Saturday, 8 December 2012

Dynamo Kyiv

My first visit to Kyiv was a daytrip in October 1997.  "The word Ukraine means borderland," the guide cheerlessly recited as we drove into the city. "Historically it was the breadbasket of Russia."  "Aye, man," somebody muttered, "but when are we getting to the bars?"  A Lada strained to overtake the coach, the passenger leaning out of the window to give us the finger.  The country's first McDonald's had just opened on Kreshchatyk and women in fur coats and posh frocks scoffed hamburgers and fries next to Newcastle fans in jeans and black and white tops. Outside, baboushkas in washed-out headscarves were offering household tat - dog-eared books, faded icons and threadbare blankets - for sale in gloomy concrete underpasses as we made our way towards the ground. Dynamo - Champions League semi-finalists the following year - were still a formidable side,  Rebrov and Shevchenko quickly putting them two goals ahead before a late, deflected double from the unlikely source of John Beresford's right boot shocked all but a tiny pocket of the 100,000 crowd into silence.  "You only wear leather jackets," taunted three hundred Geordies as the home fans drifted away and we bopped on the wooden benches. Not that it mattered in the end: Dynamo beat Barcelona by a combined score of seven goals to nil on their way to the quarter final; Newcastle, shorn of strikers by Alan Shearer's injury and Les Ferdinand's ill-timed sale, lost to PSV Eindhoven (twice) and Barcelona in their next three games.

Fifteen years on Kyiv is a very different city and Dynamo, sadly, a shadow of their former selves.  Rob Langham, one half of the ever wonderful The Two Unfortunates, picks up the tale. 

A winter break in Kyiv? I’ll admit to puzzlement on the part of some of our friends at our decision to embark upon a 5 day expedition to the frozen steppe in November. The city’s charms are undoubtedly low key and even if the marvellously atmospheric Bessarabska market, quirky Mikhail Bulgakov museum, the grandeur of the city’s onion domes and moving, monolithic monuments to the Great Patriotic War all stoke plenty of interest, yet there were many who suspected the round ball lay behind our choice.

I’ll admit that Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s rebuilding projects provoked much of my fascination in the past. In particular, the 1986 Dynamo Kyiv team that cantered to victory over Atletico Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Lyon and the subsequent enlistment of the bulk of that vintage into the USSR squad for the Mexico World Cup. A 6-0 shellacking of a previously heralded Hungary as followed by Vasyl Rats angling in a screamer against France and I was hooked – I watched with regret as Ihor Belanov’s hat-trick proved to no avail as the Soviets inexplicably lost out in a ding dong second round battle with Belgium.

I had also been dimly aware of the 1970s generation too – led by Oleg Blokhin and victorious in another Euro showpiece against Ferencváros. Of course Lobanovksyi was to create another set of marvels in the nineties – Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov terrorising Euro defences and taking the club to a Champions League semi in 1999. Dynamo, in their pristine white kit and marvellously embroidered ‘D’ of a crest are nothing short of World Football’s most storied clubs.

Rob at the wrong stadium

The day leading up to a 5pm Sunday kick off for the derby match between Dynamo and Arsenal and had been punctuated by much debate as to whether sitting outside for two hours on a tingling Ukrainian night was a good idea or not. Egged on by the proprietor of this fine site, Michael Hudson, we vacillated and at many points, the prospect of decamping to a coy restaurant with a steaming plate of borshch held more appeal. But, in the end, with temperatures rising to a smidgeon above zero come Sunday afternoon and equipping ourselves with more layers than an Angel cake, we set out for the Dynamo stadium, perched atop a high bluff looking out across the Dnipro river and an arena we had been lucky enough to view on a self-guided walking tour of the city a couple of days before.

Having been diverted by the site of a man leading a pony down the steps of the Khreshchatyk underground station and fortifying ourselves with steaming cups of coffee, we leisurely sauntered towards the stadium – its grandiose gate depicting its most famous coach and providing a striking entrance. There was one snag, however, the tall floodlights jutting up into the East European sky were still unlit – and this but half an hour only before the scheduled kick off.

Hence a quick rethink before deciding that either the game wasn’t taking place at all or was to be staged at the massive new Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, a conversion of an arena previously glorying in the monikers Trotsky Stadium and Republikansky Stadium and the building where Spain went on something a romp against Italy in the Euro 2012 final this past summer.

 Dynamo ultras' light show

Kyiv’s metro stations are as austere and as grand as others scattered across the former USSR and they also plunge to extraordinary depths – hence, the complicated journey to the national team’s home was no small matter. Negotiating the labyrinthine passages of the Palats Sportu station would have troubled Theseus and a heavy uniformed presence (albeit disappointingly not the ranks of army personnel one remembers from European cup ties behind the iron curtain in the 1980s) did little to help our radar. In the end, we indulged in that time honoured policy of following the scarves, emerging above ground and filtering through a series of alleyways before emerging in front of the shiny stadium.

Already past kick off, we perhaps conservatively ignored the attempts to local youth to foist cut price tickets upon us before purchasing two mid-priced seats from a booth handily staffed by an English-speaking helper.  At roughly a tenner, the prices were relatively cheap although perhaps not so much given the Ukrainian standard of living. However, places were on sale for as little as £2 or £3.

A quarter of an hour in and the game was still 0-0 – the stadium’s yellow and blue colour scheme clearly evident given the quarter full arena. Indeed, we were far from alone in our tardiness – many fans choosing to tarry with cigarettes or simply amble to their positions. Two set of ultras felt differently however – Dynamo’s tyros created a good noise to our right while an infinitesimally tiny bunch of Arsenal fans were letting off steam just ahead of us.

To say the attitude among the bulk of the support was diffident would be an understatement however and it soon became clear as to why, with Dynamo camped in their opponents’ half and showing an ease in possession one would expect of an XI that had contested a Champions League match with Paris St. Germain only a few days before. Peppered with Brazilians and Nigerians, Ideye Brown led the line in a modern 4-3-3 style formation with perhaps the diminutive South American, Dudu, still only 20 years of age, doing most to unlock the massed defence of the visitors.

Ideye ended up netting twice with international centre back Yevhen Khacheridi and Oleh Husyev scoring the others, all of which came in the last few minutes of each half. The experienced Husyev in particular was in fine form raiding down the right, showing a tendency to graft which the much heralded Andriy Yarmolenko failed to match. After his introduction from the bench Yarmolenko missed a sitter and his slow progress along with that of another previous wunderkind Artem Milevskiy, absent here perhaps highlights some of the problems besetting Ukrainian football.

For the break-up of the Soviet Union has led to a severe lack of competition for a club like Kyiv, previously honed on a half century diet of intense encounters  with the Moscow clubs and other former giants such as the Georgians of Dynamo Tblisi. This victory was a cakewalk and, Shakhtar Donetsk apart, the Ukrainian Premier League is suffering from a lack of serious quality.

The glittering surroundings featuring electronic entry gates, the lack of home based players and the casual approach of many of the playing staff are a far cry from the discipline – and mystique ­­– of the Lobanovskyi years. Before, a victory in Kyiv, even for the most storied of western European giants, would be unheard of. Now, Paris St. Germain can come and chalk up the most functional of victories. Shakhtar are formidable of course – but their oligarch owner Rinat Akhmetov’s millions serve nothing but to reinforce the continued importance of the oligarch model. A European Football Weekend in Kyiv is still a treat but I wish I’d been there in 1985.

You can read much more from Rob here.

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