winners; plaques were exchanged as the Dutch thanked Kharkiv and Kharkiv thanked the Dutch. The Portuguese barely got a look-in. They were like gooseberries, gawping at the frenzied, passionate, manic mating.

It was all on the face of it, rather naff. But at the same time it was profoundly touching.

In Kharkiv, the football wasn’t the main event, the Dutch were.

Doll 3 – Gullit

What was striking at the fanzone was the deep reverence for the colour orange and players from the past. Two guys with Gullit wigs, 1988-style orange kit and ‘Gullit’ on the backs of their shirts posed for numerous pictures.

Let’s cut straight to the point and bring Cardiff City into the story. Here in Kharkiv we had a nation’s tradition and colour revered and honoured deeply – a symbol known throughout the world, emblematic of a great history.

Well no way are Cardiff City in that realm, of course. But when a club’s fan base is tearing itself apart viciously in a red v blue debate, the repercussion of which I think will resound for years and which has already seen friendships strained, this was a strong reminder of the benefits of valuing what you already have, treasuring it and honouring those in the past who you loved and supported and who have returned that love and support.

Doll 4 – Spread the love

– It wasn’t all about the Dutch. The clincher was the effect they had on the locals. Ukrainians tend not to celebrate loudly or act impulsively or larkishly in public.

Several years back I was told off by a female friend for whistling on the tube. I was bringing attention to myself, but I was whistling because I was so happy to be in her company.

Ukrainians were marvelling at the Dutch antics and openness, and utterly beguiled by them. The stood largely outside the core mass at the fanzone, observing. Infected by orange fever, some of them would start dancing or singing but often, especially if they were older, feel uncomfortable, stop and retreat into shy smiles and big beams of approval.

Oh no they won't
Oh no they won’t

The three-mile march to the stadium was greeted as though the Dutch were a liberating army – people hanging out of tower blocks to wave.

I was particularly struck by an elderly couple, clinging to each other like teenage lovers, as if holding on to each other for grim death. Their faces were pictures of rapt joy as they stood on the street to watch the procession. The Dutch were clapped all the way to the stadium – it was absolutely astounding.

Doll 5 – Ruud from Dordrecht

Always interesting to meet Dutch fans who can talk about football in interesting ways you rarely encounter in the UK, and often in better English.

I spent a gripping,yes gripping, three hours on the train to Kharkiv talking to Ruud from Dordrecht, Bolton’s former international scout (that’s what he told me).

I have telescoped many of his quotes together to give a flavour of it because, let’s face it, you don’t want to hear every word of what two football geeks said on a train to Kharkiv.

Oi. oi. grandad's pulled again
Oi. oi. grandad’s pulled again
Residents of Kharkiv tower block 1,345 applaud the Dutch
Residents of Kharkiv tower block 1,345 applaud the Dutch

“I watch 120 games a week at the moment on six TV screens at bc home. Games from all over the world, all countries. I want to be an international scout again. I work for a scrap merchants at the moment but at 53 I feel I would like one more chance to do it again.

“I worked for Bolton and I recommended Elmander to them. I was at Koln as well. I remember saying to them: “This guy Huntelaar, you should take a look.” They said: “Ah but he is Dutch division two, he is not in our class”. As it turned out, they were right, he was far too good for Koln! He ended up being worth 25 million.

“Denmark was a bad result, we missed 15 good chances in that game. People go on about van Marwijk but who do you blame when good players miss that many chances, 15!”

Then, from three years ago, another Dutchman at the Lviv tournament. Heerenveen’s senior player got chatting. Within two minutes he cut straight to the point and fired a grenade:

“Who was the best player – Van Basten or Bergkamp?”

It was a test. “Van Basten,” I said.

I passed the test. He nodded and pulled a face as if to say: “Youngsters these days, they’re idiots and know nothing about how good he was.”

My point is that only the Dutch pose these sort of  ‘football/ philosophy’ questions in a way that doesn’t involve pointless banter or as a tool with which to start a ridiculous or abusive argument.

The Van Basten/Bergkamp question is almost a test of your soul. What’s not to like?

Doll 6 – Holland v Portugal

Let’s return to the Dutch on the day. The game itself was something of anti-climax after the march, Fred the Ferret, oompah music, especially once Portugal equalised.

At 2-1, nobody was spitting furiously or gesturing angrily though Ruud from Dordrecht decided to leave early – the parting shot: “Van Marwijk shouldn’t have dropped van Bommel and the second goal came after he took the right back off.”

The Dutch fans seem to take defeat pretty well. No doubt their ferocious press and Johan Cruyff have laid into Bert van Marwijk and there’s been a lynch mob contingent campaigning for his dismissal – after all that’s the story for the moment. And if the journos don’t write about that then they have to find another issue to write about, so fair enough they have to write about that because what can be more important that the role of the national coach of one of the greatest footballing nations?

But I’ll say this – whatever the outcome on the pitch for the Dutch and the splits and the backbiting and the debate over whether it was a  national catastrophe that presumably is ripping the country apart, what I witnessed from the fans was the most heartwarming spectacle I have ever seen before a football game.

And, having lived in Ukraine, I sensed that thousands of people in Kharkiv feel the same way. You could almost smell the happiness they brought.

Their players may have stunk out the last World Cup final and underperformed here but for me the Dutch fans have been the stars of the tournament.

Why can’t everyone behave like the Oranje?

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