Ukraine fears focus will be on protests and problems, not football and fun

Fri, Jun 8, 2012, 01:00

UKRAINE’S LEADERS hoped the Euro 2012 football championship would serve as a glowing advert for their country, but ahead of kick-off they face criticism over their handling of everything from opposition leaders to stray dogs, and from terrace racism to rocketing hotel rates.

Warm hospitality awaits fans who venture to Europe’s third-largest country to watch the likes of Germany, England, France, the Netherlands and Portugal play group games on their way to what they hope will be an appearance in the July 1st final in Kiev.

But just as Azerbaijan was embarrassed by scrutiny of its dismal rights record when it staged last month’s Eurovision song contest, now Ukraine fears the glare of international attention could focus less on football and fun in the host cities than on protests and problems.

This week several thousand people – including boxer and opposition figure Vitali Klitschko – protested in Kiev against a new law that they say makes Russian a second state language in Ukraine, where opinion is deeply divided over the benefits of Moscow’s influence on the country.

The security services will also have to deal with activists from Femen, a group of women who have found fame by stripping off their tops to reveal slogans painted across their breasts. They intend to disrupt a football championship that they say will encourage sex tourism in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yanukovich can also expect to receive regular public messages from his most vocal and popular critic, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from her jail cell or hospital bed in the host city of Kharkiv. Most EU leaders are expected to stay away from games in Ukraine due to concern over the issue.

Ukraine is also under scrutiny following reports of racist violence among its football fans, complaints from Uefa chief Michel Platini that “bandits and crooks” were hiking hotel prices, and a campaign from animal rights activists to stop a planned cull of stray dogs in host cities.

Security has also been stepped up following four bomb blasts in a major Ukrainian city in April, which injured dozens of people.

The opening of the tournament will be marked this afternoon in Dublin with an event hosted by the Polish embassy at the nightclub Krystle.

The Polish ambassador, Martin Nawrot, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Sergii Reva, will be in attendance.

There will also be a free event for Polish fans at The Village on nearby Wexford Street.

Dublin Airport expects to carry 20,000 Irish fans between now and June 20th. The busiest days will be the match day against Croatia on Sunday, when 15 flights will leave, while 17 will take off next Thursday for the Spanish match.

More than 130 flights, 46 of which are in addition to the normal schedule, will carry Irish fans to Poland.