Face paint fades and fan zones empty as Poland and Ukraine exit Euro 2012

 

Warsaw

A couple of months ago, it might have seemed like the highlight of the Sabat theatre group's year to play in Warsaw's 100,000-capacity city-centre fan zone in the middle of its biggest ever international party at Euro 2012.

They are dancing for all they are worth, banging out Ricky Martin's "Viva La Vida Loca" in front of an arena roughly equal in size to four football pitches. But only a few dozen people are watching.

Four days after Poland's first-round exit, Euro 2012 is sliding off the front pages and organisers are desperately seeking ways of keeping party zones humming. Officials say only 30,000 visited Warsaw's fan zone before and during the final games of the group stages on Tuesday, down from 170,000 for Poland's defeat to the Czech Republic on Saturday.

One of the girls on a Coca-Cola stall at the fan zone said: "The truth is that when Poland lost, everyone left in about 15 minutes flat, leaving their drinks behind them. It was almost like one of those western scenes with tumbleweed in the desert."

It is a problem Uefa faced in Austria and Switzerland in 2008 and looked a risk from the moment it awarded the tournament to a pair of nations from outside of Europe's footballing elite for the second time running.

The stadiums have been largely filled in Poland by a population excited at the arrival of Europe finest players – who, thanks to the weakness of the domestic game, they have seen very little of.

No Polish team has played in the Champions League group stages for 16 years, yet football remains the closest thing the country has to a national sport.

"We are being praised for the excellent organisation of Euro 2012 and its atmosphere," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said this week. "It is just too bad we dropped out especially in view of the huge fan support we gave our side. The players did their best but they were not good enough."

Ukraine, desperately short of funds and still discussing another bailout with the IMF, struggled more than European Union member Poland to build the infrastructure required by Uefa. The tournament in Ukraine has been marred by politics.

Empty seats which officials claim were deliberately left vacant because of poor visibility have marked a number of the games and Western leaders have boycotted the tournament in protest at the jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

It has not spilled over into mass protests but efforts to keep Ukrainians enthusiastic were not helped by a controversially disallowed goal in Tuesday's defeat by England.

"Bravo Uefa, it was nice hosting the Euro with you," popular daily newspaper Segodnya wrote on Wednesday.

Kiev's fan zone was all but deserted yesterday afternoon but that may have had something to do with the excessive heat. Cars have largely ceased to carry the national flags used to express support for the team.

At least organisers say quarter-final tickets, newly put on sale by federations whose teams have been eliminated, are being snapped up at a rate of 1,000 per hour.

"Many Ukrainians have obviously lost interest but for me it is still interesting who moves on into the finals. I support Spain now," said Olexander, 18, one of just a handful of people who still had the Ukrainian flag painted on his cheeks.

In Baltic coast city Gdansk, where Germany's game against Greece tonight has turned minds to the economic crisis affecting many of the nations and fans involved, Monday's game between Croatia and cash-strapped Spain showed gaping holes in the stands.

"It is sad," said 28-year old Michal Nowosad, a local running one of the city's fan embassies. "There are less people wearing Poland jerseys now and for the last couple of days the fan zone has been pretty empty, perhaps with only 2,000 people or so.

"Unfortunately I think a lot of Poles will lose interest in the tournament now."

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