Why England fans won't be cheering this summer at the European Championship
High prices and low expectations are ensuring that Ukraine will be spared an English invasion
As the clock ticks down on the start of the European Championship, England fans can be forgiven for a real sense of foreboding. No manager, no Wayne Rooney for the first two games, and no real hope of reaching the business end of the tournament.
If all that isn't enough to keep the flags firmly furled, England will play all three of their Euro 2012 group games in Ukraine, with two of them taking place in the grimy, eastern city of Donetsk.
Last December's draw spread confusion and disappointment among England fans. Instead of the cobbled squares and cheap Ryanair flights to Krakow or Poznan, there are the smokestacks of Donetsk and a logistical nightmare.
England play France in Donetsk on 11 June , then fly to Kiev to take on Sweden on 15 June and then it is back to Donetsk for the match against Ukraine on 19 June. With little information about the Ukrainian half of the Poland/Ukraine Euro 2012 tournament available online, most England fans saw the draw, did a bit of research and when confronted with a lack of hotels and exorbitant transport costs thought they might just be better off saving up for Brazil 2014 instead.
The most recent estimate suggests that of 30,000 tickets available to England fans, available through the FA, for the team's three group games, only 6,000 have been purchased.
I went to Donetsk to find out if things were really as chaotic as they seem, and two things became apparent. First, the organisation is a mess, for which Uefa and their assorted avaricious arms must bear as much responsibility as the Ukrainians. But it was also clear that Donetsk is a city passionate about football and desperate to put on a good show. England fans could end up having a fantastic football holiday.
A journalist friend who covered the Orange Revolution jokes that the city's slogan should be: "Donetsk – experience what it feels like to smoke 40 a day." Flashes of depression are everywhere, from the rusting mineshafts a few hundred metres from the town centre to the dilapidated tram trundling past with a dozen faces staring into the middle distance from the windows, expressions twisted into a grimace. But scratch the surface and another Donetsk appears, a city of people determined to make the most of their lot and eager to welcome outsiders. A city that is excited about the prospect of thousands of foreigners descending on them this summer, and a city that is mad about football, and is home to probably the most impressive stadium in Eastern Europe.
Many establishments in Donetskare apparently named in an attempt to make people forget that they are in the city – there is the Rio shopping centre, the Gaudi House, and the Liverpool Hotel (complete with a life-size sculpture of the Fab Four). One of the few buildings to bear a local name is the one that the England team will be seeing the most of, the Donbass Arena where they play their first game. It is a stunning stadium, a three-tiered bowl with a 51,000 capacity and state-of-the art features. The stadium is home to local side Shakhtar who won the Uefa Cup in 2009. But locals are particularly excited about the arrival of international football. The problem is the cost of accommodation, with complaints that people are asking hundreds of Euros a night for shabby apartments and hotels many miles away from the city.
Donetsk has been hamstrung by Uefa's tour agency block-reserving every hotel room in the city and vicinity without any guarantee that they will fill them. "We think that there are loads of spare rooms but Uefa's tour company won't tell us, we have to wait another month until they release the ones they don't need, then we can sell those to fans," said an official on the city's organising committee.
A new airport that can handle 3,100 passengers an hour instead of the current 500 will come online in May, but no direct flights from London to Donetsk are currently available and match tickets purchases should be made already.
"Maybe we'll set up direct flights," I was told by the airport's manager. Quite how they expect fans to shell out for tickets without knowing what flights will be available is unclear. England play Sweden in Kiev and there is the problem that when you attempt to book a Kiev-Donetsk return flight – they play Ukraine back in Donetsk – during the tournament it currently costs around £400. "Really?! Wow, that's expensive," the city's deputy mayor, Gennady Tkachenko, said.
What about trains? "The tracks will be suitable for fast trains, at least our bit of the track is ready, but I don't know if you'll be able to go fast all of the way."
As for the accommodation situation, the city insists that it will not be as expensive as people think. Thousands of rooms in student dormitories have been made available at £15 a night, which can be booked online – the authorities promise they will be clean and functional. Alternately, a tent city is planned for the outskirts of town where fans can either pitch their own tent or rent one of thousands that the city will provide. Prices are set at around £12 per night, or £30 for match nights.
For those unwilling to rough it, there is always the chance that hotel rooms will become available once Uefa's first-refusal time ends. Serviced apartments, which are currently bookable for farcical prices, are likely to come down nearer tournament time as locals realise that their exorbitant rates has scared everyone off and they might be lucky to fill them at all.
"Everyone thinks that only millionaires are coming, and they will be able to rent their rooms out for a 1,000 euros a night," said Tkachenko. "But of course nearer the time everything will become cheaper."
Everyone I met exhorted me to tell England fans that they should come to Donetsk and assure them that they would be made welcome.
"We love our football here, but there is never any violence," says Maxim, a Shakhtar fan. "In Kiev and other Ukrainian cities there is often violence, but in Donetsk I've never seen even a small fight."
There will be 1,000 stewards on duty for the England games, with the police waiting outside. The police have undergone "special training" for any hooliganism scenarios, say officials, but are adamant that it will not be required.
Spending a couple of days in the city certainly shows that the organisation ahead of the tournament could be better. Ukraine v England at the Donbass Arena may be the game of the group stages, if not in terms of the quality of football but certainly in terms of atmosphere. Pack a tent, or at least a preparedness for improvisation of travel and accommodation plans, and it could be a great holiday.
Though there's still the probability that the England team will conspire to ruin it.
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