In Europe's Waiting Room All Eyes Are on Ukraine for European Championship

The German national team is playing all of its 2012 European Football Championship group games in Ukraine -- two in Lviv and one in Kharkiv. In these cities beyond the borders of the European Union, fans from both Eastern and Western Europe will meet, and the experience could be jarring for some.

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If all goes well on June 9, the flight from Düsseldorf will land at 5:05 p.m. in Lviv, Ukraine, a city known in German as Lemberg when it was part of the Habsburg Empire. The group will head directly for the bus without stopping at the baggage claim. These fans will be wearing everything they need for their short trip.

The bus to the stadium travels across cobblestone streets from the imperial period. Farther outside the city, nine-story, Soviet-style buildings line the road. Finally the new arena appears, looking out of place, like some shimmering silver UFO on the side of the road.

The kickoff for Germany's first European Football Championship match against Portugal is at 9:45 p.m. According to the program, the football tourists being flown in for the match will have some "free time at their disposal" following their arrival. They'll have two options. They can either visit the beer halls operated by UEFA partner Carlsberg, or take a walk in the surrounding wasteland. There are no populated areas nearby.

The short trip costs €896 ($1,138) per person, excluding expenses. The price includes the airfare and ticket to the game, as well as the service of getting the German fans back to Düsseldorf by 6 a.m. the next morning. This also keeps them from having to come any closer than necessary to Lviv and its football-crazy fans, including men like Taras Pavliv.

The three-day train ticket Taras has in his pocket when he walks into the Lviv train station weeks before the beginning of the Euro 2012 cost him 140 hryvnya, or about €13. Well-past midnight in the dim light of the magnificent building, built in 1903 during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a shopkeeper dressed in Soviet-style clothing stands guard at a buffet of roast chicken legs. Taras walks past her, leading a group of fans of his club, FC Karpaty Lviv, toward the train platform.

On this evening, they are headed for Kharkiv near the Russian border for an away game against the third-ranked team in the Ukrainian football league. The entire outing, including rail trips in cast-iron, Soviet-era dinosaurs, will last 70 hours.

Tough Fans

The journey from Lviv to Kharkiv, with a stop in the capital Kiev, leads all the way across Euro 2012 host country Ukraine, from its far western end to Kharkiv in the east. It's a route with some significance for the German team, coached by Joachim Löw. Arriving from Gdansk, Poland, the team will face off against Denmark eight days after the match against Portugal. On June 13, the Germans will play against the Netherlands, and the July 1 final match in Kiev could pave the way to the title.

The train starts moving with a jolt at precisely 1:08 a.m. The Karpaty fans have 40 hours of net travel time ahead of them. It will include all the trappings of riding in a third-class carriage on a Ukrainian train -- the opportunity to drink tea made with water boiled over an open coal fire, smoking on platforms between rail cars, and becoming more closely acquainted with their fellow travelers on double-decker platform beds in the open cars.

Lviv football fans are tough, as will soon become evident. And they aren't squeamish when it comes to dishing things out, whether it's food for hungry fellow travelers or blows for anyone with whom they disagree. They include hardened hooligans like Nikita, with scabs on his knuckles and a tattoo of a swastika on his forearm, sitting next to career students like Taras.

The muscular, 23-year-old doctoral student in surveying engineering, nicknamed "Gladiator," is the leader of the Lviv ultras and their spokesman on the train to Kharkiv. He has his club's emblem tattooed onto the left side of his chest, and a heart on the proverbial right spot. Taras' heroes beyond the football pitch are Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, one the mentor and the other the leader of the Ukrainian rebels who fought during World War II and later against the Soviet occupiers in western Ukraine.

It was a struggle that was, for a time, fought at the side of Nazi death squads -- and that still shapes the hazy view of history held by some football fans in western Ukraine to this day. In September 2010, when Borussia Dortmund won a Europa League tournament victory against Karpaty in Lviv, giving German players like Mario Götze and Mats Hummel their first taste of Ukraine, some local fans shouted "Sieg Heil" from the stands.

The "Gladiator," who organized the event at the time, now claims that the chants had come from "a few radicals" who had infiltrated his group of fans. This is no reason, he says, to blacklist all Lviv ultras for UEFA's sake. "The militia would like to arrest us before the match, if possible," he says. "But we're not the dangerous ones in this country. Yanukovych and his crew are."

A Geopolitical Offside

Resistance against President Viktor Yanukovich, widely criticized for his close ties to Moscow, and the oligarchs from the Donetsk basis who support him, is practically a profession of faith in Lviv and western Ukraine -- the regions that were under Habsburg rule until 1918, and whose residents see themselves as the true patriots in this divided country.

The 2012 European Championship is the first major sporting event to be held in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, and it is quite possible that it will serve as a unifier for Ukraine. The event could serve as an opportunity for the country to champion its own cause. But Ukraine, separated from the core of Europe by the European Union's external border, has recently maneuvered itself into a geopolitical offside as a result of its president's obstinate leadership.

"I'm actually apolitical," says Taras the "Gladiator" on the night train to Kharkiv. Nevertheless, resistance to Yanukovich is obligatory, he adds. This explains why he and his fellow Lviv fans chime in with the rest of the crowd when they derisively shout from the stands: "Thank you, the people of Donetsk, for a fucking ass of a president."

At home in Lviv, Taras shares a three-room apartment on the eighth floor of a high-rise building near the European Championship stadium with his father, mother, brother and grandparents. He earns money to pay for his trips to football matches by selling clothes and working in a moped rental business. He is also writing his dissertation, which deals with a physical model of the earth that takes the average level of the world's oceans into account during times of climate change.

Even though they remain stuck in Europe's waiting room to this day, the people of Ukraine, which literally translates as the country "on the edge," are looking beyond their borders. Lviv, which has a city center on the UNESCO World Heritage list, has always been a place at the crossroads of cultures -- Austrian until 1918, Polish until 1939, then controlled by the Nazis and later the Soviets and, since 1991, part of Ukraine. "Those coming from the East will find the mentality of the West here, while Westerners will get a taste of the East," says Mayor Andriy Sadovyi.

What the mayor politely neglects to mention is that, historically speaking, the Germans are stepping into mined territory. Some 136,800 Jews, almost half of the city's population at the time, went from the Lviv ghetto to their deaths under the Nazi occupation. Soviet prisoners or war perished in the watchtower of the citadel, which now houses a five-star hotel. Finally, members of the Gestapo shot and killed inmates at the prison on what is today Bandera Street.

No Unifying Concept of History

Because the German Football Association (DFB) plans to commemorate the Holocaust at Auschwitz in Poland, there will be no need for an additional penitential pilgrimage in Lviv. It's also possible that this is even what the Ukrainians prefer. Traveling on the train with Taras and the ultras all the way across Europe's second-largest country after Russia, it's easy to understand that UEFA's official slogan for the championship, "Creating History Together," is something of an empty phrase in Ukraine.

In this region, there is no concept of history upon which the western and eastern parts of the country can agree. The Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, in whose honor a group of Lviv ultras call themselves "Banderstadt," or "Bandera City," is treated as a war criminal in neighboring Poland. In Zaporizhia in the east, a new monument was just dedicated to Joseph Stalin, who most people in western Ukraine deride as a mass murderer.

It's a good thing that this journey isn't taking the football fans to the hated stadium in Zaporizhia, but to the capital first. After 10 hours of travel, the fans get off the train for a stopover in Kiev. Because his own team, Karpaty Lviv, is not playing in Kharkiv until the next evening, the "Gladiator" plans to attend two other national league matches first. One takes place at noon at Obolon, a club in the Kiev suburbs, while the second game will be played in the evening in Kiev's Olympic Stadium, home of the championship record-holder Dynamo.

The arena, the site of the final game of the European Championship, has been updated with a more futuristic look. The stadium was originally supposed to be opened on June 22, 1941, which was precisely the day Hitler's troops invaded the Soviet Union. Instead, it was not completed until after the war, and has now renovated for the upcoming European Championship, including the installation of electronic entry barriers.

Not a problem for Taras, who doesn't pay to get in, anyway. Whether in Lviv, Kiev or Kharkiv, he either successfully talks his way past members of the militia, or the civilian police, at the entrance or gets free tickets from local ultras. On this evening, at a top match between Dynamo and Dnipropetrovsk, Taras is already inside trying to smuggle in other ultras without tickets, when panic erupts outside the gates.

With the kickoff only minutes away, angry crowds are backing up outside. The new turnstiles at the entrance aren't working as planned, and the crowds are pushing against the iron fences from behind, while the guards look on without moving. Suddenly loud shouting comes from the first fans to have climbed over the barriers, and others surge past the security guards, flooding into the stadium.

'Supplanting the National Idea'

After a string of negative stories in the media about greedy hoteliers and potholed streets, the last thing the Ukrainians need is a mass panic in front of the stadium where the final game of the European Championship is to take place. Fortunately everything goes well. As a precaution, Markiyan Lubkivskyi, the director of the Ukrainian portion of the European Championship, has advised all visitors to remain relaxed, reassuring them that traditional Ukrainian "hospitality" will make up for the poor infrastructure and language barriers.

Guests who didn't manage to get a ticket are served black bread with mustard and shimmering white slabs of fatback called salo, along with beer from the tap, as they watch the poorly lit live broadcast in the smoky "Mili" tavern next to the European Championship stadium in Kharkiv. The world of ordinary people surrounding the stadium has survived here, in contrast to other parts of Europe where marketing experts sanitized stadium districts long ago.

After another night on the train, the Lviv ultras have finally arrived in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, where workers wait for payday at the factory before buying a ticket at the stadium box office, and subway stations are named "Proletarskaya" and "Tractor Plant," and the leading club is called "Metalist."

They see a city where the bronze statue of Lenin still stands and billionaire businessman Alexander Yaroslavsky has bought himself a team of footballers made up primarily of Argentineans and Brazilians, a team connected to Kharkiv in name only.

And yet, writes Kharkiv native Serhij Zhadan, a star of the country's younger literary scene, "football is strangely still almost the only thing" that brings together all Ukrainians, despite their many differences. "In this country, football apparently very successfully supplants the national idea."

Not all Lviv ultras agree. They shout "Banderstadt" defiantly into the arena from section 30 while their team runs behind the Metalist ensemble of foreign players. Some of the Lviv fans even hoist their right arms to deliver the "German salute." At the final whistle, the score is 3:1 for Kharkiv, and the Lviv fans stumble back to the train station. Their train leaves at 2 a.m. and arrives in Lviv 19 hours and 9 minutes later.

When Germans and Portuguese arrive here on June 9 on trains, in cars and on chartered flights, when 16,000 militia members have been deployed in the city, and eyes all around Europe are finally on Lviv once again, the "Gladiator" will also make his way out to the shiny silver arena on the outskirts.

He hasn't wasted any thoughts on tightened UEFA rules and access control measures. It is his city, after all, he says. "I'll be in the stadium, as always -- without a ticket, if necessary."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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