Tuesday 22 September ~
Although included in Ukraine's original bid to host the European Championship in 2012, Odessa was unceremoniously dropped by UEFA in May, despite their inspection team ranking the city as the second best out of the country's six candidates. Explanations from UEFA concerning Odessa's omission were not forthcoming, leaving city officials and citizens alike struggling to comprehend the incongruous nature of the judgement.
"This decision contradicts the report made after Michel Platini's last visit to Ukraine," said Marat Yakupov, deputy director of Odessa city council's Euro 2012 preparation and holding department, after the decision was announced. "According to this document Odessa was almost equal to Kiev. These were the two cities having the lowest risk rates compared to all the other Ukrainian candidates."
When I met Yakupov a few months later, he and his colleagues were still perplexed by the lack of justification from the authorities. "What is interesting is that, after UEFA's decision, people from the government were still ringing us and asking: 'Can you accept fans? Can you accept UEFA in your hotels? Can you take teams at your training base?'" Yakupov said. "So they still think that we must be involved in these championships because we have infrastructure, which is not good enough [elsewhere in Ukraine] – even in Kiev."
So, the question endures, how did Odessa go from a position of being ranked as the second most suitable host candidate, to being discarded from the list entirely? "I think that the personal relationship of Mr Rinat Akhmetov and Mr Grigory Surkis [presidents of Shakhtar Donetsk and the Ukrainian FA respectively] played a decisive role in this decision," Yakupov told me as we looked across Odessa's partially rebuilt stadium and to the Black Sea beyond. "Donetsk is in a strong position with the stadium but they do not have enough hotels, roads and so on."
Donetsk and Kharkiv, the cities ranked as the two worst candidates in Ukraine, were retained after the May inspections, in clear contradiction of the UEFA committee's findings. It is at this point that the question of objectivity emerges – particularly of Surkis, the man in charge of football in Ukraine, and whose influence in UEFA is widely attributed to have been crucial in bringing the championships east in the first place.
Akhmetov and Surkis benefited greatly from a spell of so-called "cronyism" under former president Leonid Kuchma, where state assets were sold off – often below market value – to businessmen close to the presidential regime. Subsequently, as part of Kuchma's ring of power, the two men made themselves incredibly rich while operating from their respective Donetsk and Kiev "clans" – groups from different regions exerting power through business, politics and, in some cases, organised crime.
In 2004, with Kuchma due to stand aside after his second presidential term, these rival clans were brought together in common support of his chosen successor, Victor Yanukovich, who represented the best opportunity for the oligarchs to retain their sway in the presidential office. The liberal candidate Victor Yushchenko, in contrast, won over voters with his promises of dismantling the tyrannical coterie.
Yushchenko may have risen to power following the Orange Revolution but his incompetence in office, combined with the collective resilience of characters such as Surkis, Akhmetov and financier Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, has left the country – as it has been almost entirely since Kuchma’s election victory in 1994 – in the grip of the cliquey oligarchs. "We are the most independent city in Ukraine," Volodymyr Chervyakov, another member of the preparations and hosting department in Odessa, told me. "We have some benefits from this, but we also have some troubles. Troubles like 2012." Marcus Haydon