Paul Kelso: How prepared are Poland and Ukraine for an invasion of football fans next summer?
WHEN two nations once shrouded by the Iron Curtain were selected to host Euro 2012, the concerns typically raised about any hosts were amplified by the challenge of delivering a tournament in countries facing huge economic and social challenges.
There was an element of risk for Uefa in choosing to head east to countries with a football history more impressive than their pedigree.
The decision was partly payback from Michel Platini to the eastern bloc nations that helped him into office just three months before the vote in April 2007.
Four years on the decision does not look so fanciful given that the runner-up, Italy, is facing an economic and political crisis that makes staging a football tournament look an expensive and largely irrelevant distraction.
Euro 2012 is at least a priority for the Polish and Ukrainian governments, who have spent an estimated €25?billion between them to prepare for the tournament. But the challenge has been huge.
The European Championship has never been staged this far east, and the event never been shared by countries so large.
Austria and Switzerland co-hosted a model tournament in 2008, but the infrastructure challenge alone will make next summer’s party a very different affair.
A supporter wanting to watch matches in the most westerly venue of Gdansk and the furthest east, Donetsk, faces a 1,850km (1,150 mile) journey.
They will find magnificent state-of-the-art new stadiums at either end of the trek, as well as the impressive upgraded arenas in Warsaw and Kiev, all of which are superior to any that were used in 2008, but other infrastructure has been challenging.
Roads, rail and air links have all required upgrading, with varying degrees of completion, and hotel rooms in some venues, Donetsk in particular, will be as hard to find as directions using signage in Ukraine that is almost exclusively in Cyrillic.
Fans struggling to tell north from south on the Kiev Metro has been the least of Uefa’s worries in the last year.
Progress was painfully slow at first, particularly in Ukraine where political upheaval hampered planning. Only since the election of a new hard-line government in 2010, ousting the Orange revolution administration, has Uefa received the comfort and results it asked for.
“We have come a long way in the last three or four years and I think we are in good shape for the last six months of preparation,” Uefa’s tournament director Martin Kallen told Telegraph Sport.
“It was a very interesting last 12 months but we are very pleased where we are standing today. At one stage we were thinking we may not have been as far along the road as we are now.”
Political will is in place and on the evidence of 48 hours the people are eager to please, and looking forward to welcoming new visitors on the other side of another harsh winter.
The practical challenge for supporters will remain, and today’s draw contains further pitfalls for organisers. If Germany are drawn to play in Ukraine — groups B and D — their fans will have to cross Poland to get there. Likewise Russia if they are drawn in the Polish-based groups A and C.
Group B also promises to be challenging if those nations or England, Holland and Ireland are drawn in it. The stadiums in Kharkiv (39,000) and Lviv (35,000) are the smallest in the tournament, and accommodation will be a challenge.
The quarter and semi-finals in Donetsk will also pose problems, with a chronic shortage of hotel rooms meaning supporters will have to be airlifted in on charter flights to an airport with a vital new terminal only due to be completed in March.
Supporters of all teams will have fewer dedicated tickets to go round, with just 5,000 allocated to each competing FA for each team, down from 6,000 in the previous Euros. Uefa says this is to ensure that stadiums are full, with locals able to access tickets.
For all the challenges the tournament will be well attended, with Sweden and Denmark joining the European big five, and hoping for a short hop across the Baltic by ferry to Poland from the draw.
Whoever comes, Kallen is confident they will find a buoyant football economy, regardless of the financial maelstrom: “People will enjoy exploring countries they might not come to except for football. This has to be good for the European game.”