Independents Day: Flag making and glory hunting in Kiev

Posted by nige on August 31, 2006, 05:00:35 PM

Independents Day: Flag making and glory hunting in Kiev

When you only meet a woman once, briefly, yet she still remembers you five years later, you know you’ve done something right …. or maybe something very wrong, and thus it is in Kiev. Unfortunately the woman in question is not one of the stunning young Ukranian  beauties that many of my fellow Reds were hoping to see a lot of during their visit for the Maccabi Haifa v. Liverpool match. No, she is the fierce and matronly fifty-something concierge who looks after my floor at the huge ex-Soviet concrete monstrosity known as the ‘Hotel Tourist’.

I’ve asked her if I could borrow the hotel’s iron, to finish off the slogan in iron-on material on my  Shankly flag. I’m calling it ‘Shankly Light’ for when there’s not enough room in hand luggage for the great big heavy duty Shankly flag I’ve been lugging around Europe for the last 6 seasons. When she sees the flag and the letters I’ve just been cutting out, there’s a sudden flash of recognition and consternation; she seems to remember that 5 years previously, the day Liverpool won 2-1 in Kiev, the iron she had lent me to make a spontaneous “Get Well soon GH” flag had burned a hole in the armchair in my room. Now, as then, being slipped a 5 Dollar bill  seems to put her mind at rest, but she indicates, in a kind of Stalinist sign language that leaves no room for ambiguity, that this time the iron is not to stray beyond her ironing board here in the corridor.

She Who Must Be Obeyed mutters away while I’m ironing. Neither of us understand a single word the other is saying, but I fill the empty space between her utterances by providing a running commentary – including an explanation of who Mr. Shankly was (“like Lobanovsky was for Kiev, he was for Liverpool”) and an explanation of why I’m always making flags at the last minute - such a busy life, you know. And anyway the iron-on stuff always needs re-ironing after a long journey in your bag.

I always tell my mates that I like to go on European aways when we get drawn somewhere different, and that I hate spending my hard-earned on going to the same place twice. “But you’ve been to Kiev before”, they said. “Ah but it’s a different stadium, and we’re playing a different team” said I. So that’s OK then. I was glad that when I got home from Kiev I heard we’d been drawn for the group stage against 2 teams we’ve never played before in Europe (Bordeaux and PSV) and I do prefer to see new places, but this Kiev trip I was glad  to make again – with new companions, on a different airline, in a different stadium … it was only the hotel that was the same!

A city like Kiev will always be different, anyway; it just isn’t somewhere you’d ever expect to go, except for the wonderful excuse of supporting the team you love. A city of gold-domed churches and an amazing underground monastery where the Cyrilic (Russian) alphabet was invented ... by St. Cyril. An alphabet which itself provides the challenge as you struggle to read the signs in the deepest Metro system in the world, trying to get to the hotel that LFC has designated as the collection point for match tickets. Ah well, at least you only pay 5p per journey for the privilege of getting lost.

I've left me street map in the hotel room so eventually I give up, phone Garreth for directions, and find the Hotel Rus. After picking up the tickets I wander to another part of town where I have a great pizza  for about £2 and then find a picturesque, winding street full of colourfully-painted 18th-century  buildings where I decide that the best souvenir for a 7 year-old mate of mine is probably a ‘Russian Doll’ depicting Harry Potter characters, each one stacked inside the other - how traditional!

After much soul-searching I choose this, rather than the lethal spiked wooden mace that every stall has on display, apparently representing ancient Ukranian royal authority. Little Jakey would love one of these 'bashing sticks', but his other mates wouldn’t thank me, and nor would their mums. Talking of whom, how about getting the Mrs. some of these pretty wooden lacquered jewellery boxes covered in little-churches-in-the-snow scenes, that they seem to specialise in round here? Then I spot the complete Dinamo Kiev official Adidas away kit for £11.50 on a neighbouring stall … and it's something for all the family!

Other things I love about this visit to Kiev are that it’s Independence Day, and on this sunny public holiday people are smiling more than you usually get in Eastern Europe - or in Britain for that matter; some of these smiles are from the most beautiful young women. Then there’s the fact that in the streets and squares on this public holiday just about every second person seems to have a beer bottle or can in their hand – this always helps visiting football fans like me feel less self conscious about standing about in public squares getting rat-arsed. Folk young and old are sitting on benches everywhere having a chat and a holiday beer they’ve bought from a street kiosk for 30-odd pence (rather than the £1.00-£1.80 it would cost in a café).

And then there are the flags. There are far more Ukranian flags on display even than there were St. George’s crosses during all that World Cup hysteria in England. The blue and yellow national flag is everywhere, hanging from buildings, flying on flagpoles and from street lights, planted in great geometric bouquets on roundabouts and carried in small or large versions by hordes of people on the street, just happy to express their personal pride at an independence gained so relatively recently. You get the feeling that nobody’s carrying flags because they feel they have to, Soviet-style. Just a decade and a half ago this square we’re in would have been dominated by a huge red granite statue of Lenin; today an impressive gilded marble Column of Independence has taken its place, looking out over the spot where we have draped our LFC flags on a low wall near the edge of a public fountain. An impressive glass dome rises from the square, bringing light to the underground shopping complex below, where the amount of people snapping up designer goods at western prices suggests a prosperity far greater than Kiev had when Liverpool fans were last in town in 2001 ... but the same time though it does make me a bit sad that everyone everywhere's just buying the same stuff at the same rip-off prices.

A radio reporter from BBC Ukraine appears and asks Garreth whether he likes the place and whether he would like Liverpool to be drawn here again for the group stages. Garreth replies that the beer’s cheap, the people are beautiful and the weather’s great … so why not?!  A Sky Sports camera and reporter appear & Garreth gives his prediction about the match to them; someone texts him within an hour from home and tells him he’s been seen on Sky Sports News. “Right, that’s it you media tart”, I say. “I’m getting on ITV tonight”. It seems that as one of less than 300 Liverpool fans who’ve come over at short notice for this match it should be relatively easy to get our flags shown during the match tonight …which of course is always an added bonus if you’re going to go to all that trouble with the iron. The only problem is that Garreth’s flag is stuck in his unarrived luggage, probably still in Amsterdam, & I’ve still got to get back to the hotel, borrow the iron, and finish mine off.

From Garreth’s hotel you can see into the empty concrete bowl of the 100,000-seater national stadium where we played Dinamo Kiev last time; but this time the match is at Dinamo’s smaller home stadium, a much more characterful 16,000-seater nestling in an attractive wooded park. We make our way through the impressive columned entrance to this amphitheatre and meet up at Kiev’s eqivalent to the Shankly statue, a bronze of Lobanovsky, manager of the great Kiev sides which won Soviet championships in the 70s and 80s, who is depicted rising up out of an illuminated transluscent blue plastic football. There’s also a monument to a Kiev side which defeated the occupying Nazi army team in 1942 (after the war, the Communist myth-machine invented the legend that the entire side had been shot for its impudence in defeating their conquerors).

We’ve got there early to put up the flag; but the away fans’ sector narrows down to give access to only about 12 metres of perimeter, and that’s already full of Reds’ flags, even though only about 50 of our lot have arrived yet. There are no back fences, no side partition fences, nor even the empty rows of seats at the front that in some stadiums they might let you put flags on. Surely they’ll let us put flags in neighbouring sectors, which are blocked off by just one young PC Plodsky? Surely if we smile and ask nicely? But no, we ask 10 different coppers, and when we get ‘knocked back’, firmly but politely, we even go off to beseech their officers (the men in big hats), and then the men in even bigger hats, behind the stands. Altogether there seem to be about 1,000 police here tonight, at least 3 for each visiting supporter, and we seem to be asking most of them the same question, but it’s no good, we simply aren’t allowed to put flags in sectors other than the one we have tickets for.

Other Reds are complaining about the same problem, and suddenly one of them has a bright idea – if we give our flags to the neutral Ukranian fans in the neighbouring sectors, then they can put them up, even if it might take a bribe or a swap of a scarf or badge. This plan works and soon 2 local lads are busy with our gaffer tape helping to secure everyone’s flags along their more ample section of the pitch-side fencing: Christine’s Alonso ‘Basque in his brilliance’ flag and Terri’s Garcia flag are amongst those on display in front of the liveliest Ukranian sector, which seems to include a fair amount of crap England-inspired terrace fashion, Burberry caps, unofficial ‘England’ jackets, etc. I also notice some of the local Schevchenko fans sporting Milan or Chelsea tops, which at the shopping centre I've noticed are the best sellers in the local Adidas store.

So there are about three hundred Reds and about 80 Israelis opposite us in the main stand, out of a crowd of 16,000. It’s hard to get the songs going in such circumstances, and I don’t think much of it came across on telly, but on the front row at least we did try. And on the easy bits like “Liverpool-Liverpool-Liverpool” or especially “Liverpool, clap-clap-clap”, a lot of Ukranians did join in during the early stages. There weren't many great performances for the Reds, but Crouchinho seemed to be on form, enjoying the training-game pace of the match and linking up well with Luis, but the latter couldn’t make the chances tell and the atmosphere stayed a bit flat. As the match failed to spark, the neutrals’ enthusiasm dwindled, and suddenly it was their chants of “Dinamo! Dinamo!” that were loudest. The Israelis opposite only came to life when Maccabi got the ball in the net – and the majority were still celebrating until well after we’d taken the free-kick for offside – to be honest I'm guessing a lot of them were members of the local Ukranian Hebrew community at their first ever footy match, as judging by the confused body language they had no idea why their side wasn’t a goal ahead.

It was at half time when somebody notices that a couple of our flags in the neighbouring Ukranian sector have started to disappear, basically being pinched as souvenirs by those Ukranian wannabees, and when we point this out to the police they seem more interested in stopping us getting into that sector to rescue the banners, than in stopping what is going on. Garreth manages to nip past an attempted block tackle by our section’s designated copper, a singularly un-intimidating lad who looks at the most 18 years old, while Christine sells the dummy by pretending to go to the loo and nipping along an unguarded row - both of them are able to grab flags back from their would-be abductors. Claire, brought back to life by this flag crisis after a soporific first half (the highlight of which was her falling backwards off the seat she’d been standing on) is not so lucky, and the posh new flag her dad had ordered from China has already disappeared up someone’s jacket sleeve, never to be seen again. Some very un lady-like language is pouring from Claire and Christine, especially when our local 18-y-o  jobsworth just bobby keeps telling them to stay back from the fence …  “Never mind that. You should have done yer job and stopped them nicking our flags  you ******* **** ”

I try not to be obsessed with getting my 5 seconds of fame, but come on after going all that way at such short notice on various flights via Amsterdam, Prague, Moscow or wherever, and after parking ourselves in the front row, we’re entitled to hope we can get ourselves on the telly, or at least get our flags on telly - those that haven’t been nicked yet that is! So come on Mr. Telly Director wasn’t my nifty robotic dance when Crouchie scored not worthy of a quick close up? What about us trying to teach the neighbouring Ukranians Crouchie's song? What about Claire falling off her seat? What about Garreth doing a tug-of-war with the local scallies for his flag? Surely this is better entertainment than the half-time punditry (or most of the match itself in fact)?

At this point though, with the match apparently won & the Ukranian crowd amusing itself no end with endless Mexican waves, it is worth remembering that getting on telly at the match does have its disadvantages. 5 years previously we’d travelled to Kiev with a trainee teacher who to get the days off work, had told her tutor & the school where she was doing her teaching practice that she was at home in bed with flu. Then we were shown on TV jumping around merrily when Liverpool scored in the 2-1 win, which very nearly cost our friend her teaching career before it had even begun. Meanwhile I’d managed to wangle getting my expenses for that October 2001 trip paid by my own employer, who didn’t realise the true purpose of the visit until the boss of their Ukranian branch that I was supposed to be ‘inspecting’ saw me singing along (and obviously somewhat the worse for wear) to YNWA on telly at the end of the match.

But that was then and this is now. Behind us in the crowd, two gorgeous Ukranian girls, who we later found out worked for the British embassy in Kiev,  were waving an outsized LFC scarf and attracting a lot of thoroughly well-deserved attention from the pitch-side photographers, but even they didn’t make it into the telly footage to add a bit of colour  to a dull match! Nor did we, not when grimacing over Momo’s injury, not when saluting Stevie’s  substitute appearance (which brought the biggest cheer of the night from the locals), not when biting our fingernails and gnashing our teeth after a shambolic few moments of defending helped the Israelis equalise, not even when riotously applauding the save from Pepe that stopped the match going into some very unwanted extra time (goodness knows how many more tedious Mexican waves the added time would have meant, or how few flags we’d have been left with at the end).

Ah well, after watching the players warm down right in front of us (quite funny watching Bellamy & Fowler doing shuttle sprints as a pair - a slight mis-match in pace, perhaps) it was time for a few more pivos and a nice meal at those heart-warming Ukranian prices. Time to text the folks back home: “See any of our lot on telly ?” “Errm, nope”, comes the reply, “you jammy glory-hunting bastard, just count yourself lucky you’re out there at all, supporting the Mighty Reds of Europe”.

Harsh but fair.

We're into the Group Stages, that's the important thing, and we're off to somewhere different.

© nige 2006

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