Thursday, February 22, 2007

Polish Soccar Scandal May Hurt Ukraine

Ukraine’s hopes of hosting the 2012 European soccer championship may be under threat due to an escalating scandal in neighboring Poland, with which it recently submitted a joint bid.

Days before the bid was submitted on Feb. 14, the controversial head of Ukraine’s Football Federation (FFU), Hryhory Surkis, blamed the Polish government for jeopardizing both countries’ big chance to earn top tourist revenues from the major sporting event by allegedly mishandling a corruption scandal.

In January, a member of the Polish Football Association (PZPN) was detained on charges of fixing matches and bribing referees in addition to more than 60 Polish soccer officials detained or arrested over the last 11 months.

Poland’s Sports Ministry supported the crackdown and threatened to prosecute corrupt soccer officials.

On Jan. 19, Polish Sports Minister Thomasz Lipiec removed a top PZPN official.

In a Feb. 5 interview with Russia’s Sport Express daily, Surkis accused the Polish Sports Ministry of “cynical actions and statements.”

Surkis, a businessman and former member of parliament, said Polish Sports Minister Lipiec doesn’t know what he’s doing.

No stranger to controversy related to politics, business as well as football, Surkis made similar statements to the Polish daily Dziennik.

Adam Olkowich, vice president of the Polish Euro-2012 committee, said Lipiec also demanded that the entire PZPN board resigns and that new elections be held for their posts. As of Feb. 13, the ministry and PZPN had still not set a date and procedure for new elections, he added.

On Jan. 22, the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA, and the Federation of International Football Associations, FIFA, issued a joint statement in which they expressed concern about the appointment of a new commissioner to head PZPN. Both organizations expressed their concern that the handling of the situation violated the principles of independent sports and contravened FIFA statutes.

Later, on Jan. 31, FIFA issued an even harsher statement saying that if the Polish Sports Ministry does not reverse its decision to appoint a commissioner it might face suspension of PZPN from “all international contacts,” “participation in international competitions,” and “organizations of international matches.”

Lipiec stood firm, however, brushing criticism aside. He told Polish journalists on Jan. 25 that both countries’ joint bid was hurt more by the PZPN’s failure to handle the corruption affair properly.

Surkis, recently elected to the UEFA executive committee, said that similar state interference into soccer affairs in Greece and Portugal led to disqualifications of these countries from any international soccer activities until their parliaments legislatively limited such interference. There might not be enough time left to do that in Poland’s case, he added.

Olkowich said that he could only hope that the current football scandal would have a minimal influence on the UEFA’s decision regarding the Euro-2012 host.

UEFA will take a final decision on April 18.

Although the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), based in Switzerland, received the joint bid on time, Ukraine and Poland must still compete against the runner up bids from fellow Eastern Europeans Hungary-Croatia and World Cup winner Italy, which itself was rocked by a match-fixing scandal last year.

The joint Ukrainian-Polish bid has faced other hurdles. Surkis was accused of jeopardizing the Ukrainian-Polish Euro-2012 bid last March in connection with his hard-line position in relation to a shopping project near Kyiv’s Olympic stadium. Through appeals to city lawmakers and administrators, the FFU managed to halt construction of the shopping center, which borders the stadium. The FFU maintained that the shopping center, already half built, violated UEFA safety standards. Construction was halted last year and has not resumed since.

Insiders close to the construction project claimed that Surkis’s motivation for the protest was related to his business interests, not football.

Last November, Surkis’ younger brother Ihor, who co-owns and heads one of Ukraine’s leading soccer teams, Dynamo Kyiv, was at the center of a football scandal closer to home.

The coach of a rival Ukrainian team Shakhtar, Romanian Mircea Lucescu, suggested at a press conference that the two brothers had fixed a match through the placement of an impartial foreign referee.