All to play for: How is Ukraine shaping up ahead of Euro 2012?

Peter Popham casts his eye over the state of the Euro 2012 co-host ahead of the tournament, while Abigail Wilson asks locals how they expect their nation – and their lives – to change following the competition.

In Ukraine there is no getting away from the "good old days". This is a country where there was once no word for poverty. It took many years of exposure to capitalism before the concept was understood. But now it has sunk in, and today 30 per cent of Ukrainians live below the poverty line.

Of course, Ukraine's lack of poverty was founded on the fantasy economics of Soviet Communism. The trouble is that by the time the absurdity of central planning was fully appreciated, its achievements, such as the Kharkiv football stadium in the north-east, near the Russian border, glittered in people's memories like monuments of a golden age.

Today, Kharkiv's Metalist Stadium glitters again: after an expensive re-fit it is one of the four stadiums in the country hosting games in Euro 2012, Ukraine's baptism into the glamorous world of international sporting events: along k with Poland, it is co-host of the tournament, which begins on 8 June. Yet only a short distance from the stadium, languishing in the city's jail, is another symbol of another age of great promise – that brief moment, crystallised in the words Orange Revolution and the image of Yulia Tymoshenko and her coronet of blonde braids, of a Ukraine ready to challenge Russian hegemony and turn West to claim a new, democratic destiny as part of the European Union.

In 2007, a few months after the Uefa meeting in Cardiff that picked Ukraine as co-host, Tymoshenko won her second term as Ukraine's prime minister. But last August, after a narrow election defeat, she was sentenced to seven years' jail for abuse of office in connection with a gas deal she had negotiated with Russia in 2009. This was widely seen as a way for her political nemesis, President Viktor Yanukovich, to remove her from the scene – "justice being applied selectively under political motivation", as the EU put it. Now her daughter fears her mother's life may be at risk.

Outside on the streets, Euro 2012 has done much to burnish Ukraine's appearance, the same effect the Olympics had on Athens (and is having on Stratford): roads have been upgraded, hotels built, the four stadiums expensively refurbished. Yet, as in Athens (and Stratford?), the good effects may prove to be as ephemeral as they are superficial.

"We try to make sure as many services for the tournament as possible are sourced from the local community," says David Slavsky, a Uefa official in Kharkiv – yet he acknowledges that the effect of the tournament on the biggest fans – Ukraine's football-crazy kids – will be negligible. The only children directly involved will be the ball kids and player k escorts; the latter, in a programme sponsored by McDonald's, selected from across Europe. And with entry to the games priced at a minimum €30 – "Ukrainians can afford that if they save a bit," he claims – for most young locals, the tournament may as well be taking place on the moon.

Outside on the streets, nothing is getting better. The dream of entering Europe is on hold; Russia is trying to lure Ukraine back into its Soviet-era dependency, urging it to join a customs union. For the mass of Ukrainians, 20 years of freedom from Communism are beginning to look like a long-drawn-out disaster. A few Ukrainians are grotesquely rich, the rest struggle to make ends meet. The old ways are re-asserting themselves – the babushka, the granny, is again a figure of huge importance in holding families together. Without the support of international charities such as World Jewish Relief, working alongside local organisations, the situation would be far worse. Its support for the most vulnerable, including but by no means restricted to Ukraine's poorest Jews, touches the lives of some 30,000.

Even so, the lack of hope takes a terrible toll. Alcoholism has long been a problem, but today it has become the starkest symbol of social regression. In the past it caught up with men in middle age; today, Ukraine has the biggest problem with adolescent alcoholism in the world, and the scourge drives the children of broken homes into orphanages, where they get hooked on drink even before puberty. By the age of 25, nearly a third of men are alcoholics. England's notoriously beery fans will find themselves in good company.

For more on World Jewish Relief's work, visit wjr.org.uk

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