Euro 2012 - Ukraine aims to come in from the cold
The word Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’. Nestled into the belly of southern Russia and straddling Turkey over the Black Sea, it is an apt description of a country firmly on Europe’s extremity.
But as well finding itself located on Europe’s geographical margins, this is a country that in the build-up to hosting the Euro 2012 finals has been perceived to be on the edge of acceptability, both politically and socially.
A fear of far-right extremism flourishing amongst native supporters has been a constant refrain, while Ukraine has been left politically isolated by boycotts from the British and German governments, the former confirmed only on Thursday in a significant PR disaster for a co-host of a major tournament.
These issues, coupled with the fact that only three of the 16 competing nations have chosen to base themselves in Ukraine – with England, amongst others, opting for Poland despite playing all three group games in the country – have pushed Europe’s second largest country slightly to the periphery of events. While Poland bustles with action, Ukraine feels somewhat off the beaten track.
Though the first serious eruption of racism occurred across the border on Thursday when Netherlands players complained of racist abuse at an open training session in Krakow, there remain significant fears that Ukraine’s half of the tournament may yet be blighted by similar behaviour.
Extremism amongst Ukraine fans highlighted in BBC’s Panorama documentary – and unconvincingly dismissed by officials – has already convinced Theo Walcott’s family to stay at home and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s may yet join them.
In Kharkiv, meanwhile, a city turning gradually more and more orange as an influx of Dutch fans continues ahead of their three group games against Denmark, Germany and Portugal which will all be held at Metalist Stadium, a former Prime Minister remains imprisoned just miles away from where, on Saturday at 5pm, Ukraine’s tournament will begin when the Dutch take on Denmark.
Yulia Tymoshenko’s incarceration for seven years on charges of abuse of power have been widely condemned, and on Thursday Downing Street confirmed it would not be sending any ministers to Ukraine to attend matches in protest. Angela Merkel’s German government has already done likewise.
As Tymoshenko remains imprisoned just 25 miles from the Russian border, there are fresh concerns that current President Viktor Yanukovych – a man described by the Guardian’s former Russia correspondent Luke Harding as a “Soviet-style apparatchik” - will continue to feel the tug of Putin’s Russia to the east, rather than the EU to the west in a country that divides quite neatly down such lines.
These socio-political concerns, coupled with the extreme hotel prices that led UEFA president Michel Platini to describe local hoteliers as “bandits and crooks”, have ensured this trip is beyond the pale for many England fans, with less than 10,000 expected to travel. By contrast, around 100,000 visited Germany for the 2006 World Cup.
Yet for the next three-and-a-bit weeks, Ukraine, coupled with Poland, will be very far from the fringes: it will be at the very centre of global football as the second biggest tournament in the sport comes to town.
But even while politicians and supporters alike have reservations about travelling to the country, Ukraine is doing its best to convince all and sundry that it is ready and willing to hold the tournament.
Upon arrival at Kiev and Kharkiv airport, you are greeted by Euro 2012 fast lanes in order that those arriving for the tournament can leave unmolested; UEFA and Euro 2012 branding seemingly adorns every spare slab of concrete; whole new road signs have even been commissioned to point out the way to the temporary constructions that are the fan zones.
UEFA granted Ukraine and Poland the tournament partly to help foster a growth in infrastructure in Eastern European football and also as a nod to Platini’s mission statement to make European football less centralised. Two new stadiums and over £9 billion in investment is evidence that Ukraine embraced the challenge, and as such it has a lot riding on the successful outcome of the tournament.
The model Ukraine seeks to follow is surely the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which helped mould new perceptions of the country and foster renewed pride amongst the Germans who played host to the tournament.
As Mykhailo Shapovalov, a journalist for Sport.ua, explains to Eurosport: “The people of Ukraine have been waiting for the Euros since 2007, for five years. They have been preparing and it is a big thing for Ukraine. People have been waiting for it and now it is here.
“The tournament is a very big chance for Ukraine because Ukraine can show to the whole that it is a good country, an interesting country. It is a big chance, of course.”
However, the message has not percolated down to all levels of society. In the shadow of Kharkiv’s Metalist Stadium, a rather pointed piece of graffiti reads: “F**k Euro 2012.”
Also on the walk from central Kharkiv to Metalist Stadium, past rickety old trams, waddling babushkas and enthusiastic kids handing out free SIM cards, an imposing concrete structure looms over the Eastern side of the Kharkiv river. In large lettering running along the roof, it boldly proclaims ‘glory for our homeland’. A relic of the Soviet era, its letters are now rusted, its message somewhat obsolete.
Now Ukraine seeks reflected glory of a different kind - that of a major tournament passing off without major incident, and drawing a country on Europe's fringes closer to the continent's bosom.