Where politics and players collide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am


There are two fan zones on Kiev's grand main street. One is a tented community decorated with protest banners demanding the release of jailed politician Yuliya Tymoshenko. The other also has many tents and is dedicated to celebrating the cream of European football, offering beer, food, flags and T-shirts, three enormous screens, a huge stage, VIP lounges and fancy dress Cossacks.

The former was finding it difficult to attract an audience even though the thousands walking to the latter had to pass large portraits of the striking Tymoshenko and the printed comments of the European leaders who have shunned this half of the football carnival.

I showed an interest as I strolled by, listening to the European melting pot bubbling away; thick accents from Lisbon to Liverpool, Moscow to Madrid. 'Here, take a T-shirt,' said one of the politically inclined. 'Free Yuliya' it blared, and on the back was a cartoon football wrapped in barbed wire. 'I'm just here for the football,' I told the activist, but he talked on anyway.

I later stopped at the official Euro store to buy my son the latest addition to his scarf collection - Ukraine. I put the Yuliya T-shirt in the same bag and felt a twinge of guilt for forcing them to share the same space. Let them argue it out, I mumbled to myself as I navigated the beer-supping crowds waiting for the football politicking between Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Once more shattered from a marathon drive, I saw the first quarter-final - Ronaldo's thumping header acting like a shot of espresso - before bedding down in the media car park overlooking Kiev's Olympic Stadium. The hotels were full, and though I had heard of a camping ground on an island in the middle of the Dnipro River, the prospect of locating it brought little enthusiasm.

The car park was empty except for the guard. I gave him one of the expensive-looking 'Made in China' watches I keep as presents and a packet of cigarettes. I left him watching my vehicle, puffing away and checking the time religiously.

I am now waiting to see if I can get a plane or train to return to Donetsk to watch Spain versus France tonight. I am on standby as all flights are booked. I will not be able to make the 1,400km return road trip in time to see the England vs Italy game tomorrow - unless of course I drive like a maniac, but there are enough of those already.

The Ukraine roads slice through huge arable lands and forests - the country is the world's third biggest grain exporter - and are dotted with two types of memorials. Flowers and crosses mark fatal traffic accidents. The new wider roads can't be built soon enough. Then there are war monuments. Tanks, bunkers, statues of comrades in arms, even jet planes on huge plinths flash by.

During my exhilarating journey I keep seeing in the faces of Ukrainians the ghost of my step-grandfather. He became my grandmother's partner after my blood granddad died. With his snow-white hair, walrus moustache and grey Slovak eyes watery with wine, he would sing old army songs at family gatherings.

He had a tragic life in many respects. He fled home at 15 at the outbreak of the second world war and ended up joining the advancing German army, such was his hatred for Russia. Amid the madness of war, he then joined the allies and the Polish Free Army and was sent to England to clear mines. Demobbed, he moved to London and in a bizarre twist of fate, retired with my grandmother to Dartmouth, the small town where he first landed in the UK.

He could not return to Soviet Ukraine because he feared for his life. When he left home for war, it was the last time he saw his mother. He wanted to visit after the fall of communism but money and time denied him. Instead they wrote to each other for a few years before she died. I would often hear him in his room tuning into longwave radio stations broadcasting from behind the Iron Curtain. He was close friends with Adam, a Polish Jew who ran Dartmouth's fuel barge and who had survived the concentration camps, losing all his family. A reminder of the horror was crudely tattooed on his forearm - his identification number. They would sit in the corner of their local pub and chat in their exotic tongue.

Yesterday the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to commemorate the National Day of Mourning and honour the many war dead. Later in the evening, there is another, albeit enjoyable, conflict, when Germany takes on Greece. It will be interesting to see who the Ukrainians support. Returning to my mobile pied-a-terre, I spied a bookshop displaying a copy of the iconic black-and-white 'Give me Kiev!' war photograph. Absolutely. Please do. I can't get enough of the place.