Kyiv doesn’t look like a city gripped by Euro 2020 fever. Take a walk through Ukraine’s capital on a non-game day and there are few banners or flags to suggest the national team is on a historic run to its first quarter-finals of a European football championship.
But scratch the surface and you’ll find a city of diehards. “I’m set for a Ukraine victory,” said Andriy, 29, the head of a marketing agency, outside the popular Espressoholic cafe in the Podil district. “I know, of course, that England are stronger, but I want to believe.”
Sportyvna Square near the Gulliver tower, where fans will throng again to cheer against England, exploded on Tuesday night as the final whistle blew in the last-16 match against Sweden. Fans draped in yellow and blue flags chanted “U-KRA-IN-A!” as drivers honked and drove their cars in circles around the roundabout again and again.
The winning goal came from the Dnipro-1 forward Artem Dovbyk in the 121st minute. In his home town of Cherkasy, Dovbyk’s father told journalists that his wife cried “tears as large as peas”.
The win was an event of national importance. Government ministers all showed up to work the next morning in Ukraine football shirts. As the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, congratulated the team, he called it a victory shared “from Uzhhorod to Luhansk, from Chernihiv to Simferopol,” pointedly including cities that have fallen under the control of Russia and its proxies after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in east Ukraine.
Ukraine was a team “that shows its character, strength, that fights, takes painful blows but gets up and fights back,” Zelenskiy said. The team was, in other words, a metaphor for the whole country.
Ukrainians who saw their side crash out at the group stages of the 2012 and 2016 Euros say there has never been as good a time to be a fan of the national team. “Ukraine is currently playing very well, especially compared to what they used to be like,” said Volodymyr, an 18-year-old student at Odesa National Polytechnic University in the south of the country. He credited the team’s coach, Andriy Shevchenko, with “changing a lot”.
Now fans are hoping the team’s grit and tournament luck can deliver a shock to an England side eyeing a run to the final.
“I can tell you that the score on Saturday will roughly be 2-1 after overtime, just like in the Sweden-Ukraine game,” said Mykhailo, a 20-year-old student. “Maybe even 3-1 to Ukraine. Especially now, after I watched England play Germany a few days ago … England did not live up to my expectations, so I think that quite possibly Ukraine will win.”
Commentators and bookies have labelled the team as a considerable underdog. But fans say they’ve already made the country proud.
“I think the Ukraine team has quite managed to fulfil the expectations that the country placed on them,” said Serhiy, a 33-year-old fan in a Ukrainian national team jersey on Thursday morning. “Ukraine showed its character, it fought. So one way or another they’ll be viewed as winners when they come back here. Regardless of how they play in the quarter-final against England, they’ve done a nice job.”