"Welcome to Ukraine," the young man said when he handed back my passport, at Kiev's Borispol Airport. That was nice. Also appreciated was a special Passport Control line for Euro 2012 visitors. The main line-up had people who looked prepared for an almighty argument.
In the airport arrivals concourse, a pop-up elimination round for Miss Kiev 2012 appeared to be under way. Tall young women with haughty expressions strolled the space in long, shimmering dresses, wearing alarmingly high stilettos that only beauty pageant contestants wear.
So I'm wondering where the judges are when a rake-thin woman in a long, peach-coloured dress, light as gossamer, does a little twirl in front of me, spits chewing gum from her mouth and into a garbage can about five feet away. Sweetly done. But no pageant under way, obviously.
Sure I'm confused. It's Monday and my day had begun just after midnight in Poznan. After Croatia's 3-1 win over Ireland, an English journalist said he felt sorry for Ireland's supporters. "It cost money to get here, and now this. That's hard." At the nearest bar, I saw about 300 Irish supporters on a patio in the rain, singing lustily to Steve Earle's Galway Girl. "And I ask you boys/What could I do/With her hair so black and her eyes so blue." The English will never understand the Irish.
A gnarly negotiation with a cab driver for an off-meter fare managed to get me to the station for the 2 a.m. to Warsaw. While drinking an unspeakable coffee from a vending machine I watched while every hoser in Poznan tried to bum beer and cigarettes from the Irish and Croatian fans. Then a passing man said my name and "Globe and Mail." It turned out to be Arlen Olic, the top soccer writer in Croatia, who had read my soccer book, in the Croatian translation, and was as pleased to meet me as I was astonished.
We talked the hell out of Croatia's tactics and the genius of manager Slaven Bilic. Then the train to Warsaw. Not a train really, more a cattle cart. Over-sold and overcrowded, an ancient bone-rattler. Assigned seats, which cost extra, meant nothing. We stood for an hour between carriages until a conductor roused himself from his private compartment to check tickets. We pointed out the assigned-seat, extra-cost thing. He moved two Croatian fans from a compartment and grumpily ushered us in. There were now ten in a compartment for eight.
Dozed lightly for a while until it became clear that a large Croatian man, whose pals had been moved, was going to take revenge by slamming the door open and shut every twenty minutes. His timing was as exquisite as the passing movements of Luka Modric.
In Warsaw at 6 a.m. I met the other two Canadian journalists here, just returned by train from Gdansk. A cab – on the meter – to our base, and thirty minutes to wash up, recharge cell phones and on to Warsaw airport where two of us had flights to Kiev in Ukraine. At the airport I fell deeply in love. With the LOT Airline lounge. Soft chairs, internet connections that worked and fresh coffee. It was a beautiful, passionate affair for forty minutes.
After being disabused about the Miss Kiev pageant, I canvassed advice at Kiev airport about getting to my hotel. I was told to only take "a white taxi." What if the cab isn't white? The serious young woman at the Euro 2012 info counter paused, thought, and said, "Is problem."
I was about to sit into a white cab when a burly guy appeared out of nowhere and demanded to know the name of my hotel. I saw the cab driver eye him warily. I told the interloper I was going to the Hotel Ukraine. He suggested I show him my reservation. This was, you know, freakin' rude. Disoriented as I was, I summoned my inner Dublin hard man, asked "Who the hell are you?", ignoring the response as I told the driver to get moving.
It was 31 degrees and the sun was splitting the stones in Kiev. It had been cold and raining in Poznan. In between there was the LOT lounge in Warsaw. I felt like sending it a miss-you-tons e-mail.
The Hotel Ukraine is mightily impressive overlooking Independence Square in Kiev. Unfortunately the staff inside weren't expecting me. Time passed. Then, it turned they were expecting me. Much paperwork ensued. I was advised to take the paperwork to the 10th floor where a key would be issued. Kinda Soviet. On the 10th floor a key with a heavy chain was issued, plus a warning that phone calls had to be paid for, in cash, on the 10th floor. Oh LOT lounge why did I ever leave you?
The WiFi, paid for, didn't work. BlackBerry didn't work. I had to make a phone call. Then march down the hall to pay for it.
There followed a long march in the dead heat of downtown Kiev, in the company of the of the another Canadian guy, to the stadium. The strangeness of the paltry pre-match party. The hostile stares from cops, military and security stewards. More of them evident on the streets than were fans in the stadium at game time. Stadium holds 70,00 people.
In the media centre, a McDonald's McCafé to feed and water journalists. This McCafé had a hostess. A potential Miss Kiev candidate, she said, "Let me introduce you to our system," The "system" meant a walk to a distant counter to made your McCafé order, in cash, get voucher, returning to the McCafé to give the order again. I did this in slackjawed silence. Note I hadn't slept in some time.
Ukraine beats Sweden. The atmosphere is unnerving. All those cops and soldiers inside and outside the stadium. Locals delirious. We leave the stadium quickly to see action on the wide, majestic streets of Kiev. A minute's walk from the stadium there's a strip club. There are strip clubs everywhere in Kiev. There's even one tucked discretely into the lobby of Hotel Ukraine. (All credit cards are accepted, the sign said. Must mean no paperwork to take to the 10th floor.) This club has five lady dancers on an outside patio, their wee posteriors going around and around, an invitation to enter. The game ended ten minutes ago. Semi-dressed women hand out flyers for the strip club. First the soccer, then the strip club, is the gist.
We press on, ankle-deep in the debris from 500,00 people watching the game on giant screens on the streets. Plastic beer bottles and plastic cups. The entire city is intoxicated. Even the grand, imposing buildings look tipsy. It's still intensely hot.
We stop at last near Hotel Ukraine, for a beer at a sidewalk stand. A single beer will knock me out, I know. I remember sleeping a few days ago, not sure when. Then I'm awake - the beer stand closes, suddenly, a phalanx of riot police, baton-ready with shields, appears on the street, blocking it. In front of them, thousands of fans move in the opposite direction as the police move forward. In minutes a mass crowd has evaporated. Not sure where they went. The strip clubs, maybe. Behind the riot police, a line of street cleaners moves forward. In another few minutes a great swath of central Kiev is empty and the debris gone. I'm not sure if this is admirable or frightening. I'm slackjawed again
In the oven of a room at Hotel Ukraine I finally sleep and dream of the LOT lounge in Warsaw.
Next morning I meet the other Canadian, who has arranged a cab to the airport. Not a white cab. A fee has been arranged. But now the driver sees two passengers and wants more. Ok, ok, ok. He is delighted with everything. Ukraine won, there's more money in this deal. As he enters the highway to the airport he points at the CD player. "Music?" he asks. "Rod Stewart, AC/DC, I got it!" In unison we say, "AC/DC!"
I say, "Play Highway to Hell." My fellow passenger starts laughing, can't stop. The driver looks miffed. To stop the laughing I tell my pal, who has been to Croatia often, that I met Alen Orlic from the paper Jutarn List. He knows the paper, is impressed.
And I remember what Alen said as we parted after that cattle-cart train from Poznan. He shook my hand, raised his eyes, said, "You really have to love football to do this."
Call it soccer, football, futebol, whatever. It's true. I made it to the Poland/Russia game in Warsaw that evening. The one preceded by a riot. Welcome to Poland and Ukraine and Euro 2012.