“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.