Racism, fear and loathing in this glorious capital city

Metal fences and riot police fill the streets of Kiev on the eve of a supposed football festival

Even on a day of oppressive heat and traffic gridlock it is impossible not to be touched by the beauties and grandeur of this troubled but still ravishing place. It is hard to imagine a more inspiring setting for the crowning of European champions than this 1,500-year-old city built on a hilltop designed for the sturdiest defence.

The blue walls and golden dome of the medieval monastery of St Michael look as if they have been freshly painted and if you tire of such man-made spectacle there is the Dnieper River, a wide natural wonder as it flows below so many soaring tributes to a nation's warriors and poets and the idea, if not the perfect execution, of freedom.

It is, however, a great and sobering shame about the big cage put up on Kreshchatyk Boulevard. The street, destroyed by the Red Army retreating before the Wehrmacht in 1941, runs into Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – but for the next few weeks it will be at the heart of another kind of drama.

Maybe there is something banal, when you think of all the desperate battles of the past, about the new designation of Kreshchatyk as No 1 Fan Zone but this hardly deflects from the sense of rising tension when you walk down into swelling knots of police and security and a lattice-work of barriers defining the no-go areas.

The cage which has closed off the hub of the city underground system has a particularly sombre look.

"It is not what you expect to see at a time of celebration," says one citizen, "but we have to be honest, there is a problem. We have been portrayed as racists, and this is terrible for our image as we try to get closer to the rest of Europe.

"If the government wasn't worried about this before, and the police weren't doing much to stamp out hooliganism at the matches, anyone can see it is not the case now."

This not the daily briefing from the office of President Viktor Yanukovych, who insists that the furore whipped up by the BBC Panorama "Stadiums of Hate" edition exaggerated grossly the problem of the Nazi-saluting thugs who routinely attack ethnic minorities, carry bananas to games for throwing purposes and make chants at the first appearance of a black player.

There was, however, not much complacency on Kreshchatyk yesterday. Police were on every corner, eyeing the first customers as they took in the lay of the terrain.

The evidence of police vigilance, so absent when Panorama gained its stomach-churning footage of young, Ukraine-based Asian fans being charged and systematically beaten, is the clearest evidence that at a very late hour Ukraine is confronting some of the darker aspects of its past and, at least potentially, its present.

Flying into Kiev, via Amsterdam, it was interesting to note that nearly half the plane was filled by a detachment of crack Dutch riot police. One of them said: "We will be monitoring the Dutch fans because there is always the chance of trouble at such a big tournament – but yes, of course, there are other factors this time."

Some here are not as reluctant as President Yanukovych to admit that what was supposed to be a shining gift from Uefa president Michel Platini, who helped steer the tournament to joint hosts Ukraine and Poland, has a potential for national disaster – or at the very least a significant setback in the attempts of both nations to improve their profiles in Europe.

Even last year's drop in racist crimes is given a damning slant by Charles Astante-Yeboa of Kiev's African Centre. He says it is a result of an increase in precautionary measures rather than in any dip in hostility towards non-white immigrants. "The situation has not improved," he added. "People are avoiding places where attacks happened." Some of the worst of them, he reports, occurred in the area of an old market near the Shulyavka metro station, where several Nigerian street vendors were murdered.

Yana Salahova, of the International Organisation for Migration, comments dryly: "We do not have a culture of reporting crimes."

England fans and observers are all too familiar with this particular beast, of course, and though it has vanished or at least lain dormant for some time now, on the streets of Kiev yesterday there was at least an unwelcome hint of déjà vu.

It came with the high police presence, the sense of a city on its guard, and you could not help remembering how many times you had been here before. How many times you worried that something which was supposed to be a great festival of sport would be ambushed and defaced.

That concern was palpable enough in the sunshine and amid the city's breath-taking statuary. It came with every passing police van and each new piece of cage-work. Then the sun went in and a thunderstorm broke across the city. At least it brought some freshness to the air.