A great city to end our adventure.
As we entered our final trip of the challenge, which had started back in the summer. The stark reality of winter was now entirely upon us. The rainy day in Kyiv had given way to darkness by mid-afternoon as we headed to the central station. Decorations were now bringing festive cheer to travelers, waiting to head to all corners of this great country. Steaming hot cup of Gleuwein and delicious hot dogs were consumed in their abundance. We caught the fast train south to Dnipropetrovsk Oblast’s capital city Dnipro (surprisingly situated by the river of the same name). I have recently started a new book about a groundhopper of more considerable experience than me, who had spent the year exploring amateur football back in the UK. It has made me happy to head home for this Christmas break, and I look forward to taking in some English games while over there.
Life on the Road
We had become accustomed to the comforts of intercity travel over the last few months, so the tiredness was quickly overcome on boarding the train. There was a noticeable air of festivity among our fellow passengers as the train pulled out of the station; on time, as always. The alcohol on offer did support the mood, and I quickly dived down the carriages to the food cart. It is an amusing notion that has sadly been lost in the UK, and the franchised out service provides hot snacks and a full selection of drinks for the passengers. We did discuss the differences between travels in Ukraine and back at home, with Ukraine coming out definite winners in the train service department. It is incredible to think that every customer is provided with a simple thing like a seat on a Ukrainian train.
Despite our happiness at ending the adventure this weekend, fatigue was setting in, and we were not complaining about our arrival at Dnipro a little before midnight. We had booked a delightfully elegant hotel, but we first had to get there. Big mistake – as we got off the train, we did not notice the crowds making their way to the far end of the platform. There was a little crossing point, which moved the hordes towards the exit, and we had to backtrack a little once our errors were apparent. Never mind, our taxi arrived promptly, and we were in the hotel without further delay. The city looked quite pleasant as we whizzed through it but indeed suffers from years of neglect. There were plenty of potholes, to say the least.
Matchday morning saw us with a few commitments to carry out. My work has a second office in Dnipro, so it was an excellent opportunity to catch up with some colleagues who I can only see a few times a year. They had also witnessed the rise of one of Ukraine’s newest clubs to the Premier League within a few years of its creation. Dnipro had an enjoyable coffee culture that was thriving on the weekend, with our own selection, producing its in-house chocolate. It would have been rude to refuse. There was a good hustle to the city, which retains a more Soviet feel compared to its Western counterparts. It has undoubtedly drawn me in, and I will be making a return after the winter break. We had arranged to meet our colleagues at a local Czech bar. The bar had a cloakroom, which obligated you to leave your jackets there. I had never experienced such ideas before, but we had to comply with or no food and drinks for us.
There was a beautiful little park for us to navigate between the bar and the stadium, well I say beautiful. Still, it was raining heavily, so we waded through the puddles, making a vow to return sometime in the future. However, as quickly as we escaped the puddles, our first view of the magnificent Dnipro Arena came into view. The site has hosted football matches for almost 80 years. The local journalists, which we spoke to, were very proud that football still took place in the stadium during World War 2. The original Dnipro club, which fell defunct at the start of this season, brought a lot of success to the city over its history. During the Soviet era, it won the championship on two separate occasions, pushing as far as the quarterfinals in the subsequent European Cups that they were eligible for. As a child growing up in the late ’80s, they were a club on my radar despite living the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The club also achieved noted success more recently during the last decade of their very existence. Following the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, Dnipro pushed all the way to the final of the Europa League, beating illustrious opponents such as Napoli and Ajax on the road. However, the final in 2015 was the start of a dramatic decline in fortunes, where the owner stopped his funding of the club and resulted in a series of consecutive relegations. The club lost its professional status at the end of the 2017-2018 season, around the same time as a new club appeared in the city. However, unlike elsewhere around the continent, the new team was not established by disillusioned supporters and has created some unprecedented problems.
When we arrived at the stadium, we were confronted with an unusual issue for top tier football. There was a complete absence of a crowd. In an arena that holds over 30,000 people, less than 3% of the seats were occupied, even more, galling given that they were playing near neighbors Oleksandriya, who took up a large section. A news article in the week after the game helped me understand this issue more. There have been large-scale protests by the fan movements of the old Dnipro club, who did not agree with the structure in the new club. Banners have been spotted around the city, denouncing SC Dnipro 1’s claim as a top-level team by said groups. There have also been occurrences when the original ultra-group has teamed up with old rivals to challenge SC Dnipro 1 fans whenever there was a game in the city.
With thanks to the media department at the new club, we were allowed to sit in the journalist boxes for the game and made our way to our very own entrance gate. At one stage, we thought that we would be getting the VIP treatment, but the security guards sent us to a side door and into the back corridors of the vast complex. Under the pitch, there was a little room for journalists to gather, with a kettle and accreditation passes ready for collection. A number of the people were curious about our arrival and wondered if we were actually scouts attending the game in disguise. Unlike some of our other recent visits, Dnipro did not allow us to be pitchside before the game. However, it may have been because we only arrived in time for kick-off, and security was becoming a lot tighter.
As with our trip to Kharkiv earlier in the season, the game took place in a surreal environment – it was quite like watching a game in your front room at home. The atmosphere was incredibly flat, but the views of the match were without question. This is the thing with the new stadium, the needs of the consumer are taken above all else. From our vantage point, we could view all the game’s dubious decisions. Still, my attention was pulled towards the corner section, where the Oleksandriya fans were housed. As with Chernihiv a few weeks earlier, they had traveled in good numbers and had decked out their part in impressive flags. The rest of the stadium was disappointingly empty. Behind the press box, the VIP section was reasonably busy and showed some indications as to where the future of the club may lie.
After the game, we tried again to get pitchside, but we had a little more luck this time. The stadium manager told us it would be fine after the media interviews had been completed. Fortunately, for us, we were also allowed access to the press conferences, which took place in a fantastic reach out to the history of the old club. It does seem that Dnipro seems to want to make connections with the former club even though the fans have made their disassociation quite clear. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the next few years. The club was good to its word, and we were given access pitchside as the officials tidied up after the game. It was a great place to finish our adventure around Ukraine. As we made our way around Ukraine over the last four months, we have met many passionate people who are keeping the game alive in the country. It is a shame that more people fail to see the connection with their local communities, but those who do have been a pleasure to meet on our travels.