Kiev has never staged an event like it. Two of the biggest names in the business were showing an audience that had flocked from all corners how it was done. Many were stood outside the auditorium peering in to catch a glimpse of the superstars.
The first was a dependable force with decades of success at the top level who almost always comes through with a big performance, even in times of scandal and vice. They have a reputation for drama and tantrums but they are also known as a hard-working and dedicated professional. The other broke the mould several times over but are now forced to get by without a frontman. Their maestros are forced to supply much of the creativity in the absence of the man up top.
Yes, Saturday night in Kiev played host to none other than Elton John and Queen. Considering the country’s rather questionable attitudes to homosexuality, it was heartening to see the welcome afforded to both acts. The city was all but closed to those who did not want to be part of the evening’s entertainment.
The ‘Fanzone’ that currently takes up much of the city’s central area was packed to the rafters. Tens of thousands were stood beyond its boundaries. The crowd was of all ages, with the majority surely unable to remember the days when the pair were in their ‘70s pomp.
Bewigged Elton Hercules John, or Reginald Dwight to his mum, belted out his classic repertoire, from telling the locals that Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting to a reminder that I’m Still Standing. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me is appropriate for a city where dawn occurs at 3am. Both Elton and Queen drummer Roger Taylor are known for being big football fans, so the pair of them have chosen to do what they once did best in return for a ticket to the city’s other event of the weekend.
Queen are, of course, shorn these days of Freddie Mercury and even Paul Rodgers, the leather-lunged former Free frontman who stood in for the great man once Brian May and Taylor decided to revive her majesty. Instead, the singing is done by one Adam Lambert, a veteran of musical theatre, it says here, who is frankly no substitute for Freddie or even Rodgers. But, then again, who is? Brian May’s poodle perm and the guitar he built with his dad out of a fireplace does much of the work. Bassist and quiet man John Deacon, he of Another One Bites The Dust fame, has long hung up his Fender.
We Will Rock You and Bohemian Rhapsody close the set to be followed by an even louder ten-minute display of fireworks. Kiev calms down, in readiness to stage football’s showpiece occasion of the year.
Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy is its venue, a vast arena steeped in Soviet traditions. The ladies and gentleman of the football media have been housed in the arena building next door, the Palace of Sports, which among many big events staged the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest. Lying to the south of the city, the twinned venues are surrounded by what looks like some rather grim blocks of housing.
The city is something of a concrete jungle with very little space given over to greenery until you get north of the main drag, where the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium, named after the father of Ukrainian football and indeed modern football tactics, lies behind a large patch of trees.
Saturday was a calm afternoon and evening for those whose focus was centred on the football. Both Spain and Italy gave assured media performances full of respect for their Sunday night opponents. Some jocularity is on show too. Gianluigi Buffon sardonically denied that he ever watched a ‘blue movie’ before the England game rather than a DVD of penalty takers. In training, Mario Balotelli yawned while his team-mates started their stretching exercises. He trailed dead last in the sprints too. No-one seemed to care too much.
Vicente Del Bosque treated an exceptionally long-winded question about how the Italian team have no hope against him by taunting his interlocutor. “You are very negative considering you are Italian,” he said, almost breaking his hangdog dulaps into a grin before thinking better of it.
Xavi is forced to deny that he Spain are boring on repeated occasions. “We are not bored, we enjoy our game,” he countered at one point. The implication is understandable; Spain’s players, coach and indeed their fans do not find success bordering on the unprecedented in any way tedious.
Spanish fans are in the greater majority in the city, though it was difficult to tell amid all the fans of classic rock on Saturday. Their third major final in four years is not being treated as a formality since there is still a fear of the return of the old ways, where Spain blew the big occasions while the Italians came through on the outside.
Then there is a question of form. Italy look to be peaking to a crescendo while Spain go into the final seemingly still looking for a formula. Del Bosque was guarded on the subject of his formation. The 4-6-0 that has met with such opprobrium is expected but he was giving little away. “We will play with three attackers. There will be three men in front who will be responsible for attacking,” he said, not revealing if this offensive trio will be midfielders by usual trade.
Buffon, accompanied by a smiling and often droll Cesare Prandelli, spelled out the secret of Italy’s achievement of success against the odds and amid turmoil. “There is something unique in the Italian mentality,” he said. “Beyond all the rumours, Italians have a lot of love and respect for the national shirt that goes beyond out physical limitations.”
The stage was set. As Queen once had it, the Show Must Go On since These Are The Days Of Our Lives. And to rob from Elton’s oeuvre, the question of who will be singing Sad Songs will not be answered until late on Sunday night.
Who will be singing We Are The Champions?
It is time to bid farewell to Warsaw, after three weeks travelling in and out of the city, and to wave goodbye to Poland as a whole too. There have been testing times, but both the country and its capital city are recommended as a destination for those seeking friendliness and entertainment.
From my understanding, a budget airline of notoriety is to open a direct flight path to Warsaw from the United Kingdom. There is much to offer should that deal be taken up. What first seems an unprepossessing place offers many delights. Parts of it may be unfinished - scheduled for the tournament only to miss their target - but such damage is merely cosmetic.
The British tradition of the stag do, or ‘lads’ trip’ as it is known when no betrothal has taken place, will soon find a home here. The beer is cheap, the women are often beautiful, and the Poles know how to party. Other staples of such events may be on offer too, but your correspondent has not investigated. However, a cab driver did look shocked when I dismissed his offer to take me to a ‘sexy club’. I must have looked the type.
Beyond such earthy delights lies a city rich in history though often the back story is none too pleasant. Many of the city’s major hotels lie within proximity of the remnants of Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto, where 30% of the city’s population were crammed into just 2.4% of its area by the Nazi occupiers remind of an era of atrocity.
Dominating the skyline around the ugly communist bloc building of Warszawa Centralna railway station, and viewable whenever one appears on the streets from the rabbit warren of underpasses that surround, is Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science.
This building’s distinctly Soviet architecture derives from its founder, none other than Uncle Joe Stalin himself. It is said that the building was built in gratitude to the Poles’ resistance to the Germans. Stalin is said to have offered either a palace or an underground metro system. However, when the Poles opted for the railway, Stalin pleaded poverty and built the palace instead, calling it, with typical despotic understatement Palac Kultury i Nauki imienia Jozefa Stalina (Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science). Stalin is not a popular chap these days, so his name has been removed. The building, for all its imposing grandeur, is rather unloved by the people of Warsaw.
Stalin would probably have been appalled by its grounds’ most recent use - as the Fanzone, a park of hedonism in which football fans could watch the matches, drink, eat and make merry, usually to an appalling soundtrack of Europop and bad cover versions. Its sound system dominated the aural landscape too, right from the early mornings when the full kit was tested in a soundcheck, right up until the night’s viewing came to a close around midnight.
From there a thrill seeker could peel off into the nightclubs that lie around that Centrum area, but the best place to relax with friends is undoubtedly the Old Town, the Stare Miastro, a place littered with squares and streets where restaurants and bars will serve you beverages and local fare if you so choose. The Poles cook pork particularly well, and herring is a regular starter. The best dish I sampled was Zurek, a sour soup containing bacon and vegetables but all wrapped in a loaf of bread. It was stodgy but most certainly filled a hole.
The Old Town is almost always the best place to go in Poland’s cities. Poznan’s rather spread-out town-planning finds its focus in a medieval square. Gdansk may be surrounded by most forbidding dockyards and cranes and its stadium be impossible to get to without a 45-minute walk through wasteland unless you manage to get a train there but its centre is delightful. It is littered with churches of elaborate design, its waterfront offers good food and much to look at. Gdansk is a city rebuilt in the image of its former self after it was levelled by bombing in the Second World War and it works. It is possible to imagine a market scene of centuries gone by as you walk the streets. The press pack which had been covering the Irish, Spanish and the German camps were unanimous in their desire to return and see more when they might not quite be so busy.
The stadia themselves I visited were all first-rate. Warsaw’s National Stadium was described by a well-travelled colleague from the BBC as the best stadium he had ever been to. It was hard not to agree. Poznan’s Stadion Miejski was Poland’s only non-purpose-built ground and its compact setting and perfect pitch would place it as the envy of many a Premier League club. Gdansk’s PGE Arena, once circumnavigated, is excellent too. Your correspondent sadly never made it to Wroclaw, but reports were similar.
But if there is to be a memory of watching the European Championship here it will be of Poland’s football fans, and their devotion to the cause, and even beyond it. The best supported team at any game, whoever was playing, was ‘Polska’. The Germans travelled to the town they call Danzig - Gdansk - in huge numbers but still the greatest noise was to be heard from those dressed proudly in the host nation’s colours.
“Polska(aaaaa...), Biało-Czerwoni” is the anthem - Poland, we are red and white - to the tune of the Village People/Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. A Saturday evening in the city when the football was being played in Ukraine saw the night sky ring with that song. By this point, Poland had been out of the tournament a week.
Even as Italy were ending German dreams on Thursday, this was the anthem that rang loudest in the National Stadium. The Poles continued to have pride and they have much to be proud about. They have been excellent hosts.
My internal jukebox, that part of the brain that plays a random song throughout the day, can often be controlled. It usually places the first song heard in the morning onto constant rotation. So just make sure that first song is one that you like. By the end of a day, you probably won't like it much anymore, and especially if the jukebox, a keen indicator of stress and state of mind, decides to go into overdrive, but you can limit the psychological damage.
Working at a football tournament does not allow such discipline. Early mornings and late finishes, and in my case the loss of the necessary equipment, do not lend themselves to quiet moments of reflection and the piping in of a favourite song to enhance mood. A mere stroll into the breakfast room can wreak havoc.
The Polish, while often a shy bunch, don't much enjoy the sound of silence. Instead, pop radio must be belted out at high decibel levels, even when a bleary-eyed hack is contemplating his continental breakfast of bread, cheese and unidentified processed meat.
Polish pop radio is no place for a pretentious elitist. The very furthest reaches of irony are tested by their playlists. My early days in the country had me first amused and then increasingly horrified by Bucks Fizz's Land Of Make Believe pumping out in taxis and restaurants.
Another forgotten favourite in Kim Wilde's You Came also revealed a country's love for the Kids In America hitmaker. The late 1980s, a time when Poland was struggling to find a new identity after four decades of communist oppression, was a time of cultural awakening. Here was perhaps the first time that music from the West could be heard and cherished.
The cut-price imperialism of Stock, Aitken and Waterman made its way swiftly east. Rick Astley, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue and late-period Wilde are thus still cherished by Polish radio DJs. Meanwhile, Rochdale chanteuse Lisa Stansfield and Sade, the seduction choice of many a Sol-supping smoothster in London's wine bars of the 1980s, still have an appreciative audience here.
Europop's classics live on too. Dr Alban and Ace Of Base bring back the spirit of 1993, while Roxette's exhortations to join the Joyride are still responded to. It was only a matter of time until Haddaway totem What Is Love? would be heard and that moment arrived in a cab from Gdansk Airport to the PGE Arena. With a week still to go, Sydney Youngblood must surely be in the offing.
Those of a more rockist bent can be sated by Alannah Myles' Black Velvet, and a selection of Bon Jovi's post-<emSlippery efforts, with Keep The Faith leading the charge. It would seem rude not to, it had to happen and, yes, The Scorpions' Wind Of Change rang out triumphantly as we sped down the Pomeranian coastline to Sopot in the small of hours of a morning. Stockport lads 10cc's Dreadlock Holiday had one wondering whether the Polish either don't like cricket or instead love it.
My three weeks have been a trip down a musical memory lane I would rarely choose to venture down. One central Warsaw hotel I stayed in had the 'advantage' of being near the ever-noisy FanZone. There, a combination of the previously described classics and songs in the latterday Polish hit parade pump out from 8.30am until its closure beyond midnight. Even when I stayed during a supposed 'rest day', I was treated to a school choir performance and later that evening an excruciating cover version of 4 Non Blondes' What's Up?, that summer-of-1994 call to arms to the misfit.
That night, I heard the show eventually shut down with some relief, drifting into a sleep that would soon be disturbed. The greatest of the many thunderstorms I have witnessed here began around 2.30am and raged on. It eventually calmed at 4am, only to be replaced by the ringing sound of feedback from the Fanzone PA, which had clearly either been hit or jolted by the lightning. It was eventually switched off at 5am, to the relief of the inhabitants of my hotel, and a concierge desk clearly bored by repeated questions from guests about when the noise might stop. Sleep was resumed, only to be ended by the testing of the damaged PA at 8am. It fired itself up with the Jarzebina's Koko Euro Spoko, the handiwork of a group of singing nuns.
But if ever there were a place to ravage the internal jukebox then it is a Euro 2012 stadium itself. And there is one song above all others that has polluted and then infested my troubled psyche. As at World Cup 2010, a stadium has a playlist, and this time it's even more limited. I now yearn for Waving Flag by K'naan or even Shakira's Waka Waka. I would prefer the torturer to be the more credible sounds of The xx's Intro or even the prog-rock of The Alan Parsons Project's Sirius. Yet I am denied by a piece of modern Europop that is truly inescapable.
Considering its ubiquity and infectiousness, Oceana's Endless Summer possesses an apt title. It provides the bed music for Polish TV coverage, moments between halves, and while match highlights play on stadia's big screens.
I dare you to listen and not to find its onomatopoeic charms worming their way in, the sound of the "drum, drum, drum" beating its way into heavy rotation on your internal jukebox. Resistance, for me at least, has been useless.
Mark Lomas explains why pre-tournament warnings against travelling to Ukraine were staggeringly wide of the mark.
The majority of my time in Ukraine has been spent in the city Kharkiv. Although it has plenty of understated beauty, including the meandering river and Shevchenko Park, it is certainly not a glamorous place and is more used to welcoming students than tourists. Yet it has wholeheartedly embraced the hosting of the European Championship. After three Group B games, the city’s involvement in Euro 2012 officially came to an end in exciting style on Sunday night as a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal beat Netherlands to progress to the quarter-finals. “I came for Holland, my brother was for Portugal and my wife – well she was supporting Ronaldo”, one Kharkiv native, Iegor, joked.
For the people of the city, it was a final opportunity to catch a glimpse of the sort of international superstars who are unlikely to play in the city again unless Metalist can find a way to finally end six successive seasons of third-place finishes and qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. Euro 2012 has exposed thousands of people to Kharkiv and seen Kharkiv exposed to thousands of people - it is a union that would never have taken place without the tournament.
Let’s not pretend it was all plain sailing or that Kharkiv and its influx of 30,000-plus supporters was always a match made in heaven. Some local people have expressed their disappointment, for example, that while the undeniably eye-catching signs adorning the Metro system are an attractive addition, the money used to install them could have been instead used to service roads or other more vital aspects of infrastructure. Similarly, one could understand if anyone who resided in the city centre had begun to tire of hearing half-cut Dutch fans passionately declaring their love for Robin van Persie at 5am through the medium of song.
However, discussions with a wide cross-section of Kharkiv’s inhabitants - including volunteers, bar managers, local journalists and even non-football lovers - have always yielded the same conclusion: Euro 2012 has been good for the city and they are proud to have played a key role in the success of the European Championship.
Aside from the word ‘pride’, though, there has been another that has repeatedly cropped up in conversation with Kharkivites. Panorama. That has usually been followed up by three more – ‘Sol’, ‘Campbell’, and ‘bulls**t’. If the BBC believed they were simply creating a 30-minute documentary to be absorbed by the UK taxpayers, they rather naively underestimated its reach.
For those unaware of the storm, the BBC’s flagship investigative journalism programme filmed instances of racial abuse and fascist sympathising during Metalist Kharkiv matches, then showed them to former England defender Sol Campbell and asked him to judge the country’s ability to host a tournament based on some isolated incidents of hooliganism.
No-one in Kharkiv is denying the existence of the lamentable scenes - many have watched the programme and all who have join in with condemning the actions. However, the only opportunity Kharkiv has had to defend itself – mitigation that includes the belief that a camera could be taken into any football stadium in the world and pick up similar examples of unacceptable behaviour from clubs’ ultras – was through a nervous-looking police colonel. Even then, around 45 seconds of his interview was shown, compared to nearer 10 minutes of footage of meetings with a local hooligan group and of the match-day incidents, there was also no mention of the fact that Kharkiv is actually one the Ukraine’s most multicultural populations because of its wealth of international students.
The programme concluded with Campbell warning English fans to stay away from Ukraine. They listened. What is usually one of the biggest travelling contingents in international football, with 20,000 people usually expected to follow the Three Lions, was reduced to a collective of just a few thousand. Some have pointed to economic factors, but there is no doubt that Panorama played a major part.
The programme damaged the pride of the hugely hospitable Ukrainian people, who have been unfairly tarred with the same brush as a racist minority and been made to look like savages. It has also hit the co-hosts in the pocket - England supporters’ mass absence depriving a service sector of what would surely be among its most prolific customers – while also causing damage to Anglo-Ukrainian relations.
Embarrassingly, it has also appeared to prejudice the English media’s views of the country. Ahead of Portugal v Netherlands in Kharkiv, I heard a notoriously whingeing football pundit from a major TV channel making some staggeringly ill-informed comments about the city and its people and I was shocked when his colleagues joined in with the jibes. “The grimmest place I’ve seen”, was one description. I have absolutely no doubt he had not spoken to a single local or even ventured outside the proximity of his hotel.
It is supposed to be the job of the media to accurately inform the public and the ignorance of some of these professionals leaves me genuinely incensed. They are fortunate to be reporting on a major football tournament and yet a surprising number take their position for granted and completely waste the opportunity to explore a new country and absorb a new culture.
Ukraine has done a fine job of hosting the tournament and without exception, every supporter I’ve met has echoed that sentiment. I will leave it to an England fan I met in Kiev to conclude this rant of near ‘I would love it...’ proportions, with his fantastically forthright assessment.
“People getting along does not make news. We’ve had plenty of great nights, some great parties with Ukrainians and other people from all sorts of different nationalities. Will the media report that? Will they boll**ks. England fans have had a ball, and I’d urge anyone who can make it out for the quarter-final to do just that.”
Metallist Kharkiv fans Paul and Iegor were among those left angered by the BBC's Panorama programme.
Mark Lomas explains why Donetsk loves The Beatles.
“Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play...”
The sound of England’s most famous musical exports filled up the carriage: Beatlemania had hit the No.158 express train from Donetsk to Kharkiv. The sentiment of the song being belted out by five Ukrainian football supporters and one English football journalist was certainly relevant – the previous night, we had all borne witness to the ‘Deluge in Donetsk’, as a 2-0 defeat to France brought the expectations of the hosts crashing down to earth and certainly left Oleh Blokhin’s players needing a place to hide away.
It turns out The Beatles really are very popular here, and it is in Donetsk that one of the most surprising tributes to the Fab Four is located. Because the city was founded by a Welshman in 1869 – entrepreneur John Hughes was behind the initiation of the coal and steel industries that are still booming there today - there exists a love of all things British. Nowhere is that more obvious than the Liverpool Hotel complex, which includes a food market, nightclub and, of course, a life-size monument of The Beatles, complete with a soundtrack of their greatest hits on constant loop and even a traditional red telephone box thrown in for good measure.
Like the band, as a late-night drinking establishment, Liverpool Hotel is peerless. Supporters of Ukraine, France and England danced merrily away until the hours, while ‘high-profile’ guests included the UEFA competition winner who handed the man of the match trophy to Franck Ribery after Les Bleus’ victory at Donbass Arena. “Ribery was not very friendly, but at least I have a photo to keep for life,” was the slightly disgruntled Frenchman’s assessment of his experience. The venue has got rolling news channel destination written all over it and I am waiting in anticipation for an interview with the manager, during which he will invite Merseysiders Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard to partake in some post-match beverages.
Donetsk is characterised by juxtaposition, though not only because of the presence of a somewhat kitsch Beatles-themed hotel nightclub nestled among more traditional cultural establishments such as the Opera and Ballet Theatre. The city’s association with steel led it to be twinned with England’s equivalent industrial metropolis, Sheffield, but Donetsk’s abundance of billionaires ensures the similarities stop there. It is an odd sight, seeing rusted relics of the days when the Iron Curtain was firmly shut shuddering along next to gleaming Porsches and 4x4s; there exists a more striking disparity between the upper classes and the rest than in many of the other cities I have been fortunate enough to travel to.
Before departing I was delighted to find time to take a ride on one of the perilous looking “trolley buses”. I am neither an adrenaline junkie nor a public transport aficionado, but for some reason there was something life-affirming about travelling on a vehicle that could well have been made during the early John Hughes years, and that felt it may collapse inwards at any given moment. There may be a new fleet of shiny purple buses provided for the Euros, but I’d take the Soviet style any day: it has far more character.
The train journey back to Kharkiv provided yet more fond Ukrainian memories to take away. Firstly, having worked myself into a frenzy upon realising I was almost certainly going to miss said train, the couple whose home had been my resting place the previous evening threw me in the back of their car and sped me to the station. Should Donetsk ever join fellow billionaires’ playground Monte Carlo in hosting a Grand Prix, I can now recommend a decent route. It was another display of unbelievable kindness towards a complete stranger, even one whose embarrassing Russian pronunciation continues to provoke endless giggling fits in all native-speakers who hear it.
Then came the encounter with my Beatles-loving chums. Knocking back vodka like it was lemonade, my immediate presumption was that they were drowning their sorrows after Ukraine’s defeat at the Donbass. But while inevitable post-mortems of the game followed during the four-hour journey, it turned out they were in fact celebrating Paul’s 28th birthday. “It is not what you think. We do not drink vodka every day,” the birthday boy protested, before inviting me to join a toast.
With a slice of apple and some drams of Fanta to wash it down, I sat contentedly with the Two Alexys, Yegor and Paul. Conversation ranged from sport to politics - from Metalist Kharkiv manager hopes of finally breaking the Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev duopoly on the Ukrainian Premier League to Vitali Klitschko’s hopes of becoming the country’s next president (I was previously unaware that he has his own political party in Ukraine). As the train rolled into Kharkiv, e-mail addresses were swapped and a plan to reconvene the festivities the next day was drawn up. There was even time for one final rendition of a Beatles classic that they merrily declared was what England will need if they have any chance of beating Ukraine: Help!
As an event to shake liberal principles, being robbed must rank near the top. That moment of deduction, when it becomes clear that your property has been taken from you, is one of crashing emptiness, anger and impotence.
Just about everybody has been a victim of crime, and might be able to relate to those feelings. So please forgive my self-indulgence. Perhaps the deepest anger is derived from the memory of realisation approaching. These are seconds of self-doubt, a fear that you might have gone mad. This cannot be happening. Then, the worst is realised. It's all gone, and you won't be seeing it again.
Then come the hours of frantic administration conducted in the afterglow of violation. Shock and anger are shrouded in disbelief until a feeling of defeated resignation takes hold. Next comes suspicion and helplessness. And these are hard to shake off.
An evening watching England's defeat of Sweden with friends in Warsaw's Fanzone is all but forgotten, tarnished by my return to my hotel room. The door had not been forced. That only heightened the confusion at the lack of the laptop I had plugged in to charge. Instead, someone had circumvented the hotel's keycard system, let themselves in, and then set to work on my valuables.
They were systematic. Their method of entry meant they had time to be so. Each electrical item's power supply went with it as did the various protective sleeves. They didn't even make too much of a mess. Credit cards were left, as were passport and accreditation pass. They didn't bother rifling through an increasingly smelly clothes bag. I cannot blame them for that, at least. Those omissions register as small but important mercies though gratitude hardly feels applicable.
I wasn't alone; another guest had also been stolen from by the same method. An "inside job", they call it. The plainclothes policeman was sympathetic, the hotel staff defensive. This had never happened before, apparently. No-one else could have been in my room. The computer system said so. Had I been drinking? I had, but have rarely felt as starkly sober.
Two hours were spent down a Polish police station, giving evidence through an interpreter. Sat on a rusty chair, in a room stained by tobacco and time, with wallpaper peeling from plaster, I told a corpulent cop what had happened, what had gone, what I knew. The answer to the last was very little. I have little hope of ever knowing much either. A sleepless night ensued. Perhaps I was foolish to take such things to the tournament. But then again, I am here for a month, in which there are long hours of downtime and travel. Should have I used the safe? There wasn't one in the room. The thief or thieves would have got to it anyway. The clock ticked on in fevered thought.
I shall never meet the perpetrator but it would be an interesting encounter. If moral superiority were to allow me to be circumspect rather than vengeful, I would like to ask them some questions. Why and how of course lead the list. Did they experience any sense of guilt? How do they circumvent feelings of conscience? Are people like me, from a richer country just fair game to them? Does not knowing me mean that this is almost a victimless crime to them?
And beyond that, how are they getting on with my record collection? Are they big fans of The Fall too? Are they confused by an iPod memory that ranges from Jason Donovan to Popol Vuh? Bill Orcutt: genius or dirge? Did they too enjoy reading the story of the Pogues, as told by accordionist James Fearnley? Do they wonder why I don't read fiction? Why do I have such a large collection of books about Brian Clough?
Of course, my iPod and Kindle are probably wiped by now and I must travel across Poland and Ukraine without anything to read or listen to. First-world problems, but a pain nonetheless.
The hotel's defensiveness soon turned to frantic apology. I was shifted to a suite, had plates of fruit delivered to my room, was offered the run of the mini-bar, and a free meal. They paid for me to be driven to buy some new equipment. My thief had more than one victim; a professional reputation had been sullied.
And there is a further casualty. I had developed good feelings about Poland, a place that prides itself on hospitality and providing a warm welcome. Now, sadly, I find it hard to be so well-disposed. Whatever happens at Euro 2012, a truly excellent tournament played in some very friendly places, the memories are tarnished. I do not plan to continue to wallow in self-pity - and apologies for doing so here - but any wide-eyed excitement is unlikely to return.
Saturday night saw me walking home amid the aftermath of Poland's exit from the tournament. Their fans were still singing in sorrowful defiance. My sympathy went out to them, and still does. Their support was truly exemplary. But as I walked, I began to hope that my thief was a big football fan. And if he or she was Polish, had suffered a really bad night.
Mark Lomas reflects on the impressive efforts that went into rescuing Donetsk's match from disaster after Friday's deluge.
You had to admire the Donbass Arena DJ’s sense of comic timing. As a tropical monsoon lashed down on the stadium’s 50,000 inhabitants, he cranked up the volume and blared out Pitbull’s ‘Rain on Me’ – a truly apt accompaniment to those brave souls who stayed out to embrace the storm. While Gene Kelly’s ‘Singin In The Rain’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain’ or even Milli Vanilli’s ‘Blame It on the Rain’ would surely have sufficed, he kept it contemporary. A job well done.
He was not the only one who kept his cool as panic struck Donetsk during France vs Ukraine. As the clouds above first began to weep, UEFA’s merry band of blue T-shirted volunteers were on hand to swiftly pass out plastic desk covers to the journalists frantically trying to save their laptops from drowning. Ponchos were also distributed, providing a perfect souvenir alternative to the UEFA-branded mass-market memorabilia being touted everywhere. It may not be a 15 euro key ring, Mum, but at least it’s a real taste of the tournament.
I have never before seen such a frantic press box. While other notable water-related crises have had ‘women and children first’ as their rescue mantra, our closest version was a particularly perturbed Swedish hack beseeching “There’s no WiFi, how will I Tweet?!” Equally determined not to let the deluge dampen the commitment to social media, I crept into an abandoned broadcast booth to deliver my own live updates. The fear of a lightning-induced electric shock made it all the more exciting – in a profession where the biggest danger is a repetitive strain injury from too much typing, it made a refreshing change.
At times of stress and uncertainty, journos love nothing better than a good anecdote and there were a few veterans reminiscing about the 1974 World Cup, when West Germany v Poland was temporarily abandoned before going ahead in abysmal conditions. I weighed up whether to proffer my own story of reporting on a match that suffered a 45-minute delay, but decided that describing Lee Parle’s horror leg break in a Unibond Premier League match between Marine and Ashton United would probably be a touch embarrassing in the aftermath of discussions of Grzegorz Lato and Gerd Muller.
There was not just a slight fear in the press box that the game would be called off, it appeared unavoidable as the pitch was partially submerged. When entering the Donbass Arena at ground level, the stadium opens up below you; a space-age structural specimen, it appears as though it could have been forged by a meteorite striking the Lenin Cosmosol Park. While this ‘dropdown’ is a delightful design aesthetic, though, it is not ideal in a practical sense as it collects the water like a basin.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you... yours is the Earth and everything in it and - which is more - you'll be a man my son.”
Whoever translated Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ into Cyrillic is nothing short of a hero because I fully believe a copy was posted between the lawnmowers and bags of fertiliser in the Donbass groundsmen’s quarters. A combination of Shakhtar Donetsk’s hefty investment in an ultra-modern drainage system and good old-fashioned elbow grease led to a seemingly impossible situation being salvaged. Not since the days of witch trials have pitchforks been wielded so furiously.
When the players returned to the pitch, my feeling was overwhelmingly one of relief. Firstly, because I feared the referee may not have made it home alive had the game been abandoned. As Dutchman Björn Kuipers strode around the pitch using that most scientific of methods for testing water levels, throwing the ball around, he was barracked by the home fans and was surrounded every step of the way by a gaggle of UEFA officials, who were no doubt reminding him every few seconds of exactly what was at stake and quite possibly mentioning the phrase ‘sleeping with the fishes’.
More than that, though, my relief was for Ukraine. The country has resoundingly defied the doubters who claimed they were not ready to host Euro 2012. Having answered all those material questions, it would have been heartbreaking had a meteorological problem wrecked proceedings. The early morning train from Kharkiv to Donetsk on Friday was packed with supporters, many of whom had been waiting, and in some cases saving, for five years in unparalleled anticipation for their country to play a match as hosts of a major international tournament. It was the same at the fan zone in the city’s Shcherbakova Park. A sense of pride permeated everything from the several renditions of Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life to the four-a-side kickabouts and the entertaining folk dance-offs.
“We just want to welcome the world to our country,” Vitali, a Shakhtar supporter, said. “I am a seaman and have been lucky to travel to new places but there are many people in Ukraine who have never left the country. The Euro [Championship] is the next best thing as we can meet other football fans from all over Europe.” France may have spoiled Ukraine’s party at the Donbass Arena with a routine 2-0 win, but the resilience shown in rescuing the game from the jaws of logistical oblivion is further evidence of the country’s exemplary hosting skills.
Some of Ukraine’s wealthiest individuals reside in the city of Donetsk and the cost of their lavish lifestyle in this oligarch’s playground is millions. Being draped in your country’s flag while dancing in the rain to Rihanna at the Donbass, however, is priceless.
Warm welcome: Shakhtar fan and able seaman Vitali in the fan zone.
“So that’s when I decided it was time to leave the Mafia”
Having drifted in and out of sleep for the previous few hours, trying desperately to stay awake as we careered at 100mph down the MO3 motorway that separates Kiev and Kharkiv, that statement from our driver made my ears immediately prick up. Who needs matchsticks to stop you sleeping when you’ve got anecdotes about the criminal underworld...
My time in Ukraine had begun in such a civilised way, too. Though I had meticulously planned my route from Boryspil Airport to the Olympic Stadium, I was delighted when Kiev native Oksana, who I had met on the flight from London, offered me a ride into the city with her parents. Conversation (more accurately, Oksana translating the exchanges between us) swiftly turned to football and no decoding was needed to understand the two words on everyone’s lips on Tuesday, “Andriy Shevchenko”.
The Dynamo Kiev striker’s namesake, Taras, is one of the most revered figures in Ukrainian history; a 19th century poet and intellectual, he has statues erected in his honour in three of the Euro 2012 host cities.
While Andriy’s cultural contribution in scoring a match-winning brace against Sweden was not quite as noteworthy, there will no doubt be plenty clamouring for a Metro Station to be named after him should those goals seal Ukraine’s progress to the knockout stages of Euro 2012.
Kiev’s Olympic Stadium is a magnificent sight, with its cascading blue and yellow seating a nod to both the colours of the national team and the crest of permanent residents Dynamo. Signs around the stadium, and throughout the city, have been translated into English, much to the relief of myself and any other visitors who try but miserably fail to decipher the unfamiliar Cyrillic alphabet. UEFA volunteers, dressed in blue at the stadiums and in green in the city centre, give directions and guidance – all the time maintaining sincere smiles and excellent levels of patience.
After a whistle-stop tour of some of the cities must-see tourist attractions – including the magnificent gold-domed churches of Kyevo-Pecherska Lavara – it was time for my onward journey to Kharkiv.
They say the course of true love never did run smooth, and so it’s lucky I really adore football.
A trip to Kiev central train station was supposed to yield a three-hour express train to Kharkiv, destination of my first match of the tournament: Netherlands v Germany. At worst, I had anticipated it would bring a place on an overnight train – an experience I thoroughly enjoyed when inter-railing around Europe in my late teens. What I didn’t expect was to find that all tickets, for both trains were продані (sold out).
Having been standing alone at the station for about 20 minutes weighing up my options, and with the UEFA volunteers for once unable to find a solution, I was greeted by a hoard of lads clad in Oranje. “Are you trying to get to Kharkiv?” their main man ventured. “We wanted to get the night train, but there are no tickets – we are trying to organise a bus, if you want to join.” So there it was, a Dutch lifeline.
It turned out that the quintet - Martin, Nick, Tim, Dan and Mark – supporters of Feyenoord, PSV and Ajax between them - had already endured a particularly arduous journey in a bid to follow Bert van Marwijk’s boys. A missed flight had led them to make what ended up as a 22-hour car trip to Warsaw, where they caught a flight to Kiev; to compound their misery, Tim’s luggage had not arrived in Ukraine. “We’d better beat Germany after all this,” was the universal feeling.
We were scouring the station forecourt for a six-person vehicle with a driver willing to make the seven-hour overnight trip to Kharkiv, when another pair of weary-looking travellers overheard Dutch being spoken. Journalist Max van der Put and his son Ruud were also desperate not to wait until the morning train, which set off at 7am and arrived at 4pm, ensuring the early-afternoon festivities would be missed. The football fan is an adaptable specimen and so it was decided that the eight of us would travel together.
Minutes later we met Oleg. Built like a cage fighter and bearing a passing resemblance to compatriot Vital Klitschko, he spoke softly and in excellent English, despite protesting otherwise. As the elder statesman of a new octet, Max had the honour of sitting alongside Oleg in the front - the only seat with a safety belt. Many an Obolon and Chernihivske beer were sunk, and we were regaled of tales of previous tournaments – Max has been to see Netherlands at every major finals since 1988.
Each drifted off one by one as the night rolled on, but I couldn’t let myself fall asleep, for fear that one of the many lorries being overtaken at breakneck speed would lead to our demise. Oleg maintained a Terminator-like stance, crunching nuts to keep himself awake, but despite him taking in an unreasonable amount of Red Bull, I worried he might fall asleep, so kept up the conversation.
Then came the revelation.
“For 18 years I was in the mafia,” Oleg recalled. “I know that I disappointed my family and I did some terrible things. My mother prayed for me. Then one day I was in a big fight and I was stabbed in the back with a knife. I was bleeding everywhere and lying in the backseat of the car, I prayed that if I stayed alive I would change. I survived, so that’s when I decided to leave the mafia. Now I am a Christian and I have become a pastor, I am a new man.”
Initial disbelief soon turned to drowsiness – we’d shared a moment and I was satisfied that a pastor would not want us all to suffer death by 18-wheeler so I drifted off. When I awoke, we were in Kharkiv and we all went our separate ways to enjoy our first game of the Euros.
It was certainly a surreal first experience in Ukraine, but I can’t wait to see what comes next.
The band of merry travellers at a service station between Kiev and Kharkiv.
John Brewin finds Ireland's fans in reflective mood and recovery mode after defeat to Croatia in Poznan
"We would like to invite you for Irish whiskey and Polish beer," proffered the airport bar. It registers as quite a challenge to take on such a potent combination after enjoying the delights of Poznan for the two days that Ireland and their not exactly shy Croat counterparts have occupied the city.
That type of welcome has been extended throughout. Poznan, aside from its old town - the walled medieval Stare Miasto, to call it by its Polish name - is not blessed to be remembered as a beauty spot but good times have been had. That Polish beer is not to be trifled with. Its sweetness hides something of a kick, and those who chose to quaff in their usual quantities will likely have paid the price of a significant hangover.
It will hardly help the collective Irish headache that their team was so uninspiring. "We forgot how heartbreaking these football nights can be," said Monday's Irish Times. Ireland are not just here to have a good time, despite all the clichés. The 3-1 defeat to Croatia was their first loss in a major tournament's opening match and it hurt. For a brief moment, goalscorer Sean St Ledger looked as if he could be a Ray Houghton from 1988 and 1994, a Kevin Sheedy from 1990 or Matt Holland in 2002, but once Croatia began to settle into their rhythm more Croat goals and further pain were in store for the Irish.
Poznan would be no fairytale of New York, or sensation in Stuttgart. Conditions, despite the rain that took the heat out of Sunday evening, counted against them. A local official spoke of his pride in the quality of the Municipal Stadium's pitch, and the ball certainly zipped between Croatia's midfield playmakers. Your scribe can only compare it to the National Stadium grass, which was sneaked onto in a late-night incursion brought to an end by some angry groundsmen. Warsaw's playing field looked that little bit too long when compared to Poznan's bowling green turf.
Perhaps Ireland will be better suited by Gdansk's pitch, the subject of complaint from both Cesc Fabregas and Vicente Del Bosque, though they make a return to Poznan to play Italy in what already looks likely to be a send-off from Poland. An Irish wake is fully expected.
Saturday night had been akin to a particularly rowdy night in Dublin. There is a considerable Polish community in Ireland's capital so some form of cultural exchange took place. An indulgence in some late-night cuisine gave rise to a scene rather reminiscent of visiting a kebab house in the back streets round Temple Bar. As an aside, the large doner probably tasted a bit better.
Tales of tickets being mislaid and campsites being closed off filled the square, where beer stalls complemented the many bars permanently on offer. The violence that has made worldwide headlines was minor to these eyes, and 14 arrests from over 30,000 fans seems quite a low ratio. Poland's police are the type to hit first and ask questions later, and the riot cops you will have seen pictured made their charge in what seems an attempt to stop trouble before it got started. Onlookers said it came as a surprise amid what had been a largely convivial atmosphere, but if nothing else it worked as a show of strength.
Thankfully, the greater majority of sore heads were self-inflicted. As we landed in Warsaw on Monday lunchtime, a young supporter from Derry related how he was glad to be heading home. His body could no longer take the battering he and his companions had subjected themselves to. Indeed, he said some of those making their way to Gdansk for the Spain game had expressed their envy at his return to his own bed; a place where such temptations are more avoidable.
Still, he agreed, his pals would have regained their second wind by the time Thursday came around. The Irish may be taking the football more seriously than many have given them credit for, but they are still keen to make this a celebration of being at Euro 2012. They will enjoy it while it lasts.
John Brewin brings us his first offering as he lands in Warsaw:
As a build-up to the moment the world turns its eye to Poland, it is low key. The streets are somewhat empty. Of greater interest to those tourists who have made their way into Warsaw's centre would appear to be the religious verse being chanted in the street. It then becomes clear. This is a bank holiday.
It is not just the British who celebrate these, then. Whereas the United Kingdom has just spent four days celebrating 60 years of its monarch, Poland is observing the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is a country where Catholicism has a significant hold. A public day of rest has been declared even when the country's biggest football match since the 1980s, and a moment to show off the new Poland is being prepared for.
This might be 'MD-1', as UEFA refers to it, but there is still something of an air of unreadiness. The level of organisation is not quite as high as it could be. Questions of how to get to the stadion meet with some befuddlement until you realise that police have been drafted in from across Poland to service the big kick-off. Once a local is found, the only confusion is supplied by the recipient of the information.
A run-in with ticket inspectors ends with a light admonishment, with "welcome to Poland" being the sign-off once recompense has been paid over. It is a constant refrain, from the taxi driver who plays good samaritan and then charges an eye-watering fare for the 7km journey from airport to hotel, and from the smiling waitress who delivers traditional Polish fare of a herring starter and a pork chops main course.
"England, my favourite, my winner," lies the cab driver. "Rooney good player." He seems not to know or care that his man will not be playing in England's opening two matches. As we speed into the city, mostly via bus lanes perhaps not supposed to be used by semi-legal cabbies, the tree-flanked boulevards that bissect the city are strewn with Euro 2012 regalia.
Warsaw, which declares itself the fourth tallest in terms of skyscrapers behind Paris, London and Frankfurt, is a mix of architecture, from the classicism of the 'Old Town' to the many greying tower blocks that dominate most former communist cities. Poland may be modernising fast but it cannot hide the scars of its history.
That said, some of the more down-at-heel scenery is no worse than that to greet those Olympic visitors who may go off-piste in East London. And Warsaw has a venue to match, too. The National Stadium is high sided and imposing. The night before the game, what appears to be a tarpaulin is stretched to shelter the pitch from what looks like potentially stormy skies on a humid day.
Polska flags adorn many cars to remind that Friday is the day that the Poles have been waiting for since April 18, 2007, the day the country was declared as co-hosts with Ukraine.
The name of Robert Lewandowksi is on many lips. The Borussia Dortmund striker's face litters advertising hoardings. Warsaw's local lad made good in the Bundesliga is expected to deliver on his country's big night out. A pre-match press conference's running theme is stress and tension. Or, at least, it is as far as the local press are concerned. They reflect a nation's understandable nervousness.
Lewandowski's Dortmund colleague, and national captain, Jakub Blaszczykowski seeks to diffuse the tension by describing the players' own methods.
"Some of like to listen to music," said the rather statesmanlike Kuba. "Others like to chill out. We are all experiencing the tension but we are a little bit above it, on the second floor. We all play in clubs where the tension is quite high. A player waits his entire career to play in a great stadium in front of great fans."
Coach Franciszek Smuda added: "We can see the support on the streets. We can be proud as Poles that we have created a beautiful stadium. And there will be such a good atmosphere. I hope the fan culture will be as we expect. The last hours before the match, the discipline of my players is on a high level. I don't have to check whether they are in their beds."
The implication is clear. Even if Poland and Warsaw do not feel quite ready, the national team want to show that they are.
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