by Mateusz Zatonski
With less than a month left until the opening game of the European Football Championship, UEFA is sending e-mails to all those lucky enough to be selected in the ticket lottery re-assuring them that their tickets are just in the process of printing. Although it might sound trivial, for many Polish fans it is comforting to know that at least one organisation involved in putting together the world’s third largest sporting event seems to have things under control. The two host countries, Poland and Ukraine, are receiving increasingly bad press on the eve of the event, and many Poles are increasingly worried that the tournament will turn out to be a fiasco.
A particular source of concern is the impact the situation in Ukraine might have on the tournament. First, an outrage connected to bloated prices erupted, as tourists realised that many hotel owners in the Ukrainian cities hosting the games increased their charges for the duration of the Euro by up to few hundred percent. As UEFA has not even managed to sell all the tickets for the Ukrainian part of the tournament, some are beginning to doubt how many fans will actually decide to venture east in June.
Nonetheless, the biggest scandals are, as ever, connected with politics. The arrest of Yulia Tymoshenko over alleged irregularities in a natural gas imports contract she signed with Russia in 2009 has raised many eyebrows in the West. What lifted the floodgates of indignation, however, were the pictures of Tymoshenko’s bruises that spread like wildfire through European media. Tymoshenko supposedly got them after receiving a beating from prison guards responsible for transferring her against her will to a penal colony in Kharkiv (one of the Euro host cities). The reaction came very quickly; the call for boycott was first voiced by some German and Italian officials, then by Austrian and Belgian governments, to finally be picked up by the entire EU Commission. They are all calling for the release of Tymoshenko, but Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovych seems largely unaffected by their appeals, failing to address the human rights concerns of West European politicians.
The Poles are of course concerned that the boycott of the Euro will hit their part of the tournament as well. Many heads of western governments, including Angela Merkel, were expected to attend the opening game on 8 June in Warsaw. Now it is unlikely that they will risk being seen anywhere in the proximity of Victor Yanukovych, who will undoubtedly be present at the game. Polish opposition politicians are eager to exploit in the diplomatic conundrum in which the Polish government found itself. Some, such as the populist former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have even called for joining the boycott and requested that the Euro final be moved from Kiev to Warsaw. While these voices might be the extreme spectrum of the debate, there is a wide perception that Poland will lose out on the West’s shun of Ukraine.
Opposition politicians have plenty of other bones to pick with Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister. The Polish government admits that most of the road and rail infrastructure promised for the Euro will not be ready until months after the tournament. A drive from Warsaw to Wroclaw (less than 350km) takes around 6 hours. However even this is nothing compared to the length of travel between cities in Poland and Ukraine. Those wanting to see a quarterfinal in Gdansk on 22 June, and another one in Donetsk on the following day should prepare for a car journey of over 25 hours – which means that if they are lucky they might just make the end of the second half.
To add fuel to the fire, public opinion has been excited for the past few days about the choices of Euro songs. The official Polish song, ‘Koko Euro Spoko’ (which roughly translates to ‘Coo Coo Euro Cool’) is a mixture of disco and traditional music sung by a group of grannies dressed in traditional Polish folk costumes. Despite the fact the song was chosen through text voting, many have voiced the concern the simple song presents the country as backward and uncultured. Listen to the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtDhMzDkois
Political scandals, unfulfilled promises about modernisation of transport infrastructure, an even an embarrassing song as the tournament’s visiting card – no wonder that the moods of many Poles are rather downbeat. But is it really all doom and gloom just weeks before the Euro 2012? Check back in soon for an alternative view on the preparations for the tournament.