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Players, coaches and fans may wish that all politics be left outside the stadium during a major international sporting competition such as the European Football Championship. However, this is never the case, and this year's Euro in particular has been heavily politicised: in fact Poland co-hosting with its eastern, non-EU neighbour Ukraine is in itself a political act. Poland could have turned down the Ukrainians when they first proposed the idea in 2003 and chosen instead to make a bid to co-host with any of its "more developed" western neighbours. However, the government ultimately decided to take a risk and join Ukraine in going up against the likes of Italy to host the 2012 tournament. Was this a successful move for both countries or a boomerang that came back quicker than expected?

together ON the Road to europe?

Poland has made no secret of its desire to pull Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence and set it on a stable course for EU partnership - and perhaps even eventual membership. Likewise, back in 2005 when the decision was originally made to submit a joint bid to co-host the tournament, Ukraine was pursuing a policy of economic and political modernisation, an attempt to escape its Soviet past and become a fully-fledged member of "the West."

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Source: By Arvedui89 (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Ticket for the game between Italy and Spain on the 10th of June - just like the final.

What better way for each country to accomplish their respective goals than to co-organise a major pan-European football tournament? A tournament that would be closely watched by all Europeans, that could bring thousands people from Germany, France, Italy and Britain to these "strange eastern lands" to see their progress with their own eyes and say "Yes! This is a beautiful country, everything is so well-organised, this certainly is Europe!" In 2007, when UEFA awarded the Euro to Poland and Ukraine, both nations definitely had reasons to be optimistic.

That, however, is more than five years ago. Since then Ukraine has seen dramatic political changes: the progressive, pro-EU leader of the Orange Revolution, Victor Yushchenko, is no longer president of the country; his Orange Revolution ally and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is serving a prison sentence for what can only be described as political reasons; Ukraine's current president, Victor Yanukovych, appears to be directing Ukraine back into Russia's orbit in a complete reversal of the earlier pro-Europe policies which led to Ukraine submitting the joint bid with Poland in the first place. Western governments reacted to these changes: most recently, in response to allegations of human rights abuses in connection with the Tymoshenko case, Germany's government has led a significant number of European political leaders in boycotting all matches held in Ukraine. What Victor Yushchenko and his Polish counterparts originally envisioned as the beginning of Ukraine's road to Europe via sport has become marred by political scandal. Was the "western reaction" a move to stand up for human rights and the people in Ukraine or an opportunistic display of outrage directed at domestic audiences? Did European politicians make a mistake by mixing sport with politics and obscuring Ukraine's chance to shine? For a nation that five years ago was so eagerly knocking on Europe's front door, such negative responses to its co-hosting of the tournament are a bad sign - shouldn't Ukraine's accomplishments be highlighted as much as the scandal currently gripping the country?

In Poland things are a bit different, however. As a committed member of the EU, Poland is now undoubtedly a part of the much revered "West" - although Poles still sometimes suffer from a post-communist identity crisis and look for something to confirm their status as a European nation, especially in the eyes of big European countries such as Germany, Britain and France. The Euro seemed to be a perfect opportunity to find such confirmation.

"The BBC Panorama program took snapshots of the situation in Polish stadiums and presented them as an everyday situation in Poland."

For Mateusz, a student from Warsaw,"Poland is still a country that attracts relatively few tourists (not only compared to Western European states, but also its neighbour Czech Republic) and thus the problem is not necessarily that Poland has a bad image abroad, but rather that it is completely unknown. Euro 2012 is a chance to change that and introduce Poland into the Western consciousness."

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Source: Wistula (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Polish and Russian fans streaming towards the stadium in Warsaw. Clashes between the two groups which accompanied the game were heavily reported in international media.

This is why negative media coverage of the tournament hurts Poles almost as much as it hurts Ukrainians. Much like in Ukraine, "western" media latched onto negative stories involving the politics surrounding the tournament rather than covering the significant strides made in organising it. This started with the BBC's sensationalist Panorama documentary, airing just a couple of weeks before the start of the tournament, which highlighted anti-Semitism and racism in Polish and Ukrainian stadiums during league matches - a representation of the countries that seems unfair to many. In the eyes of Mateusz, "the BBC Panorama was a shockingly biased report for a programme that prides itself on its quality and in-depth analysis. It took snapshots of the situation in Polish stadiums and presented them as an everyday situation in Poland… I am afraid that the programme achieved its goal and scared off many potential visitors from coming."  Weeks later, the most heavily reported story from Poland was about the violent clashes between the radical segment of Polish and Russian football fans on the day of the match between the two teams in Warsaw. The incident saw more press coverage than the tens of thousands of anti-Putin protesters in Moscow the very same day. And the media was also quick to point out recent hostilities in Polish-Russian relations and to politicise an affair that could have also been represented as clashes between extreme nationalistic groups that don't stand for either of the countries.

 
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