There’s still time” is the mantra recited by almost everyone connected with preparations for Euro 2012. With one year to go, stadiums may still resemble building sites, roads remain unbuilt and airport extensions are incomplete, but, somehow, some way, everything will be alright on the night.
“The road has not always been easy to ride,” said UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino during a tour of the eight host cities in June. “The project was a high risk 18 months ago with some delays in development. There have been some hiccups along the way, and I lost a few hairs worrying about preparations, but
our doubts have been wiped out.”
The 2007 decision to award the tournament hosting rights to Poland and Ukraine was controversial, but seen as payback for the east European support given to Michel Platini in his successful campaign to oust Lennart Johansson as UEFA president.
Euro 2012 is UEFA’s first venture into eastern Europe for a major tournament. What was already a major organisational headache was exacerbated by the global recession in 2008, when Ukraine turned to the International Monetary Fund for help and many public sector projects were jettisoned.
In April 2010, Platini gave Ukraine a final ultimatum – a “yellow card” in his own footballspeak – and warned that any further delays in the construction of the Kiev stadium, the proposed venue for the Euro 2012 Final, would result in Ukraine being stripped of its host status.
Now, with a year to go, UEFA officials are more relaxed about preparations. “It may be that some stadiums open their doors a few weeks late, but we are honestly not worried,” says Infantino.
It’s been a steep learning curve for UEFA, who have quickly had to work out how to deal with the eastern european mindset. “In Switzerland we like to get on with things,” admits one UEFA official. “Here, they like to sit down with a drink and get to know you over the course of an evening before they do business with you.”
ExCo member Frantisek Laurinec, from neighbouring Slovakia, concurs: “The east European mentality is very different to western Europe, to the Germans and the Swiss. They need to be given deadlines.”
Deadlines are most pressing in Lviv and Kiev, where the stadiums are behind schedule. Lviv’s was due to open with a friendly against Austria on November 15, but that deadline is unlikely to be met, with less than 50 per cent of the build complete. The stadium in Kiev is still little more than a building site, although local officials claim that the build is 87 per cent complete. More than 2,000 construction workers are employed and the original cost has tripled to more than £300m. UEFA officials privately concede that the proposed opening match, a friendly against Germany in November, may have to be moved to another venue.
There have also been allegations of corruption. In Donetsk, the local mayor, Alexander Lukyanchenko, came under fire when accounts revealed that £330,000 had been spent on 10 portable toilets for the city’s fanzone. “You have to pay for comfort,” Lukyanchenko weakly explained. In Kharkiv, mayor Gennady Kernes spent £52,500 on 10 benches in the new Alexeyevskaya subway station, although a town hall spokesman, when questioned by journalists, claimed “all these benches are works of art”!
At least Donetsk and Kharkiv are well advanced in their preparations, thanks to the intervention of local oligarchs.
Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, has invested heavily in his club’s impressive Donbass Arena – a 51,500-capacity stadium which will host a Euro 2012 semi-final – as well as a training base with facilities to put most of those used by western European clubs to shame.
In Kharkiv, local billionaire Alexandre Yaroslavsky has put $265million into a stadium (used by his team, Metalist), a training complex, a headquarters for UEFA and a new airport for the city.
“We have made great progress, look at Kharkiv, and look at Metalist,” Yaroslavsky said, as he showed journalists around the city. “One year ago this was empty land. Five years ago, Metalist was in the second division, now we are ready to challenge the top clubs of Europe.”
The downside of holding a tournament in industrial cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv is that hotel accommodation is severely limited. In Donetsk, where there are currently only 650 hotel beds, journalists were taken to a field on the outskirts of the city where organisers hope visiting fans will rent tents at a makeshift campsite. There are also plans for universities’ summer 2012 term to end prematurely in order to free up rooms in college dormitories.
Meanwhile, in Poland, the problems lie not with the stadiums, which are either ready or close to completion, but with the transport infrastructure.
Warsaw’s stadium, almost complete, will gain many plaudits, while in Gdansk, the new PGE Arena is an architectural triumph, a 40,000-capacity stadium finished with a yellow plastic coating designed to replicate amber, the resin that is mined from the local Baltic coastline. But there are serious doubts as to whether the road linking Gdansk airport to the city centre will be ready on time.
The Polish government had hoped that a proposed motorway, linking Gdansk in the north with the Polish-Czech border in the south, would be completed in time. That ambition has been shelved, but UEFA’s Infantino puts a brave face on the setback, suggesting: “Poland is already connected with the rest of Europe.”
A recent report by the Polish Supreme Audit Office (NIK) criticised the lack of progress in preparing the country’s transport infrastructure in time for the Euros, claiming: “Euro 2012 preparations have visibly advanced. But the scale of delays, abandoned projects and poorly implemented investments is so significant that it may threaten the smooth running of the tournament.
“NIK states that modernising the road infrastructure has suffered the most serious negligence.”
Hooliganism is another headache after the recent trouble at the Polish Cup Final. There is particular concern that, should Germany, Russia and England qualify for the finals, far-right groups may use the former Nazi concentration camps in Poland as potential rallying points.
Grzegorsz Lato, the former World Cup star who is now Poland’s FA president, was brutally honest about the problem, admitting: “I am shocked by our hooligan fans. In my career as a footballer I never experienced anything like that. I can only apologise.”
Infantino added that UEFA is monitoring the situation carefully. “The eyes of the world will be on Poland,” he says. “It’s an issue we are treating very seriously and we have to tackle it.”
The sheer size of both countries will make travel between the venues problematic, even if airport and road improvements are completed on time. But for those fans who stay close to the historic centres of Gdansk, Wroclaw and Poznan in Poland, and Lviv in Ukraine, an enjoyable time is envisaged.
“It may be that one road is not fully repaired or that one star is missing somewhere on a hotel,” explains a confident Infantino. “But I am sure that this will be compensated by the hospitality people receive.”
By Gavin Hamilton