Often criticised for their reluctance to risk the reputation and perceived virtue of their respective quadrennial headline competitions, governing bodies FIFA and UEFA have recently bowed somewhat to pressure encouraging them to give previously dismissed host applicants a chance to prove their sceptics wrong.
This shift in attitude has culminated in the selection of three soon-to-be hosts raising eyebrows the world over. This year’s European Championships will, of course, be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, with the FIFA Executive Committee selecting Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. Whilst the political and humanitarian problems facing Russia, and the highly controversial circumstances surrounding allegations of bribery aligned with Qatar’s successful bid, UEFA’s decision to grant Poland and Ukraine Euro 2012 at first seemed a comparatively safe one.
However, as the tournament has edged closer, the increasingly authoritarian Ukrainian presidency of Viktor Yanukovich has begun to mar the anticipation and excitement of the country’s ever-determined steps away from its former Soviet allegiance. At the centre of the political storm threatening to detract from and, at its most serious pledge, boycott the tournament, is the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko. A former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Ms Tymoshenko has been subjected to gross ill-treatment from arch political foe Yanukovich, and has recently been the victim of unprovoked beating by state guards on a visit to a medical centre.
Stories and political unrest of this nature has led to an increasing question mark over the tournament’s viability in one half of the proposed hosting pair, whilst Poland has not escaped the glare of the scrupulous world media, either. Having long faced the issue of football hooliganism in its domestic leagues, Poland’s fan troubles of the past have only compounded UEFA’s fears over the smooth running of the tournament. With chaotic scenes of flares, fires and violence in the stands at a recent clash between Legia Warszawa and Lech Poznan, and the description of the bitter rivalry between Kraków clubs Cracovia and Wisla as a “holy war”, it comes as no surprise that there are concerns over fan behaviour this summer.
Add to these very public criticisms the recent brandishing of Lviv hotel owners by Michel Platini as “bandits and crooks” for their Euro 2012-inspired hike in prices, claims of police criminality and extortion in Ukraine by Amnesty International, and a recent terrorist attack on the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. The situation as it stands does not bode well for two countries aiming to use the event as a platform to propel themselves in to a position of long-awaited approval by their European peers.
With relations between the powers-that-be in Europe becoming increasingly strained over the security concerns surrounding fan safety and infrastructure adequacy, proposals were put in place, and promptly accepted by UEFA, to postpone the tournament until 2013, with Spanish Football Federation president Angel Maria Villar offering Spain as a fall-back option to maintain the competition’s four-year cycle this summer.
Despite the problems facing the tournament, one thing must not be forgotten. The tournament is fundamentally a stage for the finest players in Europe to contest the honour of being crowned the continent’s elite. Thus, any debate surrounding political or otherwise off-field issues touted as possible overshadows should remain irrevocably separate from the on-field events. The friction and high-pressure environment that Ukraine finds itself in, and the Polish struggle to update fans’ behaviour to a more modern and UEFA-accepted standard will undoubtedly be investigated further with the tournament’s conclusion, yet, with today marking the one-month countdown to the Opening Ceremony in Warsaw’s National Stadium, the football should begin to regain precedence. Provided there are no further causes for concern, it is my firm belief that the tournament should be staged as planned in Poland and Ukraine, offering both countries the chance to disprove their critics, and begin to rebuild their unfortunately damaged public image.