From Ukraine With Love: 24 Racism-Free Hours At Euro 2012

KIEV & KHARKIV, Ukraine—The fast train from Kiev to Kharkiv takes four hours. I know this, although I am not on it. I want to be on it, but tickets are gone, sold weeks ago to assorted Germans and other more prepared fans traveling from the Ukrainian capital to the industrial city that lies 300 miles due east. They head to the inspiringly named Metalist Stadium to watch Germany, ranked No. 2 in the world, take on the Netherlands (No. 3) in each side's second game of the 2012 European Championship. By the time my friend Andrew and I get around to buying tickets – seriously, who knew that many people would want to go to Kharkiv, ever? – the seven-and-a-half-hour stopping train is the only option. We squeeze into a four-bunk cabin that is generously 6' x 6' x 8', alongside Amari, an affable guy from Tel Aviv, and a stern, balding Russian gentleman in a Nike soccer shirt who doesn't speak the entire ride. Amari, wearing Diesel jeans and a t-shirt that reads "Fuck Inner Beauty," is going to his second game of the Euros. He previously saw the Germans play Portugal in Lviv, on Ukraine's western border. Is he supporting the Germans? "It just happened that way," he says, explaining that his sister got him tickets to the Netherlands matches but he sold two of them and used the money to buy tickets to other games.

An Israeli would rather follow the Germans than spend too much time in Kharkiv. I glance at the clock on my phone. Seven more hours on a hot, stuffy, Soviet-era train until we get there.

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The Euros have very conspicuously arrived in Ukraine. Two lines at immigration are labeled "UEFA Euros 2012 Dedicated Lanes." A Coke billboard just outside Kiev International urges visitors to "get crazy." A Hyundai ad just down the highway simply encourages people to don colorful headgear and kick around a soccer ball. (Also: watch the Euros and buy a car and drink soda.) One television spot offers skateboards, USB cords, and a board game decorated with the Euro 2012 theme. (LG says "life is good," but this seems to be a general assertion, not one specifically focused on the tournament at hand.)

The phrases "Creating History Together" and "Respect" – the focus-grouped, UEFA-approved themes for the tournament – are everywhere: on street signs, in train stations and info desks, on the field before the matches, on the ponchos players wear, on the ball. These slogans were borne out of genuine concerns about racism, sex tourism, political strife, and general violence before the tournament began. While there's been violence in Poland and some European officials, tourists, and players' families are staying away from Ukraine, I've seen little, if any, trouble on the ground here. We walked by the parliament building the other day and a dozen or so people stood across the street half-heartedly protesting the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by waving red and white flags. But other than that, the atmosphere is relaxed and respectful. (That said, the opportunity for racism in action is low. I've noticed maybe 75 non-white people so far. They do seem to be staying away, which is another sad, awful story in itself.) There is a major soccer tournament going on, but a lot of locals trying to continue living their lives. In 2006, Germany felt consumed by hosting the World Cup. This atmosphere is more like when the first round of the NCAA tournament came to Providence, Rhode Island.

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A scene from the bathroom line at a Kiev pub before Sweden-Ukraine:

Ukrainian supporter, dressed from head to toe in blue and yellow, to Dutch fan: "I'm from Kharkiv. It's a bad city. Very Russian. Very industrial. I'm sorry."

Dutch fan: "It's okay."

(Interlude from a Swedish fan: "Can I cut to wash my hands? They are blue from spray painting our flag.")

Ukrainian supporter: (To Swede:) "Yes." (To Dutch fan:) "We supported you [against Denmark], but you were shit. But you will beat the Germans and advance to the final...

Dutch fan: "Yes!"

Ukrainian supporter: "...against Ukraine. We will win!"

Dutch fan: "No no no."

(Laughter, followed by embrace.)

[End scene]

*

Andrew and I watched the Ukraine-Sweden match – a comeback victory for the home team – in the Kiev fan zone. Lvivske 1715, the local beer, cost 15 hryvnia ($2) for 500ml while 25 hryvnia bought the same amount of tournament sponsor Carlsberg. Carlsberg is gross. Lvivske is owned by Carlsberg. The taps poured slowly, leading to long lines and frustration. "This is Ukrainian organization," one would-be patron complained.

The first game of the night, England-France, kicked off at 7 p.m. and the fan zone was half-filled. By the time old man Andriy Shevchenko led out Zhovto-Blakytni (The Yellow-Blues) for the second fixture, the place was packed. I doubt it reached its capacity of 70,000, but we were more than a football field away from the screen and nowhere close to the back of the crowd. (Luckily, the plaza was not still flooded.)

Sweden went ahead on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's inevitable goal, but Ukraine's 35-year-old captain – a man who has been contemplating retirement for three years and is so out of shape he looked over to his coach in the first half to assure him he could stay in the game – netted two in rapid succession. His side held on for the country's first ever Euro victory. But the atmosphere was subdued. The fans celebrated both headers and chants of "U-cray-EE-nah" broke out throughout the night, but it wasn't pandemonium. It was a carefully managed, logo-branded fan zone. On the walk back home, a few cars honked their horns, but that was pretty much it. It was after midnight, and it was time to go to sleep.

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Kharkiv's Metalist Stadium, one of the "stars" of a pre-tournament BBC documentary detailing the two countries' history of racist abuse, played host to the best on-paper matchup of the first round. The Germans and the Dutch were both good bets to win coming into the tournament. They have a long rivalry on the field and a longer one off it. Not that you'd know from the pre-game festivities outside the stadium. Orange-clad Dutchmen high-fived their German compadres while everyone sat around drinking Belgian beer. Occasional "Deutschland" chants started, but quickly petered out. The Netherlands fans dominated in number, but were content to sit and enjoy the scene. It was a pleasant day. A heavyset man with "From Malaysia" and a heart painted on his sunburned cheek walked past. As one news outlet put it, we were all soaking up "the atmosphere and sunshine." Euro 2012 is a place to hang out.

Inside was a bit more intense. The three sections of German supporters stood throughout the match. The chants – some urging their team on and some insulting the Dutch – were nearly constant. But most of it was just a bunch of people yelling. While the slow claps before dangerous free kicks were vaguely ominous, they were also silly. A 21st-minute wave died at the start of the Netherlands section, eliciting a chorus of boos from those around us. "Seven Nation Army" seems to be the new German Anthem.

Perhaps the atmosphere will grow more charged as the tournament progresses and the stakes are raised in the knockout round. But that wasn't the case on the night in Metalist. Post-match, we walked back to the city's center square to wait two hours for our train. A fountain that wouldn't be out of place in Vegas sprayed water into the night sky. The scattered Dutch were disappointed, while the Germans were happy but quiet. Everyone looked exhausted. 2 a.m. rolled around and we got on our train. It would be a ten-hour ride, but we were leaving Kharkiv.

Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.