Now that everyone is drawn to TV screens watching football matches that take place in Brazil as part of the FIFA World Cup 2014, it is impossible not to recollect the UEFA EURO Championship that was held two years ago in Poland and Ukraine. It is especially topical now, taking into account the recent events in Ukraine.
We should not forget that the Ukrainian revolution that began in November 2013 started as an attempt of Ukrainian people to win their chances of Eurointergration back – chances that seemed to be all of a sudden suspended by the Ukrainian president and government. The protesters of Euromaidan wanted to affirm that Ukraine is a European country – not only geographically, but also in spirit.
Among the chances to demonstrate the “Europe-ness” of Ukraine was summer 2012, when Ukraine successfully hosted the European football championship, which ran rather smoothly in spite of the gloomy predictions and skepticism. Ukrainian cities and their stadiums received thousands of European guests, and Donetsk with its Donbass arena, the home stadium of one of the most famous Ukrainian football clubs Shakhtar, was a worthy stage for European football rivalry.
Thus, it is important to emphasize that matches took place not only in Kyiv and Lviv – cities that have been regarded as European in character for a long time now – but also in Kharkiv and Donetsk (cities that have now become the arena of ferocious fights between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces). Importantly, while Kharkiv and Lviv hosted only three games each, Donetsk equaled the capital of Ukraine Kyiv in hosting five games of the tournament.
While violence erupted during matches in Poland, five games in Donetsk ran without such incidents, excluding only the episode of a “torrential” thunderstorm that took place just at the start of Ukraine-France match, but which in fact turned out to be a showcase of the Donbass arena high-quality drainage systems, which allowed the game to be back in quite a short time, considering the heaviness of rain. The next day after the match leading sports publications both expressed awe at the scale of the thunderstorm and downpour in Donetsk and praised the way the consequences of the thunderstorm were overcome on the match day.
However, even though the matches went well, there had been the whole story behind the numerous empty seats at the stadium. Before the start of EURO 2012 there was a rumor that Ukrainians were racists. As a result, many football fans from, for example, England and France, chose to skip the matches of their teams taking place in Ukraine. However, those who came found quite the opposite and saw that the locals were absolutely normal and even friendly people.
Therefore, to symbolically dismiss the image of Ukrainians as racists, there was the whole march organized by the English fans in Donetsk. Before buying tickets to support their team in Ukraine, English fans were warned by Sol Campbell, a former English defender, that if they went to Ukraine, they might come back in coffins. English fans who had the courage to come and thus experienced an absolutely normal Ukrainian reality not only protested against the wrong idea that Sol Campbell created, but also demanded an apology for making such a comment about Ukraine.They saw with their own eyes how erroneous it was. As a Media Volunteer at Donbass arena, I had a chance to talk to the fans of the English team and they admitted that it was a shame to believe these rumors about Ukrainian people, who were actually very friendly and hospitable, and a shame to decide to stay back in England thus depriving their team of the necessary support and depriving themselves of the opportunity to experience Ukrainian hospitality. It is truly a pity that many people missed this opportunity to visit Donetsk – the borderland so distanced from the Ukraine-EU border.
In fact, EURO 2012 has not transformed the life in Donetsk as probably some people hoped. And, no doubt, it would be an overstatement to say that everything was perfect. But more importantly, it became clear that for Donetsk EURO tournament was a normal event, which put Donetsk in one row with European cities that had the honor of hosting UEFA tournaments before. What skeptics envisioned as a collapse for Donetsk and what pessimists saw as a potential stage for violence turned out to be an impressive display of the readiness of Donetsk people to embrace something regarded as European. It is true that many of the nuances of the European championship were handled by the specialists from the European Union, but how the locals assisted is also of the utmost importance.
During the EURO championship, people of Donetsk demonstrated that they are as European as other hosts of European football tournaments. They helped foreigners in the streets, they volunteered both for UEFA and for the city volunteer groups, they went to matches to see the teams full of legendary football players together with their counterparts from other countries. The European spirit is there – we just need to cultivate it and not allow influences from without destroy what Donetsk has.
Edited by: Lisa Enocsson