Euro 2012 in Ukraine: Own goal?

Ukraine is spending billions to overhaul roads, airports and stadiums ahead of Euro 2012. Organizers say it will benefit the country's image and boost its economy, but others say the country’s authorities have their spending priorities all wrong.

In a hangar in Kiev, a photographic exhibition with a difference. The images on display here show figures with their heads disguised as footballs experiencing some of Ukraine’s less savory treats – primitive accommodation, impassable roads, packs of stray dogs and corrupt police.

The exhibition, entitled “The incredible adventures of Football Head,” was organized by Kiev-based journalists expressing a less than optimistic message about the welcome fans can expect when they flock to Ukraine for Euro 2012.  It also highlights the contrast between the hardships suffered daily by ordinary Ukrainians, and the vast sums being spent on the football jamboree.

“We are being told by the government that everything has been built. But the fans will face the same problems we ordinary Ukrainians face every day,” says Igor Dobrovolsky, one of the exhibition’s organizers. “Poor roads, stray animals, bribery by the police and terrible medical facilities. I’m afraid it could be a major failure.”

At first glance, such concerns may seem laughable. Even in the darkest times of financial trouble, the Euro 2012 projects have remained a top priority for the Ukrainian government. When practically all other construction projects had been halted, roads, airports and stadiums never stopped being built. After a string of pompous stadium opening ceremonies in Ukraine, UEFA chiefs are now firmly convinced that the country is ready to host the tournament.

“We went through different periods of preparation – some were not so successful,” said Markiyan Lubkivsky, the director of Euro 2012 tournament in Ukraine. “But in the last two years we have made huge progress in terms of infrastructure and also in terms of organization. So, in principle – we are ready.”

But there is a slim chance that, for example, a broken road several hundred meters away from a vital highway might remain unrepaired – before or after the tournament kicks off. Experts believe Ukraine simply has no money for essential infrastructure maintenance, and Euro 2012 will not change that.

“Ukraine has spent $14 billion on Euro 2012 projects, but we are predicted to earn only half a billion from the tournament – 28 times less,” says Sergey Bolotnikov, a reporter from Focus magazine. “Everyone knew that, it’s a typical situation, especially for Eastern Europe. The question is whether we can afford such spending in hard times like this.”

The tournament organizers have brushed the criticisms aside, saying that regardless of how much money Euro 2012 costs and brings, the country is building a bright future for itself.

“For the first time in our 20 year history we will get new airports, new roads, new terminals – everything is new,” explains Markiyan Lubkivskiy. “We believe people who will come here will want to come again. This is our main goal.”

A special Euro 2012 clock was installed in central Kiev to count down the minutes to June's kick-off. And despite some skepticism, the majority of Ukrainians are relieved to see it ticking in their capital city and not anywhere else.

With stadiums and airports springing up, it is hard to believe that just a year ago there was talk of UEFA moving Euro 2012 to a different country, amid fears Ukraine was not up to the challenge of hosting the tournament. 

And while now there is no doubt that Euro 2012 is coming to Ukraine, one question still remains – whether it will be the opportunity of a lifetime, or a luxury this economically stricken country can ill afford.