|Heavy investment has been put into The National Stadium in Warsaw to ensure it is up to standards [GALLO/GETTY]|
As the countdown to Euro 2012 hits the 100-day mark, host nation Poland and UEFA say they are confident that everything is on track, brushing off enduring criticism of the country’s readiness.
“Everything’s going as planned,” said Poland’s sports minister Joanna Mucha, who steers the state commission monitoring preparations for the high-profile European football championships.
“On May 15, we intend to declare the country officially ready for the tournament,” she said.
“We can’t let up, as the most intense period is ahead of us.”
Euro 2012 kicks off on June 8 when Poland face Greece in Warsaw and ends on July 1 with the final in Kiev, capital of co-host Ukraine.
It marks the first-ever edition of the quadrennial, 16-nation championships behind the former Iron Curtain.
European football’s governing body UEFA caught pundits out in April 2007 when it picked the East European duo as hosts over favourites Italy.
While the communist era ended two decades ago, Poland and, to a greater extent, Ukraine have faced massive challenges getting their infrastructure up to scratch, notably transport and accommodation.
“The Poles have delivered and they have delivered well,” Martin Kallen, UEFA’s Euro watchdog, said.
“They are more or less there.”
The organisers have been bedevilled by doubters and domestic sparring, most recently over alleged mismanagement at Warsaw’s National Stadium.
The ground, which will host the June 8 match, was meant to open last year but will only see its first game on Wednesday when Poland face Portugal in a friendly.
Poland’s other three Euro 2012 stadiums have already opened, albeit behind schedule.
With the championships traditionally drawing hundreds of thousands of fans and a huge global television audience, the Poles are aware they must prove their mettle.
Back in 2008, UEFA issued a biting report which fuelled speculation that Euro 2012 could be shifted elsewhere.
That seems a lifetime ago, said Marcin Herra, boss of PL.2012 which oversees the vast array of projects, from stadiums and highways to airports and hotels.
“In February 2008, UEFA’s report was red. Today, the colours are spring-like, with greens, and only a few yellows”
Boss of PL.2012 Marcin Herra
“In February 2008, UEFA’s report was red. Today, the colours are spring-like, with greens, and only a few yellows,” he said.
Tournament director Adam Olkowicz echoed that, saying: “There’s no issue that’s causing us trouble”.
“We’ve got 1,775 days of organising under our belt. So we really are in the final straight. And in a few dozen days, things are going to be totally given over to the sporting side,” he said.
Euro 2012-related investment in Poland has hit $29 billion.
Ninety percent is public money, with around half of that from the European Union: 2004 entrant Poland can tap EU funds to help poorer members catch up, giving it an edge over non-member Ukraine.
Whereas in 2008 only five percent of projects were underway, the figure today is 94 percent, Herra underlined.
Poland has been the only member of the 27-nation EU to keep growing during the economic crisis, and there are suggestions that Euro 2012 may have provided a stimulus programme in all but name.
Officials stress that most projects are not sport-related – less than five percent of spending is on stadiums – and that the lion’s share is for transport, which needed an overhaul to spur the economy.
That sector has been a major focus of criticism, with delays hitting projects such as the final stretch of a motorway linking Warsaw to western Poland.
But Kallen said it was important to look at the bigger picture.
“Poland has made huge progress not only for the Euro but in the last three or four years with all this infrastructure. Okay, not everything will be finished, but if you look back three or four years and now you go there, it’s unrecognisable,” he said.
Accommodation remains a top concern, with fan lobby Football Supporters Europe slamming hoteliers for jacking up prices by five times in Poland and even more in Ukraine.
With both countries aiming to use Euro 2012 to boost future visitor numbers, the Polish Chamber of Tourism has warned that trying to make a fast buck could backfire down the line.
“High prices are bad for the hosts’ image,” said Kallen.
“This is one of the major issues we will have to clarify”.