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Ukraine

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

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.

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By Daisy Sindelar
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
  • Irina Toldina, a 31-year-old lawyer from Kharkiv, her husband, Oleg (right), and son Yaroslav, 5, welcome visiting Dutch fan John, who came to Kharkiv for the Netherlands vs. Denmark match on June 9.
  • Toldina made borscht for visiting Dutchman Jeroen, who also came for the Netherlands vs. Denmark match. "It was like one week of fireworks. I got such great positive emotions," Toldina said. "All my guests were wonderful."
  • Toldina and Oleg pose with visiting German fans Thomas from Munich (left) and Volker from Berlin (second from left) who came for the Netherlands vs. Germany match on June 13. "It was a pity that they had to go back home," Toldina said.
  • Polish fans Jacek (left) and Piotrek amid a sea of Swedish supporters during the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Kyiv on June 15.
  • "In Ukraine, it was really something special," says Marcin Pietrzyk, who drove from Poland to Kyiv to see England's 3-2 victory over Sweden.
  • Piotrek (left), Jacek, and an unidentified friend at Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv.
  • Jacek strikes a pose in front of the 62-meter-tall Rodina Mat (Mother Motherland) statue in Kyiv.
  • Aside from a few speeding tickets, the friends said they didn't have any problems during their visit.

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 finalFireworks above Kyiv's Olympic Stadium after the final
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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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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jack from: US
July 01, 2012 14:04
The Ukraine would have been much better if some of its former leaders did not bend over to please US government and its NATO minions. As a result of pro-Western policies of "orange revolutionaries" the Ukraine is impoverished and millions of Ukrainians left Ukraine for Russia in search of food and work. The population of Ukraine declined by 20% since independence mainly due to emigration to Russia
In Response

by: Oleksander
July 02, 2012 13:06
Jack , from USA ,
Your comment reflects total ignorance as to the reason of
Ukrainian immigration , you simply have no idea . You actually sound more like a moscovite , trying to denigrade Ukrainian
" orange revolutionaries " and promoting Moscovia , than someone from the USA . Personally , I would be willing to " loose " another significant segment of the population of Ukraine ,
the segment comprised of moscovites while living in Ukraine , enjoying it's freedoms and rights , is NOT obeying Ukrainian laws , NOT learning the Ukrainian language and in every possible way hindering the progress of Ukraine . This is the fifth column ,
supported generously by Moscovia proper , that causes all the
difficulties , and slows down development in Ukraine . Only a
complete ignoramus , or a moscovite with an agenda , would atempt to pin the blame on the " orange revolutionaries " and pro western policies of which the moscovites ,with their medieval outlook are so afraid .
In Response

by: mykry from: ny
July 02, 2012 16:21
To Jack from US,
I think it would be better is some learned the true history of Ukraine instead of wriiting such nonsense about 'bending over to please US...' I'm sure it's difficult for some to understand how the 'Orange revolution' could possibly stand for something like freedom---especially after centuries of subjugation---but you can try.
Oh, and by the way, it's not 'the' Ukraine; just Ukraine.
Thanks for understanding Jack from the US.
In Response

by: Jack from: US
July 03, 2012 04:41
under the "oranga revolutionaires" who bent over to please US government and its NATO minions the Ukraine experienced economic collapse and devastation on a scale of WWII. The current Ukrainian government is headed by Russian-born PM Azarov. Unlike orange stooges of US government who brought down Ukrainian economy, Azarov managed to get solid 7% economic growth. Clearly Ukrainians are better off ruled by Russians than by criminals from US government

by: Anonymous
July 02, 2012 21:36
about this topic

one thing is certain

it is absolutely a non sense

try to divide Russia and Ukraine

or better

try to divide the people of Russia and Ukraine .


for better or worse

these two peoples are destined to live together

as has always been in their history
In Response

by: Oleksander
July 03, 2012 13:24
Anonymous ,
To claim that
Ukraine and Moscovia should not be " separated " and are destined to " live " together , is total and complete nonsense . The two nations are so completely different ; historicaly , culturaly , ethnicaly , psochologicaly etc ., that they have nothing in common . From it's very beginning , Ukraine ( ancient name Rus' , which the moscovites " appropriated " ) , was a democratic society , where even the kings were elected and were subject to aproval by the majority . Individual freedom has always been paramount , and women have always had equal rights in Ukraining society , even in the most ancient times . None of the above is true of the moscovites , even today . The concept of democracy is completely foreign to the moscovite , since their system has always been autochratic and they were always ruled by a tyrant , even today . No two countries could be more diametrricaly opposed ! After so many years of " living together " , Ukrainians finally regained their independence and
dont' ever want to " live together " with the moscovite again .
In Response

by: Hania from: Canada
July 03, 2012 18:35
No wonder you're "anonymous". What an ignorant comment. Total lack of knowledge of Ukrainian history. I guess the Irish and English should not have been divided and "were destined to live together". Yeah, the conqueror and the conquered. The Russian empire still tries, eh?

Bravo to Ukrainians for their hosting of the games, despite all the odds.

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