Kiev basked under cloudless skies and a hot sun. Visitors from England and Spain had begun to arrive Thursday in numbers, many of them braced not so much for sunburn as scorched wallets. Hoteliers and landlords in the capital of Ukraine have spotted opportunity around the commercial juggernaut that is the Uefa Champions League final, a show that comes to certain cities but once in a generation.
The soaring cost of attendance has cast a cloud over the build-up to Real Madrid versus Liverpool. Two thousand Madridistas have returned their tickets for the final, frustrated by the high price of travelling to Kiev and of finding a bed for the night on Saturday. They tell stories, shared by fans of Liverpool of confirmed bookings suddenly cancelled, and in some cases, very similar rooms then offered back to them at five times the rate they thought they had reserved. Getting there has also been a headache for those based in Iberia or the north-west of England, with flights to either of Kiev’s two airports selling out quickly and the nearest alternative airports for a journey combining air travel and an overland expedition a full day’s drive away.
Madrid supporters, you might argue, have been spoilt not only by repeated success - three European Cup final triumphs in the past four years - but also the convenience of those finals. Lisbon, where Real beat Atletico Madrid in 2014 was a road trip away from the Spanish capital. Milan, where Atletico were defeated again in 2016, was short-haul, and for those baulking at the cost of flight to either of that city’s main airports, there were options: to fly to, say, Bergamo, or Turin. Cardiff, where Real beat Juventus last year, was a little further from home, and seemed cramped, with accommodation stretched and many reports of excessive profiteering from those with a room to hire.
Uefa, the organisers of club football’s most glamorous event, have promised to take greater responsibility in the future for the well-being of travelling supporters when they select the site of the final. As he approached Thursday’s allocation of the 2020 final – which was awarded to Istanbul – Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin promised to make “hotel capacity a major criteria to future decisions".
But his body, governors of European football, also have a duty to spread their showpiece events, particularly towards the east of the continent, historically the less privileged region. Which is partly how Ukraine jointly hosted the 2012 European Championship, a significant, inclusive move. The final was held in the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, where Real Madrid will attempt to do what Spain achieved there just under six years ago, and retain the title of Europe’s best.
Much has happened in Ukraine since Sergio Ramos, now the Real captain, celebrated that win with his country. There has been violence, high political tension with neighbours Russia, notably over the 2014 annexing of Crimea. Kiev has nonetheless put on its festive face for the 67th European Cup final, and while there was never great likelihood there would be a Ukrainian team involved – Dynamo Kiev were ousted in the August qualifying rounds, Shakhtar Donetsk beaten by Roma in the last 16 – there is an expectation that, with two attacking teams involved, the city may be witnesses to a classic.
Conditions? The heat, forecasters predict, will reduce a little by Saturday, and besides, kick-off time is 9.45pm locally, in order to conform to peak evening television schedules in western Europe.
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The city’s most celebrated 21st century sportsmen are very visible. Andriy Shevchenko, former winner of the Ballon d’Or in his brilliant years as a goalscorer with AC Milan and now manager of the Ukraine national team, has been reluctantly obliged to recall, in his role as Uefa ambassador for the final, Liverpool’s last Champions League triumph, from 3-0 down to Shevchenko’s Milan in the 2005 final.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Kiev was advertising the “beauty of this city, especially in spring,” as he oversaw the mounting of a 20-metre replica of the European Cup in the city centre, rays of sun glinting off its silvery surface. The mayor outlined the rigorous security measures in place, some 10,000 personnel - up by 3,000 on the numbers employed at Euro 2012.
And this mayor of Kiev brings a certain natural authority to a speech on law and order. He is Vitali Kitschko, who not so long ago was the dominant, epoch-making world heavyweight boxing champion. Tall, broad and imposing, he hardly seems dwarfed even by the vast facsimile of the European Cup, on display in Saaint Sophia Square.