Monday, 30 April 2012

Bombs Add To Soccer Festival Woes

The decision to invite Ukraine to co-host Europe’s most important soccer tournament this year was a controversial one — and that was before four bomb explosions rocked the country’s third largest city on Friday. As my colleague Michael Schwirtz reports, the government and the opposition have each suggested the other had most to gain from what officials described as a coordinated terrorist attack. It was the latest crisis to overshadow the four-yearly European soccer event that kicks off on June 8 in Warsaw, Poland, which is jointly hosting this year’s 31-match tournament with its eastern neighbor. The industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, the target of yesterday’s bombings in which 27 people were wounded, was long ago dropped as a venue for the Euro 2012 tournament. But new fears about security in the country as a whole can now be added to a list of concerns about Ukraine’s suitability to host a competition that involves national teams from 16 European nations. Michel Platini, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president, complained this month that “bandits and crooks” had pushed up prices ahead of the three-week tournament. The former mid-fielder for France’s national team advised foreign fans to not bother coming unless the country cleaned up its act. That followed lurid reports that thousands of prostitutes planned to cash in on male visitors to Ukraine, which has a dubious reputation as a hub of Europe’s illicit sex trade. The authorities are so sensitive to the issue that they formally protested this week over a jokey Dutch TV ad that suggested wives and girlfriends should keep their men at home during Euro 2012. Back in 2010, UEFA took legal action in response to an accusation that some members of its executive committee received cash for awarding the tournament to Ukraine and Poland. An investigation found no evidence to support the allegation. Michael Schwirtz and Nicholas Kulish noted in December that Ukraine had been battered by the world economic crisis since UEFA, soccer’s ruling body in Europe, decided in 2007 to name it as co-host. That has put pressure on Ukraine’s plans to improve its infrastructure. They also pointed out that the former Soviet state was “mired in an intractable political conflict that can freeze government activity for months at a time.” The political heat has risen since then. Yulia V. Tymoshenko, braided heroine of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, is on hunger strike in jail where she is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of authority during her term as prime minister. Her family says she has been beaten in prison and fears she will be force-fed. The treatment of Ms. Tymoshenko at the hands of her political rivals and successors has been denounced outside Ukraine. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, this week wrote to Mr. Platini to decline his invitation to the opening ceremony of Euro 2012. Ms. Reding said she could not close her eyes to human rights, even on the occasion of a great sporting festival. That coincided with a statement on behalf of Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, that he was canceling a planned trip to Ukraine because of the treatment of Ms. Tymoshenko. UEFA is in a bind. When it selected Ukraine back in 2007, Ms. Tymoshenko was just about to take office as prime minister. Mr. Platini has since said European soccer’s governing body could not rule out countries such as Ukraine just because they were not quite as democratic as the rest of Europe. With just six weeks to go, the soccer authorities are probably stuck with their decision. At one point, Scotland offered to step in as an alternative venue, but it is almost certainly too late for that. UEFA, which said on Friday that the bombings had not dented its confidence in the security measures Ukraine had put in place, reports that fans have snapped up 95 per cent of available tickets for Euro 2012. They probably do not include many pet-owners. Animal-lovers were appalled by reports that Ukrainians had slaughtered thousands of stray dogs and cats in a bid to tidy up the streets ahead of the tournament.

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