No Champions League hotel room? Ukraine minister can help

Ania TSOUKANOVA
Fans arriving in Kiev for the Champions League final have found the locals answer appeals for help wit accommodation - tickets might be another matter

When Julie Pierson and her companion Jorge Ramirez had their apartment reservation for Saturday's Champions League final in Kiev cancelled, they did not expect to end up being hosted by a minister.

But when the Real Madrid supporters from Luxembourg arrived for the big match with Liverpool, it was Information Minister Yuriy Stets and his wife Yana Konotop, a Ukrainian TV presenter, who laid out the welcoming mat.

The Ukrainian capital has witnessed a mini accommodation crisis in the run up to the biggest match in club football, with some hotels charging nearly 100 times their normal rates.

Some fans who thought they were playing it safe by making inexpensive reservations well in advance ended up having their bookings annulled by hotels looking for a quick profit.

Grigoriy Surkis, vice president of the European football governing body UEFA and a Ukrainian national, told AFP he was "furious" with how things turned out.

In the face of scandal, Kiev residents have started offering their sofas, spare rooms and even apartment for free -- a vast solidarity movement launched through social media.

"When these extraordinary prices hikes started, we became very ashamed ... and decided to help out the best way we could," said Konotop, 38, dressed like her husband in a white Madrid shirt.

Stets said he just had a key condition: "Only if they are Real Madrid fans."

Their guests had first booked an apartment through Airbnb, the global rental platform.

Like many others, they saw their booking annulled and hotels, with their exorbitant prices, were not an option.

"I was desperate," Jorge, 34, exclaimed.

- Vodka and ham -

Finally, they found a place to stay through Facebook, where people were offering lovers of the beautiful game accommodations under the hashtag#FreeKyivCouch4Fans.

A group called "Kyiv FREE couch for football fans" had nearly 9,000 members by Friday.

"We received at least three offers," Jorge said with a smile.

"I had a hard time believing something like that was possible," said Julie, 32.

"Plus, when it's a minister... It seemed very unlikely. But in the end, it was true. We were lucky!"

On the other bank of the Dnipro River which splits the city, travel agency co-owner Mikhailo Kalenskiy, 42, has been waiting for his British guest Daren Oldring, who works in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Ham, vegetables, lard -- the ubiquitous Ukrainian delicacy -- and the inevitable bottle of vodka all waited Daren, a shaven-headed 50-something Liverpool supporter.

His hotel reservation was cancelled in May, shortly before the hotel jacked up its prices for a room from $42 (36 euros) to $1,400 a night.

Daren ended up posting a hosting request on Facebook. Within minutes, Mikhailo had sent back a message, and a few moments later, Daren had a place to stay.

"This is the first time I've come to a complete stranger's house," said Daren, who has supported Liverpool since the 1970s.

Daren said the experience may prompt him to open up his own home to needy travellers in return.

"It's a great thing to do," he said.

Some locals like Andriy, a 34-year-old businessman who is hosting a Liverpool fan in his office, said the expression of good will by the locals will undo the "crazy expanding 'greedy' trend."

"The number of housing offers has dramatically exceeded the number of requests," said Andriy.

Despite this solidarity, hundreds of supporters have still thrown in the towel: Real said around 1,000 of its fans have handed back their tickets because of the price hikes.