Europe – The Final Countdown (2012)

Five referees. Wage caps. The 6+5 rule. Michel Platini may be on a mission to over-complicate just about everything in European football, but on some subjects nobody can accuse him of neglecting the essentials. Take his visit to Kyiv in early July 2008. The UEFA president emerged visibly frustrated from a series of meetings to discuss the virtual absence of any progress in infrastructure development with the Euro 2012 organising committee and announced that: ”if there are no stadiums there can be no games”.

Just over eighteen months later, however, things are looking brighter. As the qualifying draw for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine took place last month in Warsaw’s Palace of Culture & Science, the new National Stadium across town was at last beginning to resemble a football arena ready to host the opening game, rather than an outdoor version of Piotr Wiwczarek’s hotel room after a final tour date. Likewise, construction of NSK Olimpiyskiy in Kyiv, the venue for the final on July 1, 2012, seems to be back on track after an apparently interminable series of bureacratic wranglings.

Progress on the grounds outside the capitals is also generally satisfying. In Ukraine, both the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv and Donetsk’s stunning Donbass Arena – the construction of which consumed ten tonnes of paper in technical drawings alone – opened last year. The Polish venues, meanwhile, are not too far behind, with the reconstructed Stadion Miejski in Poznań probably the most advanced, followed by the over-sized Chinese lantern which will become the Maślice in Wrocław.

Platini should probably hold off the cigar for a while longer, though. Those responsible for the PGE Arena in Gdańsk do not appear to have prioritised actually building it, preferring to spend far more time trying to sell the naming rights or producing incomprehensible promotional material which describes the stadium as having ”a striking amber-like form, which opens into its surrounding environment in all directions like flowing streams”. Those of a less poetic bent would probably describe the designs as a fairly blatant knock-off of the Allianz Arena in Munich.

Gdańsk is nevertheless some way ahead of Lviv, where authorities are still trying to find an official name for the as-yet barely begun stadium, let alone a pair of scissors for the opening ribbon. The main problem is that preparations in the city lack significant support from local business figures, and where Kharkiv and Donetsk have been able to call on the resources of Oleksandr Yaroslavsky and Rinat Akhmetov in the construction of their new arenas, the already cash-strapped authorities in Lviv have been forced to rely almost entirely on central funds.

The then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko declared on a visit late last year that the government had given around UAH 50 million to the city, but even this failed to stop the stadium contractor from downing tools in February, ostensibly in protest at sub-standard designs produced by an architectural firm without a license to operate in Ukraine. The real news here to anyone who had passed the site over the previous months was that the tools had even been picked up in the first place.

On the whole, however, the issue of Euro 2012 stadiums is gradually being resolved. By the standards of the 2004 Olympics, where the main stadium in Athens was completed only two months before the opening ceremony, they may even be ahead of schedule. On the other hand, the real questions about the prospects for a successful tournament lie – as so often in this part of the world – strictly off the pitch.

Preparations for sporting events – and often the events themselves – on the scale of Euro 2012 inevitably become politicised, and the practical consequences of this are rarely positive. That UEFA could award the tournament to a joint bid from Ukraine and Poland and involve not one but two sets of governments, local authorities and governing associations – none with any experience of similar projects – and not expect political complications seems unlikely, but the scale of these has been enough to surprise even the most cynical observer.

The most prominent example has undoubtedly been the Olimpiyskiy in Kyiv. With no sign of any building activity several months after a USD 300 million construction contract was awarded, Ukraine’s president at the time Viktor Yushchenko issued a statement claiming that officials at the sports ministry were set on what he described as ”sabotage” of the project, and requested that Tymoshenko investigate the matter further.

Platini then weighed in with the announcement that the Troitskyi shopping centre under development alongside the stadium site would endanger the latter’s UEFA certification, as it would prevent the ground from being properly evacuated. Yushchenko issued an executive order to have the centre demolished but nobody listed to him, and only a visit from Platini succeeding in getting the bulldozers moving.

Unfortunately the demolition work ceased almost as soon as the UEFA president was safely on his way back to the airport. A furious Tymoshenko immediately pointed the finger at Leonid Chernovetskyi, known to moonlight occasionally as mayor of Kyiv when not trying to run Arsenal Kyiv into the ground, and alleged a plot to damage the goverment’s credibility. The mayor, she added, had ”issued the construction permit on a corrupt basis”, and the Troitskyi ”was put up illegally”.

Chernovetskyi’s response was to claim that the company responsible for the centre was due compensation of 8,000 hectares of prime real estate on the outskirts of the city, and that Tymoshenko was responsible for the stoppage in demolition by refusing to sign the relevant paperwork. With Football Federation of Ukraine chairman Hryhoriy Surkis doing his utmost to calm the situation by claiming that: ”If work on tearing down Troitskyi is truly stopped, it is one step nearer to the final downfall of all our hopes”, Yushchenko intervened again with rather more success than the first time and ordered Tymoshenko to transfer the land.

The Troitskyi is merely the highest-profile example of how the Euro 2012 preparations not only have to contend with governments, but local authorities and innumerable sets of interests. That these intersecting pressures would cause difficulties was almost universally accepted by the wider Polish and Ukrainian public from the very beginning, and few held out any real hope of substantial co-operation.

This negativity is in fact so extensive that, according to one poll, over three-quarters of Ukrainians expect the management of the tournament to be at least partially corrupt. Only four per cent believe that the preparations will not be tainted in any way. Yushchenko himself openly confirmed the problem, complaining that: ”Right now we have three different government agencies working on preparations – not to help us get ready, but to divert the maximum amount of money possible into the black economy”.

euro-12-logoWhen corruption in relation to Euro 2012 has been raised as an issue in the international media, much of the focus has been on events in Poland. A succession of revelations over the past four years involving match-fixing and bribery have seen over 200 arrests – including the son of former national team manager Jerzy Engel – and several top-flight clubs forcibly demoted to the lower divisions. In an interview with Bild, Jan Tomaszewski claimed that: ”Poland is the most corrupt country in the football world”; and as the current domestic season kicked off in July 2009, only 15 referees had permission to officiate at the highest level.

Tomaszewski went on to suggest that: ”If nothing happens, he [Platini] should take Euro 2012 away from us”. The corruption battle has certainly not created an ideal working environment for the organising authorities, not least because of near-permanent chaos at the Polish Football Federation (PZPN). FIFA, it should be pointed out, have hardly helped matters, threatening to exclude the national team from competition after viewing an attempt by the Polish Olympic Committee to suspend the PZPN board in September 2008 as constituting undue political interference.

Yet it is hard to see how turmoil in the domestic game is in itself fatal to Poland’s capacity to host an international tournament – no Polish clubs and, hopefully, very few Polish referees will be involved. When it comes to corruption, the real problem in both Poland and Ukraine is instead, as Yushchenko recognised all too well, graft on a municipal and political level.

Simply put, the central funding pots allocated for Euro 2012 represent the chance of a lifetime for the more unscrupulous operators within the system. As any of the Ukrainians who delivered such a bleak verdict in the above poll could explain, the lengths to which some officials will go in order to divert funds into their own pockets are endless – and often remarkably creative.

Although the specifics vary, the most popular formula remains broadly unchanged. City officials, faced with an issue – real or imagined – which needs resolving before the tournament begins, apply for central funds far in excess of the cost of the solution, deal with the problem in question as cheaply as possible, and pocket the balance.

To take just one of the more bizarre examples, council managers in the eastern city of Luhansk, expected to serve as an arrival point for fans attending matches in nearby Donetsk, have been accused by animal rights groups of drawing up plans to kill stray dogs in the area by using discounted poison, rather than the more humane (and expensive) methods on which their funding application was budgeted.

Problems such as these have the effect of exacerbating the difficulty of already monumental tasks in infrastructure development. Along with the stadiums, Ukraine alone has been estimated to require investment of up to USD 25 billion in roads, hotels and general services. Whilst much of this is expected to come from the private sector – in addition to the Metalist Stadium, Yaroslavsky has also financed the renovation of Kharkiv International Airport – the country is essentially being asked to make good in two years what went wrong in fifty.

Half the problem is even knowing where to start. The distances between some of the hosting cities are the longest ever for a European Championship – the 1,556 kilometres between Poznań and Donetsk means that the Polish city is closer to London than the Donbass. Travel the same distance south-east from Donetsk and you’ll almost reach Tehran. To complicate matters further, there are currently no direct flights or trains between the two cities.

Even for those venues located closer together, logistical headaches loom for many supporters. Whilst both government have promised improvements to the often-dilapidated road networks, visitors will still need to plan for rail delays at the border caused by the need to switch train gauges from the Polish track width to the narrower Ukrainian setting, along with the small matter of the European Union frontier running right down the middle of the hosting area.

Unfortunately, the problems may not be over once everyone actually makes it to their destinations. Kyiv is some way off being able to provide the 7,300 four- and five-star hotel rooms demanded by UEFA, and the chronic shortage of accomodation in Donetsk has lead the authorities to consider plans to base fans in the coastal city of Mariupol.

As if that wasn’t enough, a curiously fascinating study recently bemoaned the lack of public toilets in the Ukrainian capital, where only six facilities are signposted (all of them on the main Khreshchatyk thoroughfare). The same analysis also effectively put the kibosh on any prospect of near-term improvement by calculating that any loo entrepreneurs should expect a wait of up to seven years for a return on their investment.

How much of all of this will be fixed – and how much it is even possible to fix – by June 8, 2012 remains an unanswered question. Whether it is the most important question, however, is another issue. Few seem prepared to look beyond the building sites and ask what hosting the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine really means.

For starters, it represents the righting of a historical wrong. Aside from the 1976 tournament in Yugoslavia – which featured only four teams – the European Championship has never before taken place in eastern Europe. Given the glittering contribution of the region to the development of the game over the past decades, it seems only fitting that the latter should at last give something back to the lands of Tomaszewski and Valery Lobanovksyi, lands where some people are so hopelessly in love with football that they actually pay to watch Polonia Warsaw.

Secondly, it might just be the last chance to enjoy a tournament which actually has its own characteristics and soul. Poland and Ukraine represent, at least in some ways, an antidote to football across the continent which is increasingly becoming a homogenised plastic shell, and represent a challenge to the idea that ’developed’ tournament infrastructure and ’positive’ fan experiences must resemble those found in western Europe.

Memo to UEFA – if you don’t want your tournaments to have eastern European features, don’t hold them in eastern Europe. It’s not going to be perfect, and surely even Platini would accept that the normal way of running things is not going to be turned upside down just because there is a football tournament involved.

But offering different experiences is surely the whole point behind rotating the host nation, and it is interesting to reflect that the most memorable sporting events – for better or worse – are those which contain something of the society which surrounds them. Just over 800 days to go. See you there.

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