The overnight 20 carriage sleeping car train from Simferopol to Kharkiv was a relaxing experience. The two bed compartments were already made up with a Delft style theme for the bed linen. I got lucky just before departure time when a family of four arrived and the father asked if they could stay together so the Providnic(provider), who travels on each carriage, helped me move to the only single compartment for a great nights sleep, and woke me up with a glass of tea from the samovar in an elegant metal holder the next morning, 8 hours later.
At Kharkiv's huge train station I left my bag for the day, found the Metro next door and bought some 8 cent plastic tokens for the Red Line which went 4(cheteery) stops to Metalist Stadium where I got fixed up with a pass from Tatania of the Ukrainian F.A. for the 8.00pm evening World Cup qualifier Ukraine v Croatia. Chris, an agency reporter from Liverpool was not that lucky. It's difficult to get by air to Ukraine's second largest city of 1.5 million. He had had to fly to Rome, change to Kiev and then an overnight train for 8 hours.. To make matters worse, his city centre hotel wouldn't let him check-in until 8.00p, kick-off time,I have NEVER had that problem, so we went to a nearby Pizzeria for a looooong chat so that he didn't have to carry his bag around the depressing city on an overcast day.
It's the industrial heart of the country with the famous Malyshev tank factory, plus aerospace, nuclear electronics and lots of heavy engineering. During WW II there were 4 major battles for Kharkiv and the tank plants were moved to the Ural Mountains for the duration. There were no signs anywhere in English, no welcome information nor tourist offices in what will be one of four Ukrainian EURO 2012 host cities. Metalist Kharkiv are near the top of the Ukrainian Premier league and many believe they have the best playing surface. That is why the Cup Final has been moved from Kiev for the first time, and this very first international was to attract a sell out crowd of 34,000 fans who were in fine voice. www.ffu.org.ua
It's twinned with Cincinnati, Ohio and just below my front row press box seat was a guy in a Cincinnati Bearcats sweat shirt. I would also like to point out that my friend Brian Croston, coaching supremo of Milford School on the city's outskirts has taken his varsity soccer team to their first ever undefeated season, in only his second season in charge. Brian, now you and your Eagles will be famous in all the five continents that my blog goes to.www.milfordathletics.org.
Up in the long two row press area there was bedlam. Only foreign reporters were assigned seats, and the locals had to take pot luck. There were correspondents standing behind most seats and a TV cameraman trying to shoot over my shoulder. Before the match I had to walk a third of a way round the stadium to find a toilet. The urinals were sparkling clean, at least 2 hours before kick-off, and the fans still waiting outside, but one look inside the squat Turkish style toilet cubicles made me close the door straight away. No chance of getting there and back during the match anyway.
There was a small artificial grass mini pitch with walls and netting next to the stadium and I watched lots of 7-10 year olds all in their favourite pro team strips, playing some mini matches. There were a few Chelsea jerseys in both royal blue and mint green, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Arsenal, Metalist, Dynamo Kiev, the blue/yellow of the national team, a couple in England jerseys with Beckham and Watson? on the back, and the goalie had a Liverpool strip with Gerrard printed on.
The referee crew were from the Netherlands and did a skilled and quiet job-just as it should be. You can tell when the match is not so great, the crowd did about 15 Mexican Waves altogether. Andriy Shevchenko, national hero and now back with AC Milan after a dismal time with Chelsea, was a lone ranger up front, and confronted with what looked like the Croatian Olympic basketball team in defence, he stood no chance, and they towered over him. He isn't that small himself, but is not as good as he was 3-4 years ago.
The home team did well up to the break but then the visitors took command and were lucky not to win by a couple of goals and the match fizzled out to a 0-0 tie. One reporter with his TV monitor kept feeding me the England v Khazakstan score from Wembley in the same group. The blonde flowing locks of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Zenit S.P. showed class in midfield, and for the Croatians I liked Luka Modric of Tottenham Hotspur.
The stadium needs modernising for 2012 and the 8 lane track reduces the atmosphere and the help that a local crowd can give in support. I was sitting next to Yegor a local TV reporter, and it's the first time I can remember most of the press standing up and singing their national anthem with glee.