by Mateusz Zatonski
A few weeks ago we presented you with a rather pessimistic appraisal of the situation in Poland before the European Football Championship which the country is organising together with the neighbouring Ukraine. Many Poles seem to be worried by unfinished road construction projects, poor promotion of the tournament, and not least of all the political scandals in the Ukraine that led some European politicians to declare a boycott of the tournament. In some sections of the Polish society the moods are rather bleak.
Nonetheless, it is perhaps indicative of the complexes of post-Communist societies that it is the Poles themselves who seem to be the least pleased with the preparations for the tournament. In contrast, international commentators are frequently very impressed in the progress Poland made in the short period since 2007 when the Poles found out they will be the hosts of the tournament. Most recently the German weekly Der Spiegel presented the country with a glowing review for the progress it made in the years since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 (read the article in English on http://bit.ly/JBubZz).
The scale and speed at which both countries built the venues for the Euro often starting from scratch must impress. The stadiums are more functional, larger, and more architecturally innovative than those that hosted the Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. The most telling is the case of the National Stadium in Warsaw, where the opening game of the tournament will be held. Until 2008 it dilapidated shell hosted one of the biggest open-air markets in Eastern Europe specialising in counterfeit products from around the world. In the 1990s it became the stuff of legends for many Western tourists, described in their accounts as a place where one can buy anything from Chinese clothes to Russian Kalashnikovs. Today, the market is no more, having been replaced by a state-of-the-art stadium with the capacity of over 50,000. Although many miss the gritty charm of the so-called ‘Russian market’, its transformation is indicative of the wider processes of modernisation that have been undergoing in the country.
However, the preparations for Euro 2012 had a wider impact than just the construction of stadiums. Airports and railway stations have been extensively modernised across the region, finally bringing even the regional ones to acceptable standards. Even in the much-criticised Ukraine in just two years four new airports were opened and a network of some of Eastern Europe’s fastest bullet trains was established. Even the modernisation of the road infrastructure, very much the region’s Achilles’ heel, seems to have picked up in the last months, although by the time the tournament begins they will still be a world away from the standards west Europeans are used to. Nonetheless, since most foreign fans will be flying into the country anyway, this shortcoming should not have a significant effect on their visit.
Enormous fan zones will be established not only in the host cities, but also is towns in which games will not be held, such as Krakow. Fears that the host cities will not have enough sleeping spaces for the fans have proven exaggerated, and just recently Poland was ranked by Hotels.com as the country with the cheapest luxury hotels in Europe (a night can be spent in a five-star hotel for already £40 – cheaper than many of London’s most basic hostels).
Many concerns of the Euro-pessimists remain valid. With the wave of minor railway incidents that occurred in Poland in the last weeks (following the tragic crash of March 3rd which took the lives of several passengers- see our report add link), there is a real sense that more could have been done to improve the Polish communication infrastructure before the Euro. A recent BBC Panorama programme, although shockingly tendentious and selective, pointed out some real concerns connected with xenophobic (or rather, more frequently, simply ignorant) attitudes towards race that exist in the region. Nonetheless, the vast majority of apprehensions seem to be the result of either the ignorance and orientalising tendencies of some Western media (see the BBC report on http://bbc.in/JxcWYf), or unhealthy levels of perfectionism on the part of the Poles. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has shown how important major sports events can be in rectifying harmful stereotypes on certain regions of the world and one can hope that Euro 2012 will continue the trend.
Although only time will tell for sure, Polish venues and cities seem well-prepared for the Euro. If only European fans can negotiate the poor roads (or take an airplane instead), they should be in for a treat in a region where the prices are still considerably lower than in the West, the beer is still tastier, and the people still take pride in their hospitality.
Mateusz Zatonski is a member of Crossing the Baltic’s editorial board and a regular contributor in Polish affairs. During the EURO 2012 he will be supplying Crossing the Baltic with live tweets from Poland.