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September 26, 2017

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Euros fulfill UEFA's dream of eastward growth

KIEV, Ukraine -- Alongside the dozens of English and Italian flags at the European Championship quarterfinal on Sunday evening hung a number of less well-known colors: the blue and yellow of Kazakhstan; the red, white and blue of Russia; and the blue, red and green of Azerbaijan.

The flags and their bearers at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev demonstrated that Euro 2012 organizer UEFA is achieving one of its main aims in bringing the tournament to Ukraine and Poland in Europe's east: to open the game up to countries where it is yet to gain a strong hold.

Western European fans have come in smaller numbers than usual to the tournament, put off by the distance, expense of traveling and accommodation and media reports of racism and violence.

But fans from Ukraine and other Soviet republics continue to flock to games, even though host and neighbor Russia has already dropped out.

"We're in the mood now. We're talking about how to get to Donetsk for the semifinal," said Denis Ivanov, who had traveled to the game with two friends from Moscow.

It was a 12-hour drive via Belarus, but still the first chance they've had to watch a European Championship in a city that, in Russian terms, is just next door. "It's very convenient. Kiev is very close," said Ilya Kusik, a friend of Ivanov's.

When UEFA awarded Euro 2012 to Ukraine and Poland in 2007, the aim was to help the game put down firmer roots in Eastern Europe, where freedoms were growing and economies booming.

There were concerns that interest in the games would fade after both hosts were knocked out in the group stage. But the stadium on Sunday was covered by splashes of yellow and blue — not only from a few dozen empty seats, but also from hundreds in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. Eight minutes into the game, the home fans began the loudest chant of the evening: "Ukraiyina! Ukrayina!"

Although their team was knocked out of the tournament last week, the fans have taken to the tournament and flocked to the stadium.

Some wore England shirts or had England's red-and-white flag painted on their faces, despite the fact that the Three Lions eliminated the co-host from the tournament last week. One fan wore the shirt of Italian giant AC Milan with the name of Ukraine star Andriy Shevchenko on the back.

Taras Stepchuk, a Ukrainian wearing an England shirt, left the stadium disappointed early Monday morning after his adopted team lost on penalties to Italy following a scoreless game. But he was delighted just to have seen his favorite player, John Terry.

"I love John Terry and Chelsea. I'm also a defender," he said.

Stepchuk said it didn't matter to him that Ukraine was already out of the tournament. For him, it's more important to have the chance to watch Europe's best. "I love watching soccer," he said.

Eastern Europe has rarely seen top-level soccer since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Moscow hosted the Champions League final in 2008, and there have been two winners of the UEFA Cup: Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg in 2008 and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009.

Euro 2012 is the first of a flurry of major sporting events taking place in the former Soviet bloc. The Winter Olympics are going to Russia's Sochi in 2014. Soccer's World Cup will also be in Russia in 2018.

"First we have Sochi, then the after party at the World Cup," said Russia fan Kusik. "We've got the taste now."

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