KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Kharkiv has had its fair share of Euro 2012 worries -- over last-minute preparations, claims of overspending, and the possibility that politics would eclipse sport.
But all that's giving way now to a sense of excitement and pride at what will be a historic moment for the northeastern Ukrainian city as it braces itself to host part of Eastern Europe's biggest sporting event in decades.
The industrial post-Soviet city nestled against Ukraine’s border with Russia has built hotels, refurbished state hostels, overhauled its “Metalist” soccer stadium, and built an international airport to make the grade as one of eight host cities across Poland and Ukraine.
Oleksandr is a 21-year old student brimming with excitement at being part of a corps of 1,500 student volunteers helping out at the festivities in Ukraine’s second largest city.
"Euro 2012 is a historic event for a new city. It won’t happen again here," he says. "We want to become part of history and part of a great event! More could have been done [in terms of preparations], but it all depends on us wanting it. At the moment, everything is under control.”
Unlike other Ukrainian host cities like Lviv and Kyiv, Kharkiv had little tourist infrastructure and a dearth of hotels, which made it ill-equipped for the expected influx of around 100,000 tourists to the industrial city of 1.5 million.
At least two five-star hotels have been built since, along with a string of others. Student courses also ended early this year in time for a breakneck overhaul of student quarters for Euro visitors.
Hive Of Activity
In the days before kick-off, the fan zone on Kharkiv’s sprawling Freedom Square is a round-the-clock hive of welding, sweeping, rehearsing, and unpacking; flanked by Stalinist universities, an imperious statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, and a gleaming new five-star hotel.
Kharkiv city officials say over 8 billion hryvnias (some $990 million) have been ploughed into the town's preparations. Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, a local oligarch who owns the Metalist football club, invested over $300 million.
Since Kharkiv muscled its way into the frame as a host city, the city's “Mettalist” stadium has been transformed from a decrepit aging arena into a state-of-the-art sports complex with a stadium seating nearly 39,000.
Twenty-one-year-old Oleksandr (right) is just one of 1,500 student volunteers working at Euro 2012 in Kharkiv.
Sergei Storozhenko, first deputy president of Ukraine’s Football Federation, maintains that Kharkiv has made huge strides and that infrastructure will remain in place for future generations.
“The stadium and airport were in such a bad state that a normal person could not be there," he saysd. "As we know, it was terrible. Thanks to preparations for the Euros, Kharkiv has a large heritage -- a stadium, a youth academy which is located at the Metalist sports ground, as well as the training base that the Portuguese are using. Of course, there is also the five-star Kharkiv Palace, one of the best hotels in Europe.”
But some residents have mixed feelings.
They have flagged skyrocketing hotel prices, rising train-ticket prices, and the poor condition of Kharkiv’s potholed roads beyond the city center and between cities as concerns for the estimated 100,000 tourists traveling there.
Yuriy Krasnokutskiy, a businessman, said the lavish spending by the debt-burdened government has fueled resentment toward authorities in Kharkiv and spurred suspicions that funds were misused.
Viktor Boiko, a 66-year old teacher born and raised in Kharkiv, praised the prized new Metalist Stadium, but suggested that no effort had been made to tackle problems like roads and intercity auto-transport until the eleventh hour.
“When the time came, we were like a student with one night to prepare for an exam!" he said. "That night has begun and it will go on until June 9.”
Nonetheless, even the hotel price gouging has had a silver lining.
As hoteliers seized the opportunity to drive up their prices, sometimes charging more than five times the normal rate, Kharkiv established what would become a pan-Ukrainian public drive to offer Euro 2012 guests a room in their apartments for free.
Businessman Krasnokutskiy, his wife Natasha, and their two children are just one of the dozens of families that are hosting numerous foreign guests for the tournament.
“I believe Ukrainians are really hospitable and are happy to take in any foreign guests not because they want to make money, but because they are open to people and want to meet them," says Natasha. "I just want people to think better of Ukraine than the public opinion that has taken shape over the last six months.”
Tymoshenko Casts A Shadow
It's not only high prices that have shaped that public opinion.
Kharkiv is arguably best known outside Ukraine right now for being the city where jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is incarcerated and is currently undergoing hospital treatment.
Valeriy Dudko, a member of her Batkivshchyna party, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that they are planning no demonstrations during the Euros provided there are no “extraordinary circumstances.”
On the morning of June 7, 25 supporters of Tymoshenko stood outside the Kharkiv hospital where she is being held on the fringes of the city with banners and chanted “Glory to Ukraine!”
But back in the city center, Euro-2012 Oleksandr and his fellow volunteers called for politics not to drown out the sporting occasion and downplayed the doomsayers who doubt Kharkiv’s readiness.
"The most important thing is that we’re ready!" one of them said. "We’re in a great mood and we’re ready to greet you!"
With additional reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service