The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Kiev 2012?

Posted by steigs on July 3, 2008

So the Euro party is over for another four years.  Sigh.  Such a good show.  Hail the “never-say-die” Turks!  And the temporarily fabulous Dutch!  And, above all, viva Espana!

One side-effect of Italy’s scandals was the derailing of the country’s bid to host Euro 2012, opening the door to the unlikely pairing of Poland and the Ukraine as hosts.  While both have had respectable teams of late, neither has quite the tourist draw or infrastructure of Switzerland and Austria.  Their soccer infrastructures are weak as well.  So their bids depend in part on successful investment in stadiums and roads and so on.

UEFA head Michel Platini is visiting the co-hosts this week.  Poland?

“We are carefully carrying out the plan that we have adopted and that has been accepted by UEFA,” Tusk said Wednesday at a joint news conference with Michel Platini, the president of European soccer’s governing body. “We still have a lot of work to do, including on stadiums, airports and hotels. They are very ambitious projects, but I assured the president (Platini) that we will do it.”

Poland must build stadiums in Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw, and also overcome gaps in roads and other public infrastructure.

Ah, but what’s the situation in the Ukraine, a nation still riven by the “Orange Revolution” and its aftermath?

Well, they’re having a lot of trouble getting the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, due to host the final in four years, renovated. 

Two companies are vying for the right to renovate the Olympic Stadium in Kiev that will host the final of Euro 2012, Ukraine’s sports minister said on Wednesday.

A special commission is due to choose the main contractor on Thursday, ahead of an executive board meeting of organisers UEFA and next week’s visit to Ukraine by UEFA president Michel Platini.

Delays in renovating the stadium have been a focal point of concern that the country has been too slow preparing for Euro 2012 and media speculation is rife Ukraine and Poland could lose the right to co-host the tournament.

This sort of problem is making people wonder if the two countries will be able to host — or will the tourney be moved to another country which already has the infrastructure?  The Scots have their hand up to volunteer to serve as a Plan B.  That’s one way to avoid another qualifying group that includes both of the previous World Cup finalists!

Much as I love Scotland, and would love to sneak over to a Euro tourney in Glasgow and Edinburgh, I do hope they get things in order in Kiev.  One of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever attended was in Kiev:


It is a match-up of mid-table teams. Obolon is in yellow jerseys with black shorts. Borosphyl is in white. They represent the town where the Kiev airport is located, about 30 miles away.

In general, the Rough Guide does appear to be right about the fans, though. I see more Dynamo scarves than Obolon gear. There is a single group of Borosphyl supporters down in front with American style pom-poms, a bunch of cheerful junior high kids. I feel for them. My Ukrainian guidebook is more than 300 pages long and the only time it mentions their home town is in reference to the airport. Must be a whole lot of nothing there, just a short ride away from the metropolis of Kiev, and it must feel worse to have all those travelers bound for faraway places passing through every day. I am reminded of my own home town, hours from Los Angeles but still part of the vast Southern Californian media market. We were bombarded with ads for events we could never attend, always being made aware there was a much bigger, more exciting world than ours.

For more on that, plus a visit to Kiev’s complex of monastery caves, read on after the jump!

Kiev – May 2004

A party has broken out in the heart of Kiev. It is the “Day of Europe” and a massive street fair fills the central Maidan Nezalezhnosti square, spilling down Khreschatyk Street as well. I find central Kiev likeable, perhaps because the style of architecture feels so 1930s. As Lonely Planet sums it up, “…Kiev has survived Mongol invasions, devastating fires, communist urban planning and the mass destruction of World War II.”

The Maidan Nezalezhnosti – “Independence Square” – is about three blocks long in American distances, surrounded by multi-story hotels and public buildings. There’s a series of low-key marble fountains in the middle and sidewalk cafes around the edges. Khreschatyk Street cuts across the square and at the far end is a futuristic glass structure, which upon closer inspection proves to be an upscale shopping mall. Comrade Brezhnev must be most displeased. He probably wouldn’t like the McDonald’s on the square either.

What would really set him off is the trendy mall burrowing underneath the fountains at the heart of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a shopping complex stuffed with western brand names – Armani, Adidas and so on. I take the escalator down and might as well have arrived in the suburbs of Chicago or Philadelphia. Once capitalism was the underground economy – now it is just literally underground. The subway stops in the downtown area have become shopping centers in their own right, busy with kiosks offering clothes, DVDs, books, cell phones and the like.

Still, the flower-selling babushkas are everywhere, bent and gray, getting by in this strange new world by offering a cheap way to brighten it. Perhaps they also counsel the young Romeos among their customers on how best to woo their Juliets. All around the Maiden Nezalezhnoski are tables selling small articles – caps, old books – like a flea market on marble. Evidence that the Ukrainian tourist economy is still developing may be the way it proves impossible to buy a single postcard. They are only available in huge packages.

The “Day of Europe” fair has dozens of stands offering beer and snacks. It is busy with people. Every free spot worth sitting on – and some that are not – is occupied. The fair itself represents the Ukrainian aspiration to join the West, to be more European. (It was this aspiration that helped power the “Orange Revolution” months later.) There are representatives from many European countries staffing booths or putting on displays – Polish folk dancers, Spanish paella cooks, the Bulgarian tourist board bragging about their beaches. A street preacher is making his pitch as well.

The Ukrainians stroll along, seeking balloons for the kids, ice cream for everyone. The ice cream stands rival the beer stands in number. (My kind of people!) The Ukrainian men look remarkably like my stereotype – Slavic faces, close-cropped hair, often in track suits. It is the style of Russian leader Vladimir Putin or, perhaps, members of the Eastern bloc mafia. I feel a bit like I’m in a James Bond movie. But maybe that’s because I had stayed up late the night before watching a Roger Moore Bond film, dubbed into Russian or Ukrainian, on my hotel television.

Leaving the crowds behind, I walk a couple of blocks away from the square and step into the Ukraine’s national museum of art, an excellent collection if one is fond of religious art and impressionistic views of peasants on the vast steppe. (I do like the latter.) After a little browsing, I continue on, following the river, past the classic residence of the Ukrainian President, and through more parks. About a mile from downtown I reach the renowned Lavra complex, the heart of the Ukrainian Christian tradition, and perhaps Ukrainian history in general.

The Lavra – the word translates as “monastery” – was founded way back in 1051. It has been growing, getting sacked, and being rebuilt ever since. Although Kiev is now capital of an independent Ukraine, it was the birthplace of the Russian state and Russian Christianity as well. It was at Kiev that some intrepid Vikings set up shop in the 800s, conquering a Khazar kingdom. It soon became a prosperous trading state known as Kievan Rus. It was at Kiev, in 988, that Christianity was adopted by the government, perhaps the key point in the growth of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox religion.

Kiev’s decline began in the 12th century, with the rise of Moscow, and 13th century Mongol invasions. The Ukraine later came under Lithuanian and Polish rule before the Cossacks rebelled in the 1600s. The Ukraine was effectively independent for a time but looked to Russia as a patron and, eventually, the Czars took over.

While we Americans tend to see Russians and Ukrainians as being synonymous, they do have differences. This is especially true in the western Ukraine, which was often under Austrian or Polish rule, not the Czar. It might make more sense to think of them as brothers, sometimes working together in a family business, sometimes going their separate ways.


The upper Lavra complex, surrounded by a high wall like a palace, is a museum today. They charge admission to enter the grounds, with a steady flow of tour bus passengers rolling in. The grounds are filled with restored churches and religious antique shops. The individual churches have separate admissions charges too, like you are always making an offering. The upper Lavra is in fine form these days, lovingly restored after communist neglect, as the new regime establishes its Ukrainian bona fides.

The Orthodox Christian tradition loves gold and icons. Their churches shine and glitter. At upper Lavra, the Church of the Holy Name is particularly impressive, with the iconic faces of the holy staring down at you – some stern, others cheerful – to remind you of the powers that be who watch our actions.

Guide-led groups from the tour buses flow through the grounds, over the cobblestone streets, pausing at noteworthy churches for short lectures. Meanwhile, babushkas, solitary or in pairs, head directly for favorite shrines or just to the shops for religious curios.

I visit some churches then locate a path to the lower Lavra, which is more of a working monastery these days than a money-making museum. Below the bluff, the Dnieper flows on, and across the river I can see the urban sprawl of Kiev, the soaring apartment buildings on the fringes looking more impressive from this distance. Although it is a sunny and pretty day I am looking to go underground – into the Lavra caves.

The “Near Caves” are closed this day so I wind around the narrow streets with the other pilgrims part way further down the hill to the “Far Caves.” The entrance is inside a church and, along with everyone else, I purchase a pair of candles to light my way in the caves. The candles are of traditional make – beeswax, mainly – and are quite long and skinny, like elongated pencils.

The doorway to the caves is rather like the line for a ride at Disneyland but with less organization and more jostling. We dip our candles in a flame to set them alight. A teenage girl in front of me allows a drop of hot wax to splatter my hand and murmurs a quick apology. It stings but perhaps it is the kind of toll I should pay for playing tourist in what is clearly still a holy area to everyone else.

Into the darkness of the caves and then the half-light from all the candles we carry takes over. Many of the faithful are the predictable elderly women, ever the bastion of the church-going. But there are plenty of others, a rich mixture of families, teenage girls, middle-aged men on their own.

The cave feels like a tunnel, the roof just a bit taller than I am. No need for me to stoop but I see others forced to do so. The walls feel like solid stone. The way is wide enough for one to walk comfortably but two people side-by-side makes it tight. We end up in a lengthy single-file line. A series of niches along the sides are occupied by the glass coffins of leading monks of days gone by. The dead still wear their religious robes and iconic pictures of the departed hang on the wall above their coffins. Pilgrims bend to kiss the glass of the coffin or the portraits of favored saints.

A handful of side rooms branch off from the cave, filled with separate sets of coffins. This allows the pilgrims more time with the dead since pausing for long in front of a saint in the main cave tends to clog up the traffic. The guidebook says there is a whole church somewhere down here but I can’t seem to find it. An inquiry finds – if I understood properly – that it is in the Near Caves and so is closed at the moment.

My lit candle gradually melts lower as I walk along. The cave has the potential to be extraordinarily spooky if one were here alone in the dark with all the dead. In the company of hundreds of pilgrims, however, the religious mood predominates. The devotion is humbling. I feel voyeuristic, a weak Catholic among the true believers of the kind who survived the long atheistic years of communism. It’s not as if I know who any of these saintly monks were. So I do my best to be respectful and study their portraits, invariably of sad, long-bearded old men.

I’m startled when we pop back up to the surface, in another part of the same church that hosts the entrance. A glance at my watch shows I was in the cave for a half-hour. It felt longer, down in the candle-lit dim. I go outside, blinking in the sharp light. I pause at a river overlook, under a blue cloudless steppe sky, feeling a long way from home.

In the evening, the “Day of Europe” festival is still going strong. I watch a troupe of Ukrainian break-dancers for a bit, noticing that business seems to have shifted in favor of the beer sellers. The Maiden Nezalevzhnosti is utterly packed, as if everyone in Kiev is here. The big city feels much smaller now, like all the locals are out to stroll or simply to relax in the square to pass the time joking with buddies.

A decent rock band calling itself Camouflage takes the main stage, their music dark and throbbing, as if they’ve spent a lot of time listening to Nine Inch Nails. I end up talking to teenagers eager to practice their English, which is clearly going to be more useful than Russian in the future “days of Europe.” My rudimentary knowledge of rap music disappoints them. What kind of an American am I? Luckily, I can praise some Eminem and Public Enemy tracks to avoid being considered totally hopeless. Instead, I’m just thought to be old.

I do better when I steer the conversation to Dynamo Kiev. All five are fans and are particularly disparaging of the team’s rival, Shaktar Donestk. “Stupid miners,” comments one, with the typical disdain of the capital for those from gritty industrial towns. Dynamo will win the league again this season, they’re confident.

Camouflage is followed by a Latvian rock band whose name is something like “Brave Shto,” who start working a rich vein of melodic mid-tempo guitar rock, like the 80s Simple Minds or Train. I like it but the teenagers get bored and drift away. I eventually leave the crowd behind and walk back to my hotel.

It is a bare bones place but comfortable. I appear to be the sole guest. Whenever I arrive or leave I always seem to interrupt an intense conversation between the desk clerk and the bellhop/bartender, as if they are in engaged in some endless unresolvable negotiation or debate. I keep expecting one or the other to offer me a shady investment opportunity or to suggest a trip to an underworld nightclub. Instead, they just ignore me – the concept of customer service is still developing in the former Communist world.

Late at night I find myself channel surfing, fascinated by the mixture available on Ukrainian television. Their sports news not only tells me of a last second Lakers victory in the NBA playoffs – I get some highlights. There are numerous music video channels, which seem to be mostly Russian blondes singing over disco-sounding synth pop. I also find an endless supply of gruff Russian cop shows.

More importantly, and a happy coda to the “Day of Europe,” a Ukrainian singer wins the annual Eurovision song contest. Eurovision is an odd mixture of “Star Search” and the Olympics, with most countries in Europe sending a contestant. Ukraine is nowhere near joining the EU, being too poor and corrupt at the moment. For example, the front page of the weekly English Kiev newspaper features two stories, both about corruption. But at least they can sing pop as part of Europe, just like Dynamo Kiev can take on Arsenal or Bayern Munich. Sometimes European, sometimes not, always the Ukrainian dilemma.

My hotel is on Kiev’s arty street, the Andreyevsky Spunk, long-time haunt of bohemians, even under the communists. Beloved surrealist writer Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and the Margharita lived for a time on Andreyevsky Spunk. It curves down slowly and steeply from the bluff to one of the port neighborhoods along the river. During the day it is like a flea market – all along the sidewalk are tables offering crafts like miniature paintings and Russian nesting dolls and Soviet military kitsch. Like in the cave, the pedestrian traffic flow is stop and start, always halting as someone pauses to eye an intricate ring or Soviet army cap. Some of the stands are clearly aimed at tourists, with Kiev guides and hordes of nesting dolls. There is also frequently a replica soccer jersey for sale, that of Andriy Shevchenko, once a Dynamo player but now of AC Milan, still star of the Ukrainian national team.

I pause at the base of Andreyevsky Spunk to visit the “Museum of One Street,” a fascinating set of displays taken from various houses over the years. A glimpse into the lives of ordinary Kiev residents over the years through their belongings. The displays from the 1800s seem much like the rest of Europe, the Communist era ones more alien. It is one of the few museums I have left thinking “I wish there was more to this.”

In the early evening on Sunday there is another game at Dynamo Stadium, Obolon Kiev versus Borosphyl, perhaps in place of the originally scheduled Dynamo game, which has been postponed until Tuesday to allow for the Lobanovsky tourney. It is the cheapest game I’ve seen since the beaches of the Copacabana – it’s free. In fact, not understanding this, I almost mistakenly buy a ticket for Tuesday’s Dynamo game at the box office. I head into the stadium, still not quite believing it, worried the language barrier prevented the ticket seller from conveying some important catch to me.

They are not expecting much of a crowd tonight, even at this apparently low price. Only one side of the stadium is open for seating. They’re right – I’d guess about 500 people turn up. As my Rough Guide puts it: “With a population of three million, the city of Kiev could easily support two or three clubs in the Ukrainian top flight. The problem is that Kievites support only one: Dynamo.”

The authorities are expecting trouble for some reason I can’t discern. There are police everywhere – they fill whole sections of the stands in the closed areas. My backpack is repeatedly searched. I scan the crowd and see no obvious ultras section with potential hooligans. Strange.

I find a good spot high up in the bowl – about the 20th row – near the center circle and settle into the blue plastic seat. Bouncy Europop plays as the teams warm up.

The concessions are limited to the solitary beer truck stationed just before the fans go into the seating area. The fans near me prefer eating sunflower seeds. The couple a few seats to my left appear to be engaged in a contest to see who can devour them faster, with the pile of debris at their feet increasing rapidly. I see that he is wearing a green Obolon baseball cap backwards so not all Kievites support Dynamo.

Just before game time the familiar rousing chords of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” come blasting out, a dose of New Jersey arena rock for this late spring day on the steppes. Sting’s catchy “Desert Rose” follows it as the teams get ready for the game to begin.

It is a match-up of mid-table teams. Obolon is in yellow jerseys with black shorts. Borosphyl is in white. They represent the town where the Kiev airport is located, about 30 miles away.

In general, the Rough Guide does appear to be right about the fans, though. I see more Dynamo scarves than Obolon gear. There is a single group of Borosphyl supporters down in front with American style pom-poms, a bunch of cheerful junior high kids. I feel for them. My Ukrainian guidebook is more than 300 pages long and the only time it mentions their home town is in reference to the airport. Must be a whole lot of nothing there, just a short ride away from the metropolis of Kiev, and it must feel worse to have all those travelers bound for faraway places passing through every day. I am reminded of my own home town, hours from Los Angeles but still part of the vast Southern Californian media market. We were bombarded with ads for events we could never attend, always being made aware there was a much bigger, more exciting world than ours.

Today, though, the kids have followed their team to Kiev and they are determined to have a good time. I see a drunk in the famous green and white of Celtic – no matter how far from Glasgow you go there is a decent chance Celtic will be represented at a soccer game. As the game kicks off, a small brass band at the far end of the stands comes to life. This is one of the happier-feeling games I have seen, even with all the police. Maybe they are just here to watch the game too, a reward after spending all day yesterday keeping watch on the “Day of Europe” festivities.

The first 25 minutes of the game are more Obolon than Borosphyl. They get more of the corners and draw more free kicks. Borosphyl gets a better early shot, however they don’t score. Both teams seem competent and organized, just slower than Dynamo. It is back and forth, and Borosphyl starts getting more of the play in the latter stages of the first half. Just before half, Klymenko of Borosphyl gets onto the end of a free kick and scores for a 1-0 lead, the better to enjoy the half-time break. The pom-poms shake madly and the kids give us a round of the “ole” song.

Half-time is a low-key affair. Subs trot out to the field and practice shots and passing in the charming spring early evening. I stroll out in search of a beer, which proves refreshing but nothing special. No need to look into importing Ukrainian beers. The public address system pumps out the likes of “Shout” by Tears for Fears.

The second half turns is entertaining and eventful. We certainly get our money’s worth. About five minutes in, Obolon earns a penalty kick during an intense tangle in the box. Mazurenko converts it and we are tied at 1. The brass band strikes up a cheery tune. The pace increases, the play going end-to-end. The fans sit forward, drawn in. The couple with the sunflower seeds are piling them up even faster. I wonder how many they have – their supply seems endless. The scoreboard flashes photos of the players when they score and it becomes clear they are just kids themselves – players in their prime end up with Dynamo, Shaktar Donetsk or go abroad. The penalty is a sign that game is become tougher and a series of yellow cards are awarded after hard fouls.

It seems to be Klymenko’s day. Around the 60th minute Borosphyl is awarded a free kick. The ball floats into the box and bounces around. Klymenko manages to poke it into the net, 2-1 Borosphyl!

There is a clot of Obolon ultras down near the band and, judging by their periodic outbursts in song, they are getting drunker as the game goes along. A couple of minutes later Klymenko comes flying by us, gracefully beating two Obolon defenders but puts the shot into the side netting. By this point the brass band has become mostly drums, all the better for the ultras. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The managers try some substitutes but the game remains 2-1 heading into the last ten minutes. Then things really get wild. Shadows are creeping onto the field. An Obolon attack generates an excellent cross to the far post – and Serheiev of Obolon gets onto it. Goal! We are tied. The “Ole” song breaks out.

Just when the game is winding down, an Obolon player gets fouled right outside the box. The free kick comes curling in and the Borosphyl keeper has to block it, not able to make a clean catch. The rebound falls to…Serheiev of Obolon and he coolly puts it in! 3-2 to Obolon! The “Ole” song revives. The ultras are singing hard and loud now – even some of the other fans are joining them.

Ah, but as happens so often, Borosphyl immediately attack while Obolon are celebrating and distracted. Dmytruk gets some open space and puts the shot away. 3-3! Whoa! We are on a roller coaster now. The “Ole” song stops short. The fans are stunned silent, except for the kids from Borosphyl. By the time we have adjusted to the new 3-3 reality of the game the referee is blowing the whistle for full-time.

As I walk out, past statues of Lobanovsky and the “death match” players, I wish I could stay longer in Kiev – but I am almost more tempted to go see Obolon again, instead of a Dynamo game. In the meantime, my guidebook recommends a restaurant with dishes favored by the Cossacks. Mmmmmm. Grilled meat…


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