Alarming Issues Surrounding Euro 2012

LONDON, England -- The biggest soccer tournament outside of the World Cup kicks off next week across two countries, Poland and Ukraine.


One of those countries is ready for the tournament; the other – well, let’s just say opinions differ.

No one argues that the European Championship is considered to be one of the hardest trophies for a national team to win.

The Euros are half the size of the World Cup and boast some of the top teams in world soccer – and there are some fans who would argue that the Euros are a better benchmark of a team’s quality than the sprawling and increasingly uneven World Cup.

But many are arguing about what this year’s edition of the Euros will bring.

On the field, there are several teams that look decidedly below grade, and many of the supposed front-runners come in with key players banged up after grueling league campaigns.

Spain and England will both be missing key players, with Frank Lampard the latest injury concern.

Exhaustion and attrition are likely to play a bigger role than any fan would like.

Off the field, an entire host country has been slated for a laundry list of problems and many fans have chosen to stay home.

Ukraine’s problems have cast a big pall over the competition on the eve of kickoff.

Virtually everything about the hosts has come under withering criticism for the past six months, and one senses the potential for this tournament to be a disaster.

The latest blow to the nation was the airing of footage by the BBC this week that clearly depicts racist chanting and abuse at Ukrainian stadiums.

Several black members of the England squad have declared they are not taking their families to the games over fears of racial abuse.

The report, which aired on Panorama, got a blunt reaction from former England international Sol Campbell: he told fans not to go or “you could be coming back home in a coffin.”

If this were an isolated incident, you might discount it. It is not.

While both Ukraine and Poland have had their share of racist incidents at soccer games, Ukraine has had a steady drip of problems that threaten to tar it as a rogue actor:

1. The Soviet-styled president Victor Yanukovuch has earned a Western political boycott for what is alleged to be a vengeful imprisonment of his predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko has shown up in video looking beaten as she was transferred from a hospital to a prison last month.

2. Prices for lodging in the nation during the tournament skyrocketed to eyewatering levels – try $800 a night for a fleabag.

This earned an angry rebuke from UEFA’s Michel Platini: he called it out as plain and simple gouging, and referred to the nation as a gang of “bandits and crooks.”

3. There are the health warnings, many around the mass of measles outbreaks that have plagued the nation.

There are the warnings to fans of color, who have been advised to take extra caution in the nation.

And then there is the infrastructure, which is simply atrocious.

As such, fans face huge commutes between venues.

The sum result of all these fears is that many fans are simply staying home this summer.

Is this fair to Ukraine? That’s an open question.

The nation is one of the great soccer countries with a long history in the sport.

But many fans look set to miss out.

Poland, on the other hand, looks hale: in fact, they were UEFA’s so-called “Plan B” and as recently as eight weeks ago there were serious whispers about moving the whole kit and kaboodle to Poland.

That didn’t happen, but most of the fans will be clustered in Warsaw and Gdansk, and all but one team is concentrating their prep inside Polish borders.

Tellingly, England is staying in Poland despite playing their games in Ukraine – they will commute.

On the field, things are no different.

Poland enters as a team that looks capable of doing some damage.

Ukraine simply looks damaged.

POLAND

It has been four decades since Poland could count itself among the top four in world football and 26 years since Zbigniew Boniek led his country to the 1986 World Cup semifinals in Mexico.

When the Poles won the right to co-host this tournament, most of the major powers were gleeful: it was thought that they were pushovers. They are not.

That is thanks, in large part, to two foreign coaches — Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp — Poland are a team that could ride their home support into the late rounds.

Wenger's persistence in the face of sometimes withering criticism enabled Wojciech Szczesny to emerge as a world-class goalkeeper.

He is now the rock that anchors the Poland defense, and a far cry from the man who gift-wrapped the Carling Cup for Birmingham City two seasons ago.

Indeed, one of the main reasons Arsenal is in the next Champions League is down to Szczesny, who has proven that it is possible to play the position even without defenders in front of you.

He has grown in confidence with every big save, and he has also learned to keep his emotions under control as his supposed helpers produced one gaffe after another.

That will be important in Euro 2012 because he must steady a defense that will sometimes be stretched: Poland's best chance to shine in this tournament is to take the attack forward, and the defense is not loaded with European superstars.

That's where Klopp's Borussia Dortmund trio comes in.

The lineup: fullback Lukasz Pisczek, midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and striker Robert Lewandowski; not only are they three of the best in Europe, they are also already teammates.

Polish boss Franciszek Smuda is in the happy position of being able to tell them to play their own game as they already operate successfully as a trio at Dortmund.

That should transfer nicely to the national team.

Pisczek is a powerhouse attacking back with the gifts of knowing when to come up the right flank, and the ability to put crosses right where Lewandowski likes them.

Blaszczykowsi — known in Germany simply as “Kuba” — is a midfielder at home on either side of the ball but is especially good at forming the triangle with Pisczek that ultimately frees Lewandowki.

Any team facing the Poles must pack its own left side to prevent that trio — especially when Kuba is in top form — from dominating possession and the match tempo.

But it is not simply a case of shutting off the service to Lewandowski, as Artur Sobiech (Hannover 96) is a very good finisher in his own right.

The Poles, though, may leave Lewandowski as a lone front-runner with five in the midfield.

Smuda started Rafal Murawski, Ludovic Obraniak, Eugen Polanski and Maciej Rybus next to Kuba in the friendly win over Slovakia when the coach tested what is thought to be his favorite alignment.

While playing the host role can sometimes be a burden, Poland did get what is thought of as a favorable opening round draw against Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic, in that order.

None of the rivals is easy, but there isn't a Euro 2012 favorite among them, either.

If their quartet of stars comes through, Polish fans will have every right to anticipate a major quarterfinal showdown against Germany, Holland or Portugal.

That's when the home advantage might really mean something.

UKRAINE

Ukraine are a different matter, and it is more than ironic that when Ukrainian football was at its best, their squad played without a national jersey.

As far back as the 1976 Olympic Games, the then-Soviet Union sent Dynamo Kiev to Montreal as the "national team."

For the next two decades, a rolodex of star Ukrainian players wore the red and white of the old USSR.

These essentially Ukrainian squads were then often thought to be Russian by Westerners.

One of the best of those was Oleh Blokhin, now the coach of Ukraine.

And he has a problem: he doesn’t have a lot to work with.

The heart of the matter is the absence of an experienced goalkeeper. Veteran Olexandr Shovkovskiy, of Dynamo Kiev, was expected to start but was injured in the final game of the regular Ukrainian league season and will miss the tournament completely.

To make matters worse, the Shakhtar Donetsk star Olexandr Rybka failed a drug test and is also unavailable.

As a result, Andiry Pyatov is expected to step in, basically by virtue of being the last guy standing.

Dynamo Kiev's Maxym Koval’s international "experience" amounts to participating in one national team training camp; Olexander Hoianinov, from Metalist, has exactly one cap.

Probably the best-known member of the squad is Bayern Munich back-up Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, notable as well for playing his football outside Ukraine.

Almost all of the roster is home-based, which is hardly a major endorsement in a Ukrainian league where the top sides rely on imported talent to score goals.

He is the only man to ply his trade outside of Eastern Europe.

Veterans Andriy Voronin (FC Dynamo Moscow) and Andriy Shevchenko (Dynamo Kiev) are still considered viable attack leaders, testimony to the paucity of emerging talent.

Voronin is 32, Shevchenko, 35.

As Euro 2012 kicks off, Shevchenko remains his country's most successful international marksman.

Much of the midfield will be based on Dynamo Kiev’s talent, while Shakhtar contributes three defenders to the possible starting eleven.

In a group with England, France and Sweden, Ukraine will be hard pressed to get out of the opening stage, although they will likely try to keep it tight and hope for a counter-attacking breakthrough.

The final, of course, will be played in Kiev on July 1.

It's highly unlikely that the home team will be anywhere near it.

Source: Fox Soccer

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