The tram jerked round the corner and the colossal Olympic Stadium burst into view – a facility purposefully developed for the 2012 UEFA European Championship that The Economist estimated had cost the Ukrainian taxpayer an astonishing $13 billion. We hopped off the Soviet era tram just as a faint blast tapped our ear drums. Shrugging it off, we walked towards the front gates as another faint explosion rippled the air around us. More unusual was the comprehensive security force flanking the entrances – half the national guard seemed to have descended onto the Ukrainian National Stadium for a routine league Football match on a Sunday evening.
These servicemen kitted out in full combat attire minus rocket propelled grenades and heavy arms appeared entirely bored and protested little as the two of us exchanged 300 Hryvnia (£8) for 2 VIP tickets. A steward gave us the obligatory pat-down and waved us past the line of military figures making light conversation with each other in the early evening breeze. We ascended the clean concrete stairwell and were greeted at the glass double-doors by a charming gentleman in a full royal blue suit. “Welcome to Kyiv’s Olympiyskiy National Sports Complex! May I see your tickets?”
My companion strolled down to find our allocated seats, and I went to get the drinks in. I turned left past two impossibly beautiful female club employees also dressed in full blue whose only responsibility seemed to be smiling at the men walking into the stadium and I took up position at the concourse bar next to two corporate types wearing Dynamo Kyiv scarves chatting amicably in Ukrainian with their pre-match lagers. I deposited a few more Hryvnia for two beers and some chips and entered the gate to get my first taste of Ukrainian club Football.
Though international success may have become increasingly scarce in the past decades, there can be no denying the pedigree of FC Dynamo Kyiv. One of the most successful clubs of Soviet Football and leagues ahead of all other compatriot sides in terms of accumulated silverware, Dynamo is surely a “big club” if there ever was one. Pioneers of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s highly structured and fluent approach to the game that has long characterised Ukrainian Football (Dynamo Kyiv’s former playing ground was named after their former coach), a constant thorn in the side of the Moscow clubs during the years when the Soviet government used Football as propaganda and even the lifeblood of the FC Start team that bravely gave the Ukrainian people a glimmer of hope during the Nazi occupation, over the years FC Dynamo Kyiv is a club that has come to symbolise much of what it means to be Ukrainian.
But in that moment, I was thoroughly disappointed to see a meagre crowd of just 5,431. We sat and enjoyed our beers in relative silence as the home team went 1-0 up against the visiting Chornomorets Odesa side. As expected, league big-shots extended their legs that evening, eventually running out as 5-1 victors. With diminishing interest in the actual sport, the two of us sat back and simply people watched among the fans.
The hardcore sects of the Chornomorets Odesa and Dynamo Kyiv support find little common ground. Fanatical supporter culture in Central and Eastern Europe exists in a nexus of alliances and affiliations, making for some very complicated rivalries when your club goes up against friends of enemies. Over the years there has been notable trouble between the more aggressive supporter bases when these two sides meet, and the Odesa fans penned into the away end to our right celebrated getting the final goal of the game with a burning pyro show in full view of the cameras, the stewards, the police and any Dynamo fans bothered enough to pay them attention. A gruff voice shot out over the tannoy system reminding fans that the use of pyrotechnical devices was forbidden inside the Kyiv Olympic Stadium. Seconds later, a small explosion came from within the away block – similar to the noises we had heard as we approached the ground.
But while the fans of both clubs see themselves as enemies, curiously at one point the Dynamo and Chornomorets ultras sang together in a ping-pong shared chant started by the home fans and finished by the away fans. The singing died down after a few verses, at which point most fans present took the time to applaud their efforts. I turned to my friend who translated:
Ukrainian Heroes! Glory to the Heroes!
After the game had concluded, we exited the stadium into the still night. The Kyiv Olympic Stadium shone a ghostly bright against the blackened sky. The two of us made for the Maidan Square where the Ukrainian story first gained the attention of the world press way back in 2014. A bloody encounter resulted in the loss of many lives prior to the ousting of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich who disappeared without a trace. Several days later, tens of thousands of military personal not wearing any insignia that made them recognisable entered the Crimean Peninsula in the south of the country and forced the ratification of a treaty that acknowledged Russian rule over the territory at gunpoint.
That was in 2014. The game I watched took place in 2017. In 2022 the country is at its least peaceful since the collapse of the USSR. From the Maidan Square the two of years wolfed down pizza, beer and vodka in a surprisingly swanky restaurant at the top of a department store before heading to the river. The Dnieper River almost perfectly dissects Ukraine equally two. It is the main artery of the country and of its capital, its black waters rushing hastily beneath the impressive Parkovyi Bridge, illuminated magnificently in the proud colours of the Ukrainian flag. The vivid blue and yellow were reflected in the waters below. That evening, the reflection of the flag was distorted by the powerful currents coming from upstream.
Ukraine is a complex country with a young history and much cultural, political and economic diversity within its borders. These factors combined with the perceived lack of historic precedence for a sovereign “Ukraine” have been used to justify the actions of certain external agents who have interfered with Ukrainian internal affairs perhaps for their own benefit. But ironically, the military and economic pressures being applied by its powerful neighbours may be the catalyst the Ukrainian people need to finally see themselves as truly “Ukrainian”. Nationalism has a tendency to thrive in the face of foreign conflict. Indeed, Russian aggression has had the bizarre effect of bringing previously hostile Ukrainian hooligan units closer together in song during a league game in support of the Ukrainian cause.