For Ukraine and Poland, Euro 2012 no longer scores any political goals.
The narrative that brought the two nations together in a 2007 bid to host the football tournament has petered out.
‘In 2005, Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yushchenko (right), eagerly supported Euro 2012, and the new Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, eagerly supported Yushchenko and the orange revolution.’ Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
Every major sporting event contains a political narrative, usually a story about emerging or enduring strength that leaders hope to sell to populations both at home and abroad.
Sometimes, such stories are universal and easy to spot. For example, the favoured narrative of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was China’s symbolic arrival as a global superpower, a story that was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm both in China and abroad. At other times, the story that emerges is more relevant to local audiences. This was the case in 2006, when the Fifa World Cup in Germany marked the beginning of a new era with enthusiastic displays of national pride breaking half a century of taboos.
The narrative of Euro 2012 taking place in Poland and Ukraine this summer is far more muddled. Despite the fact that the upcoming tournament marks the first time since the end of the cold war that an event on this scale will be hosted in eastern Europe, the obvious story about post-communist societies moving toward the western mainstream no longer applies, especially after Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison, in a case condemned across the EU as politically motivated.
As Timothy Garton Ash pointed out last October, the contrast between the trajectories of Ukraine and Poland could not be sharper, yet, this was not how it began. A joint Euro 2012 bid was first mentioned in the spring of 2003 by Ukrainian Football Federation head Hryhoriy Surkis. This occurred shortly after Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, decided to move away from what he called “a multi-vector foreign policy” and asked to join Nato after feeling squeezed by increasing co-operation between the United States and Russia.
Polish football authorities jumped on board almost immediately, and both Kuchma and Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski – a long-time advocate of Nato enlargement and continuing EU expansion – eagerly supported the bid. It fit perfectly with the broader geopolitical goal of strengthening ties between the two neighbours and ushering Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic structures.
By the time the bid was shortlisted by Uefa in November 2005, Poland had joined the EU, and Ukraine was basking in the afterglow of the orange revolution – a series of incredible events in late 2004 that saw a rigged presidential election overturned after reports of widespread fraud.
Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yushchenko, eagerly supported Euro 2012, and the new Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, eagerly supported Yushchenko and the orange revolution. Both leaders were present in Cardiff in April 2007 to present the final bid, and both countries celebrated when they beat out Italy’s offer in the first round.
Despite the successful outcome, the Euro 2012 narrative began to lose focus the following year, once Ukraine’s Nato aspirations were placed on indefinite hold after an acrimonious summit in Bucharest.
Poland’s political and diplomatic elite maintained its love affair with Yushchenko, but with the president haemorrhaging support and the orange revolution floundering, the two countries drifted apart. Meanwhile, the focus shifted away from the political and cultural dimension of Euro 2012 towards modernising transport infrastructure and tournament-related public works, a process hindered by Ukraine’s deep financial crisis and organisational setbacks on both sides of the border.
By the time Ukraine held its next presidential elections in January 2010, Yushchenko was an afterthought, and the country’s diplomatic orientation under the new president, Viktor Yanukovych, once more resembled Kuchma’s “multi-vector foreign policy”. Ukraine dropped its Nato bid, and Tymoshenko’s arrest resulted in a diplomatic row that put Ukraine’s EU aspirations in stasis.
With Euro 2012 approaching, Ukraine is once more lurching between Russia and the EU, between the promise and the disappointment of the orange revolution, and between Russian-style “managed democracy” and a political system more closely resembling that of an aspiring EU state. Meanwhile, Poland’s approach toward its eastern neighbour mirrors Ukraine’s ongoing identity crisis, lacking in clarity and direction.
Last December, a few days after a EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev, Tymoshenko’s website featured a cheeky “letter to a dictator” addressed to Yanukovych from prison. “I’m not sure how much you know about international and geopolitical issues, but I have bad news for you: Euro 2012 isn’t an agreement on European integration, you’ve been deceived. It’s football.” Here, Tymoshenko is only partially right. For a while, it was about a lot more than football, but not any longer.