Poland pitches for perfection

 

After years of preparation for Euro 2012, Poland is like a nervous hostess making last-minute adjustments before the guests arrive. Can the country shake off its grey, cold-war image and send fans home with multicoloured memories, asks DEREK SCALLY

ALL IS QUIET IN POZNAN ahead of the Green Army invasion. An estimated 25,000 Irish fans will descend on the pretty Polish city in a week, but for now the fan zone is a vacant, old-town expanse with perfect grass verges.

After years of preparation, Poland is like a nervous hostess making last-minute adjustments before the guests arrive, confident that everything is ready but anxious nonetheless. For the travelling fans, Euro 2012 will be a feast of football. For the Poles, it’s the chance of a lifetime: to leave the substitute bench of history and join the European premier league.

Doubts were as loud here as elsewhere that Poland, together with Ukraine, was in a position to host Euro 2012. Could two former communist countries build in time, often from scratch, crucial infrastructure such as motorways and stadiums? It has been a nail-biting race to the finish, and not everything has been completed. But, for regular visitors to Poland, the transformation of its cities is an extraordinary achievement, and more than enough to convince Uefa that the show can go on.

Now there will be another tense wait to see if the investment pays off. Can Poland banish forever stubbornly grey, cold-war prejudices and send fans home with multicoloured memories?

Younger Poles are brimming with quiet confidence. In a backstreet Poznan cafe, a local explains why. “We Poles are an optimistic people, but we often can’t see the best in ourselves,” says Dagmara Gregowicz, an engaging Poznan native and performer with a Polish-Ukrainian folk-electronic trio named Daga Dana. “After travelling with the band I know we are as good as anyone; we don’t need to worry about being at the back of the queue.”

To win hearts and minds, the country has embarked on an extraordinary rebranding campaign, targeting both foreign visitors and the domestic population. “The Polish diaspora, particularly in Britain and Ireland, did a lot for our image as hard-working, honest people,” says Magdalena Florek, an analyst with Poznan’s European Place Marketing Institute. “The key to changing attitudes for good is getting people to come here. Once they do, they have a very positive view of Poland.”

The championship is coming at a fortuitous moment in Poland’s history, which is full of partitions, occupations and genocide at the hands of its neighbours. Its ordeal as a political plaything of Hitler and Stalin cost six million Polish lives.

It was the Poles who knocked the first cracks in the Iron Curtain, setting in train events that saw its 45-year Soviet hostage ordeal end in 1989. Polish people are lacking not in patriotisim or pride but in the quiet confidence that comes with recognition from others. “Someone has always told us what to do, what to think, even how to act to prove we are ready to be in the EU,” says Agnieszka Lada, who is the head of the European programme at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. “Younger people here already have this feeling that we are as good as anyone, but this tournament will hopefully show older people, too, that Poland is good enough.”

Ireland may have pulled the short straw on the match front, but it could have done no better than to get beautiful Poznan and Gdansk as match cities. The Irish team is based outside Gdansk in Sopot, the richest place in Poland: a spotless Baltic seaside resort with a historic promenade and pier straight out of a Thomas Mann novel.

Days between matches in Poland offer an ideal chance to explore a country four times the size of Ireland with 10 times the population. There are cultural treasures galore and many sobering, inspiring lessons in European history. There’s the shabby grandeur of the Gdansk shipyard, where the end of communism began. Poznan, a German city before 1945, is home to the hulking Prussian palace that was later remodelled by Hitler. Now a cultural centre, it has the only preserved marble Third Reich interior, a fascinating folly of pompous fascist design.

“For years no one wanted to come here, but people in Poznan have grown to like it,” says Anna Hryniewiecka, director of the cultural centre that now occupies the building. “We’re not glorifying Hitler or the Nazi period but see it as a part of our Polish-German history.”

And while we’re on the subject, Polish organisers have dismissed a controversial BBC Panorama programme this week, which reported on far-right football hooligans. The reaction was that it presented a distorted picture of a problem that is not unique to Poland but which the country has worked hard to tackle.

“We can guarantee 100 per cent safety of fans,” says Mikolaj Piotrowski, Polish spokesman for Euro 2012. “We’re looking forward in particular to greeting Irish fans because we know we are very alike – loud and cheerful – and it’s important for them to know that they will have a great time and be perfectly safe.”

Foreigners in Poland agree that the situation has improved dramatically in recent years, particularly thanks to the preparations for Euro 2012. “The same thing happened in England: when the old, decrepit stadiums were replaced with new facilities the people changed too,” saysid David Ingham, an English-born journalist with the Warsaw Business Journal. “People felt they were being treated better and were, all of a sudden, much better behaved. Security is much better, too.”

From a security perspective, the only game that has authorities on high alert is the Poland-Russia match on June 12th in Warsaw. Emotions have been running high between the two countries since the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk killed president Lech Kaczynksi and a swathe of Poland’s political elite.

Some Kaczynski conspiracy theorists blame Moscow for the crash, creating tension that could spill over if, as rumoured, Russian fans march through Warsaw to celebrate the anniversary of Russia snatching Moscow back from Poland in 1612 and installing the first Romanov tsar.

The shadow hanging over the tournament is talk of a political boycott of the cohost Ukraine. For years Poland has pushed for closer ties between its eastern neighbour and the EU, only to watch its efforts evaporate in recent weeks over concerns at the treatment of the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Despite the setback, Ukraine analysts in Poland say Warsaw is determined to plough on rather than allow Kiev drift back to Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“THERE IS A real frustration at how things are turning out after investing so much time and energy,” says Grzegorz Gromadzki, a Polish analyst of Ukrainian affairs. “But Poland will not change its policy on Ukraine because it is a pluralistic society with opposition groups and nongovernmental organisations that need our support. Ukraine is more than the president.”

With attention on politics and infrastructure problems, less thought has focused on what comes after the final whistle. Having spent so much money, can Poland expect a Euro 2012 afterglow or an economic hangover? There is quiet confidence that the long-overdue investment in a motorway network is an investment in the future.

But many Poles remain unconvinced that the stadiums can pay their way, and others question the whole project.

Around the corner from Warsaw’s striking grey and white stadium, the crumbling Praga neighbourhood projects precisely the kind of image of Poland organisers are anxious to shake off. A residents’ protest committee sees Euro 2012 as the pinnacle of a dominant, free-market ideology in Poland and plans to offer visitors tours of its crumbling neighbourhood.

Annoyed and alarmed, city officials have begun last-minute attempts at superficial renovations. Residents of Praga compare this effort to Potemkin villages. “They say they have no money to pay for or to renovate public housing, yet they pour money into Euro 2012,” says Jakub Gawlikowski, a local campaigner, walking past buildings that have been untouched since before the second World War. “All the Polish people will have from the tournament is servicing the debt it leaves.”

“Hopes of tourism benefits down the road are too abstract for many Poles struggling to manage now,” says Paul McNamara, an Irish historian specialising in 20th-century Polish history. “Yet there is the chance of a real feel-good factor, a sense of confidence about Poland’s place in Europe. People are slowly realising that this is the first time Poland is being talked about in terms that have nothing to do with communism or the second World War.”

Feminists’ fury: Ukraine is braced for bare-breasted Euro 2012 protests

While most fans heading to Ukraine for Euro 2012 will be wary of skinheads, fake tickets, dodgy money-changers and cheap vodka, local police also have their eye on another problem: a group of feminist activists who have vowed to attack the tournament in a very distinctive way.

Members of Femen travel around Ukraine and other parts of Europe stripping off to reveal strident slogans painted across their breasts, and they have now switched focus from battling corruption and violence against women to denouncing Euro 2012 as a magnet for sex tourists.

They have already grabbed the Euro trophy in three cities as it travelled around Ukraine, mingling with fans who were having photographs taken with the Henri Delaunay Cup before exposing chests daubed with the message “F**k Euro 2012”.

Dragged away kicking and screaming by security guards, the women say this is only the start of a campaign to disrupt a tournament that they believe will encourage prostitution in Ukraine and reinforce a perception that its women are easily available to foreign men.

“We are going to do everything we can to interrupt and disrupt, to break up these events . . . We’ll be staging all sorts of strikes – at stadiums and alongside, at press conferences and at cup ceremonies, everywhere,” says one Femen member, Anna Hutsol.

“Uefa has social programmes, like, for instance, ‘football without racism’. Why can’t it set up the programme ‘football without prostitution or sex tourism’?”

Her fellow activist Sasha Shevchenko says Femen “had high hopes that Uefa would speak out against prostitution. But after several protests we realised that Uefa and the Euro organisers have an interest in Ukraine becoming one big bordello. Euro 2012 will not help Ukraine develop . . . The only thing that will develop is the sex industry here.”

Femen’s activists claim to be empowering women by using their bodies to highlight the ills of Ukraine’s patriarchal society; critics say that by baring their breasts to win attention they are reinforcing stereotypes and only adding to Ukraine’s international image problem.

The country has come under heavy fire in recent months from several directions.

European Union leaders may stay way from Euro 2012 matches in protest at Kiev’s jailing and alleged mistreatment of the country’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; the Uefa chief Michel Platini said Ukrainian “bandits and crooks” were ripping off fans with exorbitant hotel prices; and about 30 people were hurt in four bomb blasts in one Ukrainian city, and other bombs were defused elsewhere.

There are also fears that black players could be abused and foreign fans targeted by local hooligans. Some black England players have already said that their families will not travel to Ukraine, where the country will play against France, Sweden and the hosts in Kiev and the eastern city of Donetsk.

Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark will play their group games at either edge of Europe’s third-largest country, near Ukraine’s western border in Lviv and close to Russia in Kharkiv. The Euro 2012 final will be held at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on July 1st.

“Positive reviews of Ukraine are very scarce these days. We want to change that,” says Ihor Zavilinsky, who leads volunteers who will take fans on free city tours and provide translation.

They are part of the Friendly Ukraine initiative, which is also offering airport pick-ups and even free home-stay accommodation to visiting fans through websites such as rooms4free.org.ua, 2012well.com.uaand icanhelpu.com.ua.

“Ukraine is a friendly country, Ukraine is a hospitable country,” says the co-ordinator of the programme, Viktoria Svitlova. “We are changing the image of the Ukrainian people.” Officials say the media are overstating the problems of racism and violence on the terraces, and that some 23,000 on-duty police and thousands of trained volunteers will ensure fans’ security on the ground, while helicopters, fighters jets and even surface-to-air missiles will guard against other potential threats.

Whether they can deal with Femen’s unorthodox tactics is another matter.

“The Euro organisers now know who they have to be afraid of,” warns Inna Shevchenko of Femen. “They have to be afraid of, us and they will have to get ready for us appearing at every Euro event.”

Daniel McLaughlin

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