Euro 2012 presents Ukraine with a fresh twist on national stereotypes
Euros Notebook: For all the inevitable boorishness this has been a good-natured tournament
Amid all the furore over worries that football fans travelling to Ukraine would be met with savage racism and unspeakable violence, it was forgotten that these things are always a two-way street. As well as thousands of football fans getting their first ever experience of Ukraine, this tournament is also the first time that many Ukrainians have had contact with a significant number of foreigners.
They are not necessarily liking everything that they see. For a nation brought up on school textbooks which told them that the English are a polite bunch who live bound by a straitjacket of complex social rules, many Ukrainians have been rather alarmed to discover that Her Majesty's subjects are more likely to down 15 pints of lager than insist on taking tea at five o'clock. Two waitresses in a Donetsk pub gazed on with wide eyes as England fans stood on chairs, ripped their shirts off to reveal tattooed torsos, and launched into a stirring rendition of "No surrender to the IRA". A more palpable look of disillusionment I have never seen.
On a train from Kharkiv to Kiev, ahead of the England versus Sweden match, a group of England fans had clearly been drinking all night before the 7am departure, and boarded the train with a supply of beer to continue the party. A trio of young local women travelling with their pet poodle looked on with disdain as the three Brits, sitting in the first-class carriage, proceeded to spill beer all over the floor while trying to open a bottle by smashing the neck against the seat in front of them. On discovering that there was also a South Korean on board the train, the England fans began chanting at the increasingly distraught women that the Korean would probably attempt to eat their dog, and after a couple more beers they passed out with their bare feet up on the seats. "If this is what people in the EU are like, then I hope Ukraine never makes it into the EU," sniffed one of the women sourly.
The Dutch fans, who were based in Kharkiv for the whole tournament, were hardly much better. Whether they were aggressively shouting "Beer!" at waitresses, or "Ve vant to go for a dishkotek, yar? Vith titsh!" at taxi drivers, the Dutch fans matched the English for boorishness. And with one of their main chants being "All the Germans are gay!" they weren't even particularly funny. Indeed, seeing the fans of some of the other countries made me appreciate England fans a little more.
Sweden fans, whom I had assumed would in the main be globetrotting Monocle-reading interior designers in thick-rimmed spectacles and espadrilles, turned out to be no different from anyone else. There was the pervy middle-aged guy who kept stopping young Ukrainian girls and asking if they knew the way to the stadium, when the stadium was about 50 metres ahead of him, and then there was the vitriolic homophobic abuse directed at Andy Carroll inside the ground. "It was really bizarre," said a friend who was sitting among Swedes at the game. "I've no idea why, but everyone was screaming obscene abuse in fluent English about Carroll being gay and loving anal sex. It was pretty satisfying when he scored and shut them up." Polyglottery, apparently, does not provide immunity from bigotry.
England fans may also be xenophobic, homophobic or misogynist on occasion, but at least their chants are often funny. A friend on a flight back to London from Kiev after the game against Sweden reported that the entire plane broke into a chorus of "Rose like a salmon! He rose like a salmon!" every time a Ukrainian passenger with a greasy Andy Carroll-esque ponytail got up from his seat, much to the poor man's confusion. Extremely childish, but mildly amusing at least, as were the chants directed at Sweden fans of "You're going home in a flat-pack" and "You're shit but your birds are fit" during the game.
But for all the boorishness and laddishness that tens of thousands of men drinking hundreds of thousands of beers were inevitably going to bring with them, overall this has been an exceptionally good-natured tournament, especially the Ukrainian half of it. On exemplary behaviour were the German fans, who politely danced and sang in a very efficient harmony in the fanzone in Kharkiv's central square. "There haven't been this many of them here since 1943," muttered a local with a dry sense of humour. "They're causing less trouble this time." Even the Dutch marched through the streets of Kharkiv before their final game holding banners reading "Thank you Kharkiv!"
One of the enduring memories for me will be the scene just after Cristiano Ronaldo scored his first goal for Portugal against the Netherlands in the group stages. Below me, an over-enthusiastic Portugal fan tried to vault the railings and run on to the pitch to congratulate his hero. A steward attempted to grab him, but the Portuguese pushed him back and made another dash for it. This pattern continued, and I waited for the riot police to step in and take batons to the unruly celebrator. Instead, the fan placed his arms around the steward's neck, locked his legs around his back, and through sheer force, began using him as a human pogo stick. Both of them collapsed on to the floor with enormous grins, gave each other a high five, and the Portugal fan went back to his seat.
When the Euros leave town, it is probable that some Ukrainians will be left with shattered illusions about the gentlemanly nature of the British male, or the cultural level of the Dutch tourist. And some travelling fans may think that while they were not attacked by local hooligans, the level of service in Ukrainian cafes and bars was almost as painful an experience. But on the whole, the tournament looks likely to leave a host of positive impressions, both among the hosts and among their visitors.
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