Kiev playing catch-up in 2012 race
The Ukrainian capital, where Dynamo play City tonight, is steeped in history but it's frantically trying to modernise in time to co-host next year's Euros
Thursday 10 March 2011
Manchester City's first visit to Ukraine promises to be quite an experience. Roberto Mancini's team are guaranteed to feel a chill wind blowing over the bare, open Valeri Lobanovskiy Stadium from the vast river Dnieper that runs alongside it.
The 16,000-capacity Lobanovskiy, named after the legendary late Dynamo Kiev coach who was Andrei Shevchenko's mentor, is steeped in history, a snapshot of Soviet Ukraine; a tight, unforgiving concrete bowl that is likely to feel more like the hostile scene of a potential cup giantkilling than a glamour tie in the last 16 of European competition for City.
But Kiev is changing. Since Ukraine were announced as co-hosts of Euro 2012 with Poland, in April 2007, swift evolution has become a practical necessity. Since the duo beat a stunned Italy to the punch, Poland's preparation has been satisfactory but the Uefa president Michel Platini has been forced to give their partners a public gee-up on several occasions.
This time last year, when Dynamo had recently been narrowly eliminated from a Champions League group containing Barcelona and Internazionale, the city, and its future as hosts, was on undeniably shaky ground. After a visit last April Platini said: "Ukraine has two months to show what it can do. We cannot waste time any more." The month before he had been unequivocal in his assessment of the importance of the country's capital getting its house in order. "If there is no Kiev, there is no Ukraine."
The centrepiece, the new 63,000-seater Olympiyskiy Stadium, was a mere building site on the route into the centre from Borispol airport, an unsightly reminder of Kiev's lack of progress cast into stark relief by the stunningly futuristic Donbass Arena, the new home of Dynamo's domestic rivals Shakhtar Donetsk, which had opened in August 2009 to a gala ceremony which included a concert by Beyoncé. Now the form has taken recognisable shape, with stands and tiers discernible and rows of seats clearly defined, and it is on course for its completion date of June this year.
Yet the more pressing problem has always been infrastructure. Only last month a deal was finally sealed with Czech railway manufacturer Skoda Vagonka to supply six high-speed trains to cover services between Kiev and both Donetsk and Kharkiv. Oleg Lytvyak, director of Ukraine's National Tourist Office, conceded in an interview last week that fellow host city Lviv has"the most advanced tourist management system" in the country, an inadvertently damning indictment of the capital.
As 2010 dawned, Kiev had hotel accommodation for a mere 17,000 – not enough to house even a third of the new Olympiyskiy's projected capacity. At least 10 new hotels were under construction, and with space at a premium, it was revealed in September 2009 that the city council had approved a plan to build one at Babi Yar, the site of one of the Holocaust's biggest massacres and a sacred place to the 110,000-strong Jewish population in metropolitan Kiev, the biggest in Europe outside Moscow, Paris and London.
Babi Yar was also used for the execution of gypsies and the mentally ill, for whom memorials exist on the site today, though its name is largely synonymous with anti-Semitism. Almost 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were shot dead and buried in the ravine over two days, 29 and 30 September 1941, 10 days after the Nazis took control of Kiev. The site's significance has yet more poignancy given that the acknowledgement of the atrocities of Babi Yar as part of the Holocaust was not made until after independence in 1991. The first memorial at the site was erected in 1976, but paid homage to the loss of Soviet life there, with no specific reference to Jewish casualty.
Some are still sore even about the construction of a metro stop at Babi Yar. Dorohozhychi station was opened in March 2000, though there were no significant protests at the time. The idea of a hotel was, however, a step too far. The Kiev mayor, Leonid Chernovetskiy, himself of Jewish heritage, swiftly intervened to veto the plan, though that it even got that far was seen as a sign that he had lost control of developments. A survey of city residents conducted last year returned a meagre 11 per cent approval rating, and his erratic behaviour led to president Viktor Yanukovych appointing Oleksandr Popov as head of the Kiev state administration, effectively neutering Chernovetskiy's power.
Nazi occupation of the city ties in closely to Dynamo's history. After the events of the Second World War interrupted the 1941 season, Dynamo goalkeeper Mykola Trusevych put together FC Start while working in a bakery, incorporating several work-mates including seven other Dynamo players. Start were invited to play the Luftwaffe team Flakelf in August 1942 and after beating them twice in the space of a few days, the team soon folded.
Many team members were later rounded up, some tortured and others sent to the Syrets labour camp outside the city – where Trusevych was executed in February 1943 – though how much of this was a direct result of what Soviet legend dubbed the "Death Match" is open to debate. Locals were frequently persecuted anyway on suspicion of communist sympathies or links to the NKVD (the Soviet secret police). The legend nevertheless inspired Yabo Yablonsky, an American-born screenwriter of Russian-Polish heritage, to write the script that became the 1981 film Escape To Victory.
Today Dynamo have a bright and youthful image, with Shevchenko enjoying an active role in encouraging and nurturing the fine young Ukrainian players at the club, including forwards Andrei Yarmolenko and Artem Kravets. Perhaps the pick of them, teenage goalkeeper Maksym Koval, made an outstanding debut against Ajax aged 17 in the Champions League play-off first leg in August, though he is likely to be on the bench against City. This grand old city is working hard to match their progress.
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