Kyiv expects to welcome over 100,000 football fans this month as the city hosts the 2018 Champions League Final between Liverpool and Real Madrid. It promises to be a memorable occasion for everyone in Kyiv and a welcome opportunity to show the outside world that there is much more to today’s Ukraine than the headline-grabbing conflict with Russia.
Champions League guests arriving in Kyiv for the first time will likely be surprised to find that the Ukrainian capital is one of the greenest cities in Europe. They will also be delighted to discover that Kyiv boasts miles of sandy beaches within walking distance of the downtown area. Many will not be expecting to encounter such a quintessentially European city complete with its very own coffee culture, vibrant nightlife and thriving hipster scene. Perhaps the biggest shock of all will be the prices. While many of Kyiv’s hotels have shamelessly hiked up rates ahead of the big match, day-to-day expenses for things like dining out or using public transport are among the lowest in the developed world.
Although Kyiv remains something of an unknown quantity to international audiences, the city should be more than capable of coping with the challenges of staging one of the world’s biggest sporting events. The Ukrainian capital is actually rather well versed in the art of hosting major events and handling large crowds. Kyiv was the main venue when Ukraine co-hosted UEFA’s 2012 European Championship. The city also staged highly successful Eurovision Song Contests in 2005 and 2017. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s two post-Soviet revolutions (the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Revolution of Dignity) both brought upwards of one million protesters onto the streets of central Kyiv for extended periods of time, providing the local authorities with an unprecedented schooling in crowd control issues.
Kyiv clearly has the potential to be a top-class venue for the Champions League Final and visitors to Ukraine should enjoy an unforgettable stay in the country. Nevertheless, like any major city, Kyiv has all sorts of local quirks and nuances that are worth taking into account. The following tips aim to provide some useful background information and help visiting football fans get the most out of their time in the Ukrainian capital. Whether you are a supporter of Liverpool or Real Madrid, there is no reason why you should not leave Kyiv having also become a fan of Ukraine.
The Olympic Stadium
Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium is Ukraine’s main sports arena and the host venue for the 2018 Champions League Final. It has undergone several transformations since the 1920s and received a complete facelift prior to Euro 2012, when it hosted numerous matches including the final itself. Throughout the Communist era, the stadium was subject to the Soviet passion for politicized name- changing. Originally christened as the Trotsky Red Stadium, in the middle of the twentieth century it became the Khrushchev Republican Stadium until he too fell from grace. Following independence in 1991, the Ukrainian authorities eventually settled on the current Olympic Stadium moniker. How did Kyiv come to have an Olympic Stadium without actually hosting an Olympic Games? The stadium’s claim to Olympic status is tenuous but technically correct. During the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Kyiv served as a secondary venue and hosted seven football matches. The stadium even had an Olympic flame installed for the occasion.
The Death Match
The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously commented: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much more important than that.” This witticism continues to resonate with football fans around the world, but it has special meaning in Kyiv, which was the scene of the WWII football drama known as the “Death Match”. During the Nazi occupation of the city, the German authorities arranged a series of football matches against a local side made up largely of former Dynamo Kyiv players. The Germans lost the first encounter 5-1 and so demanded a rematch. This return fixture was to enter history as the so-called “Death Match”. Despite strengthening their side with a number of new players, the Nazis lost once again, with the Ukrainians recording a 5-3 victory. At this point, the story becomes lost in the fog of war. Soviet propagandists would later claim that the Germans executed many of the defiant Ukrainian players after the match. Other subsequent fictitious embellishments helped to enhance the political potency of the story, with the Germans depicted as brutal cheats and the Ukrainians as loyal Communists inspired by visions of proletarian glory. We do know that the Germans arrested most of the Ukrainian team in the weeks following the match, and that at least four players subsequently died in captivity, but there is no evidence to link their deaths to the “Death Match” itself. Nevertheless, the legend surrounding the game has grown over the years. It has inspired a wide range of books and films including the 1981 movie “Escape to Victory”. Fans wishing to learn more about this celebrated and much mythologized chapter of WWII history can visit Start Stadium in Kyiv and see the venue where the Death Match took place. Lukianivska Station is the closest metro station.
The Other Shevchenko
Football fans visiting Kyiv could be forgiven for thinking that Ukrainians have gone a little overboard in their veneration of superstar striker Andriy Shevchenko. After all, the Ukrainian capital city has a Shevchenko Park, a Shevchenko Boulevard, a Shevchenko Museum and a Shevchenko University. These honors are actually for Ukrainian national bard Taras Shevchenko, the nineteenth century artist and writer who is widely regarded as the father of the modern Ukrainian language and one of the primary spiritual inspirations behind Ukraine’s long struggle for independence. Taras Shevchenko grew up as a slave in rural Ukraine before his obvious artistic talents convinced admirers to purchase his freedom. His Ukrainian language writings are required reading for all Ukrainian schoolchildren and he enjoys pride of place in virtually every single Ukrainian city, town and village. Dynamo Kyiv and AC Milan hero Andriy Shevchenko is also a rather popular figure among Ukrainians, but he has a long way to go before he can rival his illustrious namesake.
As well as the Olympic Stadium, Kyiv also boasts Lobanovskiy Stadium, which takes its name from celebrated Ukrainian trainer Valeriy Lobanovskiy. While the Olympic Stadium is monumental in every sense, Lobanovskiy Stadium is one of Europe’s quaintest and coziest sports arenas. Nestled among lush parkland and surrounded by a canopy of greenery, this single tier stadium has an air of aristocratic elegance that makes it the kind of football venue you would expect to encounter in a wealthy and obscure European principality. Its full name is the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Dynamo Stadium and it is the official home ground of Dynamo Kyiv, but Dynamo rarely play here anymore, preferring the vast expanses of the Olympic Stadium instead. Outside the colonnaded entrance to the stadium is a statue of a seated Lobanovskiy that captures the famously scientific tactician in thoughtful pose.
When Irish rockers U2 sang about a place “where the streets have no name”, they clearly did not have Kyiv in mind. Confusingly, the Ukrainian capital is a place where the streets often have three names. This can include the old Soviet-era name (in both Russian and Ukrainian variations) along with the post-Soviet name. The 2014 Revolution of Dignity ushered in a new round of street renaming that continues to this day, creating further complications. Consequently, visiting fans trying to navigate their way around Kyiv may find that the addresses they encounter do not always match the information they have been given or the details they find online. Even if you are able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, you may still encounter situations where the street signs themselves are out of date. This should not be a major issue, but it is something worth bearing in mind if you encounter contradictory addresses.
Football fans generally like nothing better than coming together in large groups to enjoy some beer and bonhomie. One of the most popular gathering places in Kyiv has traditionally been Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. This open space in the heart of the city was the focal point of Ukraine’s two post-Soviet revolutions. Thanks to extensive TV coverage of both revolutions, it is probably the most iconic and internationally recognizable spot in Kyiv. However, it may not be the best place to engage in alcohol-fuelled revelry. Dozens died on Maidan when snipers opened fire on protesters in the final days of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, transforming the square and the surrounding area into sacred ground for Ukrainians. Memorials to the victims line the street leading up from Maidan towards the government district. In light of these sensitivities, it would be sensible to avoid causing potential offense by keeping any excesses on Maidan to a minimum. Instead, fans will find plenty of other public spaces to gather, including designated fan zones and the area around the Olympic Stadium itself. Having said that, visiting fans are welcome to offer expressions of condolence and to pay their respects at the many memorials around Maidan to those who died during the revolution.
Football is a universal language of its own and visiting fans will find that many residents of football-loving Kyiv have a detailed knowledge of both Liverpool and Real Madrid that will help to overcome any communication barriers. Those looking to learn a few local phrases can consider trying their hand at either Russian or Ukrainian. Despite the ongoing conflict with Russia, Kyiv remains a largely Russian-speaking city where Russian is the default language of everyday communication. Ukraine is also widely spoken and universally understood. Either of the two languages would be acceptable, although knowledge of a few Ukrainian phrases is probably more likely to break the ice and impress any new Kyiv acquaintances.
Learn Some Toasts
According to the ancient chronicles, Ukraine’s historic enthusiasm for alcohol played an important part in the country’s adoption of Christianity. When tenth century Kyiv Crown Prince Volodymyr the Great was considering a range of different possible state religions, he allegedly dismissed Islam with the epic comment: “Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot do without it.” We will never know if this Kyiv quote is genuine, but there is no disputing the fact that alcohol plays a prominent and often ritualistic role in Ukrainian social interaction. If you are lucky enough to become friendly with Ukrainians during your visit to Kyiv, this will likely involve an invitation to drink together. Anyone wishing to make a positive impression would be wise to practice some toasts. For Ukrainians, toasting is an intrinsic part of the drinking experience. Toasts are often long, elaborate, and disarmingly sincere. In a society where public displays of emotion are still often the subject of suspicion, toasts are an exception. They are a socially acceptable opportunity to open up and express yourself. Simply stand up with glass in hand and wait until you have everyone’s attention, then launch into your toast. Anything complimentary about your hosts will go down well, as will odes to international friendship. As the toasts start flying, newcomers often run the risk of going too far. Those wishing to retain at least some recollection of their time in Kyiv will be pleased to learn that it is not obligatory to drain your shot glass completely with every fresh toast. Sometimes a sip is the smart option.
Avoid Ungentlemanly Conduct
One of the darker sides of Kyiv is the city’s extensive sex industry. There is no single red light district, so the lines separating the sex trade from ordinary Kyiv life can sometimes appear blurred. This does not mean that it is OK to approach women unsolicited or to make random indecent proposals. Doing so is not only shockingly rude and ignorant – it could also easily lead to ugly and physically dangerous confrontations. Visiting fans are advised to remain respectful of the Kyiv population and to exercise the same levels of gentlemanly conduct they would expect from guests in their own countries.