UEFA gets desired results from Poland, Ukraine
NYON, Switzerland (AP) -UEFA is locked on a rollercoaster ride with European Championship co-hosts Poland and Ukraine until the final whistle blows in Kiev on July 1.
The five years since UEFA sent a major football tournament to eastern Europe for the first time saw construction delays, political upheaval, turmoil in both national football federations and a global financial crisis.
Sports and politics are still proving a volatile mix ahead of the kickoff on June 8 in Warsaw, with international pressure on UEFA's invited guests to boycott matches in protest at Ukraine's jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Her appeal against a seven-year sentence is scheduled for June 26.
UEFA stood beside Ukraine - through loyalty and necessity - and the original plan of welcoming 16 teams playing 31 matches in eight stadiums will be fulfilled.
"We would have bitten your hand off a few years ago for being here,'' said David Taylor, the head of UEFA's commercial division. "We feel it has been a tremendous achievement from both countries and, I hasten to add, from our own staff to get the project to the position we're in.''
Among global sports events, only football's World Cup and the Summer Olympics draw higher commercial revenues and television ratings than the European Championship.
The 2012 tournament has already provided dramatic plot lines to match its status.
Taylor was starting his new job as UEFA's general secretary when the ruling executive committee elected former Soviet bloc neighbors as co-hosts in April 2007.
It was "a bit of a surprise,'' he concedes, that a bid with the weakest infrastructure beat favored Italy 8-4 in Cardiff, Wales. The Croatia-Hungary candidacy got no support.
Proclaiming victory, Ukraine football federation president Hrihoriy Surkis promised: "Within five years we will build a new country, and we won't have a better opportunity to do so.''
Ukrainian sporting greats Vitali Klitschko and Sergei Bubka joined then-state president Victor Yushchenko in Cardiff, though Surkis, a UEFA executive member, was "the driving force.''
"Although it was called `Poland and Ukraine,' it really was `Ukraine and Poland,''' Taylor said.
The Scottish official joined Swiss colleague Martin Kallen, UEFA's tournament director and logistics expert, to tour 12 potential host cities.
UEFA intended to devolve powers to the co-hosts, helping to overcome issues of distance plus different currencies, languages and legal frameworks, with Ukraine outside the 27-nation European Union.
"The slight flaw in that plan was that they were not able to do it,'' Taylor said. "It's been a much more hands-on effort, even from afar, than we originally anticipated.''
Ukraine's struggles fueled talk that UEFA needed other options, perhaps tying Poland to neighboring Germany.
"There was never a Plan B as such,'' Taylor insisted, "but there were discussions about `what ifs ...' - which is a natural thing you would expect in planning.''
Possible solutions included using only two Ukrainian cities and six in Poland.
"We weren't completely in despair because we knew, if push came to shove, we could actually just about manufacture eight stadiums out of the whole situation with a bit of work,'' Taylor said. "But there was this huge infrastructure deficit.''
As financial confidence dived, hopes faded that American and European private investors would find tens of billions required for roads, airports and hotels.
"So the buck stopped with the Ukraine government,'' Taylor said. "That's where it got difficult, in 2009.''
UEFA mused privately whether Ukraine could skip its turn, and host in 2016 or 2020.
"It was never offered in that sense, but we were conscious that might have been a solution,'' Taylor said, despite the legal and financial fallout. "That would have been very messy and difficult but, more importantly, the image for the country concerned would be very seriously damaged.''
Ukraine's presidential election in February 2010 proved a turning point. As Yushchenko's Orange Revolution faded, his once-discredited predecessor Viktor Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko, the prime minister.
UEFA President Michel Platini met Yushchenko two months later and the football project was renewed.
Since then, failed attempts to oust Surkis as the football association's president and Grzegorz Lato as his Polish counterpart, amid ongoing allegations of match-fixing, were relatively minor distractions.
FIFA's threat to suspend Poland in 2008, when the government intervened during the corruption probe, is almost forgotten.
"Both have had their difficulties ... just to add to the excitement of all this,'' Taylor said.
Still, Taylor retains fond memories of the long and winding road to Euro 2012, including his many hosted visits to Poland and Ukraine's splendid opera houses while Soviet-era hotel complexes were "quite something to behold.''
Midway through Poland and Ukraine's journey, Taylor switched jobs to head UEFA Events, which handles broadcasting, sponsorship and hospitality contracts.
UEFA will bank at least ?1.3 billion ($1.65 billion) from Euro 2012 to help fund its 53 member nations, and distribute ?300 million ($380 million) among the 16 teams plus clubs whose players take part.
Taylor believes UEFA won't pay for its loyalty to the co-hosts.
"I was always confident we would do it in Poland and Ukraine,'' he said.