Euro sceptics

Saul Pope reports on Euro 2012 developments, and in some cases lack of development, in co-host nation Ukraine

Apparently there were tears of joy on the streets of Kiev when Ukraine was awarded the opportunity to joint host Euro 2012 two years ago. The surprise decision was seen as an opportunity for Ukraine to develop its crumbling infrastructure at the same time as boosting its standing within European football. However, UEFA’s recent warning that the country has until November 30 to prove that three of its cities are capable of hosting any matches suggests that the tears in the near future may be of a different type.

There is undoubtedly a great passion for football in Ukraine, led by the ambitious Hryhoriy Surkis, head the country’s football federation, and Rinat Akhmetov, Europe’s richest man and chairman of UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk. However this is currently not backed up by other essentials for the tournament like modern stadiums, good transport links and plenty of affordable hotels. Problems in Kyiv – which revolved around a shopping centre illegally built within the Olympic Stadium’s evacuation area – seem to have been solved, though the stadium still needs renovating if it is to hold the final as planned. The other cities have even bigger problems. A new UEFA Elite Grade stadium will soon open in Donetsk, though it is only planned as a venue for group stage matches because the city’s airport, not properly updated since the Seventies, cannot deal with the volumes of passengers the championships will bring.

Of the cities outside Ukraine’s traditional football centres, Lviv, close to the country’s border with Poland, has from the beginning been seen as an important venue. It has been given a stay of execution until November despite its stadium development being the furthest behind of all the cities. The final potential venue is Kharkiv, originally a reserve whose pace of work impressed UEFA during a recent visit. These decisions created dismay in Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa, both of whom have now been rejected as hosts. The local authorities in Dnipropetrovsk, a city with a greater football pedigree that either Kharkiv or Lviv and a brand new 30,000 stadium, consider the decision to have been a “political” one, whilst the Odessan authorities believe that their city’s Black Sea location and tourist attractions (Eisenstein fans will know it as home to the Potemkin Stairs) made it an ideal choice. Both intend to appeal to UEFA.

Although Poland is waiting in the wings to pick up the slack should a pair from Donetsk, Lviv or Kharkiv be removed from hosting duties in November, the Ukrainians have cause to be optimistic. The country has not been immune to the economic crisis – its economy is currently contracting at 9 per cent per year – but since UEFA’s announcement state money has been made available for work on the Olympic Stadium and to improve the country’s tourist infrastructure. Parliament has also resolved to act faster in making decisions that will help infrastructure projects, and preparations will now be coordinated at cabinet level. And despite the dissatisfaction further down the chain, both President Yushchenko and Surkis have accepted UEFA’s decision, the latter acknowledging that his country has been “unpredictable”.

However, at present the country is looking at the real possibility of hosting only a handful of group matches in Donetsk and Kyiv and a quarter and semi-final in the capital, giving the tournament a decidedly lop-sided feel. The decision to involve Ukraine was undoubtedly a politically expedient one, but perhaps too large a step for a country that is currently outside the European Union and has never hosted a major club final, unlike almost all of the previous hosts. A UEFA Cup final might have been a better initial option for the Ukrainians, followed by a joint bid with equally ambitious neighbours Russia in one of the extended 24 team tournaments from 2016 onwards. In these carbon-neutral, economically austere times, much has also been made of the huge distances between venues – Donetsk is more than 1000 miles away from three of the Polish venues, adding further doubt to the wisdom of selecting one of Europe’s biggest and poorest countries as host.

Ukrainians remain fairly positive that the championship willl go well – 70 per cent voted “Yes” on a football forum when asked “Will Ukraine host Euro 2012 with dignity?”. Some point out that there is always concern about lack of preparations before major events, while blame for the slow progress has been directed at the country’s politicans for, as one fan put it, “having only one problem – how to grab as much money as possible and then find someone else to blame”.

From WSC 269 July 2009