Four weeks of fear ahead in land of the rip-off and the racist
Sharply inflated hotel prices and antagonism towards non-whites is leading many England fans to stay at home
Hard as it is to believe, just 12 days from now Euro 2012 will kick off. Yet almost uniquely for a major international football tournament, there is no sense of a clock ticking down or gathering rush of expectation. In its place is widespread concern about a tournament which no one, outside its hosts, appears to want.
While almost every major international sporting event is preceded by worries about logistics and preparations, Euro 2012 has been ill-fated from the moment that Uefa's executive committee voted by eight to four that it should be jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine instead of Italy. Sixteen national football squads and their thousands of fans could have been heading to Florence, Milan and Rome. Instead they are about to sample the delights of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv for what is widely regarded as the least compelling major tournament of modern times; and over the past week matters have been coming to a head, with politicians, human-rights campaigners and football fans expressing concern about the prospects.
First there is the Ukrainian government's handling of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and sworn enemy of the current president, Viktor Yanukovych. Sentenced to seven years in prison last year on charges widely seen as politically motivated, she was photographed covered in bruises, which she says were caused by mistreatment there. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other European leaders are now boycotting the Ukrainian leg of the tournament and Ms Tymoshenko is receiving treatment at a hospital in Kharkiv, where Germany play Holland in one of the few attractive group matches.
Yanukovych brushed aside criticism last week, insisting that the tournament would be a success. "All the tickets have been sold and there is an amazing sense of excitement," he said. This is not true. When Uefa reopened sales again last week there were tickets still available for many games, including the final in Kiev.
Little has been done to rectify a chronic lack of accommodation in Ukraine, and most of the country's hotels have put their prices up significantly. In Donetsk, where England play two of their three group games, there are no hotel rooms left, and the only options for fans looking now are a "camping park" on the outskirts of the city, or renting Soviet-era flats at exorbitant prices. Furthermore it is a 10-hour drive between Kiev and Donetsk, and with flights expensive, many will want to take the train. The only problem is that neither tickets nor timetables have been released yet. Ukraine has bought a consignment of high-speed trains and plans to get them up and running next week, but such last-minute logistics are hardly helpful for fans who were expected to buy tickets months ago.
With venues such as Krakow and Chorzow also available, Poland could happily have staged the tournament alone. Uefa spent months telling Ukraine their preparations were behind schedule and even threatening to take the tournament away from them. Once the stadiums were finally ready, concerns switched to how visiting supporters would be treated, with Uefa's president, Michel Platini,calling hoteliers "bandits and crooks" for huge increases in prices. "You can't change [the price of a room] from €40 (£32) to €100, then up to €500, just like that from one day to the other, this just is not done," he tried to point out.
England, who traditionally have one of the biggest followings in international football, have for once been sending tickets back rather than begging for more. Kevin Miles, who is the international director of the Football Supporters Federation and will be attending his ninth tournament, believes there will be no more than 4,000 English fans at the two games in Donetsk and 6,000 for the match with Sweden in Kiev.
"I can't remember a turnout as low as that," he said yesterday. "The hotels just see it as a big opportunity to cash in, because Donetsk is not a tourist destination. At the World Cup in South Africa we were able to talk to the British embassy and the tourist association and persuade them that it was an opportunity to showcase their country, persuade people to come back on holiday. But when I tried that in Donetsk they looked at me as if I was mad and basically said, 'Mr Miles, nobody will come back here'.
"The attitude was that they'd make what they could while they could. I do think it's now maybe starting to dawn on them that they've misjudged it a bit and that it's not much good having hotel rooms at a thousand dollars a night if they're empty."
As protests spread, the feminist group Femen have twice tried to snatch the trophy when it has been on public display. Tomorrow Amnesty International will publish a report that is expected to be critical of Poland, where there have been well-publicised fears of hooliganism and racism, which in Ukraine is even worse. The former coach of Ukraine, the national hero Oleg Blokhin, once bemoaned the number of African players in the league, saying: "Ukrainians should learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League." He faced no sanctions for his comments from the country's football association. Official Foreign Office advice is now that "Travellers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent and individuals belonging to religious minorities should take extra care". That has prompted the unprecedented decision by the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to stay at home.
Fifa officials, who gave up on the idea of co-hosting a decade ago, are privately saying it will be a fraught four weeks. Their Uefa equivalents appear to be crossing every digit and hoping for the best.
Who's not happy...
As with every major tournament there is expected to be an influx of prostitutes and pimps. The Ukrainian organisation Femen,who specialise in topless protests, have already made two well-publicised attempts to grab the European Championship trophy and promise more stunts
Official Foreign Office guidance warns non-white visitors to Ukraine to take "extra care" because of racist attacks. Even relatives of the England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who could afford good accommodation, have declined to go
Amnesty have expressed concern about human rights, homophobia and police criminality and are expected to publish a critical report about Poland in the next few days
Foreign ministers discussed a boycott of the tournament because of the treatment of Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving seven years in prison, where supporters claim she has been physically beaten
Fans and media
In Donetsk, where England play two of their three group games, lack of accommodation has led to sky-high prices. Many people will stay at home; others are taking day trips like the one leaving Stansted at 4.30am and arriving back at 10pm hours later. Cost: £499.
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