I saw the Ukrainian football party 10 years ago – and I will support them against Wales | Ukraine

On Sunday evening, every football fan in the world – except the Welsh – will be joined by many others who don’t even care about the game in support of Ukraine’s battered and beleaguered but resilient national team as they face Wales for a place at the World Cup in Qatar later this year.

Looking here in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, even I, with a substantial Welsh DNA quotient, will be wearing my yellow official Ukrainian football shirt with “Malinovskyi 8” on the back.

The game couldn’t be more poignant or timely: just 10 years ago this week, a hugely successful football tournament began, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. Euro 2012 went perfectly straddling the European Union’s eastern border, the border across which millions of refugees have fled their homelands over the past 100 days. Now those 10 short years seem like an unthinkable lifetime.

Not everyone will have fond memories of Euro 2012. Some ultra fans who follow Ukrainian – and Polish – clubs are some of the most infamously racist teams in football. For this reason, the families of England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have stayed home. But I can’t remember anything from the summer of 2012 that resembles the vicious racism that England’s Under-21 side were beset with in Serbia in October. It was football and fun – the kind of protracted, fussy international street party for which we love the game at its best.

With business to attend to in Eastern Europe that summer, I traveled to Ukraine with a friend from Warsaw for three matches. There is little mutual bitterness for the fans of Denmark and the Netherlands – or the good citizens of Kharkiv and the fans of his team, Metalist Kharkiv – so that when the two northern European nations met to play there on June 9, 2012, local fans were ready to host the two for a boulevard and bar jamboree.

I recorded a Metalist band ultras called Sect 82 who, after Denmark’s 1-0 win that night, moved into the town’s Irish pub Patrick – its walls adorned with beer coasters from around the world. They were part of bartering Ukrainian and club scarves for foam rubber Viking helmets and “Hup Holland Hup” sun hats, learning songs in tricky languages ​​over premium Obolon beer.

Wales will be led by Gareth Bale in the play-offs, with almost every fan in the world backing Ukraine. Photograph: Rebecca Naden/Reuters

Ukraine v Sweden in Kyiv was the host country’s opening game on June 11, and a battle between titans: Ukrainian national hero Andriy Shevchenko, who had returned to play for local side Dynamo Kyiv after spells in Milan and Chelsea, and the Swede Zlatan Ibrahimović, who had just left Milan for Paris Saint-Germain. The former scored twice, the latter just once, and Ukraine’s 2-1 win launched hopeful euphoric festivities on a hot night, thankfully joined by a defeated but uninterested Swede, who converged on the center of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), with several attempts to climb its central column, an Obolon above the eight.

The journey from Kyiv to Donetsk – a city founded by a Welsh steel magnate at the invitation of Imperial Russia – for Ukraine’s game against England was easy and enjoyable, on board a Hyundai train newly installed on a renovated high-speed line. The only unease then was the gaze between the English supporters (who had played their previous game in Kyiv) and the home supporters.

On the afternoon of the match, June 19, England fans prowled under the watchful eye of Shakhtar Donetsk supporters and their compatriots. But there were even a few tentative rounds of drinks together – not usually part of protocol outside England fans – at Bar Svinya (Bar Pig), where visiting fans wanted to see the boar kept there .

Inside Shaktar’s rebuilt stadium, Wayne Rooney scored the game’s only goal, securing England’s qualification for the knockout stages but knocking out the hosts. Home fans were rightly outraged by the denial of an equalizer from Marko Dević, the ball recovered from inside the goal by John Terry (a moment of pre-goal tech “where’s VAR when you need it” ).

It’s hard to believe now that it’s the same country. A year after the Ukraine-Sweden match, Maidan Nezalezhnosti became synonymous with ‘Euromaiden’ protests against the then pro-Russian government’s refusal to approve free trade with the EU, and four months later the Maidan uprising against the government.

If Ukrainian football ultras Initially not political, politics found them: they became forces in response to the Russian separatist rebellion in the Donbass region and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The now popular chant “Cheese fries khuylo! La-la-la(Putin is an asshole) began among Metalist supporters.

Andriy Shevchenko kicks the ball
Andriy Shevchenko of Ukraine during Euro 2012. Photography: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

The usual truce between supporters of clubs who hate each other to support the national team in 2012 was reforged in 2014, but now for the defense of the nation. This included supporters from the Russian-speaking East: the presence of the pro-Ukrainian Shakhtar ultras visiting Odessa for a match on May 2, 2014, and their role in clashes with pro-Russian activists that day, was part of a carnage in which 48 people died.

This railway line between Kyiv and Donetsk, specially modernized for the Euros, is now cut off by fierce frontline fighting. Donetsk has been part of Russian breakaway territory since 2014, when then-champion Shakhtar were “exiled” to Lviv, later Kharkiv, and then Kyiv.

Metalist Kharkiv’s Sect 82 ultras became the Azov militia – initially with far-right loyalties – in the armed fight against the Russian-backed uprising, and later spearheaded the heroic and doomed defense of Mariupol.

Russia played their matches at Euro 2012 in Poland, and there were some skirmishes before the two countries met in a qualifying game – nothing serious. And six years after those heady days when Spain lifted the trophy in Kyiv, an equally successful international football competition, the 2018 World Cup – won by the perfect France team – was staged and staged in… uh … Russia.

Elizabeth J. Harless