Soccer

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june 29, 2012 • 07:25 AM • last update 09:35 AM

Image a problem despite Ukraine's soccer party success

Soccer fans react as they watch the Euro 2012 semi-final soccer match between Germany and Italy at the fan zone in Kiev, June 28, 2012.
Foto: Anatolii Stepanov / Reuters In English

Ukraine kept the embarrassing case of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko largely out of sight, the West's token protests barely registered and Ukraine, in the end, threw a smiling, trouble-free party that made it many friends among Europe's soccer-going public.

The only crowd violence - a persistent fear of organizers at big soccer feasts - took place not in Ukraine but in co-host Poland, when Poles and Russian fans clashed early in the tournament.

So the former Soviet republic, which went into the three-week Euro 2012 soccer festival dogged by foreign media charges of racism, homophobia and corruption, has grounds for saying it proved many of its critics wrong.

Italy and Spain meet in the final in Kiev on Sunday.

But, once the final whistle has blown on Sunday and the last drinks' marquee has come down, President Viktor Yanukovich will have to go back to handling his fractious relations with Europe, which is troubled by his commitment to democracy, analysts say.

Thousands of European fans were deterred from visiting by adverse Western media reports, high prices for accommodation and huge distances between the four match-playing cities.

But a long June of non-stop street partying has brought thousands of Ukrainians together with those of Europe's football faithful who did make the long trip to a country which, 20 years after independence, is still far off the beaten tourist path.

They've drunk, danced and whooped it up in front of the big "fan zone" screens. Without any common language, they've shared each other's success on the pitch and helped drown each other's sorrow.

Despite the huge numbers of foreign supporters - there were 20,000 Swedish fans alone in Kiev - few incidents, racist or otherwise, have been reported.

Drunken supporters had to be coaxed, or pulled, down from the graceful chestnut trees that line Kiev's main thoroughfare at times in the early hours.

But the groups of red-bereted riot police waiting in side streets in the city centre were only occasionally called to divide groups of supporters squaring off against each other.

Ukrainians often feel they are accorded second-class status by the European Union. They could draw grim satisfaction that it was co-host Poland, an EU member, that saw the only serious crowd violence with the Polish-Russian fan riots on June 12.

THANK YOU, UKRAINE!

In Ukraine, by contrast, Swedish fans, whose team made an early tournament exit, held up "Thank you Ukraine!" banners. The Ukrainian press has carried reams of praise by supporters to the hospitality they have been shown.

"I have brought my son (aged 9) to every match I could - not just for the football, but so he could see different people around him and hear different languages. He told me it was like standing in a rainbow," said Ihor Shevchuk, 37, a Kiev engineer.

So, in many ways, Yanukovich has good reason to feel he will be riding a mood of national joy when he hosts Sunday's final at Kiev's Olympic Stadium.

But analysts say Yanukovich still has to resolve the row with the EU over the jailing of his political foe, Tymoshenko, if he wishes to capitalize on the goodwill generated by the tournament.

"At the people's level, Ukraine was a nice revelation for the fans but I don't think the successful organization of the tournament will shift the perception of politicians about Ukraine," Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, visiting scholar of Carnegie Europe, said.

Boycotts by Britain, France and Sweden passed largely unnoticed as sport carried all before it in the tournament's opening stages.

The prime ministers of Spain and Italy will attend the final, officials in Madrid and Rome said, though an Italian delegation has sought permission to visit Tymoshenko in Kharkiv, where she is serving a seven-year jail term for abuse of office.

Yanukovich, far from relenting in her case, has allowed his political allies to pile up more potential charges against his political foe.

He has done himself no favors either, diplomats said, by inviting Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is shunned by the European Union because of his hardline policies at home, to the final.

Indeed, that is liable to reinforce the Western impression that Yanukovich is drifting towards Lukashenko's authoritarian style of rule by his persecution of his political opponents.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel - spared the dilemma of whether to attend the final by her team's defeat to Italy on Thursday - said last month that the peoples of both Ukraine and Belarus were suffering "under dictatorship and repression."

TYMOSHENKO CASE

Ukrainian authorities, anxious to avoid embarrassment, put the Tymoshenko affair on the back-burner. Tymoshenko's appeal against her conviction, and a fresh trial on charges of tax evasion and attempted embezzlement, were postponed until after the tournament.

Western governments regard the prosecution of the charismatic 51-year-old as an example of "selective justice" and want her released.

The affair weighs heavily on Ukraine's aspiration to integrate into the European mainstream. Milestone agreements with the European Union on political association and free trade are unlikely to be signed while ever she is in jail.

Few though would deny that Ukraine confounded its critics by its organization of facilities.

The creation of a vast pedestrian-only "fan zone" along Kiev's main boulevard and central Independence Square turned the city centre into a vast playground that throbbed and pulsated with partying - even on non-match nights.

Only the Church and a neo-feminist group fretted: a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox church denounced the sinful "monkey" frenzy of fans, while activists from the Femen group, which says Euro 2012 encourages prostitution, abused fans and kicked their drinks off tables.

Femen, it seems, were proved wrong.

The local weekly, Kyiv Post, quoted city sex workers and monitoring agencies as saying there had been no increase in demand for sex services during the tournament.

"After the championship started I spoke to girls in Kyiv and other host cities, and none of them spoke about crowds of clients," Olena Zuckerman, who heads the Legalife sex workers protection group, was quoted as saying. "So, people who invested in the sex business (for Euro 2012) will be disappointed."

Much-publicized charges in the British media of racism in Ukrainian soccer rang hollow too.

In Donetsk, one of Ukraine's match cities, England fans towed a mock-coffin through the street, denouncing England footballer Sol Campbell. He had warned supporters before the tournament to stay at home "because you could end up coming back in a coffin."

"If it had not been for the Tymoshenko problem, the Euros would have really helped Ukraine," said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst of Penta think-tank.

"It was a test for Ukraine to see whether it could handle such a complicated task as organizing the Euros. But our internal political problems have detracted from any positive (Euros) effect," he said.

"Chy ye zhittya pislye Evro ? - Is there life (for us) after the Euros?", ask billboards in Kiev in an ironical aside about three weeks of fun and celebration.

It's a question Yanukovich might ask himself.

Euro 2012 will be remembered as the moment when sport brought Europe to visit Ukraine. But, for now, politics are keeping Ukraine's move into Europe at a standstill.

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