Canaries squawk in mining country

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


Down in the coal mines beneath Donetsk they use the latest technology to detect the danger that lurks amid the seams of black gold that has built this far-flung venue city and made it one of the richest - and remotest - locations between Berlin and Beijing. Small wonder the canary-yellow adorned Ukrainian supporters - all 53,000 of them - squawked wildly when their clear equaliser against England in the group D decider was missed by the linesmen. The locals have built their future on their ability to see clearly in the dark. So on the myopic official they heaped derision in the only way they know how - in spades.

The Communist heritage of Donetsk is abundant. Statues of Lenin and Soviet architecture live cheek by jowl on the wide roads lined with free-enterprising cafes, bars and designer shops; kerbsides stuffed with the new-moneyed vehicles of choice. And it is all thanks to Welshman John Hughes, who built a steel plant and several coal mines here early in the last century.

The original name of Donetsk - Yuzovka - was penned after him. The city is twinned with the former steel town of Sheffield and it was outside the Golden Lion, located just down from Liverpool Market Street, that the small number of good-natured travelling England fans congregated.

'I've been following England for 12 years on tournaments through the official fan club and there are normally 8,000 of us. But people have stayed away. It's partly the recession back at home, a little bit of the racism scandal - evidence of which I have not seen. But mostly it's the ridiculous price hikes,' said England fan Tim, from Blackpool.

'I am staying at the airport tonight. It's not that I can't afford the GBP200 (HK$2,440) for a tiny bunk in a one-star hotel. I won't on principal. I'd rather pay the gardener to sleep in that rose bed.'

The 3,000 who did make the journey sang long into the night.

The England anthems in this Welsh-engineered town, Ukraine's fifth largest with more than a million citizens, were conducted in the shadow of the city's opera house, a garish Soviet wedding cake-like structure. Across the road is a huge statue of Lenin, right arm gesturing as if scattering the doctrines of the Communist manifesto. Roy Hodgson's men have also made a public declaration here and it was worth the dash from my last match in Lviv to sign up to.

By now a seasoned Euro 2012 traveller, I am pleased to report I did not drive the horrendous path from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to Donetsk alone. A friend managed - amid much verbal abuse, he said - to get a pass from his wife and kids, threw a sick note at his boss, and cashed in some air miles to fly from London to Kiev.

What a white-knuckle ride - and he managed to buy a ticket with ease at face value because few English fans had arrived. 'A GBP60 bargain!' he said.

We travelled east on dilapidated single carriageways. The 30-year Euro 2012 leap forward for Ukraine, as so declared by Uefa president Michel Platini, has yet to land in between the host cities. My friend acted as spotter, giving me vision from my right-hand-drive blind spot, calling out 'Go!' whenever it was safe to overtake a lumbering freight lorry or crawling Lada. At a truck stop we met Ally Omer and his extended family, driving to Russia in two English-registered Mercedes.

'I'm not here for the football,' said Ally, from Luton and of Turkish origin. 'I buy and sell cars on order for Russians. See that Mercedes? Cost me ?800 in the UK. I'll sell it for US$10,000. But I have 13 cars arriving here on a transporter. The car I am driving will pay for the fuel - and the fines.'

Fines? 'Watch out for the Ukrainian cops,' he warned. 'They'll stop you because you are in a foreign car. Take my card and call me. I'll help you out,' he said, thrusting his 'Ally's Auto and Imports and Exports' card in my hand.

We were stopped twice by overweight cops armed with radar guns. They showed me the readings, which were within the limit. I argued for my law-abiding ways. 'You crossed the white line,' they concocted. There were potholes, mad drivers, cyclists without lights, drunk pedestrians listing off the sidewalks, tractors, horse and carts, dogs and cattle for more than 700km. But white lines were rare.

I played the ignorant foreigner and waved my get-out-of-card-jail - my press pass. 'Football?' they asked, using their only English word. I used my only perfected Ukrainian word. Tak - 'yes'. They waved us on.

Next stop is Kiev airport, so my friend can head home and face the music. For me, it's time to set up camp in the capital and await England v Italy in the quarter-final. I never thought I'd get this far but I am glad the Three Lions - and my Land Rover - have been up to task.