Euro 2012 - Kharkiv develops Oranje crush
Orange is an evocative colour in modern Ukraine and the arresting sight of mass crowds wearing that tone and occupying spacious town squares has a certain resonance.
During the country’s Orange Revolution of late 2004, such gatherings gave visual form to mass rebellion against flawed elections.
But in June 2012, the fact the colour is ubiquitous in Kharkiv city centre has a much more celebratory feel to it. With all three of their group games at the European Championship being held in the eastern city, Netherlands have made Kharkiv their second home for the tournament.
Though some of those travelling from Netherlands have settled at the bespoke 'Dutch Invasie' campsite out of town, the majority of Dutch fans have set down camp for the day in Ploscha Svobody (Freedom Square), one of Europe’s biggest cosmopolitan open areas, boasting an imposing circular façade of impressive concrete buildings and marked in one corner by a giant, bold statue of Lenin that overlooks the expanse of space.
But on this hot summer Saturday, the Communist hero’s steely gaze stretches across Kharkiv’s official fan zone, a haven of consumerism where a collection of official UEFA partners vie for space. To Lenin’s left, the whole front of a building is covered in a giant Hyundai advert. In front of him, banners for Cannon, Coca-Cola and, perhaps most ironic of all, sitting almost at his feet a Kia show car encased in a clear Perspex box, raised above the massed people who gaze longingly at it.
Such a gleaming monument to aspirational consumerism was probably not what the architect of the USSR had in mind when fostering his Communist revolution. As such, it is a starkly incongruous sight in this former Soviet city. As is the small collection of disenfranchised workers gathered around Lenin’s feet, waving flags with the familiar face of Che Guevara on them while Dutch fans just yards away, and inside the security ring surrounding the fan zone, start their party.
Imploring President Viktor Yanukovych to end a financial “genocide” that has apparently deprived some of these factory workers of 27 months of pay, they hold signs saying “Return our 35 millions instead of your ruin Euro 2012.” The translation might not be perfect, but the message is clear. As the party continues in the fan zone though, it is a message that is lost amid a sea of orange.
On Friday night Ploscha Svobody was populated by hundreds of Russia-leaning locals as they enjoyed a 4-1 rout of Czech Republic. By Saturday though it is firmly the turn of the Netherlands supporters. Swilling £1 beers and mixing in with Kharkiv locals, the Oranje army have their own MC in tow, taking to the stage and belting out Dutch versions of ‘Rapper’s Delight’, ‘Sweet Caroline’ and even ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
It is from this very partisan district – the main Danish presence being the Carlsberg lager tents flanking the square – that the Dutch fans will begin their ‘Oranje parade’ three hours before kick-off. They will trek en masse the five kilometres to the Metalist Stadium before witnessing the start of their team’s Euro 2012 campaign. Having qualified in impressive fashion, and boasting a fluent attack the envy of any side in the world, hopes are certainly high.
Winners in 1988 – their only major tournament victory – the Dutch are amongst the three favourites to triumph in Poland alongside Germany and Spain. And amongst the Oranje fans who first dribbled in slowly on Thursday night, splashes of tangerine brightening up a dull airplane interior, you could sense confidence was high.
While England struggle over whether to field Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck in attack, the Dutch are torn between two of Europe’s most prolific strikers this season in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie.
In the Kharkiv hostel your correspondent calls home, and where the concentration of orange is intensifying with every passing day, Chris, insulated from the Premier League hype machine from his home in Netherlands, expresses a preference for the Schalke star, a player “like Jean-Pierre Papin” due to his predatory instincts in the box, but lack of a presence outside of it.
Another Oranje devotee, when asked if he expected Netherlands to win their opening game against Denmark, jokingly replies: “Of course, we are not England.”
While their fans may be notoriously friendly, a conception reinforced in this observer’s mind over the past two days, the Dutch press conference on Friday at Metalist Stadium was an altogether more spiky affair; if not openly hostile, it certainly bristled with tension. Captain Mark van Bommel – who on the pitch relishes confrontation – stayed largely mute while coach Bert van Marwijk looked happy to hurry things along.
The Netherlands boss was particularly reluctant when pressed on the matter of the reported racist chanting heard at a Dutch open training session for the public in Krakow. Initially he said: “I am not sure, I heard a few things but Ruud (Hesp, goalkeeping coach) was doing stuff with the goalkeepers so we just went to the other side. I didn’t hear anything that was racist in nature but certain players did.”
When questioned further regarding his feelings following the alleged monkey chants, a reluctant Van Marwijk added: “I didn’t hear it. I am trying to be as nice as possible but I am not going to say the same thing 10 times.”
Van Bommel, whose initial fury had given the story added potency, was more obliging. “The whole group heard it,” he said. “We were just happy we were going to the other side of the stadium. We wanted to get out of there.”
A Ukrainian journalist had earlier got her wires crossed when asking Denmark’s Morten Olsen about playing all three games in Kharkiv. The embarrassment was crushing when the press officer cut her off to inform them this was the country’s only trip; the query was clearly meant for the other silver-haired manager in attendance at Metalist Stadium.
When, a couple of hours later, Van Marwijk was indeed asked for his thoughts on the city and the venue, he was perhaps less effusive than the Ukraine national tourist board may have hoped: “We have been here a few hours, have a nice hotel, there’s nothing wrong with it, I haven’t seen the field but sure it’s good.”
Indeed it is. And when subsequently Netherlands took to the field for an open training session in front of the press, the Oranje players appeared to relish the opportunity to tread the turf, Robin van Persie, Luuk de Jong and Wesley Sneijder all scoring screamers, the Inter star’s the pick of the bunch when he executed a flying backheeled flick that would have had Johan Cruyff agog.
The great Ajax forward was a man who transformed football, his influence spreading far and wide. Netherlands current ambitions are not so lofty: they just want to win the tournament.
But when a human mass of orange leaves Ploscha Svobody and winds its way down to Metalist Stadium, heads dizzy from cheap beer and with Dutch anthems ringing around their ears, they could be forgiven for dreaming of an Orange revolution of a distinctly sporting flavour taking place in Ukraine’s streets this summer.