Slava Ukraini!

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I conducted an English lesson at Lugansk’s Taras Shevchenko University last year. At the end a student asked: “We watch Little Britain, tell me, are there many Vicky Pollards in the United Kingdom?”

It was the second time I’d been asked the question in a week. Both the people who asked were shocked to hear that Vicky Pollards were not uncommon.

So local expectations of Euro2012 and how Western people would behave were apprehensive perhaps, based on TV news and shows. Another friend last year had strong opinions on what caused the riots in England and didn’t seem to know all the ins and outs of what had happened.

Euro2012 was a great way of opening up Ukrainians to good football fan behaviour and a window on how we can be in the West. The effect of the Dutch on Kharkiv was extraordinary to behold.

Ukrainians have severe difficulties getting permits to venture further West than Poland because they have to jump through so many hoops to obtain one.

The tournament gave them a taste of the best of European fan culture, thousands of foreigners having a great time.

But Ukraine put on its Sunday best at all times and though it did a great job at doing so, riots erupted the week it was all over, relating to Russian linguistic rights. Then there’s ex-prime minister Tymoshenko being locked up, allegations over the cost of the tournament.

Has much changed at all if it reverts back to the loopy-loo see-saw of everyday life?

Wot no racism?

After the tournament a Ukrainian minister demanded an apology from the BBC over its racism documentary.

That programme rightly highlighted a social issue in Ukraine that deserved focus – Ukrainians can be startlingly racist about non-whites.

That there was no trouble at matches was down to two things.

The first was that the racist hooligans, being poor, could not afford the 30 to 40 euros for the cheapest tickets. They’re used to paying £1 or £2 maximum to watch their side in the Ukrainian First Division.

Also, to cause trouble, hooligans generally need to gather mob-handed for an attack. So not enough local idiots got tickets for games in enough numbers for this to be a serious threat.

Secondly, virtually every copper in Ukraine was mobilised for the tournament. They were everywhere and clearly under orders to ensure no foreigner was molested or ripped off. Some officers were even spotted smiling.

Ordinary Ukrainians do not like their police officers, who are largely seen as corrupt and brutal.

The good behaviour of the police was one of the many reasons, locals were in awe at the transformation the football tournament brought to the city centre.

The Swedes

The last people I expected to surprise me were the Swedes but Kyiv was swamped with them and somehow you just surrendered to their good nature. Even caught myself inexplicably humming Abba tunes at one point.

The roar when Mellberg scored to put them 2-1 up against England was the biggest I’ve heard since Ian Rush scored the winner at the Arms Park against the Germs, then the current world champions don’t forget in 1991, thus making us the unofficial champions of the world.

Mellberg’s mighty strike sparked a frenzied rush to the front of the Swedish end, where I was watching the game and scenes of jubilation I’ve rarely witnessed.

The Swedes apparently had sand imported to the riverside in their honour, so they didn’t have to swim on a dirty beach and did up tatty old Trukhaniv island, in the middle of the River Dnipro.

What now?

Ukraine is run by its own hyper-rich elite – one of whom, I’m reliably informed, ends many phone conversations with the comment: “Next time you come over, bring some animals to have sex with!” before erupting in guffaws.

As a country it’s a man thrown down a well who slowly clambers up to the top only to be thrown down again.

Ukraine had hope after the break-up of Soviet Russia, dashed by the dark Nineties; the Orange Revolution fizzled out and this tournament seemed to lift the national blinkers only for the usual infighting to break out again – they still have punch-ups in Parliament for God’s sake.

On visits in 2009 and 2010 it seemed probable to me that the tournament would be taken away from the country. Kyiv literally stank. Piles of rubbish several feet high were everywhere, as were potholes. Real potholes, not the tiddlers people in the UK have been moaning about these past two winters. The capital was a disgrace.

A lot of backsides must have been kicked to kingdom come. And a lot of money must have appeared from somewhere.

So the country did well just to get the tournament staged at all and hopefully are reassured that the West is not full of Vicky Pollards.

For that, I’m deeply grateful.


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