KIEV, Ukraine – The "fan zone" is open for business and the party has already begun.
In the heart of the capital's downtown, stretching from Independence Square and down Khreshchatik street -- Kiev's Fifth Avenue -- a sprawling area has been cordoned off by high steel fences. Music blasts from giant speakers while a soccer highlight film plays on a gigantic screen at the far end. Fans in multi-colored jerseys stroll about, and a feeling of extended celebration, like a college spring break, hangs in the air. But for Ukrainians, much of the joy is mixed with relief.
Beginning today, Ukraine and its neighbor, Poland, are hosting the European soccer championships -- the first time that the event is taking place in two former Eastern Bloc nations. Five years ago, when European soccer's governing body, UEFA, bequeathed its flagship event to Ukraine and Poland, many regarded it as a risky move. The European Cup is the continent's largest sporting event -- and for the soccer world, the biggest happening after the World Cup.
UEFA's plan is to expand its brand into Eastern Europe's soccer-mad but still commercially untapped lands. Ukraine, however, was thought to be a particularly dubious bet: with its crumbling Soviet-era architecture, pot-holed roads, musty hotel rooms, and cobwebbed airport terminals -- not to mention pervasive corruption and ossified bureaucracy. Two years ago, as construction lagged months behind schedule, there was talk of stripping the games from Ukraine and rescheduling them in Hungary or Germany.
But now, at a cost of nearly $14 billion, the sports complexes, roads, and airport terminals are finished. Two of the stadiums -- the Donbass Arena in the eastern city of Donetsk and Olympic Stadium in Kiev, where the final will be played on July 1 -- are now considered among the best venues in Europe. Ukrainian television is broadcasting chirpy spots, proclaiming "We are waiting for Euro." Up to 800,000 foreign visitors are expected to flood into the country -- an economic windfall for Ukraine's moribund economy.
Ukrainian officials for their part are hoping the championship will provide them with something more -- something intangible, but oh-so-dear: Respect. Ukraine, a nation of 45 million -- and Europe's second largest country by territory, after Russia -- has toiled since independence under its reputation as a political, economic, and cultural backwater. Long seen as a land of bureaucrats in box-like suits and men with shaved heads in track outfits, Ukraine hopes to prove to the world that it's a modern European country to be reckoned with. President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions are also facing difficult parliamentary elections in the fall and are banking that a successful tournament will boost the government's flagging popularity.
But what was intended to be the country's crowning international sports moment is now looking distinctly wobbly. Accusations of human rights abuses, a looming boycott by European leaders, and concerns over racism are threatening to transform the games into a giant diplomatic and public relations embarrassment. Or worse.
As concern increases over the treatment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, European leaders, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the entire French cabinet, have announced that they will not travel to tournament games in Ukraine. Others, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, say they are weighing whether to attend.
In October, last year, a Kiev court sentenced Tymoshenko, the golden-braided heroine of the Orange Revolution, to seven years in jail for abuse of power. The charges stemmed from an agreement she signed while in office, three years ago, ending a so-called gas war with Russia. Tymoshenko personally negotiated with Russia's prime minister at the time, Vladimir Putin. Later, government officials claimed the contract was highly detrimental to Kiev, allegedly costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars. Poor contract or not, however, Western governments have denounced her imprisonment as politically motivated -- possibly the result of her outspoken (and venomous) opposition to her longtime political rival, President Yanukovych.
And the temperature continues to rise. The jailed former prime minister is suffering from a herniated spinal disc and is said to be in intense pain. Foreign doctors have examined her and recommended she be sent to Germany for care. Ukrainian officials insist however that she stay in country and receive treatment at a clinic near her prison in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.