“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 is greeted by a sea of green as Ireland fans flock to Poznan
The morning after the night before was one of regret for the people of Poland. There were bleary eyes at Frederic Chopin Airport though some red-and-white bedecked fans were gamely attempting more beer at 6.40 am. The big night out had hardly been a disaster but it was not quite the triumph that all had yearned for either.
Those ubiquitous Polska flags hung just that little bit more limply, and I am informed that the vast amount of money that those might have yielded has not even gone to Polish pockets. My cab driver on arrival in Poznan told me that it is actually a Romanian company that makes them.
His other topic of conversation was the previous night's match. "First time fantastic, second time catastrophe," he laments. "It is stupid, so stupid."
Though a distance away from the scene of the crime, Poznan is clearly still feeling the pain. On Tuesday, the Russians march in to Warsaw on their own independence day. And the implications could be almost fatal if Dick Advocaat’s side play as they did in Friday night's other fixture.
The hosts could go to their last match with their fate out of their own hands. It is a worry for the spirit of Euro 2012 since a tournament flies better when the hosts are still involved.
It would be a shame if Poland, and of course Ukraine, were to go the same way as Switzerland and Austria did in 2008, and South Africa did in 2010. Poland's performance, and that of the home crowd, brought back echoes of the last World Cup's opening game. Poland hopes Robert Lewandowski will not be their Siphiwe Tshabalala - a man supplying a golden moment that was still not enough.
But the tournament moves on and Poland can at least comfort itself by playing mein host. Chopin Airport is full of people making the trip to their next match. A group of English TV techs in official-looking polo shirts talk about how they managed to watch BBC TV via the internet. "Have I Got News For You" was supposedly a classic episode on Friday.
The flight to Poznan is tinged with green, since the region of Wielkepolksa's biggest city hosts the Republic of Ireland's first game in a major championship for ten years and its first at a Euro finals since 1988. Twenty thousand Irishmen are expected in Poznan. On the way to the stadium, a Winnebago with Irish number plates sits beside us at a set of traffic lights. There are 1553.36 kilometres between Dublin and Poznan, so a red-eyed drive has clearly been undertaken by its passengers. Outside the stadium, a fully grown man is dressed as an Eire-shirt-clad potato. It seems he is advertising crisps.
Ireland's hordes are visiting a city rather different to Warsaw. It is lower slung, a large market town of typical Central European style. Its 'Old Town' is baroque, its newer reaches look distinctly Euro-surburban. There seems far more room to breathe in Poznan than in the sometimes cramped streets of Warsaw, where congestion is not helped by the unfinished masonry that litters much of the capital city's central business district. Poznan, at least, looks more complete, and better planned.
Whereas Warsaw's Central Station is an eyesore from the old communist days, and was completed in time for the visit of Soviet Union General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in 1975, Poznan has a spanking new, glass-fronted station to welcome the many travellers making their way on Poland's labyrinthine lines.
The city is keen to make an impression. As well as offering a tour of "the technological monuments of Wielkepolksa", the hotel provides me with a guidebook that proclaims Poznonians to be "frugal, hard-working and well-organised". They may well need to be all of those qualities when welcoming Ireland's unique party atmosphere to their city.
And Poznan has a famous fan. None other than Giovanni Trapattoni.
"I have known Poland, for many years," he said before leading his team out to a storm-interrupted final Saturday night training session in the Municipal Stadium, the only Polish stadium not to be purpose-built. "I came here with many important clubs such as Juventus.
"Some months ago, we saw the stadiums and saw lots of work to be carried out, but they guaranteed that it would be finished on time. As I know Poles, I had no doubt about it and they really performed in a fantastic way."
An Italian-Irish-Polish alliance is being struck in west-central Poland.
Follow John Brewin on Twitter
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.
Follow John Brewin on Twitter