“For 74 years we lived under a planned economy that ruined everything,” says Boris Kaleshnikov , the deputy prime minister and the man ultimately responsible for the tournament. “This Euro competition has given us the chance to bring things up to date.”
Unfortunately for Kaleshnikov and his government, the increased interest that has come with the tournament has also lit up some of the less savoury aspects of his party’s rule. Political representatives of several Western European countries have refused to come to any matches in Ukraine after it emerged that Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister, had suffered what appeared to be a beating in prison; the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has yet to confirm she will attend in the (likely) event that Germany qualifies for the latter stages.
Mrs Tymoshenko’s seven-year sentence, handed out when the new government came into power in 2010, is regarded by many in the West as politically motivated. She is now on hunger strike in prison. And members of the Ukrainian opposition, including the world heavyweight boxing champions, the Klitschko brothers, are keen to use the tournament as an opportunity to publicise her plight.
Oleg Voloshin, the foreign ministry spokesman, insisted that such protest was misplaced. “Our position is very simple: Euro 2012 is about football, not politics. It’s impossible to solve any political issues through boycotting sporting events,” he said.
This is clearly a country in the midst of seismic change. But whatever the breakneck modernisation programme (and construction work on most of the projects did not even get under way until the autumn of 2010), fans arriving to cheer on the England team through their three games in Ukraine will find that this is a country not yet quite up to Western European speed. Places that would be no more than a few hours from each other in Spain or Germany are a good day apart here.
A huge geographical spread takes the visitor from the grand architecture of Kiev in the north, across an apparently endless expanse of steppes, past even more extensive pine forests, through the heavy industry of the Donbass region, down to the Black Sea resorts of Crimea, which are much favoured by holidaying Russian moneymen and their charge-by-the-hour consorts.
Eye-catching as it may be, such a journey across the country has to be undertaken without recourse to motorway or high-speed train, and without budget airlines to provide competitively priced internal flights.
Nor, when you eventually arrive at your destination, is the tourist accommodation quite what Western travellers might expect. While Kiev and the beautiful Unesco World Heritage city of Lviv have ample provision of hotels, Donetsk, where England will play two matches, has only three four-star establishments. And these have been snapped up by the organising committee to house visiting officials and media.
“You have to remember this is not a tourist destination,” says Lubkivskyi of the city. “Donetsk is the Manchester of Ukraine.”
This is more than a tad harsh on Cottonopolis. Donetsk, which was established by a Welsh mining engineer, John Hughes, at the end of the 19th century to exploit rich seams of coal and iron ore, formed the very epicentre of the Soviet Union’s heavy industrial base. For 75 years, as the town churned out steel and coal to fuel the communist system, little attention was paid to aesthetics or environmental concerns.
These days – as the underground wealth is being more efficiently and sustainably extracted – the city is being rapidly cleaned up. But the grubby Soviet legacy is evident everywhere. From the fit-for-an-oligarch corporate hospitality suites of the magnificently appointed Donbass Arena, the view takes in the kind of slag heaps and pithead winding gear not seen on Britain’s landscape for more than two decades. Plus a couple of giant Soviet-style statues of noble miners to give clear reminder of the place’s heritage.
Hotels are thus not its natural resource. For the fan, the choice largely lies between spartan hostels, university halls of residence or a freshly constructed campsite five miles out of town. And shortage has led to widespread profiteering. Rooms for the nights England play are being advertised at upwards of £800. And that is per person, sharing. So sharp has been some of the pricing that Michel Platini, the head of Uefa, was moved to suggest that the Ukraine hospitality industry was the province of “crooks and bandits”.
To counter such counterproductive PR, both the government and a lavishly financed local football club, Shakhtar Donetsk, have set up websites offering more reasonable alternatives. But it has been made clear that there is no legislation on charging during the tournament. In this most rapacious of new capitalist economies, it has been left to the market to punish the over-chargers.
“If owners put up prices, no one will book them. It is as simple as that,” says Mr Lubkivskyi. “The market will make it clear to them they are wrong.”
He insists his website offers rooms from €11 (£9) to €280 (£225) per person per night.
“The most you will have to pay is €330 (£265) for a four-star hotel for the night of a semi-final,” he adds.
Those who do venture eastwards will be rewarded, he says, by hospitality to blow their cynicism away. This is a country that likes its football and likes its booze. Bars are to open for 24 hours across the long, long June days; beer will be cheap and plentiful; nightclubs will dance until dawn and beyond. In most Ukrainian restaurants, the principal complaint for the Western visitor will be the size of the portions: in Pushkin, the smartest eatery in Donetsk, you need mountaineering gear to scale some of the main courses.
From the delightful cobbled backstreets of Lviv, along the grand and graceful boulevards of Kiev, to Odessa’s bling-fuelled, non-stop nightlife, this is a country ready to open its arms to visitors. Albeit while relieving them of much of the content of their wallets. And hoping they don’t ask too many questions about its approach to political opposition. The government expects the tournament to bring in 200,000 visitors from the West, people it hopes will be sufficiently captivated to want to come back. Often.
“We are going to surprise the world with what we can offer in Euro 2012,” says Mr Lubkivskyi. “Actually, I think we are going to surprise ourselves.”
5 random facts about Ukraine
- According to the Traveler’s Digest, Kiev is home to the most beautiful women in the country.
- The invention of the first gas lamp took place in Lviv.
- The country is the second largest in Europe after Russia.
- Ukraine hosts up to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the primeval beech forests of the Carpathians.
- It has one of the largest armies in Europe.
What else to read about Ukraine
Thank you for your interest in Ukraine and we hope that you will love this country even more when you will visit it.
There are many exhibition centres and art galleries in the Kyiv city for lovers of contemporary art and modern style.
They are almost always open for tourists with sophisticated taste and are ready to share the bright impressions.
In Kyiv you can spend time with your family with fun and pleasure: hiking to museums, amusement and attractions park; participation in family festivals and events.
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