Road To Poland And Ukraine Full Of Dangers

WARSAW, Poland -- As republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni heads to Warsaw today for the Euro 2012 Championship qualifying draw, scheduled to take place in the city’s Palace of Culture tomorrow morning, the blazers in UEFA must wish the veteran Italian was in a position to stay at home.

A dawn view of the construction site of the Polish National Stadium in Warsaw last November. Poland and Ukraine are jointly hosting the Euro 2012 Championships and tomorrow in Warsaw UEFA officials will make the draw for the qualifying groups with the Republic of Ireland as third seeds.

Three years ago, the joint bid by Poland and Ukraine to stage the tournament only just managed to scrape its way onto the shortlist put before members of the organisation’s Executive Committee for the second round of the selection process.

The eventual winners finished third behind Italy and Croatia/Hungary in the first round of voting but, crucially, one vote ahead of Turkey which kept them in the race. In the final round they crushed the world champions by eight votes to four with the others nowhere to be seen.

In his quieter moments, Michel Platini must wonder sometimes just what he and the rest of the Executive Committee were thinking. He can, at least, take some consolation from the fact that on the eve of the draw for the qualifiers it does actually seem certain that the tournament will take place in the two countries and that each is set to provide the four-match venues they initially committed to.

It hasn’t always looked so likely. At various stages, the Poles have been threatened with losing their share of the event because of political interference in their association and the Ukrainian end of things has looked set to sink into a sea of financial and organisational chaos.

Some 18 months ago the Scots made it clear that they would be prepared to step in should a fall-back plan be required but, somewhat hamstrung by the image he has cultivated as the champion of the underdog, Platini stuck to his guns with UEFA issuing a succession of deadlines, many of which the organisers failed to meet.

With just short of two and a half years to go before kick-off, however, the Poles do have stadiums (enough, in fact, for it to be suggested on more than one occasion that they might host the entire shebang) although they remain well short of where it had hoped they would be in terms of transport infrastructure and hotels.

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, continue to test the nerve of Platini and co with work continuing (a little sporadically) on two of their venues, Lviv and Kiev. UEFA has actually become directly involved in overseeing some of the work but Ukrainian tournament director Markiyan Lubkivskiy recently observed that ongoing funding problems mean that the “implementation of the (Lviv) project is in jeopardy”.

This, despite the fact that some €3.8 million in direct funding has been allocated by national and local government with related spending boosting the figure considerably. Already a couple of the venue cities have been changed and the renovation of Kiev’s massive Olympic Stadium has become mired in legal disputes with contractors.

The problems, of course, have been exacerbated by the economic downturn. In the good times a government can usually sell a major football tournament to sceptics amongst its population as a much needed overhaul of national infrastructure with some matches, watched by an awful lot of tourists, to celebrate all the openings. But when the coffers are empty, it’s all a little harder to defend.

In Poland, where the investment also runs into billions, the only upside of the downturn has been the return of many skilled construction workers from abroad, something that has averted the need to import a replacement labour force from elsewhere as the pace of work on road and rails projects is stepped up.

UEFA and FIFA like to talk about the legacy that these tournaments leave in countries where they have been staged and there is no doubt that the two countries will end up with some very fine stadiums. The Polish clubs that will inherit them, however, attract nothing like the crowds that will be required to make them pay and, once again, deals made with foreign operators at the height of the boom have the potential to become fairly contentious.

As it happens, the bidding process for the hosting of the 2016 tournament starts to get serious later this month when formal proposals have to be handed in for consideration. A final decision is then due to be taken in May and there will be no joint bids on the table this time around.

The expansion of the next tournament to 24 teams has also been a factor in shaping the line-up of would-be hosts and Ireland’s chances of qualifying for a tournament they have only participated in once previously, will improve very substantially when the enlargement takes effect.

In the meantime, though, Trapattoni faces much the same sort of challenge he did two years ago when Ireland were also third seeds for the World Cup qualifying campaign and ended up being drawn with Italy and Bulgaria.

During the veteran coach’s first two years in charge, the team’s performances and results have both been stabilised and having done well to reach the play-offs, Thierry Henry’s handball provided another hard luck story to soften the blow of elimination.

On Thursday, Marco Tardelli suggested he would fancy getting the French again but then thought better of it, insisting: “No, once it’s over, it’s over.” Still, there would be worse outcomes for Trapattoni and his men tomorrow than to be handed an early rematch with what is currently Raymond Domenech’s side.

The real pity of the last campaign is it did not yield enough ranking points to haul Ireland back into the second tier of nations and so, as well as a Spain, Germany or England, we will have to do battle with the likes of Greece, Sweden or Romania.

Five of tomorrow’s second seeds will be at the World Cup finals this summer and few even of the nine in Pot Two could be expected to mount quite as tame a challenge for qualification as Bulgaria did in Ireland’s group last time out. A little bad luck tomorrow and Trapattoni’s second campaign could prove a good deal more challenging than his first.

Having taken over in the wake of the chaotic end to Steve Staunton’s brief reign, the Italian restored composure by falling back upon a fairly rudimentary system. But the expectations of supporters may be a little higher this time and there is little to suggest that the team will be any better. The group is not old but a number of key players are getting older and the terrible lack of depth remains a major concern.

Platini said recently “there are considerable hoops to be jumped through” by the organisers of the 2012 tournament. And the fact is there will be some tricky ones to be negotiated too by Trapattoni and his players if Ireland are to make it to Poland and Ukraine.

Source: Irish Times

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