Poland is a big country. Ukraine far bigger. They are countries alternately running and stumbling to make up for the time lost while in thrall to a Communist system whose idealistic dreams vanished in the Iron Curtain night.
Repeatedly over the past week or so, when the media focus on racism and hooliganism filled the pre-Euro 2012 vacuum, the question has been posed: ‘Why Poland? Why Ukraine?
The answer owes much to the transformation of sports event bidding from a matter of boardroom negotiation to intense and lucrative – and very public – industry. One need only dip a toe in the ripples of the Olympic or World Cup or Euro bidding ocean to feel the power of the undercurrent.
Yet this bidding industry is subverting, in its own self-protective interest, its very raison d’etre. This much has become ever more clear from the first week in Poland, the better-prepared of the two Euro 2012 partners.
A contradictory truth is that, by and large now, the big sports events are being entrusted to countries which are NOT capable of staging them rather than to countries which are.
Bid and host leaders have certain buzz words, categories which must be ticked off.
One is ‘legacy,’ the benefits which an event is supposed to leave behind for the local populace who have to shoulder the hindrance of preparation, of the event itself and of the subsequent tax bill.
Another is ‘sustainability’ which is the carbon footprint generated from building all of, and dismantling some of, the infrastructure. Bids always promise something close to a zero carbon footprint and then, once the prize has been secured and work is under way, admit that the promise was a practical nonsense.
Also due for assessment is the ‘white elephant’ factor: stadia built to suit the career whim of some local businesman or politician but which serve no subsequent community or sporting value [Qatar has promised to meet this challenge after the 2022 World Cup by dismantling many of the new stadia and shipping them off to grateful, forelock-tucking nations in the developing world].
More and more nowadays the white elephants are being hidden in a herd of grey ones.
Consider the magnificent new stadia in Poland.
The need for a new national stadium was undeniable and the one which will host Poland against Russia is indeed impressive, designed to resemble – from a distance – a crown. But would the other new stadia elsewhere have been strictly necessary without Euro 2012?
A deeply unsatisfactory twist of social fate in evidenced on the local train out beyond the main station in Gdansk. The train trundles past the iconic shipyards which saw the rise of Solidarity but which now stand derelict and bankrupt . . . on the way out to the gleaming ‘amber fortress’ which represents a multi-million investment in football.
There’s a message about national priorities somewhere there.
Strictly speaking the Polish travel infrastructure is not up to the demands of a major football tournament. Key highways are unfinished, ‘simple’ internet travel booking is non-existent and the grumpiness which characterised the service industry under Communism lives on in the older generation.
Surely travel industry employees should be welcoming foreign visitors rather than giving an impression of just putting up with them?
Host rights are awarded for a variety of reasons. One is commercial, measured in sponsor market potential; one is social democratic (sharing the spoils around); and one is political (cuddling up to ‘middle earth’ brought Michel Platini the votes to secure his UEFA presidency; just as expanding the World Cup, to its detriment where the football was concerned, empowered Joao Havelange with African and Asian votes).
Nothing matches football for cutting through the barriers of race, religion and political enmity. It offers a platform for engagement which can act as a catalyst for social development and understanding.
But ultimately – even though Michel Platini criticises others for “playing politics” with sport – this is why he is in Poland and Ukraine right now (It’s also how he got elected in the place of Lennart Johansson).
Ultimately bid awarding is a political decision. If it were a technical one, based on high-quality capability – then a small nucleus of countries such as Germany, England, France etc would host everything.
The price of a political decision is accepting that staging will be adequate rather than outstanding and accepting, and working with, any ‘demons’ of an unreconstructed society – such as racial abuse, to name but one.
That’s the price of progress. The ideal venue for stage the biggest events is known as The Grey Area.