12 October ~ "The whole country is celebrating a gift to all our people," Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych brazenly announced at last weekend's official opening of Kiev's Olympic Stadium, the 70,000-seat venue that will stage the Euro 2012 final. What a wonderful present indeed for the people of the economically crippled Ukraine! And a gift being something that you receive for free, one must assume that the estimated costs for the stadium of over £500 million did not come from the people's pocket. Just as Shakira, who sang at the opening ceremony, no doubt waived her fee and showed up for the mere prestige of being there.
UEFA are surely relieved that Ukraine stepped up its construction programme in time for next summer's tournament, and Michel Platini has been able to desist from any more threats to send the tournament to Hungary, Germany, or even Scotland (the wee ginger lad at the bottom of the football class, eagerly sticking his hand in the air and shouting, "Me, me, I can host if you let me play too!"). But what will Kiev do with its gift to the people once the tournament is over? Dynamo Kiev, with an average home gate this season of around 12,500, will not be moving from their comfortable Lobanovsky Stadium. So, apart from one-off events and the Ukrainian national team, the hugely expensive venue will be without a major tenant. In other words, it's a white-elephant-in-waiting.
It won't be the only Euro 2012 venue that will have trouble making ends meet. While Shakhtar Donetsk (whose average gate this season is over 36,000 for a 51,500 ground) and Metalist Kharkiv (over 25,000 in a stadium that fits almost 39,000) currently draw big enough crowds to justify their new or reconstructed venues, Karpaty Lviv, with an average home gate just below 8,000, will find their fans rattling around their 35,000-capacity venue.
Things look even worse in Poland, where the average Ekstraklasa gate this season is less than 8,500. Warsaw's new 58,000-seat national stadium will have no full-time tenant. The 43,000 stadium in Poznan will be home to Lech Poznan (average crowd this season: 10,863). Slask Wroclaw's shiny new house, also fitted for 43,000, will see less than 8,000 fans inside it for home games. Only Lechia Gdansk, with an average gate this season of just over 23,000, might be able to drum up some atmosphere in its stadium designed for 44,000.
How many major tournaments will it take for countries to see the economic stupidity of building venues with little or no foreseeable use beyond the mega-events? A number of Portuguese towns are still suffering the fiscal legacy of Euro 2004. Several state- or municipality-funded stadiums in Japan, South Korea and South Africa are predictably under-used and crippled by debt. Even Germany 2006 boasts a legacy of wasted public money in Leipzig, where the reviled Red Bull-sponsored RB Leipzig lure around 5,000 fans into a 44,000-capacity ground.
At this month's Play The Game conference, the Danish Institute for Sports Studies presented the interim findings of its in-depth study into the stadium legacy of mega-events. Its report, which will be published in full next month, is heading towards some unsurprising conclusions, which are: a stadium without a high-profile tenant in place will probably not be successful after the event, existing venues for local tenants are often already better equipped to the needs of local teams (see Dynamo Kiev and Legia Warsaw) and will successfully compete against the new super-venues, and the only certain winners in terms of profits are construction companies and the rights holders, such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, while the bills are footed almost exclusively by tax payers.
A discussion panel at Play the Game forecast more white elephant stadiums left behind after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a country where, like Ukraine, public money is desperately needed for multiple worthier projects. With the European Championship ludicrously set to expand to 24 teams in 2016, potential host nations would be well-advised to avoid costly bids for even costlier tournaments. Smiling FIFA and UEFA executives may come in shaking hands and congratulating you on your lucky winning bid, but be sure that before long they will take you hostage, take your tax payers' cash and run.
What's the solution? Scale back the World Cup to 16 teams and keep the European Championship at the same number (or narrow it back down to eight), not just for the sake of the quality of the football, but for the sake of the host nations. Each new or reconstructed stadium should have a statutory plan for its use beyond the tournament's end, while FIFA and UEFA should be obliged to play a supportive role in construction, instead of sending round inspection teams with a list of threats and demands. Greed and excess have gifted us nothing but a surfeit of mediocre games, unpaid bills and vastly under-used stadiums. Ian Plenderleith