I saw Ukraine’s football party 10 years ago – I’ll support them against Wales | Ed Vulliamy

Even with my Welsh heritage, I know which team I want to secure a place at this year’s World Cup in Qatar

On Sunday evening, every football fan in the world – apart from the Welsh – will be joined by many others who do not even care for the game in rooting for the national team of battered and besieged but resilient Ukraine as they face Wales for a place in the World Cup in Qatar later this year.

Watching here in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, even I, with a substantial quotient of Welsh DNA, will be wearing my official Ukraine yellow football shirt with “Malinovskyi 8” on the back.

The game could not be more poignantly, or cogently timed: just 10 years ago this week, a hugely successful football tournament kicked off, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. Euro 2012 was seamlessly set astride the eastern border of the European Union, the frontier across which millions of refugees have now fled their native land over the past 100 days. Now, those 10 short years feel like an unthinkable lifetime.

Not everyone will remember Euro 2012 fondly. Some of the ultra fans that follow Ukrainian – and Polish – clubs are among the most infamously racist crews in football. For that reason, the families of England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stayed home. But I don’t remember anything in summer 2012 to resemble the vicious racism with which England’s Under-21 team was assailed in Serbia that October. It was football and fun – the kind of prolonged, dotty international street party for which we love the game at its best.

With business to see to in eastern Europe that summer, I breezed into Ukraine with a friend from Warsaw for three matches. There is little to mutually embitter fans of Denmark and the Netherlands – or the good citizens of Kharkiv and the fans of its team, Metalist Kharkiv – so that when the two north European nations met to play there on 9 June 2012, the local fans were ready to greet both for a boulevard-and-bar jamboree.

I registered a band of Metalist ultras called Sect 82 who, after Denmark’s 1-0 win that night, pitched up at the Patrick Irish pub in town – its walls adorned with beer mats from all over the world. They were part of the bartering of Ukrainian and club scarves for foam-rubber Viking helmets and “Hup Holland Hup” sunhats, learning songs in tricky languages over Obolon premium beer.

Gareth Bale clapping hands
Wales will be led by Gareth Bale in the play-off, with almost every fan in the world supporting Ukraine. Photograph: Rebecca Naden/Reuters

Ukraine v Sweden in Kyiv was the host nation’s opening game on 11 June, and a battle between titans: Ukraine’s national hero Andriy Shevchenko, who had returned to play for the home Dynamo Kyiv team after sojourns at Milan and Chelsea, and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, who had just left Milan for Paris Saint-Germain. The former scored twice, the latter only once, and Ukraine’s 2-1 victory launched euphorically hopeful festivities into a warm night, happily conjoined by defeated but devil-may-care Swedes, who converged on the central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), with several attempts to climb its central column, an Obolon over the eight.

The ride from Kyiv to Donetsk – a city founded by a Welsh steel magnate at the invitation of imperial Russia – for Ukraine’s game against England was easy and pleasant, aboard a newly installed Hyundai train along on a refurbished high-speed line. The only discomfort then was the eyeballing between England fans (who had played their previous game in Kyiv) and home supporters.

On the afternoon of the game, 19 June, England fans prowled around under the watchful eye of Shakhtar Donetsk supporters and their compatriots. But there were even a few tentative rounds of drinks together – not usually part of England fans’ away protocol – at Bar Svinya (Bar Pig), where visiting fans wanted to behold the wild boar kept there.

Inside Shaktar’s rebuilt stadium, Wayne Rooney scored the only goal of the game, ensuring England qualified for the knockout rounds but eliminating the hosts. The home supporters were rightly outraged by the disallowing of a Marko Dević equaliser, the ball scooped from inside the goal by John Terry (a pre-goalline technology “where’s VAR when you needed it” moment).

It is hard to believe now that this is the same country. A year after the Ukraine-Sweden game, Maidan Nezalezhnosti became synonymous with “Euromaiden” demonstrations against the then pro-Russian government’s refusal to endorse free trade with the EU, and within another four months, the Maidan uprising against the government.

If Ukraine’s football ultras had not been political to start with, politics found them: they became forces in response to the Russian separatist rebellion in the Donbas region, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The now popular chant “Putin khuylo! La-la-la” (Putin is a dickhead) began among Metalist supporters.

Andriy Shevchenko kicking ball
Andriy Shevchenko of Ukraine during Euro 2012. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

The customary truce between fans of clubs who loathe each other so as to support the national team in 2012 was reforged in 2014, but now in defence of the nation. This included supporters in the Russian-speaking east: the presence of pro-Ukrainian Shakhtar ultras visiting Odesa for a game on 2 May 2014, and their role in clashes with pro-Russian activists that day, was part of a carnage in which 48 people died.

That railway line between Kyiv and Donetsk, specially modernised for the Euros, is now severed by ferocious frontline fighting. Donetsk has been part of Russian-separatist territory since 2014, when Shakhtar, then champions, were “exiled” to Lviv, later Kharkiv, then Kyiv.

Metalist Kharkiv’s Sect 82 ultras became the Azov militia – initially with far-right loyalties – in armed combat against the Russian-backed uprising, and were latterly the vanguard of the heroic, doomed defence of Mariupol.

Russia played their games during Euro 2012 in Poland, and there were skirmishes before the two countries faced one another in a qualifying match – nothing serious. And six years after those heady days when Spain lifted the trophy in Kyiv, an equally successful international football competition, the 2018 World Cup – won by France’s perfect team – was hosted by and staged in … er … Russia.


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

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