My guide picked me up at the station and found the bus line needed. It’s one of those adorable post-communist buses with peeling paint and a conductor sat in a high-viz issuing tickets. As we approach Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, quite a sight to see, the vast amount of police becomes apparent.
“Can you ask what’s going on?”.
My guide walks up to a guy in knock-off sportswear and they talk.
“Okay so there is a Football game right now inside that has just started. He has tickets. We can get into the VIP section.” With each sentence, my smile widened. But to say how many law enforcement officers were outside, as we climbed up the steps, the amount of individuals around us and the low noise-level didn’t seem indicative of a Football game in a European capital.
And as we reached our seats, the view was staggering. In a magnificent stadium that could definitely house at least 80,000, there were maybe around 5,000. The visiting fan-block was to our immediate right, with approximately 150 Odessa fans, and the home Ultras block opposite. Those sections were pretty full, but otherwise, the ground was impossibly empty.
To say that this is Ukraine’s biggest club, playing at home admittedly on a Sunday evening, such a low attendance can not mean good things for the current state of Ukrainian Football. It wasn’t a case of people staying away to protest the Sunday scheduling – if that were the case, the Ultra block would’ve been unquestionably empty. Clearly people are just not coming to games. With the exception of those directly in front of the away fans, all stewards and club employees looked utterly bored. No matter how many pretty young girls paid to welcome you gracefully in the atrium to the VIP lounge, it can’t mask what the situation looks like in the actual stadium. A sad sight.
But in spite of the initial shock, the warm evening, cold (cheap) beer and goal-fest proved to be an enjoyable combination. Dynamo Kyiv ran out as deserved winners, the game ending 4-1, with the final goal coming against run of play for Chornomorets Odessa. We casually observed the away fans quite a lot. The acoustics of the vast empty stadium meant that chants from such a small number of people were lost, but the behaviour was fun to watch. Eastern European Football fans often claim to have taken inspiration from good ol’ English hooliganism. Indeed, the chanting of Chornomorets Odessa fans did seem to depend significantly on how the game progressed, which is more similar to terrace chanting in England than, say Germany, but that’s probably not how they mean it. Odessa fans periodically let off explosives to remind the entire stadium of their presence, and rewarded their team’s goal with an immediate flare display.
We have been criticised before on From Boothferry To Germany for suggesting that policing of such things as pyro-shows at Eastern European Football games is more lax than it is elsewhere, the reason being that the entire domestic Football system depends more financially on the hools and Ultras. But not a single Odessa fan holding a flare bothered to cover his face. The tannoy repeatedly reminded us that pyrotechnics were forbidden inside the stadium and requested the fans to persist using them, but this was largely ignored. With an array of stewards and security personal surrounding them and inevitably a sea of cameras recording their faces, these fans continued to freely use pyro. I don’t think there is much room to question that a significant negative incentive for this behaviour is missing, at least in Ukraine.
Across the whole evening, one thing stood out: much like Poles, Ukrainians are more openly nationalistic. Of course we didn’t see a large enough section of the population to get an accurate impression of Ukrainian contemporary society, but this nationalism is common for a country that had its autonomy taken away for a long time. Being a former Soviet Republic, Ukrainians haven’t had the chance to enjoy political freedom as a nation and to explore that identity the same way Western European nations have. Now they do, they are reveling in it. During the game, Dynamo and Chornomorets fans would chant together, declaring their loyalty to Ukraine.
Slavia Ukraini! Heroyam Slava!
Translating loosely as; Ukrainian Heroes! Glory to the Heroes! Both sets of fans would openly applaud each other for joining in with the chant after it had finished. Such a collaborative display of national pride you would not see in the UK. This is a good example of how Ukrainians feel within themselves right now. It would also help explain why Ukrainian national games see far higher attendances than league games like this one. The contemporary average Ukrainian has once again learnt to identify himself as a Ukrainian primarily. Going to the stadium to identify with your city and team is not as important. Especially with such a strong threat from a certain neighbour. According to my guide, the Ukrainian authorities constantly fear that pro-Russian separatist groups will use sporting events as stages to promote their cause, potentially through means of violence. The exaggerated police presence wasn’t for hooligans. It was for “terrorists”.