KIEV (Reuters) - Many Ukrainians turned up groggily and late for work on Tuesday after a night’s revelry and, for once, were forgiven by the boss. Some never showed up at all and they will probably get away with it too.
Some, even those usually unimpassioned by sport, dumped their usual daily outfit and turned up at the office in the national colors of blue and yellow.
Six minutes of soccer magic in which national hero Andriy Shevchenko scored twice to give his team a shock 2-1 victory over Sweden in their Euro 2012 opener achieved what Ukraine’s troubled leadership has been striving to do for more than two years.
It unified the country in a burst of elation and gave Ukrainians back their self-esteem after relentless criticism in the West about what’s gone wrong with their country.
“I‘m not a great football fanatic. But I made a decision in the first half that if we won I’d wear my Ukrainian T-shirt to the office,” said Lesya, a 27-year-old financial data provider, perched at her computer in an eye-catching blue and yellow top.
“For us it was history: the first time we had staged a competition like this and then to have this fantastic win in our first game,” she said.
In raw soccer terms, the reaction from the thousands massed in four big fan zones around Ukraine was out of proportion to the significance of Monday’s victory itself.
It was only Ukraine’s first match in a month-long tournament involving the Europe’s top teams. With further Group D games to come against France and England, they might still fail to qualify for the quarter-finals.
But there was a fair measure of pure relief among home fans who acted as if the former Soviet republic had already carried off the Henri Delaunay trophy.
The leadership of Viktor Yanukovich has been under fierce attack from western governments for backsliding on democracy.
Leaving aside the outcry over the jailing of ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which has caused Sweden and other EU allies to boycott matches by not sending government officials, Ukraine went into Euro 2012 burdened with charges of racism and other terrace violence at club soccer matches.
Then there was the gloomy assessment of Ukraine’s national coach Oleg Blokhin which further sapped national confidence.
He told the world ahead of the match that he had a team of forwards who could not shoot and defenders who did not know how to tackle.
But fears that unfancied Ukraine might be dwarfed, even embarrassed, on the big stage evaporated when Shevchenko, the prince of Ukrainian soccer, powered in two headed goals with panache and style.
“Everything was simply marvelous. We should have had a third goal. We should have scored more. We have victory ahead of us. We can beat England. We are in the foremost group now,” said Konstantin Seryobin, 29, from Kiev.
Anna Ivanchuk, 18, asked what she felt when Shevchenko scored his second goal, said: “I was in shock. We were all in shock. Now we are madly happy. We wanted to cry out from the rooftops.”
The mood was electric in Kiev’s city centre fan zone which was a sea of yellow on the night.
Gratuitous generosity was not on offer though, particularly for Ukraine’s politicians who are identified with welfare cuts and rising utility bills at home. Whenever Yanukovich appeared on the big display screens, there were catcalls and whistling from sections of the crowd.
As the game progressed, incredulity turned to hope, hope gave way to expectation, the drumbeat of “Ukraina! Ukraina!” grew more and more intense and when Shevchenko scored his second goal the crowd erupted in raptures.
One young fan, a six-year-old boy called Timur with a basin hair-cut, became the instant face of victory for Ukraine on Youtube as he held up the national flag, his mouth agape in a cry of delight. (here)
They partied late into the night, whooping, dancing and drinking and staring for hours at the giant TV screens which showed the replays over and over again of Shevchenko’s golden double-strike.
Trains on the Kiev metro, packed with people heading home, reverberated to only one cry - “Ukraina! Ukraina!”
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who bet Swedes a bottle of beer on the outcome of the match, on Tuesday said he was ready to put up a bottle of the best-quality cognac that Ukraine would beat the French in their next match in Donetsk on Friday.
“We have to be talking good cognac here,” he told reporters. “I am absolutely convinced of victory (over France). I don’t know why but I am sure we will win,” he said.
The reality is that Ukraine might still fail to qualify for the quarter-finals despite their flying start.
But that in the end might not matter. Nobody can now take away the magic of Ukraine’s stylish victory over the Swedes and what it did for national self-confidence.
Editing by Ed Osmond