Except the first 45 minutes hadn’t gone as well as João Monteiro, a 32-year-old Portuguese motion graphics designer, might have hoped for.
He’d traveled all the way from London to watch his team, Sporting Clube de Portugal, play Ukraine’s Vorskla Poltava for a Europa League group match in October. Sporting were losing 1-0 at halftime.
“Do you regret having made the trip?” I, a fellow Sporting fan, asked. “Definitely not the trip,” said João.
It was an unforgettable journey that Arsenal fans won’t get to enjoy this week. With tensions rising between Ukraine and Russia and parliament declaring martial law in 10 regions — three of which border Poltava — Europe’s governing body UEFA has decided to move the game to Kiev over safety concerns.
It was also one of the issues raised by friends and colleagues when we told them we were going to Poltava.
We had started planning a couple of months earlier, when Sporting drew English Premier League club Arsenal, Qarabagh (Azerbaijan) and Vorskla in the Europa League group stages.
As soon as the draw came out we’d started thinking about which of the games we could plan a trip around and we settled for Ukraine: we already lived in the UK and the flights to Azerbaijan were fairly expensive, which left Vorskla as a reasonable option.
‘Why are you going there?’
We decided to fly into Kiev and drive to Poltava — a three-hour flight and then a four-and-a-half hour car journey.
Some of our friends also cautioned about the condition of the roads and none of them knew anything about Poltava.
Most travel guides focus on sights in the Western part of the country, while a number of Ukrainians we met shortly after landing in Kiev were also surprised by our plan and had no recommendations to give.
“Poltava? Why are you going there?” asked 22-year-old waitress Lera Shtundyuk, puzzled by the choice of destination.
After landing in Kiev late on the Wednesday before the match, João and I picked up a rental car, slept a few hours, and then had breakfast at the cafe Shtundyuk worked at.
“I don’t really know much about Poltava or of any interesting places in that area,” she said.
Given how little we knew and the advice we were given about Ukrainian roads, the drive between Kiev and Poltava was surprisingly easy. Most of the highway has been renovated — or is undergoing renovation — and most parts have very little traffic.
It was here that we first felt some of the military tension, inherently present in a country engulfed in a civil war, as we frequently drove past military vehicles.
Most were just transporting soldiers and regular supplies, but also a few with larger heavier military equipment.
We also drove by dozens of vintage Soviet-era cars and a surprisingly high number of people on bicycles but, what stood out most were vast golden wheat, sunflower and corn fields, stretching as far as the eye could see.
The rich dark soils have allowed the country to become one of the world’s largest grain crops producers, earning Ukraine the nickname “the bread basket of Europe.”
We arrived in Poltava a couple of hours before the game, giving us enough time to do a bit of sight seeing.
The city was the site of an important battle between the Swedish Empire and Russia’s Peter the Great and there’s a memorial to the fallen soldiers, a beautiful Christian Orthodox cathedral and a statue of the Russian Tsar.
Statues of other Russian figures, including Soviet World War II generals are also common, a permanent reminder of how Ukrainian and Russian history intertwine.
We found a restaurant close to the stadium and tried the local speciality Vareniki, liver pate and mushroom-filled dumplings which Poltava is known for — there’s even a monument to them in the city.
We had been told — wrongly, as we quickly found out — that Ukrainian football fans had a reputation for being violent, so we were on guard when we walked into the restaurant and saw some wearing Poltava jerseys.
I was wearing a Sporting jersey and at first was reluctant to take off my jacket, but in the end decided to risk it.
What I thought would be seen as a provocation turned out to be the perfect ice breaker and soon enough we were toasting with Poltava fans, some of the nicest I’ve met.
We were able to communicate despite their broken English and our non-existent Ukrainian — all we knew were a few words in Russian, which they understood, but politely translated into Ukrainian.
They offered us a scarf, designed especially for the game, with the shields of both team and, to show our appreciation, we ordered a round of vodka shots.
Our newfound friends promptly accepted but demanded that we drink the Ukranian way.
One of them rushed out of the restaurant only to come back a couple of minutes later with a plastic container full of homemade cold salo — white pork fat, which is one of Ukraine’s national dishes — and a bag of radishes. We were to nibble on the salo and the radishes while enjoying the vodka.
‘See you in Lisbon’
Before we allowed the drinking to get out of hand we made our way to the Vorskla stadium, a small old style venue, similar to the ones I used to go to back in Lisbon in the early 1990s.
It didn’t have any cover and on a night as cold as that one, we certainly learned what a difference that makes. We made our way to the main central stand and soon realized we were but two drops in a sea of Ukrainian supporters.
The stadium was only half full so we could see four or five other Sporting supporters, in the visitors stand on one of the opposite corners, but that was it.
Poltava scored first and the crowd erupted around us, but both teams were playing lacklustre football. In the end, Sporting scored two late goals (in the 90th and 93rd minute) and stole the win.
Given the hospitality we’d been shown we quietly — and respectfully — celebrated among heartbroken Poltava fans. We returned to the same restaurant we had been to before the game, only to be reunited with the friends we had met earlier.
They congratulated us on the win, we told them they had deserved it the most and we picked up where we had left off.
The evening went on long into the night and two of them, Barik and Kaban, saved their names and numbers on my phone and told us they would be making a trip similar to ours: “See you in Lisbon,” they said. “We’re going to drive there.”