Published November 20, 2014
National hero Andriy Shevchenko, leading the Ukraine attack at the age of 35, scored twice to give the Euro co-hosts a pulsating 2-1 win over Sweden on Monday, putting aside years of worry about the country's ability to stage the event.
Ukraine's shock win, only a few days after half the squad was hit by a stomach virus, comfortably overshadowed the 1-1 draw between old rivals England and France and shunted a political snub for the co-hosts out of the spotlight.
Sweden, sharply critical of the prosecution and jailing of former Ukraine prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had declined to send any government ministers to the Group D match at Kiev's Olympic Stadium.
England and France, Sweden's European Union allies, also played without any government officials present in Donetsk in a snub to Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich.
That did not worry the capacity crowd in Kiev who went wild with delight at the final whistle while Shevchenko embraced his coach Oleg Blokhin on the touchline in celebrations worthy of a title win rather than a group game victory.
"Every game is like a final for us. We showed our character and now have good chances to qualify from the group," said Shevchenko, who is now in the twilight of his career.
Ukraine, whose stuttering preparations to stage the tournament had UEFA's nerves on edge for several years, and Sweden were the last teams to enter the fray.
Fears of racism, sky-rocketing hotel prices and concerns about human rights had fuelled criticism of the decision by European soccer's governing body to take the tournament to the country, which is co-hosting the event with Poland.
The team's preparations were hardly any better as they dropped to 52nd in the world rankings after a series of defeats.
The match was going according to plan for Sweden, who were determined to dampen the party mood, when tall striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic put them ahead seven minutes into the second half.
Shevchenko, who had disappeared from the limelight since moving back to Dynamo Kiev from Chelsea in 2009 after a stellar career in Europe with AC Milan, had other ideas as he brought the stadium to life with two headed goals in six minutes.
France created 19 chances to a paltry three by England in the other Group D match, where there were a number of gaps in the crowd in Donetsk, but they still had to come from behind.
England, playing their first competitive match under Roy Hodgson, made the breakthrough after 30 minutes when Joleon Lescott scored his first goal for his country, powerfully heading home a whipped Steven Gerrard free kick.
But a sizzling strike from Lescott's Manchester City team mate Samir Nasri avoided what would have been a huge injustice.
"I am pleased this is over, the players have shown they can cope with games at this level," said Hodgson, who has had just two friendly games in charge since the departure of Italian Fabio Capello.
His counterpart Laurent Blanc, who has restored some decorum as well as quality to the French team after the debacle at the World Cup two years ago, precisely summed up the contest, which was played in humidity and heat.
"We were good enough to not lose the game but we weren't good enough to win it," he said.
The tournament switches back across the border on Tuesday where authorities are on the alert for what promises to be a highly-charged Group A match in Warsaw between co-hosts Poland and Russia.
About 5,000 Russian fans plan to march to the stadium with their representatives telling Warsaw officials they wanted only to celebrate "the festival of football", the director of Warsaw's security and crisis unit said.
"I've asked them for peaceful behavior, not to provoke anyone in the streets," Ewa Gawor told a news conference.
The neighbors have always had complicated relations strained by historical animosity and the Soviet domination after World War II.
A plane crash that killed Poland's president and 95 others in Russia two years ago first brought the nations together, only to push them apart due to disputes over who was responsible.
(Reporting By Brian Homewood; Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)