Darkness behind Ukraine's Euro glow

Behind the success of the European championship lie a quandary of unresolved socio-political issues


    The sun is shining and a giant bear mascot makes friends with passers by.

    Euro 2012 banners dangle everywhere on the giant fan zone beneath the town hall in Kiev. The atmosphere as the tournament ends is friendly and proud.

    As I reach the last 50 metres of the fan zone there is lot of canvas,  as if you are behind market stalls, and paintings appear to be displayed at the visible first stall. 

    But these are not market stalls and that is not a painting.

    It is a picture of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister, jailed by the current regime on charges of abuse of power. Her supporters have set up camp here in the middle of the Euro carnival.

    Appalling injustice 

    They are demonstrating close to the courthouse which jailed her for over year, protesting against what they feel is an appalling injustice. And for the past month month the slogans have been in English, publicising her treatment to those here for football.

    It is a stark reminder that behind the Euro 2012 party, seen justifiably to be a success by UEFA and the co-hosts, there is a dark backdrop.

    The tournament started with fears of racism and hooliganism, and in the first week there was turbulence.

    Not storms on the scale we saw crackle into Donetsk for Ukraine v France, but unwelcome and unsettling ... Poland staged fights between locals and Russians with the police at the centre, and several competing nations have been fined for racist and violent behaviour of fans.

    The Football Associations of Croatia, Russia, and Spain have all been punished.

    It was Ukraine that was highlighted as a particularly racist country in the build-up to Euro 2012 but the fears haven't materialised. Former England footballer Sol Campbell had warned England fans if they travelled here they may return in a coffin.  The fact England fans jokingly carried a coffin through the streets said everything about how little this dramatic warning was affecting them.

    Ukraine's tournament director Markiyan Lubkivsky told me the people here have answered the criticism and that the tournament has been good for Ukranians, good for the image of the country, and good for the fans who have come and enjoyed the experience.

    But it is not easy to accept is his insistence there is NO racism in Ukraine.

    It is a bold statement and contradicted by people I have spoken to here. They tell me it remains a problem away from the special atmosphere around the tournament. That there are still Ukranians who are racist in their thoughts, and sometimes their deeds.

    Racist attacks do happen here, it is certainly not a myth, is what I was told when in Ukraine.

    One Kiev resident talked of 'the ignorance of some people,  a basic fear of the unknown. There are still too few foreign faces.'

    'Friendly police'

    Lubkivsky also praised the 'friendliness' of the police. But this isn't friendliness I've seen, heard or experienced.

    The picture you develop of the role of the police here is something with a sinister feel. Vast numbers of them on the street, intimidating with their hard line attitude, surliness and regular interference.

    It feels like a police state for the people here. They are constantly stopped and questioned.

    Eight years after the Orange revolution, and under the leadership of Viktor Yanukovych , many Ukranians feel the nation moving further away from western Europe and becoming a throwback to the days of Soviet rule.

    But the joy experienced by their fans over national hero Andriy Shevchenko's  match winning exploits is deep.

    UEFA had to consider taking their half of the tournament from them when standards were not being met. To witness the local people dancing, singing and relaxing in the giant fan zone night after night you realise what a relief it is that everything worked in the end. 

    A good example of the positive fan experience is the 5,000 swedes who lived on a bespoke camp by a 'beach' in Kiev.

    They had a wonderful time - apart from watching their team being beaten and knocked out early.

    Stressful decision

    UEFA President Michel Platini admitted the challenge of bringing the tournament here, the biggest sporting event in Eastern Europe since  the Moscow Olympics  of 1980, was difficult and stressful. When he says it will help in terms if legacy I believe he is right. Playing a major football tournament in Eastern Europe had to happen sooner or later, and the experience of many fans has been positive.  It will be interesting to see if progress has been made when the World Cup is played in Russia in 2018.

    There is still progress to be made in Ukraine on putting out a welcome mat to people of other races and cultures away from the festival atmosphere of a football tournament. Full enlightenment can't come from one event, however special.

    If Euro 2012 has helped more Ukranians to relate to foreign faces, then it's been a triumph off the field as well as on the pitch, where it's been exhilarating and memorable.

    A big spotlight will now move away which may not be a good thing with the troubling political situation here.

    Euro 2012 is over, but political leaders outside of Ukraine would be advised to keep their eye on this particular ball.



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