Poland and Ukraine look to escape Soviet shadow as they prepare for Euro 2012

THE hosts of Euro 2012 will make their first, tentative steps into the spotlight on Friday evening when the draw for next summer’s finals is held in Ukraine.

Jamala, a native jazz singer, the Pavlo Virskyi National Folk Dance Ensemble and a “surprise international artist” will provide the entertainment at Kiev’s National Palace of the Arts, but the only performance that will matter in the weeks and months ahead is that of the country itself.

As an independent nation, Ukraine has yet to play in the finals of a European Championship, never mind host them. In partnership with Poland, it will be the easternmost country ever to stage the tournament climax. In the first major sporting event to be held in former communist eastern Europe since the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the two host nations will, according to their shared slogan, “create history together”.

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For Ukraine, in particular, it is an opportunity to alter in the West perceptions of the East. Its capital city is described as magnificent in the summer with its pavement cafes, public parks and gold-domed monasteries. Sergei Baltacha, the Ukrainian who played for the Soviet Union against Holland in the 1988 final, and later saw out his career with Ipswich Town and St Johnstone, believes that those attending Friday’s draw from Ireland, England and the rest will be pleasantly surprised.

“A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works for the BBC went to Kiev and couldn’t believe how nice it was. When she saw it, she said ‘wow, Kiev is brilliant’. She was surprised by the quality of life and the warmth of the people. I don’t know what people expect of Ukraine, but it’s a very European country now, very civilised, with high standards.”

UEFA, though, has admitted that there are problems with the infrastructure. Ever since Ukraine and Poland were given the finals in 2007, there have been failed inspections, overspends and broken promises. UEFA recently declared the two nations “almost ready”, but Martin Kallen, their Euro 2012 operations director, revealed ongoing concerns. “It will be a different Euro,” he said. “On the football side, we want it to be on the same level or a little better than Austria-Switzerland in 2008. But it will never be on the same level in terms of transport.”

Ukraine has not invested in its transport network since the break-up of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Some journeys are said to take longer now than they did then. The main routes are ill-equipped to carry traffic across Europe’s second-biggest country. Lviv and Kharkiv, which will both stage matches in Group B, are 620 miles apart.

Ukraine’s accommodation also is a worry. While there are luxurious hotels at one end of the spectrum, and dingy remnants of the Soviet era at the other, there are relatively few decent, affordable options in between. Kiev is setting up campsites and asking residents to take in guests. Donetsk, which is not accustomed to tourists, will be thousands of rooms short, which means that most fans will be required to fly in and out of the city on matchdays.

And there are other problems, some of which have been addressed, if not altogether appropriately. In an effort to clean up their urban landscape, the Ukrainian authorities slaughtered 50,000 stray dogs over a four-year period, only to halt the cull at the request of UEFA, which came under pressure from animal-rights activists. Anti-racist campaigners, meanwhile, have been mobilised to address the potential for violence among far-right extremists.

Sifting the scare stories from reality is an occupational hazard when it comes to previewing the finals of a major championship, but these latest hosts do seem to be getting there, albeit rather slowly for UEFA’s liking. Baltacha, who now lives in London, but keeps in touch with friends and relatives in his homeland, says that he has overcome his initial concerns about the decision to take the finals there.

“Maybe one year ago I wondered, but not now. I spoke to a couple of my friends, and my information is that everything is going well. Roads, hotels – every week we have more and more. The country is working very hard, and a lot of money has been invested. I’m sure it will be fine. There is a lot of responsibility on the president of Ukraine to make sure that everything is OK.

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“Ukrainians are very proud people. They want to be proud of the European Championships. It’s not easy from a political point of view. What has gone on in the last ten years has not helped, but this is a situation where political rivals amalgamate. I’m sure you will see a good Euro, well organised, with good stadiums. It could even be one of the best European Championships.”

The political problems Baltacha refers to are the kind often caused by the transition to capitalism in former communist states. In Poland, a long-running inquiry into corruption has led to more than 300 arrests, including senior officials of the national federation. Continued outbreaks of hooliganism are another source of shame to the country that was the first to break away from the Soviet Union.

While Poland’s biggest worry is the road system – they have constructed only a fraction of the motorways they pledged to build four years ago – they could do without the embarrassment of pre-arranged battles between shirtless football gangs in secluded forest locations, grisly footage of which has made its way on to YouTube. One hooligan was hacked to death earlier this year by a rival “fan”.

Poland, though, claims that its problems are in the past. The match-fixing that prompted the inquiry was over six years ago. Legislation has been introduced to ensure that hooligans are electronically tagged for the duration of the finals. And despite repeated delays and controversies, the National Stadium in Warsaw is at last on the brink of completion.

In Poland, football is said to reflect the national mood. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was a symbol of resistance. Since then, it has struggled to adapt to the changed political climate. Now, the hope is that it will herald another new era, as bright and modern as the eight venues that have sprung up across the two countries. Kallen says that the arenas in Donetsk and Gdansk are better than any at the 2008 finals.

As usual, next summer’s showpiece would benefit greatly if the host nations were to be successful on the pitch. Neither Poland nor Ukraine are ranked in the world’s top 50, but being seeded in pot one gives them a priceless opportunity to reach the second stage.

Baltacha, a friend of Ukraine’s coach, Oleg Blokhin, has mixed feelings about the national team. They have plenty of good young prospects, most of them with Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk, but the number of foreigners at both of those clubs limits the number of first-team opportunities for home-grown players. “It will be difficult for the manager, but the pedigree of Ukrainian players is very good. And the character of the Ukrainian people will help,” said Baltacha.