KIEV — In Ukraine, soccer is simply politics pursued through other means.
The vicious and sometimes petty power struggle at the highest reaches of the country’s government has spilled over to its sports fields.
Two years ago, UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body, awarded Ukraine and its Slavic neighbor Poland the prestigious designation as co-hosts of the European soccer championships in 2012. The European championship, held every four years, is the largest international soccer tournament after the World Cup and one of the world’s largest sporting events.
Only UEFA didn’t reckon on Ukraine’s dysfunctional ruling elite. Now Ukraine’s ability to host its part of the games is under threat, which could have wide-ranging political repercussions here. The original announcement that Poland and Ukraine had been selected as the 2012 venue was met with great pride and anticipation. Ukraine, a soccer mad nation, was taking one more step closer to Europe, it was hoped, and Europeans would discover the charms of this nation of 46 million on the continent’s edge. Billions of dollars would gush into the country from investors and tourists. The country’s creaking infrastructure would receive a complete overhaul, from roads and airports to hotels and stadiums. And UEFA saw massive dollar signs in terms of the new markets of consumers in the East that would open up.
But it seems nothing is immune to the battle royal between President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other member of government. It has brought the country’s decision making to a standstill on numerous occasions, and relations with crucial bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, which is trying to help the country weather its grim economic situation, have suffered.
Now it seems that UEFA can be added to the list of organizations that have struggled, and possibly failed, to help Ukraine help itself. In June, Transport Minister Yosip Vinsky resigned, claiming that Tymoshenko was blocking important funds needed to prepare for the tournament.
Then at the beginning of August, Yushchenko sent back to parliament a bill releasing more than $1 billion for tournament funding, questioning how the money would actually be used. Tymoshenko lashed back and promised that she would override the veto, and claimed the Ukrainian leader was grandstanding before the country’s presidential elections next year.
“[Euro 2012] will have a positive economic effect,” Tymoshenko said, according to news agencies. “We cannot miss this opportunity.”
The danger is in fact that Ukraine could indeed “miss this opportunity.” In May, UEFA took the unprecedented step of warning Ukraine that it risked losing the bulk of the matches because its infrastructure — hotels, airports, roads and, yes, stadiums — was not up to par, or construction was woefully behind schedule.
“Important shortcomings regarding infrastructure” were found in Ukraine, UEFA’s leadership said in a statement after a meeting in Bucharest, Romania. “Significant work must be undertaken to meet the minimum requirements for an event of the size of a final tournament.”
Add Ukraine's economic meltdown and rampant corruption, and you have the makings of a organizational fiasco, experts say.
Three Ukrainian cities — Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lviv — were given until Nov. 30 to demonstrate that they were capable of hosting games. Kiev for its part would definitely see quarter and semi-final games, UEFA said, but could lose out on the biggest prize of them all: playing host to the championship final.
Each city has at least one major hurdle to overcome. Donetsk, despite putting the finishing touches on a 50,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium, lacks hotel space. Lviv suffers from an antiquated, Soviet-era airport, which is controlled by the central government.
“The airport is now and has been for the past six months our biggest headache,” said Serhiy Kiral, head of foreign investments for the Lviv city council. “The [central] government has no clear strategy, nor does it have professional team of experts or consultants to implement such complex … projects.” Kiral added that work was progressing, however, and that he hoped that the government in Kiev would iron out the complications by September. Likewise, Yushchenko’s veto would not immediately impact Lviv’s ability to fund its projects, he said. The city has found financing by itself for its new $80 million, 33,000 seat stadium, currently under construction. But the constuction is only half paid for, until the end of 2009. Kiral said the magnitude of the improvement projects is daunting.
“This is an enormous undertaking – work that hasn’t been done for 20 to 30 years,” he said.
But according to Illia Shevliak, director of the central coordination bureau for the tournament preparations in Kiev, the government is still convinced that four Ukrainian cities will be ultimately chosen as venues, to balance out four already confirmed in Poland.
“I sincerely believe,” Shevliak said. “We are applying all our energies to accomplish this.”
Adding insult to injury, UEFA head Michel Platini announced last month that two German cities, Berlin and Leipzig, could step into the breach if Ukraine was not up to the job. On a trip to Ukraine however, he said he still hoped that Ukraine would meet the challenge.
“I am confident. But I need just a little guarantee,” he told Yushchenko.
The loss of the Euro championship could directly impact the political fortunes of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in the end. Being named host was a great honor, many here say, and to lose the games would be a humiliation of unprecedented proportions.
“If we don’t get it, it’s obviously the government’s fault,” said Nikolai Yurashko, a businessman in Lviv. “They missed a great chance.”