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14 June 2012

Under the European Lights: One Fan's Dream Becomes Reality

June 10, 2012
            Soccer fans across both the “old continent” and throughout the world have been eagerly anticipating this 2012 European Football Championship since the 2010 World Cup, when Spain, one of the few national teams who play the game “the right way,” were deservedly crowned champions. Spending that summer in Granada, Spain and observing the infectious euphoria of a nation was special, but I wanted to be in the thick of the action, I wanted to see the real thing. I wanted to be ‘under the lights’ when it all happened.  
            Under the lights of Arena Lviv

 Overused as this adjective is, there is something completely magical about witnessing live football, especially when that match is a European Championship clash between giants Germany and Portugal. Even the best camera work cannot fully capture the speed, technique, or emotional investment in such a match. Televised viewing often gives off a mundane impression of football, yet live viewing confirms the technical virtuosity required to perform a seemingly simple action such as a back pass, defensive clearances, or an off-the-ball sprint under such immense pressure.  In the heavy atmosphere of such a match, one cannot help but glue their eyes on every movement with the fixation of a predator following its prey.

            Thus, I knew that attending any match, let alone the Germany-Portugal match, would satisfy a long-held inner craving for an authentic soccer experience. In this case, the unfamiliarity and magnitude of the occasion rendered it more memorable than the outcome of the match-a grinding 1-0 German victory courtesy of an early second half Mario Gomez header. In hindsight, I will forever cherish the experience and look forward to future evenings under the lights.

            Many North Americans who follow soccer, or “football” as it’s known in the rest of the world, dream of one day crossing “the pond” and finding their Mecca at the Ibrox, the “Theatre of Dreams,” or at Camp Neu in the company of fellow Bhoys (Glasgow Celtic), Red Devils (Manchester United), or Cules (Barcelona). The Euros, however, present an entirely different scenario-the prospect of international glory where the stakes are higher.  In both the Euro and the World Cup, supporters must temporarily set aside their club affinities for the “good of the nation.” The Euro, unlike the World Cup, however, is a shorter, and more concentrated tournament that presently includes seven of the world’s top ten national teams, and consequently, many consider it more difficult to win.  In other words, each Euro match is more meaningful, there is less room for error, and considering the history between the Germany and Portugal teams, those in attendance had something special to look forward to.

             In coming to Lviv, Ukraine for the group stage of the tournament, I anticipated a feverish excitement. I knew that merely stepping into the Adidas Fanzone (a glitzy fenced off area in the center of the city for viewing matches), let alone attending a match, would cause a certain giddiness and unbearable excitement that I associate with viewing an eagerly anticipated movie or attending a live performance of a beloved musical act. Yet with Finland never having qualified, I also felt privileged to be able to analyze the events as a neutral-a true fan of the sport.

  Inside of the Adidas Fanzone

            My pessimism initially grabbed hold of me upon reading that all matches were sold out, and I resigned to spending several sweaty hours watching matches in the Fanzone. Acquiring a ticket, it turned out, was as simple as standing in the Fanzone during the tournament’s opening match. The turnout at the Fanzone for an eventful and numerically underwhelming match between Poland and Greece was impressive.  Several thousands gathered near the famous Shevchenka Statue to witness the tournament's official inauguration in Warsaw. Germans, Poles, Greeks, Portuguese, Canadians, Brits, Danish, and of course, Ukrainians, crowded the square to get a view of the action.

Fans of many nationalities

           My chance for the golden ticket came when a middle-aged, red haired German fan passed by my host Ioora and I with an extra ticket in hand during half time.  Spotting the opportunity, Yura raced toward the man and inquired about the price. He was asking for face value on the ticket-a mere 120 Euros (a bargain really). Having left most of my money at Yura’s house, I cursed my luck and nearly drifted over to the beer vendors to quench my sorrow in some cold suds.  But I was in luck-Ioorah lent me money to buy the ticket-which he claimed he had no interest in-and I was set to join a group of three Germans at the Germany-Portugal match!  

          Despite my initial reluctance to break neutrality and sit with this group, I soon relented after the vendor sold me the ticket for 20 euro less than he had initially suggested.  Now I was truly a “kid in a candy store,” so excited that I even ignored my jetlag, which I had yet to extinguish. Jumping for joy and so thankful for Ioora, we made our way back home.

            That night I barely slept.  I kept dreaming of an audacious Cristiano Ronaldo backheel, an incisive Mesut Ozil assist, or a thumping long range strike from Nani.  On paper, this was about as exciting an encounter as world football can offer, yet the past few international matches between these countries-a handful of overly physical friendlies, and the quarter final of Euro 2008-were both chippy affairs with plenty of fouls and a stop-start pace that had, until recently, typified the German ethos.  Now Germany was a balanced offensive machine, with a plethora of attacking options, and more than ready to face the most lethal offensive player in the world-Cristiano Ronaldo. 

            Groggy, but with butterflies swimming all over my stomach, I woke up late and spent most of the day with Yura in Bryukhovychi-a sleepy, forest-covered suburb of Lviv.  The match would not begin until 21:45, so we decided to stop at a pub in the city center and watch some of the Netherlands-Denmark match, which turned out to be an enormous upset.  Somehow the Danes pipped the Dutch to three points following a narrow 1-0 victory.  Three half-litres of Lvivsky “1715” (local) lager, two pork blini (eastern European crepes), and several potato varinicky (traditional Ukrainian dumplings) were more than enough to calm my nerves and satisfy my stomach.

            At 19:30 we left the pub and I followed the mass of supporters, dressed nearly every color, to the bus station.  Chants, songs, and the sound of improvised musical instruments filled the air as the revelry stretched through the streets of downtown Lviv.  Such was my excitement that even with time to spare, I began walking at a frantic pace to the bus station and began needlessly perspiring from head to toe.  With my wallet and passport in one pocket, and my camera and precious ticket in the other, I shoved my way into one of the Stadium-bound designated buses amidst the Deutsch Fussball-Bund supporters, who were smiling, singing, and chanting all through the 30-minute ride to the marshy outskirts of Lviv.  

Squishing into the bus

It's the "European Way"

            The stadium was not visible from the bus stop, but a host of male Germany fans, sporadically urinating on the side of the sparsely-paved walking path to the stadium, were. I decided to spare my fellow attendees such a graphic display and answered the call of nature in the no less disgusting stadium bathrooms. My heart leapt as soon as the pentagonal-shaped metal stadium came into view, and every step brought more joy to my heart.  “This is the greatest day of my life,” I kept telling myself-a hyperbole no doubt, but it made me truly happy to think that I was fulfilling one of my life’s goals. 

 Arena Lviv in all its glory

A thorough pat-down and a ticket scan later I made my entrance into the sparkling new Arena Lviv, completed only two weeks prior.  All around me were smiling faces, sometimes brushed with the colors of German or Portuguese flags, but always smiling. I drained one more forgettable Carlsberg beer as the dull sun left its final streaks of color on the flat landscape beyond, and then headed inside.

Up, up, up, and...

Freshly planted seed waiting to be destroyed 

            I will never forget the moment I emerged from the stadium hallway into the seating area: it defies explanation and I can only compare it to being re-born.  The fresh grass was surrounded by a surprisingly intimate seating arrangement where spectators, even from the upper levels, felt close to the field. It all seemed so perfect and accordingly pristine. I soon found my companions on the "B-level" (second story) seating, who immediately wrapped me in a Germany scarf, to which I begrudgingly responded with a, “okay, but just for today, I’m a neutral.”

 Meine Freunde" (90 Minuten)

Deutsch Fussball-bund fans

                 The first thing I noticed after taking my seat was the quantity of Germany supporters.  Nearly half of the stadium was blanketed in their colors, while the Portugal supporters were reduced to one small corner.  I attributed this to Germany’s proximity to Ukraine and a stronger economy.   

                 The first half witnessed each team showing too much respect for the other; each one prodding, testing, and defending without constructing any meaningful plays.  Barely 15 minutes had passed when a few dozen Germany supporters started throwing crumbled up pieces of paper onto the pitch, obviously aiming for the Portugal players.  When Portugal winger Nani won a corner he was hit by several, and complained to the referee, after which he was booed loudly.  After five more minutes of insipid play, during which neither team created a chance, an announcement on the loudspeaker in English, German, and Ukrainian proclaimed,  “we understand your desire to support your team, but throwing paper onto the field is bad sportsmanship and could result in the match being canceled, and your team being penalized.”  With that the disrespectful contingent ended their paper charades. 

      Portugal's Nani takes a corner amidst the garbage      

 You stay CLASSY Germany fans

            Portugal defender Pepe nearly brought the crowd to its feet right before the end of the first half. Capitalizing on a momentary German defensive lapse, he smashed a loose ball against the crossbar that bounced downward and almost into the goal. But instead it fell tamely for German keeper Manuel Neuer, and it was not to be for Portugal. 

            Profligacy was the name of the game for both teams until a well-taken header by Germany forward Mario Gomez (born in Germany to Spanish parents) in the 74th minute.  The stadium erupted into cheers of “YA!” and “YA VOL!” and the match never seemed like it would shift courses after that. Despite the childish behavior by one faction of their fans, I must say that I was rather impressed by the level of German support.  The mere presence of so many Deutsch Fussball fans should be credited with giving the team a slight edge in the form of a “12th man.” Even the vast majority of Ukrainians seemed to be lending Germany their support (one wonders if western Ukraine's abhorrence of anything Russian and the old World War II animosities between the Germans and Russians have anything to do with this...).

 Germany lining up for one of many free kicks

 It was to be "Ze" Germans' evening

            The match felt like a blur, and before I knew it the final whistle blew. Germany had won 1-0 and picked up three deserved points, a giant step toward qualifying for the knockout stages from the “Group of Death.” Just like the three previous international tournaments in which Portugal had participated, Cristiano Ronaldo was disappointing and failed to produce, though not for a lack of effort.  The world's second best player seemed isolated on the left wing and appeared to be playing at a different pace and skill level than his lesser teammates.  But he would have other opportunities to prove himself.

            I left the temporary companionship of the Germans, quickly gave them back their scarf (vowing never again to wear German football gear), and crowded onto another bus headed for the center, but not before snapping another photograph of the Arena Lviv in its nighttime splendor-a transparent pentagon of pleasing metal and concrete spines.  

 Arena Lviv at night

            Some of us dream of attaining riches, fame, or universal admiration, while others have more humble desires. My fantasy, however, was far simpler: to cross the ocean and attend a match at an international soccer competition. Because of its physical distance, the prospect of attending such a match once seemed so unattainable, and even mystical, which reinforced my desire.  For so long I dreamt of taking my seat under the lights and watching the very best the world had to offer, and now I have. After last night, I can honestly admit that I may now die a happy man. 

 (You'd think I could at least stifle a smile?)

08 June 2012

Live from Lviv: Euro 2012 Day 1

            The pieces are set; the squads-finalized, accommodations-fully booked, overdue construction projects-glossed over, and the plasticy, inflated “fanzones-”furnished and ready for a two-week long party. The opening ceremony of the world’s third largest sporting event-the UEFA European Football Championship-is mere hours away.  Towns across the Ukraine and Poland are buzzing with anticipation for the flood of tourists, noise, color, and passion that will envelop the two host countries for nearly a month. 
            The historic city of Lviv, beating heart of western Ukranian culture, will play host to Group B, a.k.a. the “Group of Death.” Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, and Denmark will duke it out for the right to call themselves conquerors of one of the most difficult groups in recent tournament memory. Here in the region once known as “Galicia,” the atmosphere is one of optimism and warmth. The charming renaissance, baroque, and classic architecture, combined with the delicious coffee and beer, and the friendliness of the locals, will no doubt leave a strong impression on the minds of tourists, players, and pundits alike. 

            Lviv is a city of multiple heritages. Its balcony covered stone cobble streets, with three-window baroque facades rising above, relics of the Austrian-Hapsburg era, (which also left behind a strong cafe culture), its ornate Gothic churches, marks of its Polish past, which upon first visit are full of elderly worshippers, the seemingly out-of-place modern Soviet “block-style” apartments, and the multitude of theatres, museums, and book-fares made this place one of Europe’s true hidden gems-but not for long.  


          Droves of German and Portuguese tourists shoved past me in the dimly lit Art Noveu train station, filling the thankful Ladas, Skodas, new Japanese imports, and flashy European makes, whose eternally cigarette-puffing chauffeurs were more than willing to accept them.

             After an overnight flight to London, a two-hour layover, a three-hour flight to Kiev, an hour shuttle bus ride to the train station, and a 13-hour overnight train, I finally made it to Lviv in one jet-lagged piece. Having been under the mistaken impression that the Euro competition would produce a multitude of signs in English, I was dependent on my guidebook and helpful Ukranians in navigating Cyrillic. Yet it was also pleasantly surprising to not have encountered any other tourists on my drowsy train journey through central Ukraine, a somehow reassuring fact that made me feel like an exotic foreigner.  While the Kiev Train Station felt like one sweltering mass of people-young and old, rich and poor, all walking fast and talking on their cell phones, the trains were a throwback to a previous era. 

            Having chosen a fare in the narrow kupe sleeper compartment for a reasonable 188 Ukranian hryvnia (about $20 US Dollars), which I thought I would be sharing with three others, I made my way down the platform and consulted with various attendants before running into a young assistant who spoke English and directed me to my car.  However, not being able to read the ticket, I initially settled into the wrong compartment, from which I was soon redirected.  The kupe class was a long, and comically narrow corridor with miniscule boxy compartments on its left side and windows on the other.  The compartments contained four bed-seats with two bunks on each side, and sparse bedding packets to cover the adorning red vinyl and worn foam.  Slava, my non English-speaking kupe-mate, was kind enough to have shared his crackers and chocolate with me as we churned out of Kiev and into the forests and wilderness of central Ukraine. 

            Jetlag soon caught up with me, however, and I slept amazingly deeply throughout the rickety stop-and-start journey with no real idea of who would meet me on the other side.  At 5:45 am we crawled into Lviv, I gathered my things, thanked the compartment attendant, and wandered around the station looking for my contact Ioora.  With no Ioora in sight, I found the “internet hall” and Skyped my Ukranian friend Lili who was still in California. The conveniences of modern technology soon bore fruit as an enthusiastic, but tired-looking Ioorah found me and took me through central Lviv into the maple and pine forests that bore numerous modern suburban homes. 

            Eventually we reached Lili’s cousin’s house where I was eagerly met by her younger cousin (also named Ioora), and two family friends, Anatoli, a former physics teacher, who spoke excellent English (and Portuguese, having lived and worked in Portugal for four years), and his wife Maria, whose hospitality took me by surprise.  After a large breakfast of blini, open-faced egg sandwiches, and ham and cheese, Anatoli and I hopped on a small packed bus into the compact “friendly city.” With the impending kickoff of Poland against Greece, I can only hope that this tournament is reflective of the same friendliness and positivity that I’ve encountered thus far in Lviv.

This post is dedicated to my friend Alexander Ryan Amber. Rest in peace Al.