Friday, 6 July 2012

One Night in Kiev

I welcome @doohopper for a guest piece on his trip to Kiev to watch England face Italy. A lengthy and vivid account of one man's journey; 5 planes, 3 policeman and 2 missed penalties. Find out if he'd do it all over again...

I should possibly have lied to my bank when they called me Thursday morning asking if I had used my credit card 24 hours earlier to buy flights to Kiev for £xxxx and also making a purchase from the UEFA website.

‘No Sanjay, what is this? Please cancel my cards immediately, my account has been hacked, call the Police’

Despite the mild panic at the realisation I was parting with funds that would wipe out the Greek national debt and buy Kenny Miller for Rangers Newco, I confessed to my new Indian friend at HSBC, that this was my doing and I was chasing a dream.

In an Inception style plot, @UnionManBerlin had sewn the seed in my simple mind. Checking my twitter feed on the tram to work on the morning after our inglorious win over hosts Ukraine, this pops up ‘@DooHopper @footyramblings @tastycfc €40 tickets still available for Eng v Italy. Shame the flights are so expensive. Train fully booked.’

€40 for a ticket to a Quarter Final of one of the biggest football tournaments on the planet? I’ve paid more watching the mighty Grecians scrap out a 3-0 loss at Brisbane Road, East London. This seemed an unequalled bargain. Why not?

The important thing was that I had the bug back, I was enjoying watching England, the football wasn’t great, but there was something that was galvanising the team. We had heart, and a little bit of luck. I was getting nostalgic to memories of 1990, Platt’s volley, Mark Wright’s header and Gazza.

We were poor during Italia 90, despite the false recollections that we were world beaters – just watch One Night in Turin. However, football does not deal in truth. Perception is king and time is a friend of nostalgia. I was starting to have visions of Carroll’s header and Welbeck’s flick being played in years to come remembering that golden summer of 2012, maybe even getting their own Lego video.

Match ticket and hostel blindly booked up, it was just the flights that would prove an issue. All direct flights from the UK were starting at £1200 minimum. I felt like a stock broker, a grubby little man monitoring the market for any value. Each time I set myself a budget I wouldn’t go above, that flight and price no longer existed. I knew in my mind I was going whatever it took, so once I stopped kidding myself, I found a flight that got me there and back in 36 hours for the price of a two week holiday. Here we have the logic of a simple football fan, gambling on the potential memories to come.

‘Brave’, was a word I was hearing a lot when telling people of my impromptu solo trip to the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. Foolish? Yes, brave? Probably if I had given it any thought, but I didn’t so it was foolish. I’ve never had an issue with going to football matches on my own, despite being shy most of the time, I am at my most comfortable within the arena of the football stadia and football conversation, and I have no worries talking to like-minded strangers about the game I love. Mild autism I suspect.

I encountered the first wave of England fans at Frankfurt airport for the second leg of my trip on the Kiev bound flight. Two shaven headed 6ft lads boarded the shuttle bus to the plane, one with ‘Brighton Till I Die’ tattooed in bold letters up his right arm. They sat down next to me, looked up at another guy getting on clasping a British passport, aah one of us we all thought.

‘That’s three of us then I count so far’ muttered the Brighton fan.

I turn around waving my passport in its John Lewis leather holder ‘Make that 4’ I squeaked. We all smiled and were immediately united. We all shared similar tales of breaking the bank and being drawn to coming for this must see game. The next question that follows in any conversation with England fans you don’t know is ‘Who’s your team?’
‘I’m an Exeter fan’ I piped up with a wry ‘someone has to be’ smile.

I received a patronising pat on the back, ‘Good on you lad, we got Harley off you last season, he’s shit’ and so the banter began. I noticed the other bloke, who was a Liverpool fan wasn’t getting the same respect, not in the same bracket as us fans of the bread and butter in our lower league bitter clique. He regaled us with tales of following Liverpool round Europe as a way to prove his worth as fan and not just a Sky Sports armchair supporter.

Our flight got into Kiev at 1.30am local time, the Brighton lads were staying in a Ramada hotel in the centre of town, slightly jealous, but taking the tone of an early 90s Rough Guide presenter I told them I was roughing it in an out of town hostel for 20 euros a night. ‘Have you seen the film Hostel mate’ was the predictable retort. ‘Yes mate, shitting myself’ I guffawed back, making a mental note to avoid any hot Ukrainian girls that could lure me to a sexy yet painful death.

Leaving the airport I realised I really didn’t have a clue how I was getting to my hostel. Outside the terminal I found the Liverpool fan again, I remember him saying he had been to Kiev before so stalked him. Getting into town proved fun. To say we hijacked the terminal shuttle bus would be a slight exaggeration but not far off. The buses usual journey was from terminal A to terminal F within the grounds of the airport. Using the universal sign language of the point at a map, the driver pulls out his wallet and produces a 50 Ukrainian hryvnia note, indicates we pay him this and points to the metro stop on the map in the vicinity of where our respective hostels were. So here we have two England fans taking over a 50 seater bus on a 40km journey for the miserly sum of £4.

The driver waved us off the bus at a closed metro stop; it was now 3am and with no map nor real clue where I was, I headed for the biggest street I could find. Fortunately, a police car pulled up next to me. I took the initiative and pointed at my hotmail print out of the Hostel name and map. In my best Ruski accent, I repeat ‘Hostel Fan Zone?’ believing it to be as recognisable a name as the Kiev Hilton. They looked blankly. They don’t recognise anywhere on the map either, I can tell this as the map passes between each of them and the shrugging of shoulders. One of them spots what looks like a phone number on my piece of paper. He calls it, thankfully they answer at this early hour, some mumbled Russian words later he finishes the call and looks at me and points to the car.

‘In in, present!’ He smiles reassuringly.

Without really thinking about I get into the back of the police car, in the company of three burly Slavic officers armed to the hilt. As I shut my door, the officer next to mean leans over and locks the door. We drive off not sure how this is going to end. The officer in the back with me stares, I look at him and give him a nervous smile and laugh saying ‘thank you’ and ‘you are very kind’ when I really mean please don’t beat me up. The driver asks me ‘Ruski Ruski?’ I take that to mean do I speak Russian?

I thought for one second to recreate one of my favourite Peter Cook jokes.

‘I know one Russian word, Nyet, do you know what it means?
‘No, neither do I’

I wasn’t sure they would appreciate this. We continued driving until he turned into a dark road and what looked like the entrance to a military camp. All sorts of things are going through my mind at this point, local news headlines of captive tourist in Ukraine concentration camp. We get to a barrier with a guard; the driver gets out and talks to him whilst my friend at the back continues to stare at me.

‘Hostel Fan Zone’ The officer says and points as we drive on through a pitch black campus. We pull up outside what looks like a hospital block. The driver gets out and walks into the building. The officer next to me taps me on the shoulder and looks at the front of the car then back at me and says ‘Oil, Oil... present’
I nod and say thank you again. He looks at the wheel and looks a bit more stern ‘Oil, present’ It clicks that he may be wanting some petrol money in the form of a backhander, not really sure what to do or how much to give, if I give them money will they arrest me for bribery, if I don’t give them enough will they arrest me for being tight. I get out a note, and hand it him, he takes it and puts it in his pocket then nods and unlocks my door. I’m free to go. Got away with that one, and I was grateful to what turned out to be some very helpful policeman.

There was one other guy in my dorm room, another Englishman. I apologised for waking him in the early hours. He was still awake, then got out of his bed and walked round the room naked. With my back to him I got into the usual small talk, how long have you been out here? Where am I? etc etc. Who’s your team? He said he used to be a Grimsby fan. Aha, another follower of shite footballer, we have something in common. He then ruins it by telling me he no longer follows them as they are so bad he can’t be bothered. Copy book, severely blotted. This is not the way of the lower league fan, we thrive of shittness, it makes us who we are, success is for losers. Pride is following your team on a cold Tuesday night to Leigh RMI on a 300 mile round trip to see them lose in a FA trophy qualifier. We like to lose, we say we don’t but we like our stories from ‘were you one of the 68 when we lost 3-1 at Lincoln’. I was there; this makes me better than you. I was better than this once loyal cod-head. Even though he was a fellow solo traveller, I dismissed tagging along with him on account of faux fandom and he talked in his sleep.

Five hours of broken sleep later, I set off to explore Kiev. I get directions from some beautiful girls at the reception and plan to explore a bit of culture then get on it. I was only in town for a few hours, the main thing that kept coming to the top of my to do list was eating a Chicken Kiev in Kiev, so whilst I worked out where to do that I stopped off for a local snack at McDonalds. The sun was out and I was enjoying my first proper day of summer. My trip to the Dynamo Kiev stadium was a wild goose chase; there was no need for me to go there. I wasn’t worried, on trips like these there are no wasted journeys, just places you haven’t been before. Chalked off another European ground for my collection, and then headed back to central Kiev for the main part of my trip to get involved in the famous Fan zones and soak up Euro 2012 fever Ukraine style.

The fan zone was huge, not what I expected at all, I had imagined an area like Trafalgar Square sectioned off with a big screen filled with drunken fans without much room to breathe. I was pleasantly surprised. Kiev had sectioned off the main shopping streets, imagine the whole of Oxford Street closed and lined with Carlsberg beer tents and giant screens. You felt immediately part of a big party, even on my own I never felt awkward. Beer was cheap; even if it was probably marked up for this event paying £1.80 for a beer was refreshing change.

I wandered down to where the England fans were congregated, they were in good voice, the national anthem and vindaloo was on repeat; our limited repertoire exposed. A new song was added to the routine, in a post Panorama homage to a former England centre back ‘Fuck Off Sol Campbell.. We Go Where We Want!’ Inflatable spitfires, topless barrel chest loons not surrendering to a now peaceful IRA - this was the England on tour I liked. In fact everyone liked it, England fans on tour are a tourist attraction in themselves, crowds of Ukraine, Swedish, Italian fans look on in awe, taking pictures and recording this circus act.

I moved on from this to explore the area some more. There were bands playing at one end, a 3-a-side football court in the middle, various chill-out zones and a constant flow of cheap beer at every turn. I keep refreshed as I enjoy strolling around talking to Italians, wishing each other good luck, more out of politeness from the Italian as I could tell they knew Italy were dead certs.

As it gets nearer time for kick off, I found some friends of friends to tag along with. They had a spare ticket, turns out you couldn’t give them away before this massive game. So, as any right thinking single bloke would do in a city full of some of the most attractive women you are likely to meet, you offer one a ticket. A grateful local gladly joins us as a token hot England fan for the night.

We were all quietly optimistic about the game, we were conscious of saying too much, but none of us would have made this trip without the blind belief that England could possibly do something a little special.

Walking toward the Olympic Stadium, it stood majestically in the centre of the city, like an alien spacecraft neatly landed and settled, as if it had always been there. I was more than happy with my ticket as I was surrounded by England fans and most importantly, behind the goal England would be attacking in the second half. I was feeling a little smug, as I found out the lads I had joined in the fan zone, paid twice as much for their tickets from the England supporters club, but the joke was still on me as I had forked out 3 times the necessary price for a flight. Who cares, I was loving every minute and was overcome with the blind optimism I get before all games I attend, be it Exeter City v Macclesfield or Exeter City v Manchester United, we’re going to win 4-0. I had no doubt.

The ground was dominated by neutral fans, and I struggled to see any hard core pockets of Italians cheering on the Azzurri. England fans probably made up 3-4000 of the supporters in the stadium, but we made the noise of 10 times that. To the neutral the first 45 may have been hard work to watch, Mexican waves were in full swing around the ground, but ignored and booed when it came to the England camp; we were too involved and too nervous to raise our arms in boredom. We took pride in being level at the break - this was ideal and in my eyes, part of the master plan.

I sent out texts to my friends watching on TV to check if they were watching the same game as me. I often get too wrapped up in the emotion of the event to take a real clinical look at what was really happening. The Pirlo master class washed right over me, I was more excited by Lescott and Terry throwing themselves in front of anything and everything. This was England at their back to the walls best. I have little recollection of the rest of the game.

Extra-time dragged, I was incredibly nervous and the stadium clock appeared to go backwards. Just take them to penalties I thought and we’ve got them. I believed we had the luck to get through this time. I had backed myself at 10/1 to - England to win on penalties, surely this time. I was too confident; I made the school boy mistake of telling everyone my bet was looking a sure thing now. Idiot.

We know what happened. I was genuinely devastated; I really thought this was our year to do something. I applauded the team, I appreciated their efforts to get this far, I turned and left the stadium, didn’t want to talk to anyone now. I had a flight to get in 4 hours. Tired, emotional, maybe a little hung-over now, I was not looking forward to the next 12 hours involving no sleep and 3 flights to get back home.

Neogiating a taxi back to the airport was comical. I engaged in some bizarre bartering with a deaf driver which involved an almost noughts and crosses style game of higher and lower. He writes down one figure, I cross it out, and write another. I was too tired too play along with this and took to the hostel on foot. Eventually I found a decent priced cab and headed to the airport. I shared a departure lounge with dozens of haggard and dumbstruck England fans, all looking dazed and wholly miserable. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I put the ‘Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel on my iPod to cheer myself up.

Watching the sunrise at the terminal, the last 36 hours seemed a blur, a lifetime ago. I didn’t know how was I was going to get through staying awake to get myself on three different flights now. I could barely muster the energy to keep taking off my belt at each check-in point, I was just going to tell them to keep and it let my trousers fall down, I didn’t care.

Nine hours and three planes later I make it back to home soil and on the train back into Manchester, what had just happened? I had been to Kiev and back to follow a dream, it didn’t quite work out, England lost and I didn’t find a chicken breast stuffed with garlic butter, but most importantly, I would do it all over again.

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