The tense climate in Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine has dampened excitement around the tournament. Germany and defending champion Spain enter the tournament in Poland and the Ukraine as favorites.
For the first time in 36 years - in 1976 the continent's best teams were guests in the former Yugoslavia - the European Championship football tournament is being played in Eastern Europe.
But preparations for the competition in Poland and Ukraine in recent months, sport has stood in the shadow of politics. The case of jailed Ukrainian former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko dominated the headlines. Many high-profile, Western European politicians, including newly elected French President Francois Hollande, are boycotting Ukraine, amidst protests of human rights violations.
“I love football, but what is happening in Ukraine is a problem,” said Hollande.
In awarding a former Soviet Union state the tournament, UEFA, European soccer's governing body, wanted to play up their role on the tailwinds of democratization. Yet, Ukraine has developed problems not just politically. Dragged out preparations caused UEFA to threaten tournament relocation on multiple occasions.
Now economic experts said they expect Ukraine will suffer billions of dollars in losses.
For co-hosts Poland, the outlook is markedly better, especially if the hopes of an economic boom following the Euro 2012 materialize.
Favorites Germany and Spain
Neither co-host is vying for the title. Both the Polish and Ukrainian teams will be happy to make it out of the group stages into the quarterfinals. Germany and Spain are again the favorites.
The European and World Champions from the Iberian Peninsula have dominated the sport in recent years. They lead the current world rankings with confidence, though they are missing two key players in defensive leader Carles Puyol and star striker David Villa.
The German team, who have the youngest average age of any squad in the tournament at 24.4 years, have consistently played to the expert opinions in their ability to unseat the Spanish, especially if the recent friendlies are any indication.
“I have definitely not thought about failing,” said German national coach Joachim Löw. Germany has been waiting since 1996 for another major title.
Recovering from World Cup humiliation
The German team does not have time to slowly improve during the course of the competition. Portugal, 2010 World Cup runners-up the Netherlands, and Denmark are waiting in the group stage to block their progress in the tournament.
Many believe in the chances of the Netherlands to win the Euro 2012. France and Italy also belong in the circle of favorites. Both teams have recovered from their difficult group stage performances in the 2010 World Cup. France has gone 20 games unbeaten. And England, the birthplace of football, might also be in with a shout.
The opening group stage game between co-host Poland and Greece takes place in Warsaw on Friday. The final, the last of the championship’s 31 games, is on July 1st in Kyiv. The six other host cities are Gdansk, Wroclaw, and Poznan in Poland and Donetsk, Lviv, and Kharkiv in Ukraine. It will be a European Championship with a huge distance between the venues.
Major police presence
The tournament co-hosts stress they're taking security serioulsy. Poland is implementing strong border controls. Hooligans will be intercepted on arrival. Poland is employing approximately 10,000 security personnel at the tournament. Ukraine is employing 7,000 police and military forces in the major cities on game days. The government in Kyiv has also issued a decree: no tolerance for violence.
The human rights organization Amnesty International deplored the strong actions of Ukrainian security forces - not only against those opposed to the government, but also against football fans - which frequently exceed their own border statutes.
Author: Stefan Nestler/dr
Editor: Rina Goldenberg