FOCUS ON KYIV

Olimpiskiy spirit

For local fans, the venue for tonight’s final holds many special memories – none more so than Ukraine’s opening game of UEFA EURO 2012 when the home team did their nation proud

Some games stay with you forever. Some matches endure in the memory, retaining their power years after the final whistle, often because of the monumental stakes involved, perhaps the sheer drama on the pitch, or even the unforgettable atmosphere in the stands. Sometimes, if you are lucky, because of all three at once. Just ask Ruslan Rotan.

The Ukraine captain needs no reminder of where he was on 11 June 2012. He was where everyone in Ukraine wanted to be that day, at the epicentre of one of the nation’s outstanding sporting moments. He was at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium – scene of tonight’s UEFA Champions League final – for the co-hosts’ opening match of UEFA EURO 2012 against Sweden. And as the stunning Kyiv venue prepares for another landmark encounter, Rotan can still hear the roar of the crowd.

 

“We had been eagerly anticipating the tournament and preparing for it for a long time,” he says. “And when we arrived at the stadium, everything happened so fast. I remember the crazy atmosphere and the amazing

support. When we started to play, we even had goose bumps; that’s how great it felt. It was a celebration, and the whole of Ukraine had been waiting for that game.”

 

Sharing hosting duties with Poland, this was Ukraine’s first ever match at a UEFA European Championship after four failed attempts to qualify, and their first in any major tournament on home soil. It was also the first game of the tournament at the recently renovated NSC Olimpiyskiy, which would go on to hold four more fixtures – including the final. For Rotan, it was especially poignant to be kicking off at an iconic ground he had visited many times in his youth.

 

“I always associate the stadium with Ukraine and Dynamo Kyiv,” says the 36-year-old, who rejoined the capital club in January after ending his first spell a decade ago. Originally opened in 1923, the nation’s biggest arena had staged some magical European nights for Dynamo between the 1970s and 1990s, but it had never looked better than right now, with its latest facelift yielding various additions including a new roof. 

“It’s like a behemoth with its own charm,” says the midfielder. “It’s a legendary stadium, especially in Ukraine.” Now was its moment under the world football microscope. There were far-reaching ripples of anticipation, spreading across Ukraine, as that June evening approached. At the epicentre, the stadium itself, the feeling was especially intense as the nation’s footballers stepped out to face Sweden.

 

“When you arrive at the stadium, you feel the burden of responsibility,” explains Rotan, who began to feel the first stirrings of the “battle” to come as he stepped on to the pitch with his team-mates 90 minutes before kick-off. Then it was back to the dressing room for a few well-chosen words from coach and Ukrainian football legend Oleh Blokhin – among others. 

 

“There were loads of speeches, but everyone just wanted to win the first match,” says Rotan, who had to settle for a role on the bench as Ukraine set about their task. Despite the disappointment, he soon realised he had one of the best seats in the house, with close to 65,000 spectators equally transfixed by the action.

“I could see everything. I was watching my team-mates on the pitch and watching the support in the stands. But it wasn’t just the stadium – the whole country was in front of a TV.”

 

What they got to see was a rollercoaster affair that swung one way then the next in the second half, the home fans wrenched from despair to delirium in the space of 11 minutes. First, Zlatan Ibrahimović threatened to spoil the party with a close-range opener. “We felt quite empty for a minute,” recalls Rotan, who did not have to wait long for Andriy Shevchenko to head in an equaliser. Ukraine’s prolific talisman was not done there either.

 

“That gave the team the morale boost needed to play better,” adds Rotan, who felt the same thrill as the supporters when Shevchenko nodded in from a corner to put the hosts ahead. He needed to keep his emotions under control, however. As the clock ticked down, Blokhin turned to Rotan to help seal victory. “I was extremely happy, but I felt the pressure,” he says. “Sweden were putting our goal under siege. I remember that sense of tension when I was coming on. I felt a great responsibility to help secure the final result.”

Andriy Shevchenko scores Ukraine’s winning goal in the opening match at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in 2012

He and his colleagues held out, clinching a historic success. “Everyone was very happy – not just me but the whole team, all the fans and the whole of Ukraine,” says Rotan. “Probably the best way to put it is that it was a sea of emotion.” Nevertheless, he had to wait to truly savour the occasion. “Everyone was delighted in the changing room, having fun and joking around. But, obviously, afterwards Oleh Blokhin said: ‘Enough, we forget about this today and start getting ready for the next game.’ So the celebrations ended and that evening we started preparing for the next match.”

 

The rest of the tournament did not pan out as Ukraine had hoped, and they never returned to the NSC Olimpiyskiy during the finals. Defeats by France and England in their remaining Group D games in Donetsk put paid to that, but nothing could erase the euphoria of that opening triumph. The likes of Shevchenko, Blokhin and Ibrahimović may have left the stage, but the stadium that hosted them all still stands as a constant reminder. And for everyone who was there, Rotan included, that famous night in Kyiv lives on. “We will remember those emotions and the atmosphere for the rest of our lives.”

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