Smoothing Out Of The Edges For UEFA

LVIV, Ukraine -- For this Hapsburg city, with its checkered history in now faded empires, a new day of reckoning is approaching.

UEFA President Michel Platini

UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has given Lviv and three other Ukrainian cities until Nov. 30 to demonstrate that they will have adequate hotels, roads, airports and stadiums to host the Euro 2012 soccer championship.

Ukraine may, in the end, be an example of how not to prepare for a world-class sporting event. In addition to the chronic post-Soviet ills of bureaucratic dysfunction and corruption, the country has been among the hardest hit by the world economic crisis: Output dropped by a stomach-churning 20 percent in the first quarter of this year.

On top of this, a political war among the country’s governing elite has paralyzed close to all high-level decision making. In June, Transport Minister Yosip Vinsky stepped down, accusing Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival, of blocking key funds for tournament preparations.

Although Vinsky’s announcement may just be political grandstanding, his resignation signaled continuing government dysfunction. Tymoshenko’s reputation, along with that of President Viktor Yushchenko and other members of the government, will suffer if Ukraine, which aspires to NATO membership, gets a failing grade in sports.

Some observers argue that Michel Platini, the UEFA president, and other UEFA officials knew perfectly well from the start that Ukraine was not on the level of, say, Italy, and is unfairly punishing the country for its backwardness. That argument finds little sympathy in Ukraine itself, where the overwhelming sentiment is to blame the government.

“Of course UEFA knew when they awarded the tournament what sort of country Ukraine was,” said Andrei Kapustin, a local journalist who runs a Web site that charts work on Euro 2012. “But I don’t think they realized just to what degree everything was terrible.”

“I think Michel Platini is biting his fingernails right now,” he said.

Others ask whether European soccer officials are demonstrating a double standard towards Ukraine. “UEFA had a different attitude towards Austria, Switzerland and Portugal,” said Oleg Zasadnyy, who is heading up Lviv’s preparations and was referring to the hosts of the two most recent Euro championships. “In Austria, for example, they allowed temporary structures on the stadiums, but not in Ukraine.”

Being designated as a host city for the tournament could be an opportunity for Lviv, which is striving to position itself as a major tourist destination. City officials are counting on the multitude of first-time visitors the competition would bring, especially from Poland just over the border, who would then spread word of this delightful Hapsburg city with its cobblestone streets, excellent restaurants and Viennese-style cafes.

For this reason, city officials are sanguine. Mayor Andriy Sadovyy says it is well positioned to meet the November deadline. “I can guarantee you that the level here will be higher than it was in Austria in 2008,” he said.

Construction has begun on an $80 million, 33,000-seat stadium, which should be completed by the end of next year. The site is a huge hole, encircled by ten yellow cranes. In the middle is a plateau of spongy brown dirt — the field. A few kilometers away, a new runway is being finished at the municipal airport.

But questions persist about Lviv’s capacity to meet its obligations. Though the city does not have to complete its projects immediately, it does have to prove that it has sufficient sources of funding, and the Ukrainian central government — which in recent months has sought emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund and has a large debt to Russia for gas delivered under murky and disputed arrangements — has little cash to spare.

Unable to depend on Kiev to fund the new stadium, Lviv has been forced to raise the funds by itself, but so far it has financing only until the end of this year. The main terminal of the city’s antediluvian airport desperately needs to be replaced, but that falls under the aegis of the central government, which so far has not found an investor.

It was not supposed to turn out this way. In 2007, when UEFA selected Poland and Ukraine as co-hosts, it seemed poised to open up a vast, untapped market in the former Soviet bloc. Each country needed stadiums in four cities. Kiev was designated as the prestige venue for the tournament final.

In Ukraine, the tournament inspired vertiginous expectations. Many saw it as a once in a lifetime chance to overhaul creaking infrastructure, entice billions of tourist dollars and investment, and draw the country closer to Europe.

But this past May, at a meeting in Bucharest, UEFA delivered a stinging, blunt rebuke: “important shortcomings regarding infrastructure” were found in Ukraine. “Significant work must be undertaken to meet the minimum requirements for an event of the size of a final tournament,” the statement said.

Kiev would definitely hold group, quarter and semifinal matches, UEFA said, but it could lose the final. Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk might not be allowed to even host group games. Each city has problems of its own. Donetsk, for example, despite a state-of-the-art, 50,000-seat stadium, lacks hotel space.

In Poland, meanwhile, preparations are on course. Indeed, it is among the ex-Soviet bloc countries that have weathered the world economic crisis relatively well. Earlier fears that it too would buckle under the economic and bureaucratic burden of renovating its antiquated, Soviet-era infrastructure have not been realized. Four Polish cities — Gdansk, Poznan, Warsaw and Wroclaw — are definite hosts. Two others, Krakow and Chorzow, could step into the breach should Ukraine falter.

On July 3, Platini revealed that two German cities, Berlin and Leipzig, could also be chosen as venues, though he added shortly afterwards, on a visit to Ukraine, that he was still hopeful the country would rise to the challenge.

“I am confident. But I need just a little guarantee,” he told Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president.

The warning to Ukraine was highly unusual, although not unprecedented — economic problems forced the relocation of the 1986 World Cup from Colombia to Mexico.

On July 1, the fractious Ukrainian Parliament approved more than $1 billion for the Euro preparations, but some analysts worry that, given how little has been done, the money will be insufficient, or, worse, go missing.

In Lviv, officials stress that development of tourism will continue even if the city loses the tournament. But they would much prefer to be a host.

Serhiy Kiral, head of foreign investments for the city council, says UEFA should consider Lviv’s experience in handling large numbers of tourists and its proximity to the Polish border.

“For us not to get it would be a big mistake,” he said.

Source: The New York Times