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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Georgian - Russian Rugby Diary: Pt. 1 Welcome to Mariupol

(image lifted from

The plane touched down on the rutty tarmac of Mariupol domestic airport, the first Boeing here in ages. Rusty Russian two-prop clunkers were parked at the end of the little runway. The gray Ukrainian sky was as colorless as the customs officer's faces, with the exception of a lovely brunette, amused at the sudden arrival of a plane load of Georgians. Ukrainian women are always the exception.

“Back in the USSR!” One Georgian exclaimed as we packed into the small customs room where two rubber stampers sat, helping everyone fill out their Soviet-era registration forms. It took over an hour for the group to make it through. The Georgian rugby players loaded into one bus and went off to their hotel, while us fans were bused separately to Hotel Druzba (Friendship), a recently remodeled Soviet-era “tourist house.”

Because the International Rugby Union had decided to hold the Russia-Georgia match on neutral ground, Russia, the host team this year, chose Mariupol, where nearly half the population of ½ million are Russian. The Georgians were quite impressed with the city's retro-charm, especially when we passed the statue of Lenin.

“Wow! They have trolley buses and tramvais!” One of the Gia's on the bus shouted.

Mariupol makes Gary, Indiana look like a botanical garden.The Azovstal and the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works turned Mariupol into one the largest steel producing regions in the country, and one of the most polluted cities in the Ukraine. A city of blackened high-rise block flats, the one thing it has going for it besides the Cleopatra discotheque is the Sea of Azov, but everybody is afraid to swim in it.

“I went to the Carpathians on holiday, but the air was so fresh I had a terrible headache that wouldn't go away,” our taxi driver Vladimir said earnestly. “Aspirin doesn't work on those headaches.”

Suspicious of Hotel Druzba fare, Kowalski and I strolled around the avenue looking for a restaurant while people stared at us. Slot machine clubs, kiosks, people selling buckets of fish, fruit, vegetables and anything else worth a grivna lined the streets. It's a very primitive capitalism you find in much of the former USSR, like Poland 1990. One look at this place and you can't help but wonder - in the vast expanse of the Ukraine, how many other twilight zone cities like this are there? Nowhere to run, you live here, drink here and if you're lucky you work here, then die here.

There was no restaurant anywhere near our hotel, so we ate hotel food. Two Georgians disdainfully rejected their orders of mashed potatoes, while another group had brought their own bread, cheese and wine and had the waiter serve it to them.

The next morning we went to look for the team. Somebody had told us they were staying at Hotel European, a class joint for Mariupol, but we were misinformed. So we stayed for breakfast. Two elderly gentlemen walked into the dining room. “Georgian?” we wondered. They walked up to the buffet table and the contemptuous way they regarded the food confirmed our suspicions. 'Sakartvelos gamarjos!” we said.

Vladimir gave us a tour of the steel plant environs. The wind was favorable as it was blowing all the crud billowing out of the smokestacks north, towards Russia. But I still had a film of muck on the roof of my mouth.

At 10, we had to get our press accreditation from the stadium administration. Stadium director Vitaly Pregoda was very proud of his little stadium. He brushed aside questions of how the economic crisis was affecting his city. “That's a political topic,” he said. As for the Russia-Georgia match, he was confident there would be no trouble – all the necessary precautions were being taken.

About an hour before the match a hundred or so police arrived, including young riot cops and a half dozen women cops in ice-pick-heeled boots clutching leopard patterned hand bags. Surprisingly, they had no problems being filmed and let Kowalski point the camera wherever he wanted.