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.
Last month, authorities tried to transport Tymoshenko to the local hospital but she resisted: She did not trust her Ukrainian doctors, she said. Afterwards, photos were released and quickly went viral online, showing Tymoshenko with bruises on her abdomen. She claimed that guards had beaten her and declared a hunger strike in protest. The international reaction was swift and punishing.
"It is clear that as things stand now, the president has no intention of going to Ukraine," a spokesperson for Barroso announced.
"I love football, but what's happening in Ukraine is a problem," French President Francois Hollande said. The French president is not attending the tournament either.
In retaliation, Ukrainian officials warned the EU leaders of "reactivating Cold War methods," by making sports "hostage to politics."
"You can have other formats to express your concern, to express your discontent, to express your criticism," said Oleg Voloshyn, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in an interview later. "Lots of them. But let us leave the championship alone."
Tymoshenko has since abandoned her hunger strike, and German doctors are now treating her at the Kharkiv hospital. But the political tension continues to escalate. Ukraine could witness major demonstrations by the opposition during the tournament, as court cases resume for Tymoshenko this month. One, which is set to take place in Kharkiv on June 25, charges Tymoshenko with tax evasion and embezzlement and could add 10 years to her sentence. The other is an appeal for her original abuse of power conviction and is scheduled to take place in Kiev on June 26.
Protests may not be the most serious security threat authorities have to worry about. Last month, as the controversy surrounding Tymoshenko was reaching a high point, four bombs exploded in different locations in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk. More than 30 people were injured. Four suspects have been arrested, and authorities insist that the bombings were in no way connected with the championship. Still, the possibility of such violence occurring while the world's attention is focused on the country can't be a comforting one for Ukrainian authorities.
And then, there are fears that non-white fans risk physical attack if they attend Euro 2012. Two weeks ago, the BBC's flagship investigative program Panorama aired a report called "Stadiums of Hate," in which Polish and Ukrainian soccer crowds were portrayed as awash with neo-Nazis and other racist gangs. In one scene, hooligans at a local Kharkiv game, without any provocation, attacked and savagely beat a group of fellow supporters from India, while police and other fans looked on passively. Sol Campbell, the former captain of England's national squad -- who is himself black -- advised people of color not to travel to Ukraine and Poland, lest they want to "come home in a coffin."
The official Ukrainian reaction was equally swift as to the announcement of the Tymoshenko boycott. The BBC report was a distortion, they said. Fans of color were under no threat whatsoever, and in any case, racism was present everywhere -- and probably much worse elsewhere in Europe, where there was a larger minority population. Tellingly, though, no Ukrainian official reached out to the Indian fans who had been attacked.
(Ukraine's co-host may not be much better on this front. Black players on the Dutch team have already endured fans making monkey noises during a practice in Krakow, Poland.)
The negative press has begun to take its toll, and some officials have begun to sound a note of concern. Though they maintain that the country is simply the victim of a concerted anti-Ukrainian campaign in the Western press -- which began two years ago when animal rights campaigners called for a boycott to protest reports that Ukrainian police were slaughtering thousands of stray dogs in preparation for Euro 2012 -- they do worry that the tournament will only be remembered for the controversies.
"If this championship is a failure, it's not just a failure for Ukraine. It will be a failure of the idea of expanding the boundaries of football," said the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's Voloshyn in the same interview.
"The Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics are mostly remembered for the boycotts," he said, adding that nothing was gained from these actions.
But optimists in Kiev would rather look to other recent major sporting events. Fans were warned about rampant crime before the World Cup in South Africa, but the tournament ended a rousing success. Ditto for the Beijing Olympics, which suffered from widespread worries about boycotts, pollution, and human rights violations in the lead-up to the games -- but all was forgotten once the torch was lit and the competition began. Will Ukraine be so lucky?