Saturday, 23 June 2012

Planes, trains and divine intervention

Jim Minton guests this week with a piece about Euro 2012. Read about a lack of German efficiency, godlike intervention and a tournament that has delivered in the eyes of the fans.

“I think Ukraine tries hard, but it is not really good enough. Most people here like the Swedes. They have been very friendly and know how to have a good time.”
This was the verdict of Andriy, one of the doormen at the Lybid hotel on the morning we arrived in Kiev. The balcony of the hotel was busy with breakfasting Swedes, the beautiful weather not doing some of the fuller figured Scandinavians any favours, and yellow and blue Ukraine flags flew from every taxi and shop window. Clearly not everyone shared Andriy’s pessimism.

We had travelled overnight from Berlin, via Warsaw. This was my fifth consecutive European championship, and to be honest a few weeks ago we’d almost decided not to bother. Hotel prices in Kiev were refusing to drop, and the mood around the UK was at best disinterested, with fewer cars sporting England flags than I can ever remember. Perhaps it was the Olympic and Jubilee effect, or maybe it was just the shitty weather, but I don’t even think the Guardian could raise the enthusiasm – or advertising revenue – to churn out a 64 page supplement for the tournament. Actually, that was a plus. The opportunity NOT to read the thoughts of Stephen Fry or similar was something to be welcomed.

Anyway, as is often the case, the collective doom and gloom – and my own doubts – were found to be misplaced. The quality of the football to date has been excellent – and the well-expressed fears of racism that dominated the build up have thankfully not amounted to anything significant.

Even before we set out from the UK, we’d seen enough to realise this was going to be something of a classic tournament. The way the Russians tore apart the Czechs on the opening day, after the Poles and Greeks had somehow contrived a 10 a side draw, indicated this was going to be an entertaining and not entirely predictable few weeks.

And as it turned out, despite an innate faith in German efficiency, our journey turned out to be entertaining, and not entirely predictable either. Me and Jenny eased ourselves in gently, starting with a weekend in Berlin at the pleasure of Herr (Union Berlin Man) Wilson and Luisa. An evening of art installations and street drinking in Neukölln got us in the mood, followed up by a Sunday double bill of Karaoke in Mauerpark with Germany v Denmark rounding the weekend off nicely. Even better, the venue for watching the Elf was Tante Käthe bar – named after the legendary Rudi Voller, and staffed by polite young women with the great man’s permed cranium embroidered on their breast.

The morning after the Germans had seen off the Danes with perhaps more fuss than the crowd at 'Rudi’s' had expected, we set off East. The train left Berlin bang on time at 6.40. Since it was going via Poznan and Warsaw, it was full of Irish, along with a few Italians and some Croats headed for Gdansk. The first inconvenience that befell us was that the train ground to a halt only a few kilometres out of town. The second was that we were joined by a party of Canadian-Polish artists, who spent the hours we waited in the sidings telling each other how funny they were, and bemoaning the fact that the train was full of “soccerball people” (honestly!).

The delay was due to overhead wire problems and was compounded when we were diverted at the border to a small station where it appeared the Polish railway staff weren’t expecting us. After a total delay of 4 hours, the driver eventually found second gear and we began to accelerate through Poland. Fortunately the delay was such that the artists missed their appointment, so got out at Poznan to return back to Berlin. The Irish didn’t seem to care – as the bar on the train was well stocked. And there was the slightly unnerving sight of the Croats being led across the track by gun toting guards just after the border. It turned out that they were being helped to find taxis to get them to their game on time, although the Irish man next to me did remark that perhaps he’d watched too many war films.

The other consequence of the delay was that it ate up the time we had to change in Warsaw. We’d envisaged a leisurely stroll through the town, maybe a beer or two and a pirogi, stocking up on a few beers, some fresh fruit and bread and cheese for the next leg of the journey. In the event we only made the connection at all thanks to divine intervention. A travelling Polish missionary had replaced the artists at Poznan, on his way to a conference about Papal correspondence with the seventeenth century court in Warsaw. He explained he’d been living with the Inuit for a couple of years, so negotiating with the train company was easy for him. At his insistence, we were bundled out at a special stop on the edge of the city – a kind of Finsbury Park, or Ealing Broadway. From there we jumped in a taxi, showing the driver our ticket to give him the destination and the time of our next departure (which was due to leave in 20 minutes). The driver said (in Polish) “no chance”, but took us anyway.

He kept pointing at the clock and shaking his head, but amazingly, got us to Warsaw Gdanska station only a minute or two late. We legged it into the station – to be greeted by a woman who looked like Angela Merkel, and who urged us to run across the tracks to the waiting train. As we clambered onto the platform, the guard asked were we the mob from Berlin, having been tipped off by the Priest (or perhaps by the priest’s heavenly boss) that we were on our way. Delighted to have made it, I headed straight to the bar. Only to find it was a dry train, and all there was to eat was chocolate biscuits. For 18 hours.

Nevertheless, the journey was fun and passed quickly. Even the two hours when they picked the train up and put on new wheels for the narrower Ukraine gauge railway at the border was entertaining more than disrupting.

And so we were greeted by Andriy, and the Swedes at the Lybid. Our game was in the evening, the dead rubber – effectively – of Sweden v France. We had a couple of spare tickets, but so, it seemed did pretty much everyone in Kiev. Not only was the game due to be a bit meaningless, it also clashed with the more exciting and vital fixture in Donetsk (about 600 miles south west), between England and Kiev.

Still, we went off to the match – having come all this way, we wanted to see the stadium. The streets of Kiev were buzzing – Swedes wanting to enjoy their last night away; and Ukrainians hoping for the right combination of results to take them through. A few French, not really believing that there was a possibility that they could go out. And us, feeling a bit like gatecrashers at a party no-one really wanted to be at.

That made it more fun in a way. The ground was fantastic, even though it was only about two thirds full. And even less so in the second half, when many Ukrainians went off to catch the end of their game. After sitting through as much of the half paced game as we could manage – and buying the obligatory Euro 2012 fridge magnet – we also made our way out, finding a welcoming retro bar where the booze was a third of the price of the stadium, and we were just in time to see Rooney nod in, then the Hungarian 5th official deny the hosts an equaliser which would have made things interesting. The locals were philosophical in defeat. And in fact as it was around midnight that the games finished, we struggled to find bars open late. Perhaps it would have been different had Ukraine won. Or maybe we just went the wrong direction!

The next day was a Euro 2012 rest day. A few English began to arrive in Kiev in preparation for Sunday’s quarter final. We toyed with staying – tickets would have been no problem, and the hotel was comfortable. But the cost of three more nights, changing our flights and the thought of getting back to watch the rest of it on TV were at the end too much for us to resist.

After a day of sightseeing, which included the Chernobyl museum, a pilgrimage to the Lobanovski statue at the Dynamo ground, and a few beers in Maydan Square, we flew back on Thursday. The BA flight was full of England fans. They’d all seemed to have had a great time, and like us had enjoyed the hospitality of the Ukrainians, and it was obvious that many of them had been up late the night before debating whether to change their flight and stay behind for a few more days.

But, all good things come to an end. As I write this, the Greeks are about to go out to the Germans, and the Czechs are already back in Prague. Will England last any longer? We will see – but whatever, they’ve surprised a few people – like the Ukrainians did, with their well run, entertaining and hospitable tournament.

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