Kiev, Ukraine. Ukrainians endured the heartbreak of their team failing to move beyond the first round in their home Euro 2012 but are still revelling in the rare spotlight the event has thrown on their young nation.
The number of Ukrainians watching games at the specially constructed fan zones laid on for supporters in Kiev and other cities has fallen since their blue-and-yellow heroes were knocked out after a nail-biting clash with England.
But the Euro 2012 co-hosts along with Poland are still enjoying the rare influx of foreign guests, in an effervescent atmosphere which is stark contrast to the public relations fiasco which marked the build-up to the tournament.
“It’s great that the Euro took place here… The foreigners are going to go back with good impressions about Ukraine,” said Olexander, 40, as he watched the England-Italy quarter-final with the Ukrainian flag draped across his arms.
“Ukraine was criticized a lot before but here the atmosphere has turned out to be much better,” he added.
Olexandra Shamrai, 16, was watching the match in the Kiev fan zone with English and Italian flags painted on each cheek in an impressive show of neutrality.
“The main thing is that our country — which was not so well known in Europe — has been visited by many people. I am in touch on Facebook with some and they are saying they want to come again,” she said.
The fan zone in the center of Kiev has been visited by 1.2 million supporters, out of 2.7 million who have visited similar venues nationwide, according to Euro 2012 organiser in Ukraine Markiyan Lubkyvskiy.
“Ukrainian fans and Ukrainians as a whole have shown themselves to be a kind nation, open to the world and possibly this has been the most unexpected thing in the whole tournament,” he told reporters.
Lubkyvskiy also praised the country’s police force, who were hardly considered as a national treasure before the Euro. “I hope that these good features will remain after the championship,” he said.
‘I do not want this Euro to end’
The build-up to the tournament was anything but a good advert for Ukraine amid fears that the cash-strapped government would not finish the infrastructure on time.
Weeks before kick-off, a scandal broke over the treatment of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, prompting several EU leaders to announce they would boycott the matches in Ukraine.
As if that was not enough, fears over racism in Ukraine were fanned by a BBC documentary which showed fans making Nazi salutes and black England ex-player Sol Campbell telling fans to stay away or risk “coming back in a coffin.”
But so far there have been no incidents marring Ukraine’s hosting of the tournament, the biggest event it has held since it won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.
“Foreigners can come here and see how things really are,” said Artyom Serdyukov, 45, in the fan zone. “And also patriotism has increased thanks to the performance of the Ukrainian national side.”
Kevin Miles, of the English Fan “embassy” which gives advice to supporters abroad, told AFP he was very happy with the running of the tournament.
“There are always tiny details that you know from experience you can improve but generally it’s been very good,” he said.
“They (Ukrainians) are great! A lot of people came to us (asking) do you need some help and what are you doing,” added Gabriele Rechberger, who is also working with foreign fans.
The weekly Korrespondent said: “With the Euro 2012, Europe is discovering a Ukraine without racism, without mediaeval savagery and street gangs.”
The fan zones have also operated with success in other Ukrainian host cities like Kharkiv and semi-final host Donetsk.
“I do not want this Euro to end and the fan zone to close. It’s great here. The atmosphere — it’s like Europe,” said Tatyana Malysheva, 24, from the industrial city of Makiivka in the Donetsk region.
In contrast to the build-up, the Euro has had a more troubled course in its co-hosts Poland, where Russian fans were involved in serious crowd trouble and an Irish fan was found dead, without any suggestion of foul play.
Poland was also ejected from the Euro at the first round stage but tens of thousands have continued to throng the fan zone in Warsaw and thousands in other host cities like Gdansk on the Baltic.