Poland and Ukraine have the opportunity this month to promote sport in its best light,and both countries hope that the trade-off in terms of new infrastructure and political and economic influence is what they bargained for when they bid five years ago to jointly hold Europe’s championship,beginning on Friday.
This is groundbreaking stuff,following in the footsteps of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The 16-nation UEFA tournament is about to be staged in two neighbors of the former Soviet bloc,held for the first time by nations that during the Cold War were beyond what the West called the Iron Curtain.
Matches at this Euro will be played at sites as many as 2,000 kilometers,or 1,250 miles,apart,in eight cities ranging from the Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdansk in the north to Donetsk,near Ukraine’s southeastern Black Sea coast. Poland is a member of the European Union,while Ukraine,farther to the east,remains closer to Russia and is emerging more slowly from communism. When their bid was selected in 2007,neither of these countries could have foreseen the global economic recession. Yet their contract with UEFA,European football’s governing body,locked them into expensive new stadiums,roads,railroad improvements,airports and hotels.
The eight Euro stadiums alone cost about $3 billion. Ukraine now has new high-speed trains,but its bill for Euro 2012 has escalated beyond $13 billion,half of it financed by the state.
And,much like in South Africa before the 2010 World Cup,journalists visiting Ukraine have reported on violence,crime,racism and the imprisonment of the opposition leader,Yulia V Tymoshenko. Despite all these off-field issues,the on-field fact is that Spain is arriving with a unique opportunity in sporting history. Its team of Xavi Hernández,Andrés Iniesta,Iker Casillas and company is aiming to become the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments and the first to successfully defend its European title.
Spain became the European champion four years ago in Austria and then the world champion in Johannesburg in 2010. Its style has been marvelous to behold and impossible to defeat.
But in sports there is always the next challenge,always someone to trip a champion if its standards slip. Germany,with its multiethnic talents and renowned teamwork,is not likely to be far from Spains level this time.
Italy,meanwhile,arrives after yet another police investigation into Serie A match fixing involving leading players and betting syndicates rooted in Singapore. Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy suggested last week that it might be time for his country to take a two- or three-year break from professional soccer. But Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri had another view. The European Championship is a major international tournament, she said. Play,and play well for Italy.
There is a precedent. In 1982,Italy won the World Cup in Spain,thanks to goals from Paolo Rossi,who had been amnestied from part of his ban for alleged match fixing. In Germany in 2006,Italy again took home the World Cup trophy on the heels of the infamous Calciopoli corruption case implicating leading clubs and referees.
How the latest imbroglio affects Italy will soon be seen: The Italians will play Spain in their first group match on Sunday. That match takes place in Gdansk,where Lech Walesa founded Solidarity in 1980,leading Poland’s rise toward democracy and then becoming the country’s president in 1990.
Indeed,the belief that sports on an international scale can operate outside national,economic or even political realities is no longer possible.
Of course,sporting considerations count as well. But there are politics in sports,too. When Michel Platini was elected president of UEFA in January 2007,he successfully canvassed votes from the growing number of East European nations within UEFA’s membership. He pledged to bring once forgotten countries in from the cold in European competitions.
Within three months of Platini’s election,he led the UEFA executive committees daring selection of the Poland-Ukraine joint bid to stage the 2012 event. After government leaders in the West began talking about boycotting Ukraine,Platini wrote to a human rights group and to legislators in several countries,including Germany and Sweden,reminding them that UEFA’s decision in taking its tournament to these countries was to help open up that part of Europe.
Platini has crossed the line from being an extraordinarily good player to becoming a sporting politician. In his playing days with Juventus in Italy,he teamed in the midfield for at least 100 matches with Zbigniew Boniek. The Frenchman Platini and the Pole Boniek were triumphant mercenaries together. As old friends,they will sit together Friday evening in the new stadium in Warsaw for the opening game of Euro 2012 between Poland and Greece.