Iberians in the 'land at the edge'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2012, 12:00am


How fickle the winds of football fortune. Just when you thought it was safe to dream England would book a date with Germany in the semi-finals and send you back to wonderful Warsaw, along came another penalty shoot-out to trash the travel plans.

Once more to Donetsk it is, then - swept back into the land of Cossacks by wayward Iberian gusts and to a mouthwatering date with some tip-top tika-taka football. Portugal versus Spain should be a grudge match like no other, more so as it to be played among the slag heaps of that bizarre and distant bling-filled, fossil-fuelled frontier town.

Admittedly, the prospect of traversing once more the E40 highway (and by highway I refer to a single carriageway death trap) does rather send the nerves of the gypsy motorist a-fluttering. Potholes, inebriated jay-walkers, lightless cyclists disguised as the black night, rotund shake-down traffic cops, honking, snarling lorry drivers hurtling to Russia - and of course the regiments of summer flies embarking on a Crimean Charge of the Light Brigade-like blood-and-gore martyrdom on my windscreen.

It will be worth every mile. The E40 cuts through history like a Gomez-led German attack into a Greek penalty area, and on my last passage to the Donbass to see England versus Ukraine, there was little time to stop and gawk at the battlefields and other historical sites. So a little bit of sightseeing en route, and then at the end of the road, Alonso, Xavi, Ronaldo and co. What a greeting party.

The rest days are allowing the amateur historian to look up from the team sheets. You would not deduce given the unifying navy and yellow Ukraine decorations that hang everywhere that this 'land at the edge' is a divided land and people, and underneath the football carnival veneer, tensions threaten the calm.

The perceived failure among half of the population of the 2004 Orange Revolution and anger over the persecution of former EU-pro prime minister (and co-revolution leader) Yuliya Tymoshenko festers, as does resentment towards her adversary, Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

Earlier this week, a Ukrainian court adjourned the high-profile tax evasion trial of Tymoshenko until mid-July, sparing the Kiev government further blushes during its moment in the global spotlight. We have already seen Western outrage over Tymoshenko's prosecution, with senior European politicians boycotting matches in the Ukraine. The question now is whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel will enter the German dressing room and kindly ask Low's men to lose the semi-final against the Italians. The embarrassing headlines have been written and are waiting to run should the German team travel to duel for the ultimate European football prize in Kiev on Sunday without the support of their fufball-loving government.

What a pity all this politicking should soil this otherwise tremendous tournament. This is, after all, about the players on the pitch and the supporters in the stands - and about the hard work of the hosts to put on a grand show. Poland has seized the moment, and after centuries of being ruled by foreign powers, Ukrainians are forging their own national identity and showing what they have created in their post-Soviet world.

The wide River Dnieper that runs through the capital Kiev is the dividing line between East-thinking Ukrainians and those in the west of the country seeking more EU influence. Down Donetsk way, they prefer the Russian way of life, speaking that language and digging in deep with a Soviet mentality. Ukraine is actually the birthplace of Russia, being the first Slavic state (though actually founded by Vikings, but best to keep that quiet). And it was its vast arable lands and other resources that cultivated and fuelled the growth of the Russian empire.

Donetsk is nearly as close to Moscow as it Kiev, and the Donbass Stadium is the must-have accessory of Ukraine's richest man, coal magnate Rinat Ahkmetov. The president too hails from Donetsk and one does wonder quite how their influence managed to ensure this distant city was awarded a semi-final given the poor roads, lack of flights, only two express trains a day and lack of affordable accommodation.

Still, there's no stopping the show now. Not even the politics can do that. I am about to join the land-cruising Spanish armada heading east. And I hope my son doesn't mind but I have taken his new Portugal scarf out of his present haul and hung it up on the back window. I just get the feeling that not many Portuguese have caught this rare Iberian breeze ruffling the flags in that remote yet spellbinding football citadel.