As the Euro 2012 gets underway, soccer fans are turning their attention to Poland and Ukraine - many for the very first time. DW talks to an old hand in Eastern European football circles, Jonathan Wilson.
In 2005 Jonathan Wilson published his first book, "Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football," and has written on the subject extensively since for the Guardian, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere. In 2011, he founded The Blizzard, a quarterly devoted to long-form essays on football and football culture. DW spoke with Wilson ahead of Euro 2012.
DW: You got to know Ukraine some years before UEFA awarded the tournament to them and Poland. What did you make of that decision at the time?
Jonathan Wilson: Well I guess my feelings were twofold. First of all I thought "this is a great thing, this is European football, which has traditionally been dominated by the West, reaching out to the East." And at the same time, my other thought was "how on earth are they going to do this?" The infrastructure was disastrous, particularly in Ukraine. There are going to be all kinds of problems, and I think really that's been borne out.
Well Poland, whose economy has done remarkably well given the general financial climate, have been able to build new stadiums, develop their roads, develop their rail networks, build hotels. I don't think they've got quite as much done as they initially promised to do but still, it's a significant improvement from what was there before.
I think Ukraine has really struggled though. They've developed a train network. There are now high-speed trains, which is clearly positive. They've done a lot of work on airports, which I suppose is good. The stadiums in Kharkiv, Kiev, and Lviv have been built, and I guess that will have a long-term impact.
I think the huge problem in Ukraine is hotel rooms. I was in Donetsk about 18 months ago, and I asked the mayor about this. He said "there are 583 hotel rooms in the city." Now of course there have been hotels built in the last 18 months, but not that many. And if you've started off with a stadium with 52,000 capacity and 583 hotel rooms, then there's going to be a massive shortfall. That's why prices are so high, and even people who are prepared to pay are finding it very, very difficult to find accommodation. So logistically, it's made it a very, very difficult tournament for fans and I think that's one of the reasons they're not going.
Yes and England supporters, especially, appear to be staying away. Are you surprised?
I think it's hugely shocking. It's the first time in a long, long time that we have had this situation of England not taking up ticket allocations. You think back to the quarterfinal in 2004 in Lisbon when England played Portugal, and more than half the stadium was full of English fans and it felt like an England home game. England fans hadn't only taken up their own allocation but they also managed to get tickets on the black market and took over 20-25,000 seats in the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. Now, for the first game against France, which is the biggest game in the group for England in Donetzk - they've sent around about half the tickets back.
Why do you think they're staying away?
I think there are a couple of reasons. I think the economic climate doesn't help. I think Britain is in recession again and that's clearly affected the disposable income people have. I think with the Olympics being in London this year, people have maybe thought, "well, the money that we could've set aside for traveling abroad to watch sports – we'll use that to go to London and watch the Olympics because this is the only time it's going to happen in our lifetime whereas there will be other football tournaments." But I think also just the fact that it's in Ukraine that is putting people off.
Ukraine is not a traditional holiday destination. It doesn't have the best reputation, the prices are very, very high, and the internal travel in Ukraine I think has put a lot of people off. If you think back to Germany at the World Cup in 2006 it was fairly easy for an England fan to base themselves in Frankfurt, Cologne or somewhere where England were playing and then take a four or five hour train journey or hire a car (and again, four or five hours) and the next day go to another game and the day after go to another game. So in a week you could maybe fit in four or five matches. Well in Ukraine you're talking an overnight train to get from Donetsk to Kiev or quite that far to get to Kharkiv. Logistically it becomes a very big problem for fans.
How do you think the two host countries are going to do? Neither has had much success in major tournaments, at least not for the past 30 years or so.
Well I'd be very, very surprised if either of them won it. I think to get through the group stage is a realistic target. It'd be a decent achievement for both sides to do it or for either side to do it, but I think to go much further would be a surprise. I think they're the two lowest-ranked sides in the tournament by the FIFA rankings which I think tells you everything. But they both have decent players.
You look at Robert Lewandowski, who obviously is very well-known to a German audience for the goals he's scored for Borussia Dortmund, so Poland do have a very good forward. They've got Wojciech Szczesny in goal, the Arsenal goalkeeper who is probably one of the best three or four young goalkeepers in Europe at the moment.
Ukraine I think is a little bit harder if you look purely at the players. Oleg Blokhin took over last year. He chopped and changed the side a lot in terms of preparation. They've got the whole Andriy Shevchenko issue – arguably he is the most famous Ukrainian in the world at the moment but as a footballer, he's 35, he probably can't manage two games in four days, and he himself admits that he's put off his time in order to play in this tournament. Now there will be something fantastically sentimental about him leading them to glory in Kiev on July 1, but realistically I think that's very unlikely.
What I would say and where Ukraine may have an advantage, is that traditionally, I think home advantage hasn't been such an issue in the Euros as it is in other tournaments, whereas World Cup hosts tend to over-perform. Belgium went out in the group stage in 2000 and both Austria and Switzerland went out in the group stage four years ago.
I think the reason why that doesn't happen in Europe is there is a level of familiarity. If you play football in France, it's not really very different to go play football in Italy or to go play football in Germany. To go and play football in Ukraine actually is a bit different, and I think the fact that of the 16 nations, 13 have chosen to base themselves in Poland, so only two other than Ukraine are basing themselves in Ukraine. I think that suggests a wariness about Ukraine. I think that traveling into matches isn't going to help those sides. So maybe Ukraine will benefit from home matches in a way that previous European hosts haven't been able to. But still I think quarterfinals are the limits of their ambitions as well.
Who do you reckon will win?
I think probably Germany. If you go purely on players you'd say Spain probably have a better squad but I think the level of fatigue about Spain is just worrying. You look at Xavi, their key midfielder, in the last four years he's played an average of 66 matches per season. Now the next player in the tournament in that ranking has 60. Generally, if you look at the core of the Spain side, they play an average of 58 games per season over the last four years. England is next with 56 and then people like Germany and the Netherlands are in the mid 40's. Now that's a big difference and I think fatigue will be a big issue for Spain.
Germany's defense was exposed with Switzerland and actually with Ukraine – they drew 3-3 with them last November – so Germany aren't without question marks but you look at the midfield and the balance in that side – Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller – and I think probably I'd just go Germany over Spain with the Dutch and the French not too far behind.
Interview: Matt Hermann
Editor: Matt Zuvela