Ukraine road trip: The 1,515 mile journey for 90 minutes of football

Sporting Lisbon players celebrate after scoring against Vorskla.

(CNN)We'd trekked 1,515 miles (2,439 kilometers) for 90 minutes of football.

Except the first 45 minutes hadn't gone as well as João Monteiro, a 32-year-old Portuguese motion graphics designer, might have hoped for.
He'd traveled all the way from London to watch his team, Sporting Clube de Portugal, play Ukraine's Vorskla Poltava for a Europa League group match in October. Sporting were losing 1-0 at halftime.
"Do you regret having made the trip?" I, a fellow Sporting fan, asked. "Definitely not the trip," said João.
    It was an unforgettable journey that Arsenal fans won't get to enjoy this week. With tensions rising between Ukraine and Russia and parliament declaring martial law in 10 regions -- three of which border Poltava -- Europe's governing body UEFA has decided to move the game to Kiev over safety concerns.
    It was also one of the issues raised by friends and colleagues when we told them we were going to Poltava.
    Despite the apparent normalization of the Russian takeover of Crimea and the conflict in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Eastern Ukraine, there have been occasional spikes in violence -- all unpredictable but none quite as serious as what has ensued after the stand-off in the Kerch strait.
    We had started planning a couple of months earlier, when Sporting drew English Premier League club Arsenal, Qarabagh (Azerbaijan) and Vorskla in the Europa League group stages.
    As soon as the draw came out we'd started thinking about which of the games we could plan a trip around and we settled for Ukraine: we already lived in the UK and the flights to Azerbaijan were fairly expensive, which left Vorskla as a reasonable option.
    Sporting Lisbon's Colombian forward Freddy Montero acrobatically kicks the ball in the game against Vorskla.

    'Why are you going there?'

    We decided to fly into Kiev and drive to Poltava -- a three-hour flight and then a four-and-a-half hour car journey.
    Some of our friends also cautioned about the condition of the roads and none of them knew anything about Poltava.
    Most travel guides focus on sights in the Western part of the country, while a number of Ukrainians we met shortly after landing in Kiev were also surprised by our plan and had no recommendations to give.
    "Poltava? Why are you going there?" asked 22-year-old waitress Lera Shtundyuk, puzzled by the choice of destination.
    The drive between Kiev and Poltava was surprisingly easy.
    After landing in Kiev late on the Wednesday before the match, João and I picked up a rental car, slept a few hours, and then had breakfast at the cafe Shtundyuk worked at.
    "I don't really know much about Poltava or of any interesting places in that area," she said.
    Given how little we knew and the advice we were given about Ukrainian roads, the drive between Kiev and Poltava was surprisingly easy. Most of the highway has been renovated -- or is undergoing renovation -- and most parts have very little traffic.
    If you want to explore a country, football usually helps break down barriers.
    It was here that we first felt some of the military tension, inherently present in a country engulfed in a civil war, as we frequently drove past military vehicles.
    Most were just transporting soldiers and regular supplies, but also a few with larger heavier military equipment.
    We also drove by dozens of vintage Soviet-era cars and a surprisingly high number of people on bicycles but, what stood out most were vast golden wheat, sunflower and corn fields, stretching as far as the eye could see.
    The rich dark soils have allowed the country to become one of the world's largest grain crops producers, earning Ukraine the nickname "the bread basket of Europe."
    You're never short of a field in Ukraine.