Over the past two years, Ukraine has built two stadiums, opened four airports, and unveiled a fleet of high-speed trains. It has spent 9.3 billion pounds on preparations for the Euro 2012 football championships, a whopping sum for a small GDP country. On Monday, workmen were tidying up outside Kiev’s impressive web-roofed Olympic stadium, the venue for the 1 July final.
And yet on the eve of the tournament Ukraine is staring at nothing less than a full-blown PR disaster. In an interview with the BBC current affairs programme Panorama last night, the former England defender Sol Campbell bluntly said Uefa was wrong to give Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine because of their failure to get to grips with racism. He told fans: “Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk (going), you could end up coming back in a coffin.”
Campbell’s remarks come after the families of England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said they would not be attending England’s three group-stage matches in Ukraine because of the threat of violence and racist attacks.
The UK Foreign Office advises travelling fans of African-Caribbean or Asian descent to take “extra care”. And the FA estimates that only 5,000 England fans will travel to Kiev and Donetsk. This compares with the 10,000 who visited South Africa in 2010 and the 100,000 who descended on Germany in 2006.
Host of issues
Uefa’s president Michael Platini, meanwhile, has complained of rip-off hotel prices in Ukraine, alleging “bandits and crooks” have muscled in.
There is an acute shortage of hotel rooms in Donetsk, the gritty eastern mining town next to Russia where England will play France on 11 June and Ukraine on 19 June. England have snubbed Donetsk’s world-class facilities to base in the Polish city of Krakow, offending many.
Some observers believe the dangers of racism in Ukraine are overstated. Yuri Bender, a journalist who follows Ukrainian football closely, points out that the country’s two leading clubs, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, both regularly field black players in league and European matches. They are not abused.
Bender argues the situation in Poland — which has largely escaped media scrutiny — is far worse. He said: “My wife, who is of Afro-Caribbean origin and our two mixed-race children, have accompanied me to Ukraine on several occasions.
There has been no abuse directed against them. The locals have gone out of their way to make them feel welcome.”