The preparations have been a little chaotic, but two months ahead of the soccer European Championship, optimism is now taking hold in Poland and Ukraine. Both countries are banking on a feast of football.
The laminating machine is broken. Or else it's overheated. No one is quite sure in the construction-site office outside the new national stadium in Warsaw. Dozens of journalists are packed into the white box waiting for their accreditations.
But nothing is happening – and it's been like that for an hour. The international press has been invited to report on the opening of the new arena in the Polish capital, but no one can get in as long as the staff struggle vainly with the laminating machine.
This is just a small disaster in a whole series that have dogged the stadium in which the soccer European Championship will begin on June 8. It is meant to be a national prestige project and a symbol of the new, booming Warsaw, but the gods have not been looking favorably on the stadium so far.
The immense oval, decorated in red and white, was opened eight months behind schedule. And even then the police refused to allow the opening until its security concerns had been addressed. As a consequence, the director of the national sports center was forced to quit, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was forced to initiate investigations into accusations of wasting public money.
Cost explosion in Kyiv
The Warsaw stadium was relatively cheap at 350 million euros ($460 million). Rebuilding the Olympic stadium in Kyiv, where the final will be played on July 1, has cost 585 million euro. That's led the world boxing champion and Ukrainian politician Vitali Klitschko to ask, "Why does it cost much less to build stadiums like this in Germany than it does in Ukraine?"
Mark Rachkevych, European Championship correspondent with the Kyiv Post newspaper, has an answer: "The purchasing of the construction materials was a very strange process, money disappeared, customs papers were forged," he says in a matter-of-fact way. "The government always defended itself by saying it all had to be done very quickly, otherwise the UEFA would take away the championship."
This was a real danger. The championship was under threat when UEFA president Michel Platini threatened to take it away from its hosts eighteen months ago. "There are no airports, there are scarcely any hotels. That won't make it easy," said an annoyed Platini back then.
Platini owed his position at the head of European football to the support of Eastern Europeans, and three months after he was elected in 2007, he gave the championship to Poland and Ukraine. In 2010, he reminded them of the timetable: "The championship is 2012, not 2030."
The stadiums are ready, but not the freeways
A lot has happened since Platini's wake-up call: the eight stadiums are all ready, new roads have been built, railways extended, airports opened. Both countries had promised huge infrastructure programs and actually carried out many of their construction plans. But some of the freeways in Poland won't be ready in time, nor will Warsaw's second airport.
"Poland is Europe's biggest building site," says Michal Piotrowski, spokesman for the state infrastructure company PL.2012, as he asks for understanding for Poland's position. The country has invested 20 billion euros in infrastructure ahead of the championship. Piotrowski says the investment makes sense long term: "Everything which is being built for the championship we will need later."
Things have been happening on the Ukrainian side too, according to the Lviv souvenir dealer Sergei Barisovic: "A lot has been done for the city," he says. "Many of the roads here date from the time of Peter the Great and they were in dreadful condition."
The German team will play two matches in the Lviv stadium, which lies well outside the city, and anyone who drives from there to the center to visit Barisovic's store, will immediately notice that the old cobblestone streets have by no means been banished from the city landscape.
Barisovic hopes that the European Championship will benefit his little souvenir shop, but he's skeptical: "I fear that it's only the elites who will profit from the tournament, and not the ordinary people."
Big hopes in both countries
The mayor of Lviv, Andrei Sadavoy, doesn't agree. He expects the championship to bring real progress. "It's our dream to build a city that's worth living in," he says. "Lviv will be the heart of this European Championship." He recalls the joint Polish and Ukrainian history of this multicultural town, which could become a unifying factor between the two host countries.
Perhaps that role falls rather to ordinary people like Piotr and Svetlana. Piotr is a Pole and Svetlana is Ukrainian and they have been a couple for years; they live together in Warsaw, and they've come to the opening event in the new National Stadium. They want to see the new arena at least once, they say, since the tickets for the games are far too expensive. But they are very optimistic about the tournament.
"This is a great chance for us," says Svetlana, and Piotr continues: "Many Europeans don't know anything about Poland or Ukraine. I hope the tournament will change that."
Author: Joscha Weber / mll
Editor: Gabriel Borrud