Great on the pitch but Poland and Ukraine is chaos off it at Euro 2012
It is Jonathan Wilson's 13th tournament but the first time he's ended up sleeping on train floors
Thursday 14 June 2012
Something strange has happened in international sports administration, football in particular. Somehow, over the past decade, the idea has taken hold that what is most important about a major tournament isn't the tournament itself but its legacy: don't worry about the dry husk today, just make sure there is the promise of jam tomorrow. The result is the bizarre situation in which having the capacity to stage a major tournament is itself a reason why a country won't be given the chance to.
Perhaps it is part of the marketing creep that has overwhelmed sport. It's a lot easier to avoid awkward questions about the here and now if you can point to possible future benefits that almost certainly will never be interrogated. The mentality has even seeped into football punditry; immediately after Manchester City had clinched the Premier League title by scoring two goals in injury time, Graeme Souness commented that it was "a great advert for the Premier League". It really wasn't; it was a great moment of sporting drama in and of itself.
And in this tournament, serious questions do need to be asked about the here and now. The benefits for Poland and Ukraine may be enormous – I hope they are – but should a football tournament really function as a charity? Surely the aim of Uefa – or Fifa or CAF or Conmebol or whoever – should be to put on the best possible tournament. That means a fair competition, good football, an enjoyable environment for fans, a competitive spectacle for viewers. It has to pay for itself, of course, and if it makes a small profit that can be reinvested in football then that's even better.
Part of me was delighted when Poland and Ukraine were awarded the right to host Euro 2012. I've been to both countries on numerous occasions and have great fondness for both. I'd love for them both to challenge at World Cups, for their clubs to develop and challenge the western European hegemony. I felt a warm glow at the delirium when Andrei Shevchenko scored his second goal against Sweden. I'd be delighted if exposure to both nations broke down some of the prejudices and stereotypes that exist about them in western Europe.
But the fact is that Euro 2012 is the most illogical tournament ever hosted in Europe. It's the 13th tournament I've covered (three Euros, two World Cups, five African Cups of Nations, one Copa America, one Asian Cup, one Under-20 World Cup) and it's the one in which logistics are proving the biggest challenge. It's not – obviously - that the infrastructure is worse than Equatorial Guinea or Angola or Mali, it's that the number of fans mean the stress on it is far greater.
On Sunday I went from Warsaw to Italy against Spain in Gdansk. I was booked on a train back, but a series of delays and the chaos at the station as thousands of Italian and Spanish fans tried to find places meant I was advised to get on a train to Katowice, changing at Bydgoszcz. The connection was rammed, so I ended up huddled on the corridor floor for four hours being whacked by the door every time anybody went to the toilet. It was after 7am when I got back.
Maybe I was unlucky, but there are clear structural inadequacies. The train from Warsaw to Lviv takes over 11 hours because of the need to change to a different gauge at the border. A drive would take around five hours but it's illegal to take a hire car across the border from Poland to Ukraine. Foreigners effectively have to fly via Kiev, which is costly and time-consuming. Internal travel is appallingly difficult and there aren't enough hotel rooms. I'm yet to meet a fan or journalist who's been to more than one venue and hasn't spent at least one night sleeping on a train or station or airport floor.
Little wonder so many fans have stayed away. With many local supporters priced out, there are swathes of empty seats at games for the first time at a Euros since 1996. There were half-empty stadiums in South Africa as well. Is that really a price worth paying for legacy?
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