Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ukranian travels

Over the last week I have been in Ukraine, exclusively to watch football. A lot had been said in an exaggeratedly eager English media to put down the country, but truth is that the English should be ashamed.
Ukraine is a beautiful country, and under the most difficult circumstances, they have prepared as well as anybody for this tournament (and I am not saying that they do not have problems).

The first match we went to was Denmark-Portugal in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. We had travelled on an all-night train to get to Lviv, and without a reservation at all, got a hotel room at the first place we walked into.
So much for all the stories of sold-out places....
There was a good atmosphere in the small charming city of Lviv, with fans happily mingling and drinking beer before the match. That said, if I have to criticize anything in Lviv, it must be that the stadium is situated on a field quite a distance from the city, and although a caravan of busses transported people to and from the stadium, it was tedious to get there. Also, since there was nowhere to go near the stadium, we had to bring a few beers along which we could enjoy on the grass outside the stadium.
After Denmark's sensational victory against the Netherlands in their opener, expectations were high among the Danes. However, the Portuguese are strong, and after Denmark won the group ahead of them in the last two (World Cup and Euro) qualifiers, Portugal also went into the match with a high degree of respect for a Danish side that nevertheless is far inferior to the talented Portuguese. And Denmark did indeed seem to start best until Pepe brought Portugal ahead. When Helder Postiga brought Portugal ahead 2-0, I think most of us Danes in the stadium started to fear what could happen, but on the other hand we have to admire the tenacity of the Danes, and the poor attitude of the Portuguese (Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed some horrible chances, was later quoted as saying that they had thought that victory was pretty certain with 2-0). First, Nicklas Bendtner, who always scores against Portugal, scored a first for the Danes before halftime. And then in the second half Denmark put pressure on the increasingly nervous Portuguese, Bendtner scored the equalizer for Denmark, it seemed that Denmark could in fact take home a very important tie, or perhaps even better, a victory! All of us Danish fans were very excited!
But sometimes in football things are not to happen. Substitute Silvestre Varela scored the winner for Portugal in a bit coincidential situation, where he hit the ball perfectly.
A great disappointment for the Danes, but great for the Portuguese. In fact, after the match, trying to drown our sorrows, we ended up drinking beer and singing karaoke until the early morning with a group of Portuguese fans.
An excuse to party no matter if you win or lose.... That is really what all great football fans should consider such a tournament.
Warm-up: Denmark-Portugal

The second match we had tickets for was England-Sweden at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. This is a beautiful stadium where the final of the tournament will be played, situated centrally in Kiev and with good accessibility. The atmosphere was also excellent before the match, with an overwhelming majority of merry Swedish fans in the zone we got in through (barely any English fans, which I guess had been directed in through another part. Apparently there were indeed some problems with English behavior in spite of the heavy police presence that we saw during the match). And wearing our Denmark shirts, we got a lot of sympathy from our Swedish neighbors.
We had extraordinary seats on second row behind the Swedish players box for what turned out as the best match of the tournament so far. I was happy to see Sweden play so well against an English side that in spite playing better than against France, still seems overly defensive. Still, Steven Gerrard is a crucial player for England, and gave the perfect pass with which Andy Carroll brought England ahead, and the English were leading at halftime to the disappointment of the many Swedish fans, as well as me.
But Sweden started the second half the best: only five minutes went by before Olof Mellberg equalized, and ten minutes later all Swedes were delighted when Mellberg scored again to bring Sweden deservedly on front.
Maybe this is England's year, as they are lucky at the right moments. Theo Walcott equalized for England on a goal where the Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson looked somewhat confused. After this, both teams had chances, until Danny Welbeck scored a spectacular and lucky goal for England. After this, Sweden seemed broken, and England was closer to 4-2 than Sweden on an equalizer. Sweden was out, but has been a good side in the tournament.

The two matches we had bought tickets for before the tournament were Denmark-Portugal and Sweden-England, and had originally planned to stay the last days in Kiev.
But on our way into the Sweden-England match we were approached by a young Canadian guy who offered us two tickets for the Germany-Denmark match in Lviv for 30 Euros a piece. Following the principle of not planning our trip, we immediately bought the tickets, and the next morning we had to go out on a mission to get train tickets back to Lviv, as well as a return to catch the flight we had from Kiev on the day after the match. Our luck did not leave us: we got the last tickets on the night train that same night, and return tickets on the new fast-train between Lviv on Kiev, arriving 3 hours before our flight.
And in Lviv, we again got a hotel room in the first place we walked into.
Not planning a trip is the best way of travelling.
The atmosphere in Lviv was if anything livelier than for the previous match, but this time the Danes were heavily outnumbered by a lot of German fans who in my view turned out to be some of the best fans I saw during this tournament. Friendly and with great songs, there was a slight feeling that Denmark had already been defeated before the match started.
Still, there were high hopes among the Danes knowing that the match also depended on the other match being played as the same time, Portugal-Netherlands, where the Dutch vice-World Champions had to win to avoid the total humiliation of exiting the tournament with three defeats.
I was surprised to see Germany play with controlled respect for the Danes, even after they went ahead on a goal by Lucas Podolski. But Denmark again fought back, and Michael Krohn-Dehli equalized for the excited Danish fans. In the meantime the Netherlands was leading Portugal, and Danes started singing happily. In the second half Denmark played fine, although too controlled as news came in that Portugal had equalized, since Denmark then needed a victory. There was not increased pressure, and instead, ten minutes before the end of the match, Lars Bender scored the winner for Germany.
In the meantime Portugal had scored a winner against the hopeless Dutch, and it was certain that Denmark would be out of the tournament together with the Netherlands.

It was of course a disappointment that Denmark was out, but in fact I think that Denmark did far better than I would have expected before the tournament.
And of course, it was a great experience to see these matches and experience the atmosphere of the tournament in a beautiful and friendly country such as Ukraine and with a great friend!

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