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As Euro 2012 Comes To A Close, Ukraine Defies Its Critics

  • Daisy Sindelar

Polish fans Jacek (left) and Piotrek amid a sea of Swedish supporters during the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Kyiv on June 15.

Polish fans Jacek (left) and Piotrek amid a sea of Swedish supporters during the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Kyiv on June 15.

When Marcin Pietrzyk was driving back to Poland after a whirlwind trip that included watching England's 3-2 victory over Sweden in Kyiv, he felt a twinge of regret as the border approached.

His car was still decorated with the Polish flag, as it had been throughout the trip. But he had been hoping to add a Ukraine flag to his collection, as a way to commemorate his first-ever trip to the neighboring country and fellow Euro 2012 co-host.

Stopping for gas, Pietrzyk and his friends Jacek and Piotrek were approached by a Ukrainian who evidently had the same idea. The men exchanged flags and posed for a photograph.

Pietrzyk, a 28-year-old futures trader from Krakow, says it was the perfect end to a trip that included a hospitable host family, free room and board, and a city full of welcoming locals.

"We could feel on the street that people really like us. They were using their car horns, giving us smiles. Really, really kind people. Maybe because we had the Polish flag on the car," Pietrzyk says.

"I never saw this before in any other European country. It doesn't mean that they weren't kind in other countries, but in Ukraine it was really something special."

'A Fantastic Job'

What a difference three weeks makes.

When the European soccer championship kicked off on June 8, Ukraine was on the losing end of a Western media campaign that sought to portray the post-Soviet country as a racist and uncivilized backwater led by a repressive regime that deserved to be shunned.

The British press in particular urged its fans to stay away, with a former England player even warning that tourists "could end up coming back in a coffin."

PHOTO GALLERY: Fan photos from Euro 2012

But in the end, no significant racist incidents or crowd violence were reported in Ukraine, and the final is now on the books, with Spain soundly defeating Italy 4-0 on July 1.

On June 30, Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, the European football federation, praised Ukraine and Poland for hosting "a fantastic tournament which has been unique in its atmosphere and will remain in our memories.”

To be sure, the tournament had its flaws, with overpriced lodging and poorly organized transportation discouraging many potential tourists from contemplating trips to matches in Kyiv, Lviv, Donetsk, and Kharkiv.

Shaun Walker, who covered the tournament for Britain's "The Independent" newspaper, traveled to three of the four host cities during the three-week event. He says Ukraine made major gains in terms of atmosphere, but still has a way to go in terms of basic organization and infrastructure.

"On the one hand, I would say that in terms of the stadiums and the general experience of Ukraine as a destination for a football tournament, I thought they did a fantastic job. And I think a lot of people had a very good time," Walker says.
Spanish forward Fernando Torres (right) and teammates celebrate after winning the Euro 2012 football final 4-0 against Italy in Kyiv.

Spanish forward Fernando Torres (right) and teammates celebrate after winning the Euro 2012 football final 4-0 against Italy in Kyiv.

"But I thought it slightly unfortunate that a little bit more in terms of informational and logistical preparations hadn't been done. Because I think if they had, we could have seen three or four more times as many people going."

Unexpected Silver Lining

The high price of accommodations remained one of the biggest turnoffs throughout the tournament, despite efforts by officials to coax hotel operators down from rates that soared above $1,000 a night.

But the price gouging had an unexpected consequence, prompting hundreds of Ukrainians to offer their homes up for free as part of a grassroots, online initiative that included volunteer translation services and impromptu city tours.

Dmytro Vasylev, the founder of the Friendly Ukraine initiative, says the project helped alleviate fears among ordinary Ukrainians that the government, in its ham-fisted response to the pricing and racism scandals, would squander what was meant to be a golden opportunity for the post-Soviet country.

"Many people who came here, they realized that it's much better than they thought and than what was presented in the international media. And we had good stories from our volunteers. They had a lot of fun. They helped around 1,000 people in different cities, including Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa," Vasylev says.

"I think it was a great initiative for many Ukrainians to try to do something on a voluntary basis, just to realize the basic idea that they don't have to wait for [the state] to come up with ideas [about] what to do."

Tymoshenko's Shadow

The tournament, to some degree, was overshadowed by the case of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose conviction and prison conditions had prompted many European officials to call for a boycott of the Ukraine-based matches.

But by the end of the tournament, many of the officials softened their stance, particularly those whose teams were approaching the final. Before Italy's 2-1 defeat of Germany in the June 28 semifinal, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- a staunch critic of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- suggested she would travel to Kyiv for the final.

Many Tymoshenko supporters see the tournament as a largely wasted opportunity.

Many Tymoshenko supporters see the tournament as a largely wasted opportunity.


Still, many Tymoshenko supporters see the tournament as a largely wasted opportunity to bring the Yanukovych regime to account for its crackdown on the opposition and allegations of rampant corruption ahead of the games.

"Euro 2012 was an important chance for Ukraine to become closer to Europe, but unfortunately the chance was used with absolutely low efficiency," said Hryhoriy Nemyria, the deputy chairman of Tymoshenko's Batkivschyna party.

The Tymoshenko case will continue to dog EU-Ukraine relations long after Euro 2012's end, with her June 27 appeal trial postponed until after the tournament.

Embracing The Tournament

But Yanukovych, who is due to hold a press conference next week, is expected to echo earlier sentiments from Ukrainian city and sports officials in pronouncing Euro 2012 an unqualified success.

Fireworks above Kyiv's Olympic Stadium after the final

Fireworks above Kyiv's Olympic Stadium after the final

Speaking earlier this week, Markiyan Lubkivsky, Ukraine's tournament director, praised Ukrainians for their hospitality during the three-week championship, happily calling it "the biggest surprise of the tournament."

Sid Lowe, who has followed the Spanish national team for Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, says Ukrainian fans in Donetsk surprised him as well with their generous support of visiting teams -- a sentiment that served them well at the Spain-Italy final.

"I've seen no sign of any kind of trouble. The fans here have clearly really enjoyed the games I've been to. One of the things that's very striking for me, as someone who covers Spain, is to see the stadium very nearly full. Not quite, but very nearly full," Lowe says.

"The only one I've been at so far here [in Donetsk], which was Spain-France, the stadium was full of Ukrainian fans, but all of them were choosing to support one or the other of the teams, and largely trying to support Spain. So lots and lots of Ukrainian fans really embracing the Spanish national team -- wearing Spain shirts, carrying Spain flags. Really trying to enjoy it."

Maryana Drach of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

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