Poland take on Greece in the opening match of Euro 2012 in Warsaw on Friday,with organisers hoping talk will switch to events on the pitch,after a turbulent build-up of political strife and infrastructure concerns.
Franciszek Smuda’s side play the showpiece opener of the 16-team tournament in front of a 50,000-capacity crowd at the newly-built National Stadium after an opening ceremony promising to mix sport and culture,heritage and innovation.
The first Group A match at 1600 GMT,plus the second between Russia and the Czech Republic in the western city of Wroclaw at 1845 GMT,are the first of 31 games in eight venues in the two eastern European nations.
Holders and world champions Spain and beaten Euro 2008 finalists Germany are overwhelming favorites to play each other again in the final match in the Olympic Stadium in the Ukrainian capital,Kiev,on July 1.
Euro 2012 is the first time that European football’s most prestigious international tournament has been held behind the former Iron Curtain and UEFA governing body president Michel Platini admits it has been a rocky road.
“It’s often said that the most difficult births lead to the most beautiful babies,” he said in an interview in March,amid concern about delays in key transport and infrastructure projects plus spiraling costs,particularly in Ukraine.
UEFA’s executive committee awarded the tournament to Poland and Ukraine in Cardiff in 2007 to widespread surprise,with even the then newly-elected Platini against the joint bid and unsure that the hosts could keep their promises in the next five years.
Events off the pitch whether it be sky-high hotel prices,unfinished roads or worse,fears of racist violence and political upheaval like the jailing of Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko have hung heavy over the tournament.
Kiev’s alleged mistreatment and imprisonment of the 2004 “Orange Revolution” leader Tymoshenko has prompted a number of EU countries,including Britain,to say they will boycott matches being held in Ukraine.
Platini tried to switch the focus to the beautiful game when he addressed a news conference in Warsaw this week,insisting the tournament would be “not far off perfection” by the time the first ball is kicked.
But the former international midfielder,who lifted the Euro 1984 trophy with France,was instead peppered with questions about far-right gangs,racist abuse,high accommodation costs,potentially empty stands and illegal betting.
That could all change from Friday night,with the Polish people increasingly getting behind the tournament and everywhere from the northern Baltic port city of Gdansk to Krakow in the south decked out in the red and white of the national flag.
A staggering 13,000 people turned out to watch the unfancied Republic of Ireland train at their base near Gdansk earlier this week while 25,000 watched the Netherlands in Krakow. On paper,Poland 62nd in the FIFA rankings versus Greece (15th) does not look set to be a potential classic.
The former have been perennial under-achievers since the country’s glory days of the 1970s and 1980s and questions have been asked since Euro 2004 about whether unfashionable Greece’s surprise victory was just a fluke.
Yet greater significance is being attributed to the match and the tournament with so many teams,particularly Portugal,Ireland,Greece and Spain hit hard by the eurozone sovereign debt crisis and ensuing austerity measures.
“We’re in the midst of a serious crisis and,in one sense,football is a good thing for it,” said Spain’s Xavi Hernandez.