The industrial heart of eastern Ukraine was glowing in a beautiful sunset as local heroes Shakhtar Donetsk took on their arch-rivals Dinamo Kiev.
Yet the Soviet-era stadium looked small and a bit too old-fashioned for Shakhtar Donetsk, one of the country’s top teams.
There are concerns that Ukraine may not be ready in time for the Uefa European Football Championships in 2012, which it will co-host with Poland. It will be the most prestigious project that Ukraine has ever co-hosted, and it is expected to attract thousands of fans. But there are fears that the politicians here do not have their eye on the ball. Donetsk is one of four host cities in Ukraine. All of the venues were built by the communists, and they are well past their best, needing to be replaced or renovated. Ukraine has faced one political crisis after another and now the country is preparing for a general election. “The most difficult thing will be to change the attitude, to make the authorities look in the direction of football and start paying attention to the country’s infrastructure,” says Dmitriy Chigrinsky, a player for Shakhtar Donetsk and Ukraine. “It’s no secret that our country needs serious modernisation,” Dmitriy adds.
Ukraine is one of the poorest places in Europe. Now it has to spend billions of dollars preparing for the championships.With vast distances between the Euro 2012 venues, transport is a top priority. Ukraine’s trains are cheap but not exactly fast, as the network has not changed much since Soviet times. A journey from Gdansk, one of the Polish venues, to Donetsk can take more than 40 hours. And the alternatives are not much better. Ukraine only has one motorway and many roads are in desperate need of repair. The country’s airports are all due to be modernised, and there is also a real shortage of hotels. As if all that was not bad enough, there is a row over the venue for the final. It is supposed to be held in the centre of Kiev, but a half-built shopping centre looms right next to the stadium gates – and the developers are refusing to knock it down. If it stays, the final will have to be played elsewhere.
Despite all these problems there is a confident mood at the headquarters of Ukraine’s Football Federation in the capital. “If I wasn’t an optimist I would never have dared to start such a project. “Some people called it naive, they were sure it would be impossible for us to win the right to co-host the event. But we did win,” says Hryhoriy Surkis, the president of Ukraine’s Football Federation “We are now working hard to turn the fairy tale into reality,” he says.
There are some positive signs. Two brand-new stadiums are starting to take shape in eastern Ukraine. One of the venues is being funded by Ukraine’s richest man, the football-mad billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, for his team Shakhtar Donetsk. Designed by a British architect, it will have a glass roof and promises to be one of the best stadiums in Europe. The Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, has said that a co-ordination council will be set up with Poland. It is due to meet in September to discuss a range of issues including joint infrastructure projects, and it will apply for support from the European Union. Even so this former Soviet republic still faces a massive task to prepare for Euro 2012. It will be a race against time to complete all the work needed. “Ukrainians are very proud to be co-hosting the championships. I am certain we can do it and we can do it well.
“This is about more than just football. If the tournament goes well then it could well boost our chances of becoming part of the EU,” says a Ukrainian football fan, Maxim Simoroz. With so much at stake the country cannot afford to fail.