England supporters' trip to Donetsk has been a surprisingly positive experience - and I'm not just referring to the team's battling spirit and an impressive point against France.
Media coverage of the Euro 2012 hosts - Ukraine in particular - had been less than favourable in the run-up to the tournament. As I mentioned in my last blog, the expense of accommodation and travel, as well as logistics, were big reasons why many fans chose not to make the trip to Donetsk. The coverage of racism in both Ukraine and Poland, including the Panorama documentary, did not help matters either.
So those who did decide to travel to the east of the country were not expecting much - but I'm pleased to say most have been pleasantly surprised. The people of Donetsk are clearly thrilled to be hosting such a prestigious tournament and so have been extremely welcoming towards England supporters. One elderly local even stopped by at the FSF Fans' Embassy on match day to not only reveal (with the help of our Russian-speaking interpreter) that he had written us a song and give us a copy of the lyrics and music, but also perform it for us. It appeared to be some sort of love song with football metaphors thrown in there. We doubt it will make the UK charts but you never know, given the success of the Russian grannies it may win Eurovision one day.
Fans have been more than happy with the city itself, which is also known as the City of Roses owing to the rose bushes and other flowers lining the streets. The beer is cheap, there are plenty of bars and the local food is good, if the service is generally a little slow (but this isn't entirely surprising considering this is a city unused to any sort of tourism, never mind co-hosting a football tournament). Local eccentricities have also made the trip extra special. Take Bar Pig on the picturesque Pushkin Boulevard, whose owners presumably decided to shun the idea of having a standard pub dog and go down the farmyard route instead. Not content with keeping its resident boar inside its pen, the owner let it out to greet the customers while we were there.
As for the tournament's big issue of the moment - racism - well, I haven't witnessed or heard of any while I've been here, including at the match itself. Many may reason this is because this was a game between two Western European countries - but in fact the majority of fans in the stadium were Russian or Ukrainian (being in the east of the country, Donetsk is Russian-speaking rather than Ukrainian).
The atmosphere in the fabulous Donbass Arena was a little different to usual after the England band was refused entry - which was actually another positive thing for many England supporters sick of being drowned out by the Great Escape or other inane singalongs. For me, the band was hardly missed, with fans happy to offer support to the new England manager by singing 'Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army' for most of the game, interspersed with 'we're going home in a coffin' and other unprintable mocking of Sol Campbell's advice on Panorama not to travel to Ukraine. I very much doubt the band would have started off any of these songs.
Elsewhere in the stadium, it was noted that there were a few clusters of empty seats - surprising considering we had been assured the game had been completely sold out. We will be investigating this issue and hope to report back.
We expect some of the England supporters who were put off travelling to Donetsk to make the trip to the more easily accessible Kyiv for the next game against Sweden - good news for the team who surely need to win this game. The side should also be helped by the temperature apparently being a few degrees cooler. Donetsk is absolutely baking (we're talking 30C at the very least during the day, and it doesn't drop much at night either) and both teams could be forgiven for looking a little laboured during the second half of the opening group game. England should also be helped by kicking off their two remaining group matches at the later kick-off time, when the sun is setting.
After Kyiv, the team will return to Donetsk for their final group game against the hosts. Perhaps more fans will now reconsider and travel to the city too.
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