European Championship fever has swept Warsaw and is heading to Donetsk — or at least it should be.
But the calm streets told a different story, a day before one of the most eagerly awaited matches of the group stage: England vs. France.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s started yet,” said Dan Gover, a 21-year-old England fan, in an upstairs bar area at the Liverpool Hotel — supposedly a key meeting point for the traveling England fans.
The top-floor bar is designed to fit inside a replica goal, with “Anfield Terrace” written above it in honor of Liverpool football club, England’s most successful club along with Manchester United.
What more could a football fan wish for in the thick of a tournament? Yet by mid-afternoon, no one else was there.
Gover is traveling with Nick Goldstein, a 24-year-old fan. They took the six-hour ride from Kiev in a comfortable but sparsely populated train. There were no singsongs, no raucous bonding as usually happens when England supporters travel.
They both agree that Donetsk and Kiev have been welcoming places, so far free of the trouble apparently lying ahead.
But they have had problems making themselves understood in Ukraine, struggling to find people who speak English.
“Poland’s more geared up for tourists. They’re not used to it here,” said Goldstein. At least the tickets were cheap: about 80 euros ($100) for two.
So is the beer, which makes it a football haven for England fans — the few that are here, at least. After two hours, around 20 England fans were seen in the city center, and only two French fans.
At Euro 2004, thousands packed into a square in Lisbon, bellowing out songs and draping flags over fountains and statues.
“It’s a bit quiet. I’ve not seen many people,” said Simon Betts, a 38-year-old Sheffield Wednesday fan.
Betts and his buddy Fredrik Hendberg found the locals charming — although the language barrier was difficult.
“We’ve had no problems at all here,” Hendberg said. “Only the language, and even then the people are always smiling.”
Pre-tournament media coverage painted a darker picture of Ukraine and Poland, highlighting problems with racism and football violence.
Because it was hosting England, which has a history of hooliganism, Donetsk was viewed as a potential trouble spot.
Now known as the “city of a million roses,” Donetsk is also famous among Ukrainians as an industrial powerhouse, the scene of violent battles between business groups in the 1990s and the hometown of the country’s ruling elite that came to power after President Viktor Yanukovych took office in 2010.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Donetsk became a center of gang wars as business groups clashed for control over valuable industrial assets. The violence even touched the city’s main football club, Shakhtar Donetsk, when its president Aleksandr Bragin was killed in an explosion during a game in 1995.
Rinat Akhmetov, now Ukraine’s richest man with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $16 billion, emerged as Donetsk’s most powerful businessman. He is credited by many locals for helping to rebuild the city and for bankrolling Shakhtar to success as club president.
Akhmetov also bankrolled the building of the team’s stadium $400 million, the Donbass Arena.
In a pre-tournament documentary about Donetsk by British television network Sky, a young man called Tolik Egorov — a self-proclaimed leader of Shakhtar’s hooligan fringe — is filmed undercover boasting as to how England fans could face a rough time in Donetsk.
But Betts has not received any threats.
“It’s been very easy here, easier than at other places,” he said.
For now, there are no hooligans looking for trouble on the city’s wide boulevards.
Some of the few police dotted around the city on Sunday afternoon ducked for cover in a shopping precinct. But they weren’t retreating from a hail of bottles; they were sheltering from the heat.