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Postcard from Kharkiv
AS yesterday's postcard outlined, Ukraine, and more particularly the region around Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv, has a complex relationship with Russia.
Culturally and economically tied to their former masters from the north, they are nevertheless important components of an independent Ukraine seeking to carve out its own identity and embrace Europe as well as Russia.
The balancing act can be discerned in most areas of life – including football. One of the big talking points that has surrounded Newcastle's visit to Kharkiv for last night's Europa League tie is the recent suggestion from high-ranking Russian sporting officials that the Russian and Ukrainian leagues should merge in 2014.
A number of meetings have taken place to discuss the proposal, with the leading Russian sides seemingly keen on the idea while clubs in Ukraine are more sceptical.
Metalist Kharkiv boss Myran Markevich described the plan as a “nonsense” in his pre-match press conference on Wednesday, but it is gathering pace with key sponsors such as Gazprom determined to drive it forward.
From an economic point of view, it makes sense. The leading Russian and Ukrainian sides might have improved markedly in recent seasons, but there is little depth to either league and they are proving difficult to market to other former Soviet states, let alone the rest of Europe.
A Russian-Ukrainian Super League would carry much more clout, and while UEFA have previously been reluctant to embrace competitions that would cross national borders, their initial response to this suggestion has been more positive.
Clearly, there are major issues that still need ironing out – how would promotion and relegation work, how would Russia and Ukraine's European places be divided? - but the financial incentives driving talk of a Super League are so powerful that it is unlikely to be an issue that simply disappears.
If agreed, it could have profound effects, not least in Scotland, where a reformed Rangers are desperately searching for ways to sever their ties with the rest of Scottish football.
KHARKIV is proud of its role as a host nation in last summer's European Championships, and the tournament's legacy can be detected throughout the city.
The site of Kharkiv's Euro 2012 fan park is marked with a giant stone football that has already become one of the city's leading landmarks.
And the area surrounding the Metalist Stadium, which was renovated at considerable expense ahead of the tournament, also reflects the extent of football's popularity in this part of the world.
The stadium is surrounded by a number of Soviet-era tower blocks, and they all boast a footballing mural that must be 100 feet tall. Some depict Metalist players, others are of players from the Ukrainian national side. All are hugely impressive.
THE 500-or-so Newcastle fans who have visited Kharkiv have experienced a city that likes to let its hair down.
There are plenty of late-night bars, although you have to know where you're going because the scale of the city mitigates against a random pub crawl, as does the lack of taxi drivers who understand English.
The most popular Ukrainian beer is Obolon, and it's not at all bad, although vodka remains the national speciality and most bars stock 40 or 50 different varieties. In the interest of research, I can confirm it's pretty strong.
The food is somewhat stereotypical for this part of the world – think borshch, dumplings and copious amounts of herring - although I didn't have the stomach to try salo, a uniquely Ukrainian dish that is effectively raw pig fat.
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