KHARKIV, Ukraine – It’s goodbye to Kharkiv.
When Portugal’s game with the Netherlands at the European Championships ended Sunday, so did Kharkiv’s involvement as host city. From now until the end of the tournament, the lone Ukrainian cities to stage matches will be Kiev and Donetsk. No complaints about the Metalist Stadium or, more importantly, how to get there. It's located in the city center, and several metro stops are a short walk away. But perhaps the consistency in security needed improving: While bags were checked in Donetsk and Kiev, not so in Kharkiv.
The Dutch are saying goodbye to Kharkiv, too, which was predicted after the group stage in terms of moving on to a quarterfinal host city. But the Oranje are heading home at the first hurdle, and as such, they deserve to be dissected a little more because the fall from grace is so staggering -- from finalists at the 2010 World Cup to the biggest flops in Poland and Ukraine.
Four things let the Netherlands down: missed opportunities, a leaky defense, no unity and a lack of mental toughness – and the latter included the coach. The order is up for debate.
All last week, Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk was harping on about the first game against Denmark and how his team should have won – and comfortably – instead of losing 1-0. He did it again after the 2-1 reverse to Portugal. “There were times we had chances to turn it in our favor, but due to the loss against Denmark, that’s where the uncertainty started,” he said. “Had we won the first game where we had so many chances, then we would have had a different team.”
Rafael van der Vaart, one of those unhappy players for most of the Netherlands’ tournament, added, “We lost all confidence after losing the game against Denmark.”
Van Marwijk didn’t galvanize the squad the way he needed to after the loss to Denmark, although dealing with as many egos as he has to must give him one massive headache. Furthermore, the Netherlands still had it all to play for against Germany, yet the hangover remained. No wonder Van Marwijk’s future was brought up in Sunday’s postmatch news conference. “I’ve just lost a third game here,” said Van Marwijk, who was quick to point out he has a contract until 2016. “You can ask me all types of questions, but you shouldn’t ask questions about my future now.”
On defense, left back Jetro Willems went from good to poor to poorer in his three matches as he deputized for Erik Pieters. At 18, he’s hardly the person to blame, even if Wesley Sneijder was annoyed with him several times for not overlapping against Portugal. Right back Gregory van der Wiel couldn’t cope with Ronaldo, and John Heitinga was a disaster in the central defense against Denmark and Germany. In all three games, the back four changed. Judging by his performances, holding midfielder Mark van Bommel has seen his last bit of action at a major international event.
If keeping clean sheets was an issue, the goals then had to flow. They didn’t. Robin van Persie misfired (except for one strike), Arjen Robben underwhelmed and Ibrahim Afellay was close to invisible.
With the average age of the outfield starters against Portugal at 28, not including Willems, the outlook heading into the 2014 World Cup won’t be as rosy. “It’s basically the same team as two years ago except for a few positions,” Van Marwijk said. “We did try to make the team faster and also younger, and also to make it better in depth. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to do what we did in 2010. Everything had to fall into place, and it didn’t. The players who usually make the difference for us for one reason or another didn’t really reach the level of fitness as before.”
Away from the pitch, the Netherlands’ elimination is unfortunate. Its colorful, plentiful fans brought energy. Sadly, the masses of Swedish fans won’t be around in the quarterfinals, either.
“I think we all need to take a good look at ourselves to see what went wrong, to at least realize that his cannot happen again,” defender Ron Vlaar said. “But it did happen, so let this be a hard lesson. What can I say to the fans? Sorry it didn’t work out the way you expected, but it wasn’t the way we expected.”
KHARKIV, Ukraine – With two losses at the European Championships, it’s no surprise the Dutch have gone back to their old ways. Divisions in the camp have been highlighted.
Manager Bert Van Marwijk hasn’t been afraid to rip into his defense and holding midfielders, particularly after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Germany.
But his opposite number in Kharkiv on Sunday, Portugal boss Paulo Bento, has done no such thing. Bento adheres to the ‘There’s no “i” in team” philosophy and refuses to criticize individual players when they probably deserve it.
At least twice in Saturday’s press conference Bento was asked about separate performers. One, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo.
When it was suggested to Bento that both of Denmark’s goals in Portugal’s last-gasp 3-2 win on Wednesday came partly as a result of Ronaldo failing to track back, he remained fairly neutral.
“Every player has a determined number of functions, and this player we’re talking about now is more focused on the offense,” Bento said. “There are others for the defense. But what we tried so far is to have a balance. I want the whole team to be united and consistent, and that includes defensive work by the more offensive players.”
When striker Helder Postiga’s name was mentioned, Bento didn’t take any credit for sticking with him against the Danes – the much maligned Postiga finally scored. He spoke of his side’s unity and ability to bounce back even as chances against the Danes (that’s you, Cristiano) came and went.
“In one way we could have decided the second game earlier,” Bento said. “What was missing was that the two great chances weren’t taken; there’s a fact that one of the best players in the world hasn’t scored with these two big chances. But we have shown such a great effort by scoring at the end of the game, and that’s very typical of us and the whole Portuguese nation.”
And when a reporter wondered what it was like working with Ronaldo, Bento used the opportunity to praise the entire squad.
“I have great pleasure to work with this competent and great group that likes the competition and that likes to train,” he said. “The players are very professional and have great ambition. Obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo has. So for that it would be a pleasure for any coach, but that applies to the whole group.”
All of which makes sense given that Bento was a defensive midfielder during his playing days. Hard work and sticking to an assigned task are what earned him more than 30 international caps. There was hardly any flash in his game.
Dutch captain Mark van Bommel, a disappointment in the two defeats, was present in the Netherlands’ press conference along with Van Marwijk, which had journalists guessing. Would he start or was Van Marwijk trying to throw Portugal off?
Van Marwijk jostled with one Dutch reporter for an extended period – which van Bommel seemed to enjoy – before the moderator stepped in: “That’s enough for an interview. Let’s start the press conference.”
“You’ve been talking three or four minutes about the team, and you talked about the weather as well – and that was your best question,” a tense Van Marwijk said.
Near the end of the short session with the media, van Bommel said the atmosphere inside the dressing room wasn’t bad. To advance from the Group of Death, the Netherlands must win by at least two goals and Germany has to top Denmark.
“It’s not what it would be like if we won twice,” he said. “That’s normal. It’s not that we’re completely down. We have a nice last chance and we’re going to take it. I wish it was as bad as the atmosphere in the Spanish team and they still win 4-0,” he added, referring to Spain’s victory over Ireland.
Van Bommel, who likely has contacts there after spending a season at Barcelona, should be more concerned with his own team.
Team. There’s that word again.
KIEV, Ukraine – Before delving into Ukrainian air travel, I have to mention former French international Christian Karembeu again. Never met the guy and have nothing against him personally. I’m sure he’s nice enough.
But entrusted with picking the sponsors’ man of the match in England’s action-packed 3-2 win against Sweden in Kiev on Friday, he chose Swedish defender Olof Mellberg.
Did Karembeu suddenly go out for a drink after 60 minutes, not realizing England actually triumphed and Theo Walcott scored the tying goal and set up the winner as a sub? Yes, great finish by Danny Welbeck on England’s third goal, but Mellberg was meant to be marking the Manchester United striker. Mellberg was also in the vicinity on Andy Carroll’s opener for England.
No wonder Mellberg looked sheepish when handed the man-of-the-match award in the postmatch press conference. Mellberg and teammates will be on a plane back to Sweden on Wednesday.
And on the subject of planes ... I’d never flown with a Ukrainian airline before and so didn’t know what to expect. I’d gone online to look at reviews of airlines, glancing at Skytrax, self-proclaimed as “the world’s largest airline review site.” I chose to take all my internal flights with Ukrainian International, the official airline of the Ukraine national team. Somehow it made me feel safer knowing that millionaires Andriy Shevchenko and Anatoliy Tymoschuk routinely fly in its planes. (I watch too much of "Air Crash Investigation," I know.)
Still, when determining what star rating Skytrax had given Ukrainian International, I was hoping for three. I looked down the list of three-star airlines, which included American Airlines, Delta and Air Canada.
Please be there.
But no, there was no Ukrainian International.
Darn, please don’t be a one star.
It wasn’t. Instead, it surfaced in the two-star category. The nerves increased when I saw the other airlines in the two-star range. However, I gained a bit of comfort in spotting Ryanair, the budget European company that I’ve flown regularly for city breaks.
Putting me more at ease were these passages on Wikipedia: “UIA is the only airline in the CIS which performs full technical maintenance for its own fleet” and “on the 2001 Papal visit to Ukraine, UIA was the official carrier of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.” Was it true? Not sure.
Who cares? Ignorance is bliss.
As it turns out (so far!), I was overreacting, which has been known to happen. Far from a twin engine, the planes I’ve been on have seemed fairly modern and similar to other airlines with heftier reputations. Boeings, too. On my journey from Kharkiv to Kiev on Thursday, former England international Chris Waddle was on board. In business class, of course, and I also saw ex-Swedish manager Lars Lagerback. I asked for an exit seat and my wish was granted. The extra legroom makes all the difference.
It’s happening less and less at airports around the world, but on all the internal flights, buses have transported passengers to the plane and then to the terminal building when in the arrival city.
When entering the terminal building in Kiev, the first sight that greeted passengers was an odd baggage carousel. This, honestly, had to be the shortest one you’ll ever see, about 10 yards in total.
I’m guessing there were about 130 passengers on board and many checked in luggage, so hovering around the carousel weren’t “two banks of four” but more like four banks of 15.
One more internal flight to go. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
KIEV, Ukraine – We’re at that time at the European Championships. Have your calculators at the ready; fans must wonder who goes through to the next round and who doesn’t if two teams – or more – are tied on points. Hopefully results on the final match day, which begins Saturday, will make it easy for all of us. But there’s bound to be some head-scratching at the final whistle in Group A, B, C or D. Or maybe more than one. Maybe every group will be in chaos.
Here’s the key thing to remember: Unlike at the World Cup, goal difference isn’t the first criterion used. It’s head-to-head instead.
"If two or more teams are equal on points on completion of the group matches, the following criteria are applied to determine the rankings:
a) Higher number of points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question;
b) Superior goal difference resulting from the matches played between the teams in question;
c) Higher number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question;
d) If, after having applied criteria a) to c), two teams still have an equal ranking, criteria a) to c) are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the two teams in question to determine the final rankings of the two teams. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria e) to i) apply in the order given;
e) superior goal difference in all group matches;
f) higher number of goals scored in all group matches.
If still unable to separate teams, three more tiebreakers are used, culminating with the dreaded drawing of lots. Note that if only two teams are tied on points and they tied each other in group play, then "d" becomes redundant and overall goal difference applies. Here’s a closer look at potential scenarios.
Russia 4, Czech Republic 3, Poland 2, Greece 1
The easy: To have any chance of reaching the next round, Poland and Greece must win. In Poland’s case, if it does secure all three points, it earns a guaranteed spot in the quarterfinals since it would be taking down the second-place Czechs on Saturday.
Most likely: Russia will beat Greece to clinch the top spot, leaving Poland and the Czechs to battle for second.
Head scratching: If Greece wins and Poland and the Czechs draw, Russia, the Czechs and Greece would be tied on four points. In that case, criterion "a" wouldn’t settle the matter but "b" probably would given Russia’s three-goal win against the Czechs.
Germany 6, Portugal 3, Denmark 3, Netherlands 0
The easy: A German win or draw coupled with a Portugal win or draw against the Dutch would see Germany and Portugal advance. If Portugal and Denmark finish on four points, Portugal goes through based on their head-to-head.
Most likely: The Germans to beat Denmark. If it happens, Portugal is guaranteed second with a point.
Head scratching: There are two scenarios. If Portugal and Denmark win, those two nations (and Germany) would finish on six points. If the Dutch win and Denmark loses, Portugal, the Dutch and Denmark end on three points. In both cases, criterion "a" doesn’t provide the answer, but "b" or "c" likely would. One thing is for certain: A Dutch win by two goals or more and a Denmark loss means the Oranje take second place.
Spain 4, Croatia 4, Italy 2, Ireland 0
The easy: If Italy doesn’t beat Ireland – which was the first side at the Championships to be eliminated – Spain and Croatia advance regardless of the outcome in their game.
Most likely: Spain to beat Croatia and Italy to beat Ireland, leaving Spain and Italy as the top two.
Head scratching: Only one set of results will cause any sort of deliberation: Italy winning, and Spain and Croatia tying. Spain, Croatia and Italy would rise to five points. In this case, "a" and "b" are out. If Spain ties Croatia 1-1, then "e" comes into effect. A draw of 2-2 or higher and the Italians are out based on "c." But a 0-0 would see Italy win the group and Spain finish second ahead of the Croats due to a better group goal difference.
France 4, England 4, Ukraine 3, Sweden 0
The easy: Sweden is eliminated, making it two of three to advance. The only way Ukraine can advance is if it beats England. Even a French loss and Ukraine draw would see France move on based on their head-to-head.
Most likely: Swedish manager Erik Hamren said Friday it would take his team at least 24 hours to recover from being ousted. It might require more time. France to win and England not to lose, giving both nations a spot in the quarterfinals.
Head scratching: This group is easy compared to the others. No three-way ties are possible. If France and Ukraine finish on four points, France wins. If France and England end on four points, overall group goal difference would likely be the deciding factor.
KIEV, Ukraine – It was off to Kiev, leaving the charms of Kharkiv and Donetsk behind. And they were indeed delightful, apart from getting ripped off by a cabbie who wanted 10 euros for a 10-minute ride. The going rate in Kharkiv for such a journey is about half that. But it was after 2 a.m. -- those 9:45 p.m. kickoffs, with all the postmatch activity, linger -- and I wasn’t about to argue. I needed a bed for a few hours’ sleep.
Before shifting attention to England and Sweden in Kiev, I spent some of the plane ride from Kharkiv to Kiev thinking back to Germany’s 2-1 win over the Netherlands (see picture of the stadium).
It’s difficult for managers to come to news conferences when still heated up and maybe that’s why Bert Van Marwijk seemed to contradict himself. He knew all the questions he was going to be asked, so when making an initial statement (to lead things off), he delved into the defense, space that shouldn’t have been there for the Germans, formations and of course, Arjen Robben. He said he was pleased with Robben’s play when he shifted to the role of second striker in the second half, yet Van Marwijk took him off for the more defensive-minded Dirk Kuyt with the Dutch chasing the game.
Van Marwijk also spoke of the role Klaas-Jan Huntelaar played in livening up Robin van Persie in the second half. Pushed into a deeper role, he felt that the German defense’s preoccupation with Huntelaar gave van Persie more space to manoeuvre. Instead of facing one-versus-two scenarios, he was one-on-one and thus more dangerous.
The only positive for Van Marwijk as the Dutch face an early exit is that he’ll probably know his starting 11 for Sunday’s game against Portugal right now: Mark van Bommel, out; Rafael van der Vaart in. Ibrahim Afellay, who has disappointed on the wing, out; and Huntelaar in. Pity Van Marwijk can’t do much about his shaky defense.
Germany manager Joachim Low, in the wake of a victory, was understandably more composed. There was still, however, room for improvement. I thought Lukas Podolski had a great game. He didn’t do anything going forward, but that was because he had to help Philipp Lahm contend with Robben for most of the night. When a German reporter suggested that he – and Thomas Muller – could do more offensively, Low agreed. Low was far from critical, uttering his words like a loving father rather than an annoyed manager. The same, he said, went for Mesut Ozil.
Low will be without the services of suspended right back Jerome Boateng against Denmark. Did Boateng do a Steven Taylor and feign injury when it looked like he stopped Wesley Sneijder’s vicious drive with his arm in the box when it was 2-1? Low, as he said himself, might move Lahm to right back and employ Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer or make a straight swap and pick Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender, usually a midfielder.
Unlike Van Marwijk’s, any changes Low decides to make with Germany on six points won’t be overly scrutinized.
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- If only hotels these days had DVRs.
I desperately wanted to watch Ukraine face Sweden on Monday in a battle of teams that traditionally wear yellow and blue, but that was impossible since England and France had just ended in Donetsk and it was time to write my follow-up story. What a party pooper, my editor. (Just kidding, boss, you’re the best and always will be!)
The game in Kiev was on in the background in the press room -- of course, I glanced over when I had the chance. When Ukraine scored the equalizer, fireworks went off, leading a colleague and I to look at each other simultaneously with a smile. We thought, at first, it might have been thunder following a hot and humid night.
By the time I returned to my hotel room -- by the way, the walk to the stunning Donbass stadium hours earlier was delightful, leading me past a park along the river where people played beach volleyball -- the match was in injury time and the host was hanging on. When the final whistle blew and Ukraine prevailed 2-1, cheers could be heard from a floor below. The vodka must have been flowing.
At breakfast in Kharkiv on Wednesday morning, I asked a couple of locals what they thought of the game and Andriy Shevchenko, the two-goal hero. “We didn’t expect much from him, because he was injured and after Milan, he didn’t really do much,” said Nikita, no doubt referring to Shevchenko’s time at Chelsea. When I asked him if Shevchenko was a massive sporting hero in Ukraine, he added, “Before he wasn’t. Now he is. Now everybody loves him. When we were losing 1-0, I thought there was no chance we could win.”
Aleks, whose English wasn’t as good as Nikita’s (but was much better than my Ukrainian) chimed in: “I could not believe that we won.” As I walked around the center of Kharkiv (a picture of the opera house shown above) to burn off my yummy breakfast of Ukrainian pancakes (which would be classified as dumplings in North America), I noticed several teenagers donning the yellow and blue of Ukraine from head to shoe. Mini flags, pinned to car windows, flapped in the air.
Next, Ukraine meets France on Friday before taking on England, which will have Wayne Rooney back at its disposal. In the meantime, Nikita was hoping for the best. “If we could beat France or England, it would be huge,” he said. Bidding adieu to the pair and about to make my way up a flight of stairs, Aleks raised his voice to declare, “Ukraine, champion.”
Now that would be something.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- It’s always nice to see a home team do well at a tournament, so -- nothing against Sweden -- Ukraine’s 2-1 win was thrilling. The game marked the end of the first match day, to use Champions League parlance, at the European Championships, so it’s time for a look at who’s hot and who’s not through the opening eight matches.
Andriy Shevchenko: Like Fernando Torres, Sheva learned just how difficult it was to usurp Didier Drogba at Chelsea and ended up savagely criticized by the British press during his failed spell in west London. Part of that, though, was down to injuries. Even if Shevchenko, on his last legs at 35, doesn’t produce another goal in the next week and Ukraine is ousted, he’ll never forget the two he bagged against Sweden in Kiev to send all of Ukraine into rapture. Bravo.
Michael Krohn-Dehli: A mini story of redemption. Injuries contributed to a poor stint at Ajax, but Krohn-Dehli saved his best for the Dutch by scoring the winner as Denmark stunned the 2010 World Cup finalists, 1-0. His work rate was outstanding and outshone a teammate (Christian Eriksen) with a beefier reputation.
Mario Gomez: Gomez was one of those who got nervy in the Champions League final. The chances came ... and the chances went. Germany manager Joachim Low put his faith in Gomez by starting him against Portugal over the more reliable Miroslav Klose; Gomez repaid the boss by scoring a nifty winner.
Alan Dzagoev: Even though Dzagoev, an attacking midfielder, scored four goals in qualifying for Russia, there was talk that his place on the team wasn’t guaranteed; Marat Izmailov was pushing for his spot. Manager Dick Advocaat opted for Dzagoev, and he scored twice in the Russians' 4-1 win against the Czech Republic. It should have been a hat trick, but Dzagoev shot wide when presented with another good opportunity.
Antonio di Natale: Maybe now the oft-overlooked Udinese striker will get a start. His finish was as cool as they come, deceiving Iker Casillas -- one of the best goalkeepers in the world -- in Italy’s entertaining 1-1 draw with Spain. And he’s another 35-year-old.
The not so good
Robin van Persie: Is this the same guy who led the EPL in scoring? Van Persie had enough chances to claim a hat trick, or possibly more, in the Netherlands’ defeat. Instead, he didn’t even test Danish keeper Stephan Andersen. The worst moment? Whiffing when put through by his dear friend (not!) Wesley Sneijder.
Arjen Robben: The Dutch winger was almost as bad as van Persie. The villain for Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, it looks like his confidence hasn’t returned. One-on-one with Andersen, he should have shot instead of passing. Then, with van Persie in acres of space, he shot instead of passing -- hitting the post. He’s confused.
Fernando Torres: Changing jerseys from Chelsea to Spain did nothing for Torres' confidence issues, and manager Vicente del Bosque showed what he thought of El Nino by starting Cesc Fabregas, normally a midfielder, at striker against Italy. When Torres entered as a sub, he messed up three opportunities to win the game in the final 15 minutes.
Wojciech Szczesny: If Shevchenko experienced a high by scoring at home for Ukraine in a massive tournament, this was almost certainly a heavy downer for Szczesny. Poland kicked off the tournament in Warsaw against Greece and the Arsenal goalkeeper was a complete disaster. He was at fault on Greece’s goal and rightfully saw red for taking down Dimitris Salpingidis. A worry for Gunners fans, perhaps, who thought their goalkeeping problems were over.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov: With Russia eventually coasting past the Czech Republic, a few might forget Kerzhakov’s evening. Following a promising start, linking up well with Andriy Arshavin and Dzagoev, Kerzhakov spurned at least three golden chances. He’ll be relieved that Advocaat didn’t hold it against him.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- It was time for room service Sunday night. In truth, it’s been room service every night -- not because of any suspicion about local restaurants, but if forced to dine alone, the TV isn’t a bad companion.
I called and ordered borscht, plus veal medallions for the main. What can I say? I was hungry. About a half-hour later, in the time slot I was told, up came my food. The polite lady says, “I’m sorry, but we didn’t have the borscht ready.” So while bringing me the veal, she offered chicken soup instead, presenting the bowl to me. When I told her I wasn’t a fan, she proceeded to say she could have the borsch ready in 10 minutes. I wondered why they couldn’t align the meals but didn’t make a fuss -- as she seemed genuinely sorry.
Borscht is a dish loved deeply in Ukraine, perhaps even more so in the winter, and I’m not sure why I didn’t try it last week. Maybe it was due to my fondness for the pierogies they had on the menu at my first hotel in Kharkiv. Up it came, eventually, the thick morsels of beef interspersed with beetroot to give it a deep, red color. I’m no expert (having never tasted it previously), but I thought it was pretty good. The traditional accompaniments of bread and sour cream arrived, too.
No complaints about the cuisine overall in Ukraine (long may it continue) -- and that included the breakfast buffet this morning (pictured). Had I been more adventurous, I would have gone for the crème brulée.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN KHARKIV AND DONETSK, Ukraine -- The search for a taxi after Saturday’s game between the Netherlands and Denmark was a long one. As you would expect, the streets around the Metalist Stadium -- located not far from the city center -- were still blocked off well after the final whistle.
Police, who were scattered around the stadium in bunches, politely pointed visitors to a traffic light on a main road about a 20-minute walk away. En route, several bars were open and disappointed Dutch fans sipped beverages to numb the pain of their team's stunning 1-0 loss. One could be heard muttering, “I can’t believe van Persie.”
Once in "position," hailing a taxi turned out to be a lot easier than it is in New York City (oh, joy!) and during my half-hour journey back to the hotel, I had a fascinating chat with the driver, Igor, whose English was a lot better than my Ukrainian. The sojourn was longer than anticipated since Igor, at first, brought me straight into the heart of downtown traffic and initially, the wrong hotel. I won’t hold it against him.
With racism sadly at the forefront during this year’s tournament, I asked Igor if he’d heard about the BBC’s Panorama program, which documented South Asians being attacked at the Metalist Stadium and other nasty scenes. To my surprise, he said he had. He then got all animated. Hands in the air -- and temporarily away from the steering wheel -- he said it was “all politics” and claimed there was no “Nazism” in Kharkiv. In fact, he was adamant.
The people of Kharkiv weren’t racist, either, he added, and to back up his statement, he pointed to the (much derided) Eurovision Song Contest. Ukraine’s representative, Gaitana, voted for by the public, is half Congolese.
“I lived here my whole life and have never seen anything like that,” said Igor. Like many cabbies around the world, Igor was well-educated, a biologist by trade. He turned to driving because jobs weren’t plentiful in his field -- and loves being in his car.
Rise and shine
After a late night, I was up at 4:45 a.m. local time -- adrenaline delays drowsiness -- to catch the train to Donetsk, where England and France square off Monday. The air-conditioned, modern, two-tiered train left on time shortly before 6:30 a.m. and my carriage was filled with about half-a-dozen jubilant Danish supporters who looked like they didn’t get much sleep, either.
I began chatting with Kim Damgaard, an affable, very likable chap who could strike up a conversation anywhere.. (He’d go on to tell me he lost his virginity at the age of 12.) Damgaard, a Danish fan for 30 years, still had trouble digesting what happened Saturday. But with three points in the bag, he began to ponder a place in the quarterfinals.
Not usually a backer of Simon Poulsen, he admitted the left back put in a great shift. He also had praise for Daniel Agger in the center of defense.
However Damgaard wasn’t keen on the Dutch fans, saying they weren’t gracious before -- or after -- the game. “I told one of them I would be happy with a 1-1, and he said, ‘No chance, we’re going to beat you three or four nil,” Damgaard said. “And after the game, a lot of them were saying, ‘You’re going to lose the next two games.’ Only one guy said, ‘Congratulations.’”
“I can’t believe how arrogant they were,” his friend Christian Bagge added. “There were so many.” Bagge wore the jersey (pictured above) he caught from defender Per Kroldrup (he of the poor spell at Everton) in the defender’s most recent international outing two years ago.
Beginning the four-hour trip, another member of the entourage provided this comical chant:
“Mich-ael Krohn-Dehli, you are the love of my life, Mich-ael Krohn-Dehli, you may s--g my wife, Mich-ael Krohn-Dehli, Mich-ael Krohn-Dehli.”
Thanks, guys. The trip went by in a flash.
We’ve all been there before so you could only feel sympathy for the female questioner. No ridiculing necessary.
At the pre-match presser Friday before the Netherlands took on Denmark in Kharkiv, the reporter asked Danish coach Morten Olsen and the two players (Lasse Schone and Dennis Rommedahl) flanked beside him what their early impressions were of the city they’d be, she said, playing three games in.
One moved forward and clarified that the Danes were only playing one game in Kharkiv. Yes, the reporter must have got confused with the Dutch, who contest all three of their fixtures in Kharkiv. The red-faced reporter quickly apologized and was consoled by a colleague behind her.
It reminded me of a similar gaffe I made when covering the Montreal Expos (oh, how I miss them) a decade ago for the Canadian Press, although this one was far worse since information in a story was factually incorrect. Manager Felipe Alou celebrated some kind of milestone, a significant one, in a time when the Expos had become a franchise of the penny-pinching variety. There was a toast in the clubhouse afterwards with plastic Gatorade cups, and I (silly me) presumed the beverage was also Gatorade. And so in the story it went.
The next morning, one of the Expos’ PR guys called me to say that it was actually champagne. D’oh! I called my editor, who put out the dreaded Correction on the wires. When I arrived at my seat later that day as the homestand continued, what was sitting on my desk? A bottle of Gatorade. Me and the relaxed PR guy (where are you, Francois Boutin?) had a good laugh.
Friday’s press conferences were indeed humorous. The local representative who introduced the guests got mixed up when giving out the date of the Netherlands’ title at the Euros, and that drew a smile from captain Mark van Bommel. The Dutch media officer was a no-nonsense type, intent on finishing the presser as fast as possible.
Olsen, hours earlier, played cat and mouse with a Danish reporter who he obviously had history with. When the reporter asked about the midfield, Olsen began with something to the effect of, “Let me first say we’re so glad you are here.”
Picking up the tournament media pass was an adventure. Dropped off in front of the Metalist stadium, I searched in vain for 15 minutes for the “Accreditation Center.” I then bumped into a fellow reporter, on assignment for the Toronto Sun, and proving that two heads are better than one we soon found what we were looking for. The compound was hidden away beside the stadium, making our task more difficult. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)
Then, once inside, there was an issue with my name. Apparently, officials were perplexed that the first name on my passport didn’t match the first name on a certain part of the tournament application – what everyone calls me is the shortened version of the passport listing. The very nice volunteer finished dealing with me and directed me to another desk to get my pass. That was done in five minutes, and along with the pass came a nifty bag (which might be left somewhere in Ukraine if it can’t fit into my small piece of luggage). But she also said that a superior might be calling me later to ask me some questions. Hmm...ok. I went with it. She added that if I didn’t pick up the phone, my accreditation would be cancelled. I immediately thought of the letters ‘KGB.’
Alas, no phone call came. Or maybe I missed it.