Miners feel the pain as Spain roll on

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am

The mining families of Donetsk like their footballers to do as the bread-winners do beneath the ground and attack the coal face from the moment the shift clocks in. Any pussy-footing around has them sneering into their borscht and dumplings. In the Donbass Arena, the locals were in the mood for a generous sprinkling of gritty dark dust on their half-time hotdogs after 45 minutes of La Roja's overly rich helping of possession-obsessed, slow-stewing football.

They spent much of the semi-final supporting Portugal and they rained indignant boos and whistles down on the Spanish, unimpressed by Vicente Del Bosque conquisitors' ownership of the ball, slick passing and occasional threats. The appalling Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, also failed to make local friends. Perhaps many of his bizarre decisions were revenge for the below-par kebabs sold up the road by fake Turks in Kharhov.

For whatever reasons, the Iberian flair everyone expected to roll across the pitch like a summer bush fire on the Spanish plains failed to ignite in the dry heat of eastern Ukraine. If anything, once the novelty of the perfect pass and flick wore off and Portugal's attacks more ebbed than flowed, the increasing boredom threatened to see hands go up in the tiers as spectators gave serious thought about volunteering for overtime on the approaching midnight shift at the collieries.

'Why does Ronaldo keep falling over?' asked Donetsk salesman Matviyko, who was faithfully wearing his yellow Ukraine shirt. The Donbass bans real beer so we supped the non-alcoholic kind, and at least that had some fizz as we loitered by the gangway near the beverage kiosks, peering down at the non-event on the pitch. There was no rush to head back to the seats.

'I think that was a foul,' I offered in Cristiano Ronaldo's defence, but there was nothing to excuse Hugo Almeida's wasteful, selfish shots that seemed more intent on ricocheting off of the domes of the Kremlin 1,000 kilometres to the north than landing in the back of Iker Casillas' net. Sitting next to the editor of Thailand's Siam Sport, Urai Patoommawatana, I used the time wasted by Latino theatrical diving and subsequent withering in mock injury practising how to write out her name correctly.

'I am supporting Spain because I don't like Ronaldo. He's too arrogant,' she said, shivering as the daytime heat rapidly evaporated into the Eurasian night sky. At least up there the stars shone as they should.

The few Portuguese fans who had journeyed into deepest Ukraine lapped up the surprise local support. Two had taken it upon themselves to have printed EURO VIP FAN on their shirts and were soon appointed chain leaders for the yellow and blue. The Portuguese of yore crossed vast oceans and planted their language on far continents but they failed to cross the modest Black Sea and the steppes of Ukraine. 'Port-tu-goal!' shouted the pair in English with thick Atlantic accents. 'Por-ski-goal!' came the reply, followed by 'Yul-krania!' to even out the patriotism.

Granted, there were flashes of brilliance, but the subtle genius of the game was lost on many who came for a goalfest. It lay in Portugal's robust defence, especially Bruno Alves, and Del Bosque's surprise decision to play Sevilla forward Alvaro Negredo. This seemed to put more pressure on the Portuguese but it was the Selec??o das quinas that took the game to their Iberian neighbours.

For long passages, the game dragged so 60,000 souls started a Mexican Wave that circulated the spectacular stadium nine times. The only way to stop this annoying collective fan habit is a goal, but the fans soon grew bored of this exercise, too, and thankfully it petered out.

Extra-time bought a rustling of expectation but to the expert eye this encounter had penalties splashed all over it. At least it was a more compelling 120 minutes of football than the last scoreless bore draw in Kiev between Italy and England. Finally, there was something to cheer. Cesc Fabregas' spot kick sent Spain to their third consecutive big tournament final. Some achievement, whichever way you achieve it.

Outside on the concourse, Portuguese fan Joao Oliveirs, decked out in face paint, a cap and large flag worn as a cape, could not talk even though he nodded he could in English and desperately wanted to. He threw his hands up in the air, wobbled his head in disbelief, turned several times with his mouth open and eyes bulging but no sound came. Finally, he said: 'Penalties.'

He took my pen, wrote his name, and walked off into the night, seeking answers in this wacky, weird Ukrainian coal town - probably the last place you'd start looking.