Ukrainians endured the heartbreak of their team failing to move beyond the first round in their home Euro 2012, but they are still reveling 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 in stark contrast to the public relations fiasco which marked the buildup 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.”
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, organizer Markiyan Lubkyvskiy said.
“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 a national treasure before the Euros.
“I hope that these good features will remain after the championships,” he said.
The buildup 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 kickoff, a scandal broke over the treatment of jailed opposition leader and former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, prompting several EU leaders to announce they would boycott 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, with former England player Sol Campbell telling fans to stay away or risk “coming back in a coffin.”
However, 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 and also patriotism has increased thanks to the performance of the Ukrainian national side,” Artyom Serdyukov, 45, said in the fan zone.
Kevin Miles, of the English fan “embassy” which gives advice to supporters abroad, said 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.