Sunday, June 10
By Nick Ames in Kharkiv
About 500 metres from Kharkiv’s Metalist Stadium sits a derelict factory whose roof bears the fading slogan 'Pride in hard work'.
It may be one of the city’s many relics from a bygone era, but it’s not a bad description of Denmark’s attitude as they battened down the hatches against the Netherlands last night.
A Dutch goal seemed only a matter of time during the first hour of the game, little fault evident in their combination play even if Robin van Persie – left foot or right - and company were uncharacteristically off-beam. But a Danish side spearheaded by Nicklas Bendtner has to be given credit – as time went on, the ‘Oranje’ threat was dulled and a tireless effort from front to back gained a reward that can’t be begrudged.
Nicklas and his team-mates took almost 90 minutes to depart the stadium after the game, following a relatively quick getaway from the Dutch. I spent a few minutes with him before he left and he was justifiably proud of the outcome, and of a diligent personal performance that saw him retain the ball particularly well when pressure needed to be relieved late on.
A huddle of Danish players could be seen around a television showing Germany v Portugal after fulfilling their media obligations. No harm in checking out your next opponents when you’ve just beaten the third-favourites for the tournament, after all, and victory over the Portuguese on Wednesday would probably see them through to the last eight.
The Dutch might not have been as eager to gather in front of the box, although victory for Lukas Podolski and company was probably the best outcome for them ahead of the bitter rivals’ keenly-awaited meeting on matchday two.
I’ll be back here for that one, and there could hardly be more at stake for Van Persie’s team. Hopefully we’ll see the full house that fixture deserves – several patches of empty seats, something I’d been warned of anecdotally, were painfully evident inside the Metalist Stadium.
The Netherlands’ fans are an asset to any tournament. They filled a decent proportion of Kharkiv’s gargantuan Freedom Square – sternly watched over by two huge statues of Lenin – before the game, heartily bursting out their traditional array of rather Eurovision-esque anthems.
I slalomed beyond them in a bid for some downtime early in the afternoon. Within minutes I stumbled upon the facilities of a local team named, happily, Arsenal Kharkiv. After initial suspicion of an interloper hell bent on photographing everything and anything – including the giant ruin of an abandoned stadium project – a club official welcomed me into the fold.
I’ll post a photo story before too long, and I have another couple of visits to Ukrainian Gunners namesakes pencilled in for the next few weeks too.
When you read this blog, though, I’ll be on the five-hour train from Kharkiv to Donetsk. England and France both host press conferences and media-accessible training sessions this afternoon, and I’ll endeavour to bring you the inside story from both as Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny prepare to get their campaigns underway.
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