France 1 England 1 (Donetsk)

France 1 England 1, Donetsk (11th June, Euro 2012)

Donetsk doesn’t feature too highly on the travel itineraries of tourists venturing into Ukraine. Being an industrial city in Ukraine’s far east, the Lonely Planet guide’s pages for the city can only muster three attractions for the city. One is an art gallery. Another is the slag heaps surrounding the city, which apparently change colour in the setting sun. The other is the Donbass Arena, the quite stunning home of the bankrolled Shaktar Donetsk. It was this stadium, rather than the slag heaps or the chance to see some Soviet-realist water-colours, that made me opt for “D3 v D4, Donetsk” when submitting my Euro 2012 ticket application way back in March 2011.

That I ended up seeing England in this, as well as the other only ticket application of six I was successful with, was merely a 14/1 fluke. I’d have been happy to watch anybody, and knowing that England fans usually travel in large numbers, bumping up prices, I was almost hoping not to get England games. As it was, this would be England’s lowest turnout in living memory, all down to cost and having to play twice in a city which is about as geared up towards tourism as Austria is for beach holidays.

The place doesn’t have many hotels for a start, a problem made significantly worse by the entire lot apparently being block-booked by UEFA a year in advance for themselves and sponsors. This left literally nothing – genuinely literally nothing at all – showing up as available on most booking sites for the dates England were in town. Eventually options did appear. These either apartments available for private hire, or very dubious looking hostels that would struggle to achieve a 1 star rating. Another option was a purpose-built fan camp site on the edge of the city. I was lucky enough to book early and have a reasonably priced apartment near the centre, or so I thought.

Emailing to confirm my details in the days leading up to departing, I eventually got a reply saying the booking had fallen through as the owner was being “unprofessional”, although quite how much professionalism were showing in not bothering to tell me about this until I asked is open to question. With time to re-arrange limited (and very little choice anyway) I opted for the fan camp. How bad could it be? Well…

Arriving at around 11 pm, it was well gone midnight before I could try to get some sleep. There’d only been about three people ahead of me waiting to check in, but the girls manning reception seemed to have little idea of what they should be doing, coupled with no sense of urgency at all. The system appeared to involve writing out all of your details on a bit of paper, then keying something into a computer, all done at a speed that would require time-lapse photography to detect when something is actually happening. Eventually you’d be given a post-it note with a scribble on it, which needed to be handed to someone on the far side of the camp, who’d be able to tell you which tent was yours. Naturally, there was no map of this 17 acre site to tell you where anything was.

This room allocator turned out to be a flustered young girl struggling under the demand of trying to allocate people into tents which looked to have been overbooked, who also struggled to understand why complete strangers who’d booked their own rooms wouldn’t want to share with each other, if even “it wouldn’t cost any more”. Once actually given a tent, I then had the tent number written on the post-it, and told to go back to reception.

Upon reaching reception, the queue was now snaking out of the door. Not wanting to stand in it for two hours or more, I went round the side to try to attract the attention of the girl who had originally served me. She was an expert in not noticing anything, and only responded when prompted by someone else. She just told be it was too busy now – no shit –    and that I should come back in the morning to do whatever it was I had to do with this post-it note.

My “room” itself was a pavilion style tent split into four sections. It contained nothing except two beds. The beds themselves would have been fine, but neither had a mattress. Instead, sleeping directly on a hard wooden base was deemed sufficient in this part of the world. I found that if I double-folded the blankets from both beds, I was able to form a base that was just about bearable to sleep on. This meant that I could only use the thin sheets as a blanket, which wasn’t so good when temperatures dipped at around 3 in the morning.

That was only a minor inconvenience though. More troubling was the decision by the camp organisers to provide entertainment in the form of DJs in the next field pumping out loud techno all night long, which made sleep all but impossible for all except the heaviest of sleepers. Such heavy sleepers are invariably snorers as well, and I had several of those nearby to also contend with. The sun also rises early in Donetsk in June, cranking up the in-tent temperature way beyond comfort levels by 6 am. In short, not the best night’s sleep ever.

Problems didn’t end even after getting up. Venturing over to the secure left luggage area to leave my bag safely while in town, it became clear that none of the lockers available were actually big enough to store any luggage in, which puts it right up their with elastic handcuffs in the scale of usefulness. Padlocking it to my bed was the only option.

It would be perhaps unfair to judge Donetsk on that complete shambles of a camp site, and despite its reputation as a Ukrainian Barnsley, it’s actually quite a smart city. Certainly the weather, with baking hot 30 C+ temps the norm for the summer, is rather different to Yorkshire, and the city’s main streets have a distinctly affluent feel. All of the attractions, of which there aren’t that many admittedly, are on a couple of central streets, and a big pub just the central Lenin Square, was the hangout for most of the England fans. Lenin himself, in statue form at the top of the square, looked away from all this capitalist consumption.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing in Donetsk, or indeed at or after any football match I’ve been too, happened while walking back into the city after the game. Walking down one of the main streets I spotted a man casually strolling along in the opposite direction. He was smoking a cigarette, and purposefully walking along as if there was nothing out of the ordinary, as if totally oblivious to the fact that he was completely stark naked. I couldn’t help but wonder where he kept his lighter.

It’s directly at the northern end of another one of these main streets that you find the Donbass Arena. People often moan about modern grounds lacking character, but few of any age have quite the “wow” factor of the Donbass Arena. It’s simply stunning, looking like a giant alien mothership landed in an area of parkland. Angled glass walls jut outwards, giving the place the kind of distinctive look many modern grounds are crying out for. The roof on top curves away gently into a sleek silver dome, without a roof support or arch in sight. Wide pathways lure you into the stadium from the landscaped surrounds, with those famous slag heaps also looming up in the background.

Inside, the stadium fails to disappoint. Taking my seat at the back of the middle tier, pleased to find the lip of the roof now just providing shadow from the baking sun, I looked upon the Arena’s three orange and black tiers, finding it hard to believe the place only holds 51000. It looks vast, and is completely breath-taking. Even the mass of the roof, a honeycomb lattice of steelwork, seems to add to the look of the place, unlike somewhere like Wembley, where it’s just ugly.

I actually arrived at the ground far too early, which meant I was able to appreciate the full range of pre-match entertainment UEFA would provide for EURO 2012 games. At first this was little more than the chance to have Oceana’s “Endless Summer” indelibly imprinted into memory, but progressed to become the worst kind of “heeeeey everybody, wave your hands in the air and dance” nonsense delivered in one of those exceptionally nasty Euro/American hybrid accents. It was the kind of thing that made you realise why those signs outside prohibiting guns, knives and baseball bats really were necessary.

In a break from the usual tradition not to care much about opening ceremonies, UEFA have decided that Euro 2012 will have a unique ceremony for every single Euro 2012 match. The one here, drawing on Donetsk’s mining heritage, was a bizarre effort featuring people with oversized boards and hammers dancing about, looking like Super Mario meets Stomp. No game was complete without the big announcement to welcome Slavek & Slavko, the Euro 2012 mascots, onto the pitch, whose arrival set new records for apathy among the fans, greeting them with a resounding silence.

Given the low numbers of England tickets supposedly sold, rumoured to be around 3000, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how many England fans there seemed to be around me in this neutral section. That was until they spoke. Either English fans had very uncharacteristically gone native and learned to speak fluent Russian (as is spoken in this part of the country), or England had good support from the thousands who’d nipped over the border.

And I do mean thousands. The Russian fans would clearly outnumber the English and French combined (as possibly challenge the number of Ukrainians inside too) by a long way. “Ros-see-ya!, Ros-see-ya!” was by far the loudest and most frequent of the evening. Even the England fans gave it a go, to try to get the (non) locals on their side. Two other commonly songs sung by England were a reference to the absurdly and quite slanderously overblown Panorama special on the dangers fans would face in the “neo-nazi hotbed” of Ukraine. “We’re going home in a coffin” and “F***off Sol Campbell, we’ll do what we want” were a pointed response from people who’d rather base opinions on their own experiences of the exceptionally friendly and hospitable hosts, rather than trashy sensationalist journalism.

Normally I can’t say I enjoy watching England play too much. I’m not one of those self-loathing types for whom the England football team sums up everything that’s wrong with English society, it’s purely that it’s so rare that I actually find the games an enjoyable experience. I find watching England like watching a small child carry a tray of drinks, and you are just watching this nervous progression, forever waiting for that fateful stumble. A game against fancied France, followed by Sweden, who England never beat, before finishing with a game against the hosts, made this the first time England were heavily tipped to go out at the group stage.

Sometimes England can surprise though, as would be the case today. It wasn’t an impressive point. England, more cagey than a budgerigar owners’ convention for most of the game, were just looking for a break. They got it from a free kick after half an hour. A fine ball in was met powerfully by Joleon Lescott, giving the French keeper no chance, and England the lead. Maybe all those predictions of doom were a little too negative after all.

France had an awful lot of the ball, but England’s game plan was to just hold them off at arm’s length, knowing it would take something pretty special to score from outside the box. Unfortunately Samri Nasri pulled off that something special. Looking like he was shaping for a far post shot, he instead hit inside the near post, before his Man City teammate Joe Hart could get a glove on it.

It had been a very hot day, well over 30 C, which probably also explained a great deal of the sluggishness of the game, but other than the joy of the solid start, it’s not one that bring back too many memories. James Milner’s miss after rounding the French keeper was a glimpse of what could have been, but with the game being mainly controlled by the French, most would be just glad with the start. It, coupled with the magnificence of the setting, made all the nightmares with accommodation worthwhile. Just.

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