Platini praises Ukraine progress
Just eight short months before next summer's Euro 2012 kick-off is shared with Poland, Ukraine seems to be getting its preparatory act together at long last.
In an eleventh-hour change of gear which UEFA President Michel Platini was happy (and mightily relieved) to witness first hand during a recent inspection tour of their four host cities of Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv, Ukraine allayed many of the fears that they would fall short in their bid to stage the biggest sporting event in the nation's history.
Undermined by the global financial crisis, political in-fighting and a marked lack of experience in putting on such a grandiose show, Ukraine initially seemed hopelessly out of their depth as major tournament planners. So much so that the entire project was in real danger of turning to dust some 18 months ago, as UEFA officials were forced to lay down deadlines in a last-gasp bid to concentrate minds. Yet those harsh warnings appear to have had the desired effect.
As one of the handful of journalists handed an opportunity to travel with Platini as he made his way around the host cities that are preparing for their moment in the Euro 2012 spotlight next summer, my suspicion that negativity would linger in the air throughout the trip proved unfounded.
Indeed, it now seems that the UEFA leader is justified in feeling increasingly confident that the decision to throw his Euro 2012 jewel into the hands of novice organisers may reap rewards after all, with Platini singing the virtues of Ukraine's plans as the clock kicks towards their nation's first game at their Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv on June 9.
Platini, as laid-back and jovial as ever, admitted in a press conference that delays in stadia construction had prompted him and his fellow European chiefs to seriously consider scratching two of the Ukraine venues last year, but he is now satisfied that the project is back on course.
"Tremendous progress has been made in Ukraine and they are almost ready," gushed France's Euro'84 winning skipper. "I've been completely reassured and am looking forward now to experiencing a truly fantastic European championship in this country next summer.
"I can only congratulate all those responsible for this country's preparations for 2012. Whether national or local government or organising committees, everyone has pulled together to meet the challenge. I'm very satisfied as this situation has improved radically. In a practical sense, we have no big problems, but each city still has several small issues that must be resolved."
It is glowing rhetoric that few suspected we would ever hear from Platini as UEFA's increasing concerns over Ukraine's ability to take on the Euro 2012 burden mounted over the last 18 months, yet it seems as if disaster is well on the way to being averted.
Platini was visibly overjoyed as he visited impressive Kiev's Olympic Stadium, the setting for next summer's final. The venue is finally looking the part after painfully slow progress over the last three years and looks to be on course to provide a superb setting for one of the biggest football matches of 2012.
Even though the original cost of the redevelopment has tripled to a colossal £300 million, it is a relief to all that the days of Kiev's 70,000-seater arena looking like an unfinished building site are now over. The roof is on the verge of being completed, the pitch is laid and Platini particularly liked the feel of it during an impromptu kick-about.
Ukraine vice-president Boris Kolesnikov, the man with ultimate responsibility for the nation's European Championship dossier, claims his nation are already '96% ready' and even though the €16m budget seems somewhat ludicrous for a solitary sporting event, the legacy of such a vast outlay looks set to be grand for Ukrainian football fans.
Donetsk's sumptuous Donbass Arena, a state-of-the art affair if ever there was one, is rightly ranked as one of the top-five football grounds in Europe, while to the east of the country in Kharkiv, local billionaire Aleksandr Yaroslavskyy has not only spent big on a head-to-toe makeover of the ground of his club, Metalist, but also has built a wonderful training complex, an HQ for UEFA and a new airport for the city.
His presence in the project makes this the first oligarch-funded Euro finals, as without the deep pockets and infinite influence of Yaroslavskyy and mega-rich Shakhtar Donetsk owner, Rinat Akhmetov, this tournament simply would not have happened in Ukraine.
Unfortunately for the city of Lviv, 60km from the Polish border, they do not have a free-spending football loving businessman to grease the wheels or cut through the bureaucracy and this is primarily the reason why their Euro 2012 plans are worryingly behind schedule.
The roof of their brand-new 30,000 capacity stadium is not yet in place, there is no proper access road to it and work on a new airport terminal and runway extension is taking much longer than envisaged. The worry is that all this work will not be completed in such a limited period of time.
Euro 2012 is certainly racking up the bills in Lviv, a beautiful city notable for its cobbled streets, cafes and fountains. The stadium is four times over budget (€210 million), while the airport is twice as expensive as it was on the drawing board. Some local politicians are screaming kick-backs and corruption and, in the centre of town, it was impossible to ignore an anti-European Championship billboard reading: Stop Robbery of People for Euro 2012.
There can be absolutely no room for any complacency in these parts. The postponement of the opening of a new terminal at Kiev airport until March 2012 was not a good sign and, unsurprisingly for a country without many motorways, moving around is not the most straightforward of tasks.
In Khrakiv, for example, inner city roads have been repaired and broadened, but is it enough to keep the traffic flowing? "What you have to realise is that we can't make up for 70 years planned economy in such a short space of time," concedes vice-president Kolesnikov, and he has a valid a point.
The accommodation of fans remains a worry, particularly in industrial centres like Donetsk and Kharkiv. The former only has a total 650 hotel beds and, all in all, Ukraine does not even possess two hotel beds for every 1,000 of the nation's population. With this in mind, the organising committee in Donetsk intends to create what they call a '21st Century tented village', where you will be able to sleep under canvas for €25 a night.
Catering issues are another concern. Mathias Brandt, the marketing director of the German Society for International Co-operation - who has been working in Ukraine with the Euro 2012 chiefs - claims improvements are needed in a facet of the organisation that could be problematic given the country's lack of experience of hosting major events.
Platini, UEFA and influential figures in Ukraine politics and sport all swear it will come together in time for the Euro 2012 finals next summer. Let's hope they are right.