Racism and hooligan violence were supposed to greet England fans travelling to Ukraine for Euro 2012, if certain sections of the British media were to be believed. They couldn't have been more wrong.
In the run-up to the tournament, whispers about what horrifying scenes England fans might find in the country culminated in a surprisingly one-sided documentary from Panorama that has had no relevance to the experience fans have had out here so far. Apart from new songs dedicated to Sol Campbell, that is.
Certain publications seemed to decide there would be 'trouble' at England's final group game against Ukraine in particular. The Daily Mail told fans at home that ultras over here were 'promising violent clashes' on 'hundreds of stickers in Donetsk' - stickers which nobody seems to have seen - and England fans would be 'shocked by the welcome some Ukrainians are planning for them'. Unless locals giving English fans free chocolates and writing folk songs for us is some sort of hooligan rally call, this report could not have been more wrong (the ludicrous suggestion that 10,000 England fans would be at the game, when it was obvious the numbers would be more like half that, is perhaps a marker on how much research was done for this story).
While working on the Football Supporters' Federation's Fans' Embassy I have heard nothing but praise for the locals in both Donetsk and Kiev. I have listened to several stories about residents putting up stranded England fans (thanks to the 'phantom' accommodation issues, which I will mention later), some even without charge. You only have to walk down the street for someone to stop and ask you if you need any help with anything, to ask for your thoughts on the tournament so far, or even just to use the opportunity to practise their English.
Even after Ukraine's 1-0 defeat to England at the fabulous Donbass Arena, while the home supporters were obviously disappointed with the result they were also keen to shake opposition fans' hands and say it was a good game. It is also the only match I have been to where there has been no segregation of fans whatsoever - something that, ironically, simply does not happen in our own domestic leagues for fear of violence. And you know what? It worked. There were a few Ukraine fans in the England section and vice versa yet was absolutely no tension. The fact that the England contingent not only stayed quiet for, but actually enthusiastically applauded, the Ukraine national anthem at the beginning of the match speaks volumes.
As for racism, as far as I'm aware there simply hasn't been any. The non-white England fans have had as much praise for the people here as everybody else. Speaking at a Q&A at the Golden Lion, the England fans' pub in Donetsk, ex-footballer Stan Collymore said when he recently asked Ghanaian students in the country for their experiences, they thought the suggestion of racism was so ludicrous that they were surprised he even brought the subject up in the first place.
The icing on the media's fictional cake was when England fans 'arranged' for a shoddily-made coffin to be delivered to the Golden Lion in a reference to Campbell's ill-informed advice to not travel to the tournament. It was also accompanied by a poster saying "you're wrong Sol Campbell". I suspect those watching at home will have heard chants referencing this, but that doesn't necessarily mean fans would go out of their way to arrange what in my opinion was a publicity stunt. Not long afterwards, the Mirror, followed by The Sun - and the Daily Mail who incorrectly said the coffin would be taken to the stadium - published an article on the 'story' complete with pictures.
The one negative aspect of the trip, which is perhaps a more newsworthy topic that hasn't been covered so much by the press back home, is that fans have booked and paid for hostels or campsites, then turned up in Donetsk or Kiev only to find the accommodation doesn't exist - and worryingly, these places are still being advertised on the internet. Booking.com, one of the websites used by fans, have disabled reservations for 'phantom' venues in both Ukraine and Poland. A spokesman for booking.com said: "Booking.com is a reservation service, not a travel agent. We are not recommending any particular hotel, but we are aware some of these properties did not exist which is fraudulent activity locally and have been dealt with by local authorities.
"Fans affected should contact booking.com if you have not yet been contacted by us. We would recommend customers look at our reviews, which are genuine and have been made by guests."
Let's hope the issue is sorted before thousands of 'Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army' arrive in Kyiv, and then possibly travel to Warsaw, in what has already been a much better tournament than expected both on and off the pitch.
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