Saturday, December 20, 2008

Red cards? Poland and Ukraine struggle as soccer hosts

It seemed like the perfect plan, if a slightly risky one. Give Poland and Ukraine, two of Europe's largest emerging economies, the chance to hold the Continent's premier soccer tournament, build on the Continent's fan base and help secure the sport's future in Eastern Europe.

After nearly two years plagued with disorganization, corruption and now a global financial crisis, the former Soviet-bloc countries' future as co-hosts of the Euro 2012 tournament is looking far from secure. What ideally would be a pretty straightforward process - getting national teams together to play soccer in front of fans and television cameras - has turned into a multinational melodrama that could have sprung from the pages of Gogol.

Ukraine has played the part of the down-on-his-luck guy, Poland the corrupt official and Germany the ready opportunist, prepared to sweep in and take over part of the tournament if Ukraine stumbles. After a series of harshly critical reports and comments by officials, there has been a flurry of activity as the two countries try to prove that they have their acts together so that the European soccer federation, UEFA, does not pull the plug.

Both countries have begun work on the marquee stadiums in their capitals, Kiev and Warsaw. To satisfy UEFA concerns about crowd control, the Ukrainians went as far as destroying a brand new shopping center built nearly on top of the stadium in Kiev.

So far, their efforts seem to have somewhat allayed the fears of soccer officials here. "We have full confidence in Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine," Michel Platini, the UEFA president, said in Nyon, Switzerland, on Wednesday after meeting with officials from the two countries.

That was a significant improvement over the UEFA announcement in September, which stated that Poland and Ukraine had "erred because of a lack of experience and rigor, and that the development of the necessary infrastructure needed for the good running of the final tournament was practically at a standstill."

So it was with understandable relief that a delegation from Ukraine's Euro 2012 organizing committee arrived at the plush diplomatic reception hall of Kiev's Boryspil airport on Wednesday, jovial - and a bit tipsy - after the meeting in Nyon, which many said was the most positive and cooperative they have had.

"Ukraine and Poland have demonstrated major progress in their preparations," said Hryhoriy Surkis, president of Ukraine's football federation. "We have really gotten into a rhythm."

It sounds like a familiar story, as with the Athens Olympics in Greece. The host is unprepared and a major sporting event begins to look like a looming disaster, then the imminent deadlines pull everyone together and the event goes off without a hitch.

But there is one major difference. The economic forces at play are beyond the control of the two governments.

The troubles faced by Poland and Ukraine serve as a lesson that sports do not take place on a rarified plane, but are subject to the same economic forces that plague homeowners under foreclosure and investment bankers looking for jobs.

Sponsoring the event requires a lot more than building just two stadiums - it means constructing and expanding roads, railroads and airports, not to mention making sure there are enough hotel rooms.

There is precedent for a country losing a big sporting event: Colombia was to host the World Cup in 1986 but had to yield to Mexico because of financial difficulties connected with a worldwide recession in 1982 and a drop in prices for coffee, the country's major export.

While Poland is, at least for now, on much more stable footing economically than Ukraine, it had its own difficulties this autumn after dozens of coaches, referees and officials were arrested in a graft investigation. A former national team manager, Janusz Wojcik, was charged with 11 counts of corruption.

The Polish government suspended the national soccer association's management board, running afoul of FIFA rules that stipulate that national soccer associations must remain free of government interference.

The controversy almost cost the country its right to host the tournament - and nearly forced the cancellation of qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup - before a compromise for electing a new board was reached in October.

Miroslaw Drzewiecki, Poland's minister of sport and tourism, said in an interview that everything was back on track, both with the soccer association and the preparations for the championship. The Polish master plan and timetable are in place, he said, and funding is safe and stable, even in light of the financial crisis.

"In many cases, we have made up for lost time when we were behind schedule, and in other cases we are actually ahead of schedule," Drzewiecki said.

At the site of the National Stadium along the Vistula River in Warsaw's Praga district, still just a muddy hole where the old stadium once stood, the rhythmic thudding of pile drivers pounds like a heartbeat.

While the stadiums in the two capitals are clearly required, UEFA has said that between six and eight venues are needed, and not necessarily the same number in each country. Polish officials sounded confident that they could end up hosting a majority of the matches.