I saw the Ukrainian football festival 10 years ago – and I will support them against Wales Ukraine

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

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

The game couldn’t have been more touching, or convincingly timed: just 10 years ago this week, a a hugely successful football tournament started, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. Euro 2012 was perfectly placed on the eastern border of the European Union, the border beyond which millions of refugees have now fled their homeland for the past 100 days. Now, those 10 short years feel like an unthinkable lifespan.

Not everyone will remember Euro 2012 fondly. Some of the ultra Fans who follow Ukrainian – and Polish – clubs are among the most notoriously racist teams in football. Therefore, the families of English players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stayed home. But I do not remember anything in summer 2012 similar to the brutal racism with which England’s Under-21 team was attacked in Serbia that October. It was football and fun – the kind of long-running, one-off international street party for which we love the game best.

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

I recorded a band by Metalisto ultras called Sect 82 which, after Denmark’s 1-0 win that night, lined up at the Patrick Irish pub in town – its walls decorated with beer mugs from all over the world. They were part of the exchange of Ukrainian and club scarves for foam rubber Viking helmets and “Hup Holland Hup” sunglasses, learning songs in difficult languages ​​over Obolon award beer.

Gareth Bale applauding
Wales will be led by Gareth Bale in the final, with almost every fan in the world supporting Ukraine. Photo: Rebecca Naden / Reuters

Ukraine v Sweden in Kyiv was the host nation’s opening match on June 11, and a battle between titans: Ukraine’s folk hero Andriy Shevchenko, who returned to play for the home Dynamo Kyiv team after stays in Milan and Chelsea, and Zlatan Ibrahimović from Sweden, who recently left Milan for Paris Saint-Germain. The first won twice, the second only once, and Ukraine’s 2-1 victory launched a euphorically hopeful party into a warm night, happily joined by defeated but devil-worried Swedes who converged on the central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), with several attempts. climb its central pillar, Obolon above the eight.

The journey 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 enjoyable, on a newly installed Hyundai train along a renovated high-speed line. The only discomfort then was the glare between English fans (who had played their previous game in Kyiv) and domestic supporters.

On the afternoon of the game, June 19, English fans wandered around under the watchful eye of Shakhtar Donetsk supporters and his countrymen. But there were even a few tasting rounds of drinks together – not usually part of the English fans’ protocol – at Bar Svinya (Bar Pork), where visiting fans wanted to see the 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 ban of Marko Dević equalizer, the ball taken from inside the goal by John Terry (pre-goalline technology “where is 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 refusal of the then pro-Russian government to support free trade with the EU, and within another four months, the Maidan rebellion against the government.

If the football of Ukraine ultras there was no politics to begin with, politics found them: they became forces in response to the Russian separatist uprising in the Donbas region, and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The now popular chant “Put in khuylo! La-la-la(Putin is a fathead) started among Metalist supporters.

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

The usual break between fans of clubs who loathe each other to support the national team in 2012 was reinforced in 2014, but now in defense of the nation. This included supporters in the Russian-speaking east: the presence of pro-Ukrainian Shakhtar ultras visiting Odessa for a game on May 2, 2014, and their role in clashes with pro-Russian activists that day, there was part of a massacre in which 48 people died.

This railway line between Kyiv and Donetsk, specially modernized for the euros, is now cut off by a savage frontline battle. Donetsk has been part of Russian separatist territory since 2014, when Shakhtar, then champions, was “exiled” to Lviv, then Kharkov, then Kyiv.

Kharkiv Metalworker Sect 82 ultras became the Azov militia – initially with far-right loyalty – in an armed struggle against the Russian-backed uprising, and has recently been at the forefront of Mariupol’s heroic, doomed defense.

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

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