England 3 Sweden 2 (Kiev)


England 3 Sweden 2 (Kiev, 15th June 2012)

It wasn’t just me who had problems with accommodation in Ukraine. Such were the problems in arranging anywhere to stay, not to mention the cost and logistics of the travel,  England were only expecting around 4000 fans at most at the group games. In stark contrast Sweden, based in Kiev for all three games, had come in vast numbers. Around 18000 made the trip, turning Kiev into even more of a sea of yellow and blue than it had been with the host nation’s colours everywhere already.

After Donetsk, it was good to be in a proper city that had plenty to see and do, and had the buzz of a nation’s capital. Unlike Donetsk, which had its fan zone far away across a lake, the Kiev one was smack bang in the centre of the city, adding to the liveliness that had been somewhat missing out east.

Mind you, appreciating the city had its problems on my first day of the city. Two nights of Donetsk fan camp site sleep deprivation took hold with a transatlantic jet-lag style vengeance while walking around St Michael’s cathedral. Only an intake of coffee and max-sized cans of Red Bull from stalls nearby prevented me from becoming a rather undignified addition to the tourists’ photographs of the place. Thankfully the luxurious welcoming embrace of a proper bed at my lovely air-conditioned Kiev hotel, even if it was located 15 minutes out in a communist block estate at the end of a metro line, saw me right as rain for the rest of my trip.

As well as the fan zone being central, The Olympic Stadium is fairly central too, easily walkable from the centre. That’s just as well as the two nearest Metro stations to the stadium are both shut on match days due to congestion, which makes them a little useless. As it was, I did take the Metro to a stop about 1 km to the southeast to take a look at a fortress which had the added bonus of having ramparts that overlooked the stadium. Not being an obvious stop for the stadium, I was a little surprised to find hundreds of Swedes heading in the same direction. It turned out that the small park atop Percherska Metro Station was some sort of gathering point for Swedish fans, gathering there to party four hours before kick off.

Winding my way to the ground from that slightly not as good as hoped for vantage point, it was hard to avoid the magnitude of just how much England were going to be outnumbered in the stadium tonight. The trickle of yellow and blue turned to a river the nearer the stadium I got, even this early. I’d actually imagined the area would be rather empty this early. In fact I’d bargained on it, as I was looking for somewhere to eat, and hopefully watch some of the Ukraine v France match as well. Instead, once through a ticket holders only exclusion zone, I found loads of restaurants, but all seemed either obviously full of tall blond occupiers, or reserved for more of the same. I did find one that was quite empty, but it was a Japanese restaurant. I wouldn’t have minded Japanese food normally, but I felt in need of something more substantial. In any case, this looked a place for serious Japanese diners, and remembering an embarrassing inability to tackle noodles with chopsticks in Osaka, I had to bow out.

I did find a largish cafeteria type place, which served up a meal to fill the gap, but it was hardly a place to linger, so I went looking again for a bar. I found an almost exclusively Ukrainian place in a basement tucked away in a corner. It looked quite swanky, with large padded chairs and TVs for the football at every table, but the beer was stubbornly at Ukrainian prices, which was a result.

Slightly less good was the football coverage, where rather than and football, all that was being shown were shots of a violent thunderstorm at a dark and rain-soaked Donbass Arena. I think the same storm had hit Kiev the night before, during the Ireland v Spain match. I’d come out of the pub just as the storm was stopping, but you could tell how bad it was by the way Kiev’s hilly streets had turned into urban rivers, with torrents sweeping downwards towards some soggy destination.

Donetsk is hundreds of miles from Kiev though, where there were blue skies, and the only torrents were those of fans towards the stadium. At least these were now being increasingly joined by those in white and red to break up the yellow and blue monotony.

The stadium itself, despite looking brand new, was actually a partial rebuild. The top tier, structurally at least, wasn’t changed, but the bottom tier had been re-profiled. The big change was the addition of a glass facade as well as a new roof. And what a roof it is. Many grounds now have a fabric roof, but none quite like the one here. Each sliver of fabric is comprised of eight sections, each containing a raised bulbous skylight, outlined by a pattern akin to a child’s drawing of the sun. It’s another example of how a stadium can be enhanced so much by thoughts of how the structure can look, as well as what it can do.

Remarkably, this roof doesn’t even touch the stadium itself. Instead, it and the glass facade from a kind of tent – a million miles away from the kind of tent I’d seen in Donetsk, it has to be said – that sat over the existing stadium.

The facade here, while not quite as special as the one in Donetsk, was still mightily impressive, especially when lit from within at night. Angled inwards, as at Donetsk, the glass drew your attention to the stadium within, like a giant museum exhibit. Once inside it contributed to the feeling of space around the concourses. It also prevented the “bus station” look so common in new English grounds, where designers seem convinced football fans shun sunlight like moody teenage goths.

Once in the stadium bowl itself, it’s hard to escape the fact that the stadium is built around a running track, and will never be ideal as a result, but it wasn’t actually that bad. Again, the stands were steep enough to offer a decent view for all but those in the lowest rows, and with that roof overhead, it was certainly an impressive venue. For a ground built in the same year as the old Wembley stadium, there’s no doubt in my mind which was the better rebuild.

The game itself was something of a classic, being the most entertaining, if not the most technically proficient of the tournament so far. England got off to a slow start, but steadied and grew in confidence as the half wore on. In the bars the night before I’d suggested Andy Carroll should have a go up front as he’d offer something extra. In a rare case of me being proven right, he offered that extra something midway through te first half, powerfully heading in a deep cross to put England ahead. The rest of the first half wasn’t actually all that great, with England controlling the game without coming too close to getting a second. At half time though I felt very confident of England winning, just as long as would could hold out after half time.

That hope didn’t last long into the second half. Just four minutes in, a blocked free kick was put back in again and it fell nicely for Mellberg to fire in a shot that went in off Glen Johnson. 20,000 Swedes, many of whom were sitting all around me, celebrated. It wasn’t going to be as calm as I thought.

It got worse, another free kick was again met by Mellberg again. The sight of the side netting bulging outwards told me what I didn’t want to know before the second Scandinavian roar. The Swedes 2 Turnips 1 headlines came flooding back. Was it to be another one of those nights?

1-2 down and really needing the win, England had to go for it. On came Theo Walcott. Earlier this season he was quoted as saying “You need consistency, and I’ve had that in patches”, and that probably sums up his England career. It was very much gambler’s roll of the dice, but it was a roll that paid off.

A John Terry header had been terrifically turned over for a corner, but from the corner the ball broke to Walcott outside the box. He lashed a shot in that swerved and completely deceived Isaksson in the Swedish goal, banging dead centre into the net.

At 1-2 down I’d have taken the draw, but at 2-2, and really needing the win, the momentum had swung back England’s way. Sweden were a diminishing threat, and England looked the more likely to get the game’s 5th goal. It came with 12 minutes left. A dart into the box from Walcott gave him space to square across the box. It went to Welbeck, and for a split second I thought he’d just miscontrolled the ball, until I noticed it arrowing for a spot inside the near post. I jumped in the air, as did the England fans dotted around me. The England corner, below to my right, was absolute bedlam, with many fans dancing about with joy on the running track.

“We’re not going home” sang the England fans, and somehow you just knew that even with 12 minutes left, the result wasn’t in doubt. Gerrard should probably have added a fourth just going into stoppage time, but a long pass from Sweden which just sailed out for a throw made it clear Sweden were a beaten team. Sad for them, and their vast army of fans, but England have had to wait a very long time to get this first win over them, and what a way to do it.

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