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Travels with my football shirts: Ukraine

Ukraine National Team

Every shirt is a travelogue waiting to be written...

In this strange time of self-isolation, lockdowns, football postponements and being unable to travel for the foreseeable future due to the worldwide impact of the Coronavirus, I thought that I would share some of my travel stories using my extensive football shirt collection over the next few weeks. Up next, a visit to Kiev and a look into why Ukraine is one of the most fascinating places that I have ever been to...

Featured Shirt: Ukraine (2011/13 season)

Back in November 2018, a year after cancelling their original Ukrainian flight programme, Ryanair relaunched their flights to Kiev and Lviv from Manchester. For the bargain price of just £30 return to Kyiv (Kiev), this was a great flight deal that I could not resist and would be my first time in Ukraine. Simon, my good friend and colleague decided to come along and we planned an itinerary that only turned into a football weekender at the last minute.

We travelled in May 2019 and watched Dynamo Kyiv vs. Zorya Luhansk at the Olympic Stadium in a Ukrainian Premier League Play-Off match, but on reflection, this trip was about more than football and gave us a fascinating insight into a country that is undergoing real change

Running in the Kiev 12K

I'll be honest before I go any further. I was nervous about visiting Ukraine and Kyiv. I did not know what to expect and as no stranger to post-Soviet era countries having visited Poland, Latvia and Slovakia in the past, I am aware that quaint old towns often contrast with the vast, grey high rise housing estates that surround the periphery.

The Maidan protests and Orange Revolution put Ukraine firmly in the eyes of the world's media for a period. Negative stories in the media compound a certain stereotype about the country and limited tourist information makes pre-trip research particularly hard to do.

It's also important to consider that the country is still technically at war with pro-Russian separatists around the coal-rich Donbas region in the east. Life in Kyiv is conflict-free and located hundreds of miles from the war zone in the east, yet some reminders often appear on the city’s streets.

Both Simon and I also debated visiting the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear power station exclusion zone and the adjacent abandoned city of Pripyat, but after careful consideration, we decided against the excursion and put our energies into running the 12K distance in the European Union-funded 'Kyiv Euro Marathon' running festival instead and of course, watching football.

We flew on Friday morning on one of the first flights out of Manchester Airport and every seat was occupied for the 3-hour flight. There was the usual mix of 'lads on tour', Ukrainians drawn from Manchester's large ex-pat community and bargain hunting flight enthusiasts playing the Ryanair destination lottery-like ourselves.

We had no local currency as Ukrainian money is hard to source in the UK and took euros to change at the airport. A large wad of Hryvnia (UAH) notes changed hands for the equivalent of £100. Kyiv Boryspil Airport is located about 45 minutes from the city centre and we passed some of the vast communist-era housing estates before crossing the River Dnipro on our coach transfer. The now-ubiquitous neon logo of the Chinese telecoms company Huawei greeted our arrival into the city centre.

We decided to stay at the Hotel Ibis next to the railway station for ease and convenience. We did look at staying at the brutalist Hotel Salute for a more authentic post-Soviet experience, but sometimes it's best to stick to what you know, especially in unfamiliar territory.

Hotel Salute

Priced at £160 for 3 nights, the hotel was expensive when compared to the relative cost of Ukrainian day-to-day living, however, the proximity to the metro station and the Marshrutka minibus terminal negated the cost. Upon arrival, we had two immediate aims. Pick up our race numbers for the 12k run from the nearby cinema and buy two tickets for the Dynamo match on Saturday afternoon.

Going to the match was a last-minute decision. We had looked at the fixtures of the Ukrainian Premier League a week prior to arrival and noticed that a Dynamo Kyiv match was now scheduled for Saturday afternoon. The opposition side, FC Zorya Luhansk, are currently in exile due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and play their home games in Zaporizhia so we knew that under the circumstances; few away fans would attend the fixture.

As we walked from the hotel to the beautiful, yet functional Metro network and travelled on escalators that can take up to 10 minutes to descend to the platforms. We also had our first realisation that the country is on a war footing. Dozens of off-duty camouflage-clad soldiers wandered the streets or headed to the train station to board trains and re-join their battalions stationed east of Kharkiv.

The underground system costs just 8 UAH for a single journey (25p) and overworked ticket sellers change small value notes into even smaller green tokens to enter the metro system. We got off at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the site of the February 2014 Revolution and walked past the ornate golden-domed cathedral of St. Michael to the former Dynamo stadium located close to the river to buy our tickets for the match.

Church of St. Michael

The 1930s era stadium is not used by the current Dynamo side, but is still their official home and bears the name of the Ukrainian football legend Valeriy Lobanovskyi. The disciplinarian was the first manager to win a major European trophy in the Soviet Union and is still the second-highest decorated manager of all-time behind Sir Alex Ferguson.

The ticket office was located in a small kiosk close to the Lobanovskyi Memorial and we purchased our tickets for just 100 UAH from a ticket seller that seemed to indicate from her screen that tickets for the Zorya clash would be in demand. The price converts to approximately £3 and standing tickets are available for under half that amount. Technically a Ukrainian mobile phone number is needed to purchase tickets, however, we did not encounter this as being an issue at the ticket office. Surely at those prices, the Ukrainian Premier League is the cheapest top-flight league in Europe?

After more sightseeing around Kyiv's historical centre, we arrived back at the train station to eat in a traditional Ukrainian chain restaurant late in the evening that seemed to have run out of things on the menu to sell. Despite appearing to be unappetising, the small, pale stuffed dumplings that are widely available in Ukraine were actually quite tasty. We both felt that we were gradually overcoming the language barrier, understanding the vast underground network and discovering that my fears for the weekend overall were unfounded.

Having secured our match tickets for the 1500 kick-off on Saturday afternoon, we had a morning to explore Kyiv on foot and find out more about one of the darker moments in European history - the explosion of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station on the 26th April 1986. The state-funded museum in the suburbs provides a detailed account of the events that followed. Visiting the exclusion zone 100km north of Kyiv has gained international notoriety as a dark tourism destination and Ukraine has to balance the benefits of tourism, with remembrance, human intrigue and tragedy. The highly acclaimed Sky Atlantic series will further fuel visitor numbers to the contaminated zone.

Having grown familiar enough with Kyiv to jump on a privately run minibus, we took the short ride over to the stadium located about 5km from the hotel. The NSC Olimpiyskiy is one of Europe's four-star stadiums and was the host of the 2018 UEFA Champions League Final. The Olympic reference is due to Kyiv hosting one of the football matches in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Located in the heart of the city centre and one of the key stadia for Euro 2012, the stadium is one of the most centrally located grounds in Europe and one of the most colourful. The roof pattern incorporates a traditional floral motif and a giant wraparound of the current squad surrounds the 70,000 capacity arena. We purchased some superb traditionally patterned scarves that fuse together the iconic club crest with Ukrainian folk designs.

Just behind the running track surrounding the pitch, the yellow and blue seats in Ukrainian national colours create an illusion of making the stadium look fuller than in reality. Just over 18,000 watched the fixture against Zorya and our tickets enabled us to walk around the stadium through the rows of empty seats. We started off by sitting next to Dynamo's 'ultras' that comprised of a youthful, sportswear-clad crowd that chanted along to the actions led by a fan with a loudspeaker. He wore an anti-racism Dynamo replica shirt possibly in reference to the high levels of racism that have plagued the Ukrainian League in recent years. A large group of off-duty Ukrainian soldiers in the second tier looked down from above.

After spending more time out of our seats than in them wandering around the vast arena, we didn't miss much action on the pitch. The game itself was a fairly dull affair with a muted crowd that seemed to gradually become bigger as the match progressed. In a game that was dominated by Dynamo from the start, a late free-kick concluded with a goal for Zorya by Silas in the 92nd minute. A bare-chested Kyiv Ultra continued to proudly wave his cotton flag after the final whistle. However, this was not a Dynamo side capable of matching the footballing heights scaled by Shevchenko, Rebrov, Luzhny and Yarmolenko. Shakhtar Donetsk is now the dominant team in the Ukrainian League despite the impressive Donbas Arena being closed due to the ongoing war in the region.

The next day we were back at the Olympic stadium to run the Kyiv Euro 12K. The run was part of a wider running festival and we ran up and down Kyiv's wide boulevards before finishing at the entrance to the stadium's running track. I wore my Rochdale AFC shirt in homage to the close connections between Ukraine and the Greater Manchester town. We were slightly disappointed that we didn't get the chance to actually run around the pitch, however, we felt that after the obligatory photos outside of the ground in front of Dynamo's iconic badge that we had seen so much and learnt so much of Ukraine, Kyiv and the events through the course of the 20th century that have shaped its history.

An excursion later in the afternoon to the excellent Museum of the Great Patriotic War that commemorates the Soviet Union's role in World War II was one of the best museums that I have ever been too. The brutalist monuments to the socialist struggle combined with a very well preserved collection of Cold War-era Warsaw Pact military equipment were astounding.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

As we flew back to Manchester on Monday morning on a flight that was full of the same people as the outbound, I asked a few people what their thoughts of Kyiv were. Most were genuinely surprised at how pleasant the city was to visit and how different the city was to their preconceived ideas. Both Simon and I felt the same.

Ukraine is a relatively new country having only gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and most of the young people we saw have no connection to that part of the country's history. They are embracing selfie culture, smartphones and western life with no memory or experience of life under the previous regime. Ukraine's domestic football league has been disrupted by conflict in the east in recent years and Dynamo Kyiv continues as one of Eastern Europe's iconic clubs. There will be something enduring about this football weekend compared to the others that we have been on in recent years.

This article first appeared in the excellent 'Football Weekends' magazine. I recommend buying a copy of the magazine if you are interested in travel, football and how to piece together your own European football-themed weekend break.

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